Council Talk on Open Source and Open Government

[I originally gave this talk at the Red Bank, NJ borough council meeting on 1/13/09]

My name is Jim Willis. I’m going to give some bio background here to provide some context to my comments. I grew up in Monmouth County, moved away after college and recently moved back after living in several other cities around the US for the past 12 years while my wife pursued her PhD.

I’ve spent much of the past 12 years finding ways to use internet technology for the public good. During that time I helped shape technology policy on the municipal, state and federal levels. I also established a pretty decent reputation in the field of egovernment by using the internet to foster civic engagement.

A few of the places that have asked for my input on best practices in the field of e-government are MIT, the federal election commission, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and the federal architecture and infrastructure’s emerging technology subcommittee.

I’d like to comment tonight on the recent approval of the resolution allowing red bank to contract web maintenance out to a proprietary software vendor at the cost of $2k/month without the need for an RFP. The technology under consideration is closed, proprietary software and it was chosen in a closed process, without a formal RFP. It has also been rolled out by Middletown and Fair Haven and if those websites are any indication, the software does not provide citizens data in open, extensible formats.

The distinction between open/closed software and open data formats vs. proprietary data formats can seem academic but I think it’s in taxpayers’ best interest that their elected officials understand the distinction.

Open Software

To grossly over simplify, there are two types of software, open and closed. An example of closed software is Microsoft Word, opened is Open Office’s Word processor. Both do the same thing: word processing. They have almost identical feature sets.

When you buy MS word, you’re not actually buying MS Word. Even though you come home from staples or best buy with the installation CD in hand, you don’t actually own a copy of MS Word. Instead you’re buying something much less tangible, you’re buyting the right to use the software for some period of time. That’s largely the way proprietary software works: you’re not buying software, you’re buying the right to use it.

With open office, our example of open software here, you have not only the right to use the software but you actually own the software itself. You have the right to open, modify and even redistibute the software code that drives the word processor. This point about modifiying and redistributing will be important in a few minutes, so remember it.

(discussion of Mozilla foundation’s firefox web browser)

When applied to the borough’s web technology, this is an important distinction: for $2k a month, what is the borough getting? What happens when it is unhappy with the customer service it receives from a vendor of proprietary software? Proprietary software is synonymous with vendor lock-in. The boro does not own the software but rather just licenses it and as such, if the boro want to change vendors in the future we will be right back where we are today except we will be 10s of thousands of dollars poorer.

Open Content

In the good old days of the internet (referred to as web 1.) people would visit the NYTimes and read the news on the times’ website. Now though in what’s referred to as web 2.0, readers are just as likely to read a new york times article via a facebook link or a google reader feed or a blog entry. by adopting open data formats such as RSS, the NYTimes has made it easy for articles to be shared this way. Other websites that have managed to stay relevant are doing the same thing, making it easy to share their data.

The current generation of internet users expects website data to be shareable. They know that good websites have information that is extensible, flexible and shareable. They know that poorly architected websites are those that keep their data tied to the web page. Government, municipal government moreso, has been slow to wake up to this shift.

Many government websites are Roach Motels for Data. Meaning, the data checks in but it never gets out. Fair Haven’s website is a great example of the Roach Motel model of websites. The calendar data available on the website is wonderful. Unfortunately, because of the proprietary, web 1.0 nature of the data format, the only place to view the calendar data is on the fair haven website. I can’t subscribe to it on my google calendar, i can’t get it on my iphone. Data checks in but it doesn’t check out.

If Fair Haven had adopted open data standards instead of closed, it would be possible for sites like Red Bank Green to rebroadcast meeting dates and times directly from the Fair Haven website. Open data makes it possible for a single point of entry to share its data with countless other sites. (the clerk enters the data once at the muni website and it instantly appears on dozens of other websites.) It’s the opposite of the roach motel: data gets in and then gets sent immediately back out in a myriad of different ways.

Fortunately, it is very easy and cheap to implement extensible, shareable open data formats. Where expensive proprietary software thrives on closed data formats, Open software is driven by open formats.

Currently though, For $2k/month it looks as if Red Bank is getting a roach motel.

Sharing Open Software Among Munis

566 is the number of municipalities in new jersey. it is also a magic number for a lot of proprietary software developers in the state. If they could just write that one piece of proprietary software that every municipality needs, the potential for profit multiplied by 566 could be massive.

But there is an alternative vision for government software. One that the federal government and many state governments have already begun to adopt. In this vision, tax payers actually own the software that they are paying for with their tax dollars. They’re able to view the source code, redistribute the source code and have which ever vendors they choose work on and modify that source code.

I refer to this vision as open software for the public good.

When we talk about the public good we often use language such as “non-rivalrous” Non rivalrous means that consumption of the goods by one party does not reduce the amount of goods available for consumption by other parties. Think about “clean air” as an example of the public good.

redistribution of open source software code is also non rivalrous. The 0s and 1s that make up a software application do not deterioriate or become less-consumeable as they are duplicated and distributed.

Think about this in terms of tax payers and shared-services: Why should 566 municipalities each pay for the same piece of “open meeting” software when it could be built once and shared among those municipalities at no cost other than the initial development cost?

This line of questioning may not make sense to software developers looking to profit at the tax payers’ expense, but it does make perfect sense to tax payers.

Rather than following our neighboring municipalities into their Roach Motels, I believe red bank can do better. I think there is a tremendous opportunity here for Red Bank to establish itself as a leader in NJ by seeking an open solution to its web site management. I think that the council has the right intentions here and that, coupled with the right technology, there is no reason why Red Bank can not be a shining example of accessible, transparent local government.

[If you’d like to comment on this piece, please join the conversation in progress over at Red Bank Green].