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Tech by VICE

Even Cities Are Jumping on the Open Source Bandwagon

The idea is that in the information age citizens shouldn't have to drag over a Town Hall barn and listen to hours on the local water sprinkler schedule in order to participate in the community.

by Alyssa Hertig
Aug 7 2014, 4:13pm

Image: Flickr/NC DOT Communications

When most people think "open source" they think of software Github projects and hackers determined to code for the Greater Good. But it's also a wholesale philosophy that can be applied to many aspects of society—like running a city.

The basic principle behind open source code—that it's available to anyone to use, modify, and build off of—translates to politics in the form of transparent governments, open, readily available data, and encouraging citizens to engage in the political process. Think of a city like a Wikipedia page, where residents are free to suggest edits and changes.

This method of governance may sound alien today, but open government is an old idea, dating back to the Enlightenment, when attitudes shifted toward transparency and handing citizens more influence in politics. Open source governance is sort of an modern-day version of these perennial ideals, updated with smartphones and the internet in mind.

In the early 2000s, an open source governance movement budded in Canada, and hitched up to the local Green Party. The campaign since morphed into—a group which champions mass intelligence and proudly casts aside "politics as usual." The leaderless Occupy Wall Street had many of these principles in mind and was often branded an open source movement. A handful of scattered governments, like Helsinki, Melbourne, and Vancouver, use openly editable wiki tools to promote civic engagement.

Now open source governance is burgeoning in the US, in Raleigh, North Carolina, home to the open source software company Red Hat. The idea is that in the information age citizens shouldn't have to drag over a Town Hall barn and listen to hours on the local water sprinkler schedule in order to participate and generate a positive influence in the community. Residents of Raleigh can lazily sip on coffee while typing in input to the city's forums, and report potholes in real-time with their smart phone.

The city-wide initiative is called Open Raleigh, and it's great news for transparency. Raleigh's city government hosts an aggressive open data project, publishing pages of government data on everything from police and fire incidents to finance. Raleigh lawmakers understand that sifting through pages of data isn't something any reasonable person, however engaged, would do, so it present colorful visual data for citizens to draw on and act on. The city "strives to become a worldwide model" for the open source city.

The thinking is that a transparent government is going to more it accountable, and this way citizens and journalists won't have to file slow-going Freedom of Information requests in order to learn what the government is up to. Not all city records are public, but Raleigh is considerably more transparent than your average municipal government—citizens even helped determine which information ultimately landed on the town website.

The Open Raleigh experiment kickstarted in 2012 with the "Open Resolution," a roadmap it calls a "living document"—open and revisable, naturally. It was spearheaded in part by former resident and project manager at Red Hat, Jason Hibbets. He wrote a book about the experiment, The Foundations for an Open Source City, and actively collaborated with the government to implement many of the city's user-friendly open source tools.

The layers of open source are thick: community-led "unconferences," open source startups, a LocalWiki. The Raleigh city government also implemented SeeClickFix, a "bug" reporting app for civil infrastructure. Using geo-based message broadcasting, citizens can report potholes, overflowing trashcans, and other nuisances.

In other words, it's a much more user-friendly way to perform your civic duty than the traditional reporting mechanism in most cities: trying to figure out who to call in the first place, then being bounced from department to department until you (maybe) reach the right place.

Citizens of Raleigh also collaborated to develop CityShape, an ambitious project that would utilize open data to calculate a "community health score." The project pulls open data from SeeClickFlix, geographic information system data, and community data to generate heat maps and other visuals for a clearer representation of the city's health. Citizens and city could use this to "determine where to locate and build community centers, sidewalks, or bike lanes."

Raleigh's not alone; again, the open source governance movement is loose, in one form or another. Many ambitious open source advocates hope to use open source tools to strike the root of governance, rather than build off of existing systems.

Law professor and activist Lawrence Lessig once floated the idea of assigning the open values of the internet to governance generally. Dark Wallet developer Amir Taaki sees an opportunity for re-evaluation in Bitcoin—an open source tool itself. Taaki described to Motherboard how open source anonymity crypto-tools are laying the groundwork for "open source cities" and "shanty towns" powered by Bitcoin's hidden abilities to facilitate cleaner voting and easy-to-use contracts.

Raleigh is less abstract. As the guinea pig, it's hoping to shape a working model that other towns and cities could easily adopt. The ideas are there; the widgets are there. Hibbets suggests that citizens pester their lawmakers to adopt the open tools being tested in Raleigh. After all, this is the open source philosophy at its heart: open governance won't work unless citizens are active.