The public front of the free software campaign: part I

A review of my discussion with Free Software Foundation's Zak Rogoff.

At a recent meeting of the MIT Open Source Planning Tools Group, I had the pleasure of hosting Zak Rogoff — campaigns manager at the Free Software Foundation — for an open-ended discussion on the potential for free and open tools for urban planners, community development organizations, and citizen activists. The conversation ranged over broad terrain in an “exploratory mode,” perhaps uncovering more questions than answers, but we did succeed in identifying some of the more common software (and other) tools needed by planners, designers, developers, and advocates, and shared some thoughts on the current state of FOSS options and their relative levels of adoption.

Included were the usual suspects — LibreOffice for documents, spreadsheets, and presentations; QGIS and OpenStreetMap for mapping; and (my favorite) R for statistical analysis — but we began to explore other areas as well, trying to get a sense of what more advanced tools (and data) planners use for, say, regional economic forecasts, climate change modeling, or real-time transportation management. (Since the event took place in the Department of Urban Studies & Planning at MIT, we mostly centered on planning-related tasks, but we also touched on some tangential non-planning needs of public agencies, and the potential for FOSS solutions there: assessor’s databases, 911 systems, library catalogs, educational software, health care exchanges, and so on.)

Importantly, we agreed from the start that to deliver on the promise of free software, planners must also secure free and open data — and free, fair, and open standards: without access to data — the raw material of the act of planning — our tools become useless, full of empty promise.

Emerging from the discussion, moreover, was a realization of what seemed to be a natural fit between the philosophy of the free and open source software movement and the overall goals of government and nonprofit planning groups, most notably along the following lines:

  • The ideal (and requirement) of thrift: Despite what you might hear on the street, most government agencies do not exist to waste taxpayer money; in fact, even well-funded agencies generally do not have enough funds to meet all the demands we place on them, and budgets are typically stretched pretty thin. On the “community” side, we see similar budgetary constraints for planners and advocates working in NGOs and community-based organizations, where every dollar that goes into purchasing (or upgrading) proprietary software, subscribing to private datasets, and renewing licenses means one less dollar to spend on program activities on the ground. Added to this, ever since the Progressive Era, governments have been required by law to seek the lowest-cost option when spending the public’s money, and we have created an entire bureaucracy of regulations, procurement procedures, and oversight authorities to enforce these requirements. (Yes, yes, I know: the same people who complain about government waste often want to eliminate “red tape” like this…)  When FOSS options meet the specifications of government contracts, it’s hard to see why they wouldn’t be in fact required under these procurement standards; of course, they often fail to meet the one part of the procurement specification that names a particular program; in essence, such practices “rig” bids in favor of proprietary software.  (One future avenue worth exploring might be to argue for performance-based bid specifications in government procurement.)
  • The concomitant goal of empowerment: Beyond simply saving money, planning and development organizations often want to actually do something; they exist to protect what we have (breathable air and clean drinking water, historic and cultural resources, property values), fix what is broken (vacant lots and buildings, outmoded and failing infrastructure, unsafe neighborhoods), and develop what we need (affordable housing, healthy food networks, good jobs, effective public services). Importantly, as part of the process, planners generally seek to empower the communities they are working in (at least since the 1970s); to extend-by-paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, “the process is the purpose,” and there is little point in working “in the public interest” while simultaneously robbing that same public of its voice, its community power, and its rights of democratic participation. So, where’s the tie-in to FOSS? The key here is to avoid the problem Marx diagnosed as “alienation of the workers from the means of production.” (Recent world events notwithstanding, Marx was still sometimes correct, and he really put his finger on it with this one.) When software code is provided in a free and open format, users and coders can become partners in the development cycle; better still, “open-source” can also become “open-ended,” as different groups are empowered to modify and enhance the programs they use. Without permanent, reliable, affordable — and, some would argue, customizable — access to tools and data, planners and citizens (the “workers,” in this case) become alienated from the means of producing plans for their future.
  • The value of transparency and openness: A third area of philosophical alignment between free software and public planners relates to the importance both groups place on transparency. To some extent — at least in the context of government planners — this aspect seems to combine elements of the previous two: just as government agencies are required under procurement laws to be cost-conscious, they are required under public records and open meeting laws to be transparent. Similarly, in the same way that community empowerment requires access to the tools of planning, it also requires access to the information of planning: in order for democratic participation to be meaningful, the public must have access to information about what decisions are being made, when, by whom, and why (based on what rationale?). Transparency — not just the privilege of “being informed,” but rather the right to examine and audit all the files — is the only way to ensure this access. In short, even if it is not free, we expect our government to be open source.
  • The virtuous efficiency of cooperation and sharing: With a few misguided exceptions (for example, when engaging in “tragedy of the commons” battles over shared resources, or manipulated into “race-to-the-bottom” regional bidding wars to attract sports teams or industrial development), governments and community-based organizations generally do not exist in the same competitive environment as private companies. If one agency or neighborhood develops a new tool or has a smart idea to solve a persistent problem, there is no harm — and much benefit — to sharing it with other places. In this way, the natural inclination of public and non-profit agencies bears a striking resemblance to the share-and-share-alike ethos of open source software developers. (The crucial difference being that, often, government and community-based agencies are too busy actually working “in the trenches” to develop networks for shared learning and knowledge transfer, but the interest is certainly there.)

Added to all this, recent government software challenges hint at the potential benefit of a FOSS development model. For example, given the botched rollout of the online health care insurance exchanges (which some have blamed on proprietary software models, and/or the difficulty of building the new public system on top of existing locked private code), groups like FSF have been presented with a “teachable moment” about the virtues of free and open solutions. Of course, given the current track record of adoption (spotty at best), the recognition of these lines of natural alignment begs the question, “Given all this potential and all these shared values, why haven’t more public and non-profit groups embraced free and open software to advance their work?” Our conversation began to address this question in a frank and honest way, enumerating deficiencies in the existing tools and gaps in the adoption pipeline, but quickly pivoted to a more positive framing, suggesting new — and, potentially, quite productive — fronts for the campaign for free and open source software, which I will present in part two. Stay tuned.

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