Open Source & the City: Making SFGov a Leader in Tech Policy
By: Charles Belle
The City of San Francisco and tech companies are more similar than most people realize: the City produces and owns software. Unfortunately, the City’s current policies neglect how it can make that software available through open source licenses. This is a missed opportunity. The City has the ability to lead a progressive approach to municipal collaboration by publishing City-owned software under open source licenses. This approach would motivate a global initiative for cities to solve shared problems, develop scaled solutions, and reduce costs.
One peculiarity of living in the “tech-tropolis” of San Francisco is that we can forget the City is more than a consumer in the tech ecosystem. Through vendor contracts and the work of City staff, the City owns and develops its own software technology. As the software owner, the City controls the licensing rights for the software. Under current practices, for the most part, the City limits the usability rights of this software to City employees or simply stores the software in some server. The effect is fairly obvious – no other city or third party can use the software or, more importantly, contribute to improving it.
Changing this approach requires new policies. The body that sets the City’s IT policies is the Committee on Information Technology (COIT). COIT’s authority touches on all aspects of how the City engages with technology, from the mundane (e.g., purchasing software) to more interactive aspects (e.g., cloud and web policies). As you’d expect in a progressive city like San Francisco, there is even a Green Policy. But COIT’s current open source software policy limits how the City considers ways to use technology to improve government services. This limitation is found in the restriction of the policy to the procurement process: the “Software Evaluation Policy [requires] departments to consider open source alternatives, when available, on an equal basis to commercial software.”
Unfortunately, the policy is silent on when or how the City should make its own software available under an open source license. A forward thinking approach would incorporate an open source strategy in the project planning process, in addition to the procurement process. Thinking about an open source strategy in the planning phase opens new doors for collaborative endeavors. The City can begin to work with other municipalities to share software development costs; cities using the same software can work together to solve shared problems and reduce costs through economies of scale. Such an approach would support a systemic break from the traditional practice of each city operating in isolation and developing their own IT systems; an approach that drives up costs for everyone.
The good news is that COIT’s authority allows it to change policies regarding technology practices. If COIT makes City owned software available under open source licensing, it positions the City at the forefront of global municipal cooperative. Opening access to proprietary software would promote scalable solutions to shared problems, improve services, and lower costs. San Francisco, more than any other city, is uniquely placed to take a visionary stance. Since 2010, the City has been a global leader in the OpenGov movement. This leadership has led to model legislation to codify Open Data requirements, establish a Chief Data Officer, and make data actually available to citizens. The City now has an opportunity to expand its leadership role beyond open data and apply it to setting standards for contributing government-owned software to the open source community.
Releasing software under open source licensing is different than releasing data, but different does not mean impossible. Puzzles are meant to be solved. It’s just about figuring out the proper licensing. Organizations such as Creative Commons provide plenty of templates, but the reality is much simpler. COIT can adopt a fairly cut policy, such as,
requiring software owned by the City of San Francisco be licensed to the public under an applicable open source license that allows subsequent users to copy, distribute, transmit and adapt the copyrighted work, with attribution to the City of San Francisco.
This is a bit of an oversimplification, but the principles are there and benefits are immediate. This policy, or one like it, would formalize a framework for project managers to share software with other cities and clarify (for the Offices of Contract Administration and City Attorney) what software appropriately falls under an open source license and can be released.
There are plenty of resources for developing software, but an important thing to remember is that we need policymakers to enact practices that contribute to developing a culture of innovation and collaboration. San Francisco, with institutions like COIT, is uniquely placed to take on this challenge and provide leadership in concert with our City’s values: lead by example, invest in the future, benefit our citizens in an enduring manner, operate government efficiently and intelligently, leverage resources to help those less fortunate, and provide a vision for municipal governance in the 21st century. It’s just a matter of taking the initiative.
*Example of a grant Federal program requiring software generated by grantees have open source licensing.
** The U.S. Digital Services Playbook notes that “When appropriate, publish source code of projects or components online.”
About Charles Belle
Charles Belle is a native of San Francisco and an appointed public member of COIT. He works at the intersection of technology, law, and policy as the founder and Director of Startup Policy Lab, an organization dedicated to connecting policymakers with the startup community. His current work focuses on OpenGov resources for startups and he is a grantee of a Sunlight Foundation OpenGov grant working to make procurement laws understandable, accessible, and transparent. Charles also serves as the global policy director for Hackers/Founders, the world’s largest community of hackers and founders. You can find his blog ramblings on Brainseed.com. And for those that like this type of stuff, he has an AB, AM, & JD.