Growth of Open-Source City Government

In an effort to actively affect urban life citizen activists have been pushing for the development of open source / open data projects in government. As noted in a recent O’Reilly article it follows that “the conversation about the future of our cities should involve the people living in those cities” so there is a push to drive our cities towards open, crowdsourced and participatory government.

As noted in the article:

Take for example the case of the New York City MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority), which currently operates at a budget deficit of $1.2 billion, and has been trying and failing for almost 20 years to implement a realtime tracking system for the city’s buses, at a cost of millions. As the MTA sees it, their two options are 1. pay for a gigantic, centralized, monolithic tracking system or 2. don’t have bus tracking. (And with their current budget shortfall, it seems like option 2 is the only real choice for them).

What if, instead, they entertained the idea of implementing an open bus tracking system, one that relied to some extent on aggregated individual input from bus riders? What if they then crowdsourced ideas on how best to do this? And finally, what if they cooperated with the people who came forward with ideas, to make it easy for them to implement them?

Very quickly there would be some semblance of a bus tracking system in New York City–not a perfect one, but one that could be iterated on and improved on by all until it was robust enough to be relied on by residents of the city. That would at the very least be better than the complete lack of bus tracking the city has now, and it would cost the city nothing to initiate.

To the MTA of course this is unthinkable. They refuse to even make their timetable information public via API, citing legal and security concerns, and seeming to harbor a feeling that there’s money to be made from that data.

To be fair, some government agencies are more forward thinking that this, a few even going so far as to link out to third party applications built using their publicly available data. Most though fall closer to the MTA in their stance toward open data and third party applications. And so the damper is kept on these kinds of innovative solutions to our cities’ problems.

Of course these new sorts of user-built services are beginning to pop up anyway, even without the blessing of the city agencies they help. Programmers, on their own, are exploiting every possible resource to build applications that help people make better use of their city. The result in the case of the MTA is a variety of applications, built without the approval of the MTA, that exist to make the MTA’s service better.

These services are being built and used whether the cities want them or not.

Imagine now what would happen if cities did throw their weight behind this kind of innovation? The landscape of those cities would change virtually overnight, with legions of new applications springing up to provide residents with every sort of information conceivable, making their decisions more informed, making their movements more coordinated, and ultimately making the cities themselves work better.

This change would happen at a fraction of the cost of any proposals for change currently being considered by cities around the world. And much of that cost, for development and operation, would be offloaded from the city itself to the individuals building and using these services.”

The author illustrates that changes are already happening to the distribution of information and whether or not city governments actievely support them interested developers will continue to create new technologies to affect city life and push towards more transparent systems that encourage collective participation and move away from propiety stystems to give greater power to individual citizens.

For more inspiration see: http://diycity.org/

Comments

  1. isabela says:

    I also recommend the read of the following articles:

    Open Source Index reveals more than just usage stats: the sad case of technology education in the United States:
    http://news.northxsouth.com/2009/04/30/open-source-index-reveals-government-waste-and-corruption/

    Open source software in Brazil: too many projects to keep up with!
    http://news.northxsouth.com/2009/03/05/open-source-brazil-update/

    Protecting sovereignty with free software is a good idea and the duty of governments, says Stallman:
    http://news.northxsouth.com/2008/11/18/protecting-sovereignty-with-free-software-is-a-good-idea-and-the-duty-of-governments-says-stallman/

  2. David Sasaki says:

    Florica, I couldn’t agree more. What is so amazing about projects like EveryBlock is that they have succeeded not because of government cooperation but in spite of local government’s unwillingness to share their data (as law requires). The popularity of Twitter and Facebook’s shift of focus to status updates show that we are willing to pull out our phones and type 140 characters if we feel that there is some sort of incentive.

    I recently wrote on Idea Lab about the potential of combining microblogging tools with mapping applications to increase civic involvement.

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