Cities Powered by Open Source

February 9th Update: This post originally limited focus on the declaration of “equal” within these three cities open source policies, but I have expanded to also cover the issue of  defining “open source” and stipulating open source licensing for code developed in-house.

San Francisco recently established a new policy requiring open source software to be considered equally with proprietary software within the city’s procurement process. It’s important to note the actual inclusion of the word “equal” in this policy. Emphasis here is mine:

The Software Evaluation Policy will require departments to consider open source alternatives, when available, on an equal basis to commercial software, as these may reduce cost and speed the time needed to bring software applications to production.

San Francisco Open Source Policy

This is much like the legislation passed in Vancouver last May:

The City of Vancouver, when replacing existing software or considering new applications, will place open source software on an equal footing with commercial systems during procurement cycles.

Vancouver Open Source & Open Data Policy

Back in September, I think Portland actually initiated the “First-In-Nation Open Source Software Policy for City Government,” but the language in Portland’s resolution is definitely not as strong:

Establish best practices for analysis of business requirements in software review and selection processes, identify existing commercial software systems with licenses that are scheduled to expire in the near future, and encourage the consideration of Open Source Software in the review, replacement and continual improvement of business solutions;

Portland Open Source & Open Data Policy

Portland’s resolution should be amended from “encourage the consideration” to “require equal consideration” and other cities should make sure that they provide measurable policies for using open source rather than simply to “encourage consideration.” Some other important things to include within open source policy is a definition of open source and how open source licensing relates to new software created in-house.

The definition of “open source” included in San Francisco’s policy deviates somewhat from most common definitions of open source software:

Open source software means that the underlying source code is not copyrighted and therefore available free of charge to read, modify, and build upon.

Typically, the authors of source code retain copyright to their contributions, but their contributions are covered by open source licenses that allow others to use, distribute, modify, and build upon the code. SF Apeal details this and covers some other criticisms including the fact that San Francisco’s open source policy is only enforced for software purchases that exceed $100,000. For a comprehensive and standardized definition of open source software, see The Open Source Initiative’s Open Source Definition.

The Vancouver legislation does not explicitly define open source, but it does specify how the city should license the software it develops:

License any software applications developed by the City of Vancouver such that they may be used by other municipalities, businesses, and the public without restriction.

As cities include third party open source software as part of their IT policies they should also be sure to apply open source licenses to the software they develop in-house. Open licensing is often the case with government data (especially since U.S. Copyright does not cover factual data), but open source licensing should be more explicitly applied to publicly funded technology, especially government produced source code. In general, when the U.S. federal government produces work it is automatically part of the public domain, but this policy does not always apply to local governments.

A work that is a United States Government work, prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties, is not subject to copyright in the United States and there are no U.S. copyright restrictions on reproduction, derivative works, distribution, performance, or display of the work. Anyone may, without restriction under U.S. copyright laws,

  • reproduce the work in copies in print or in digital form;
  • prepare derivative works of the work;
  • perform the work publicly;
  • display the work;
  • distribute copies or digitally transfer the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.

Copyright Pertaining to US Government Work

Many local open government initiatives have been influenced by the open government initiatives on the U.S. federal level and open source has been part of these developments too. The White House, the Department of Defense, NASA, and many parts of the federal government now have a focus on using and developing open source software. Yet in many ways the argument for open source is much stronger on the local level where there are so many shared needs and so many wheels being reinvented.

The developments in Vancouver, Portland, and San Francisco are huge and these cities deserve to be lauded as great pioneers, but we also need to help support them and to spread these kinds of policies to other cities. You can learn more about this and contribute to the creation of resources for open cities with the nascent OpenMuni project. I also highly recommend you read David Eaves post about Muniforge which describes the value and opportunity of an open source civic software ecosystem.