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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Technology Citizens

It is estimated that local governments in the United States spend a little over $37 billion on computer software systems that are antiquated, difficult to use or performing below expectations. Across America, we see desperate municipalities turning off street lights, leasing out control of parking meters and walking away from providing services with long, popular histories. Yet every time some local government decision makers sit down at a desk, they stare at a way to achieve significant savings and maybe to upgrade service quality, but don’t recognize it.

Around the world, governments are catching on to “open source” and its immense potential not just to save some bucks, but to change the culture of frustration and dread now shrouding many local agencies into one of innovation and promise. This isn’t just an issue about ones and zeroes that might appeal to techies. Open source represents an ethos and a mindset that is sadly and conspicuously lacking across Long Island governments.

In its latest annual survey (covering 2011), the respected Center for Digital Government picked 51 local governments in four population categories that are using technology in innovative ways that capture savings and provide higher levels of service. None of these digital achievers are in New York State, although New York City, which in eGovernment is years ahead of anything on Long Island, did make the list in the two prior surveys. This is very telling, and sad. Open source is a way for our local governments to catch up, fast, because so much of the work has been done for them, and is sitting there waiting.

“Open source” means that the basic software core of a program (the “source code”) is openly accessible and available, usually with some sort of license that sets down basic rules. Using the source code as a starting point, individuals and companies and agencies can build their own bells, whistles and extra functions on top, so that their software and websites may have an individualized look and feel, but the basic core remains.

The opposite of open source code is “proprietary” software, which means everything else. If the Microsoft or Apple people catch you writing programs by messing with their secret, sacred code, you’d better lawyer up. At the least, they can cancel your right to run their software. You don’t “own” the software you buy, even the really expensive stuff. You are only borrowing that copy of PowerPoint, Photoshop Elements, iWorks or Quickbooks from the publisher. That makes consumers seriously vulnerable if important software is changed or even cancelled because it doesn’t fit a certain business model, or the publisher goes under. It happens all the time.

The idea of open source is so fresh and liberating that proponents can develop a kind of religious fervor about it. Without realizing it, you may be using open source software right now. The popular Mozilla Firefox web browser, at any given moment used by an estimated one in five people online around the world, is open source software. The Antonnews.com site is being converted to one based on WordPress, a “framework” (basic structure) used by about seven in 10 new websites. The source code is free and a huge network of volunteers and enthusiasts make available thousands of little additional pieces of software that can add all kinds of functions and fun stuff to make a website seem unique. If you need a site that’s particularly specialized or unusually complex, you may well have to pay for outside help, but thousands of lines of computer code are already written for them, and the cost is a fraction of building from scratch, or paying for the right to modify commercial software.

That’s the end of the technical lecture, and I never once used the word “geek.”

Is open source software as reliable as the expensive kind? You judge.

After years of discouraging the use of any open source software on any of its computers, the U.S. Department of Defense is now the world’s largest installer of Linux Red Hat, a popular open source operating system which costs a fraction of installing and maintaining Windows throughout an organization. The U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet is now using a version of Linux. A few years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it had saved $15 million by migrating key control systems to Linux.

Consider this: Google searches are run off Linux systems. The New York Stock Exchange, IBM, Amazon.com and the CERN Large Hadron Collider project are just a few examples of technology giants which have walked away from Windows for critical internal operations.

In 2010, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered Russian agencies to begin moving all operations off of commercial software to freely-available, open-source alternatives, a transition which as of this month is largely complete. Brazil began making that transition nine years ago, its top government technology officer declaring that paying software licensing fees was “unsustainable economically.” By 2007, the computers in all South Korean government ministries and public universities were fully switched over to open source, in a country where the government is focused intently on the quality of public technology (broadband is significantly faster and cheaper in South Korea than in the U.S., where the whole thing was invented). On and on.

So why we are bleeding county, city, town, village, school district and special district tax dollars to pay expensive licensing fees for commercial software? I assure you that 99.9 percent of anything that is going to be done in these offices can be done on free, fully-functional alternatives. Using valuable staff resources to create and maintain closed internal software programs is also extremely limiting, especially as it ages.

And public schools and their computer labs should be teaching young people to teach themselves new software, not to merely be consumers of technology, or the products of select companies. Teach them the free LibreOffice the right way and they’ll pick up MS Office in minutes on their own.

But saving some money is only a fraction of the story. Open source is a state of mind. Open source code allows people outside town or city hall to contribute and collaborate to make systems work better. Many are just festering to be asked to help build a better community.

Civic Commons (“Let’s Find Out What’s Working, Where”) is just one organization that is trying to coordinate open technology among governments and to make it easier for even the smallest jurisdictions to deploy high-quality, low-cost technology that can be reused across the country. They post the code on their website, for Heaven’s sake. Go get it, Nassau County.

One of their projects was a software tracking site used by the New York State Senate, which in 2009 (under its previous leadership) adopted an admirable open source policy that has allowed some news organizations and citizen-reporters to dig into posted data to look for patterns on their own. Or is that a problem?

Code for America (“We Need to Remember We’re Not Just Consumers. We’re Citizens.”) recruits “fellows” who help municipalities solve worthy technology problems using custom-built open source code that can be reused by others. For example, Chicago’s 311 call system for non-emergency inquiries was a model for many cities and counties, but Code for America is helping to bring the telephone-based system into the modern era. Their “Open311” code will open up access to dozens of web and mobile applications, empowering more citizens to report problems and track their status. City officials, theoretically, will be better able to monitor requests and make better decisions. All municipalities can benefit from one open source project.

Nassau County sat back and watched as hundreds of 311 systems were deployed over the last decade. North Hempstead’s rudimentary system cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop and deploy, with no apparent transparency or public feedback. The difference in philosophy is pretty clear.

One of the most common and popular deployments of open source software across the country is its use in redistricting. New York City, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, among others, have successfully “crowdsourced” City Council redistrictings. The Public Mapping Project allows anybody to set up their own web-based redistricting effort. Compare and contrast to the commission-with-consultants and proprietary software model we see practiced around this island.

In one way of thinking, information flows only one way, down to the Plebes. In the other, information is a two-way street, and we get to talk back.

Some municipalities have sponsored “app contests,” and “hackathons” to encourage people with programming and design skills to concentrate intensely on fixing open government software challenges. Even the United States Congress, of all dysfunctional institutions, sponsored one to fix up their Facebook presence. In this county, you couldn’t get that past the Civil Service Commission, which in some cases still considers computer inputting to be a different skill set than typewriter inputting. Typewriters. Don’t get me started on civil service reform.

Only last week, seven large cities (Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle) announced the creation of G7 (“Group of Seven”), a formal coalition that will house standardized data online and make it easier to share applications. It’s time for Long Island governments to buy into this kind of coalition, for starters.

Open source thinking can make little improvements that make daily life a little easier, and that can lead to much, much bigger things. San Francisco has an i-Phone app that locates empty parking spaces. Data from the city allows Open San Diego to post block-level maps of voter turnout, building permits issued and reported fires. New York City residents can go online to analyze their home’s water usage.

Why can’t we?

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net