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Civic Commons Marketplace, a Resource for Open Source In Government, Enters Closed Beta

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, December 13 2011

Civic Commons has launched a closed beta of Marketplace, an application that aims to be a resource for people in the open-source, civic technology community.

First unveiled at Code for America's year-end summit, the marketplace is supposed to be a clearinghouse for information about open-source applications and the organizations that make them.

"It tracks apps, organizations and entities," Civic Commons executive director Nick Grossman told me today, "and most importantly, it creates linkages between the two: Which governments are using which apps for what purposes. We're trying to start really small and really simple and just start building some linkages."

Civic Commons itself hopes to advocate for governments to invest more money in open-source projects and move away from a procurement process that sends millions of dollars in contracts to large corporations to develop and implement proprietary systems. In a recent blog post, the organization's Karl Fogel explains their preference for a procurement model that doesn't privilege one-source contracts, using a recent Metropolitan Transportation Authority project as an example:

It’s easy to understand the attraction of this method for both sides: the city gets to externalize all the details and just write a check, and the vendor gets a big contract. But the disadvantages (for the city) are equally obvious: the vendor becomes the only competence center, the only place with enough expertise to service and maintain the system over the long haul. Great deal for the vendor; not such a great deal for the taxpayer.

There’s another disadvantage to monolithic procurement, too, less often remarked on: from a technology standpoint, big turnkey systems generally don’t have good entry points for requesting data and services in a programmable way. In tech-speak, they tend not to have good APIs (“application programming interfaces” — for example, the standardized set of request and response formats your phone uses to get map information from a mobile service provider is an API).

By separating the software side from the hardware side, and by making a few other key decisions, such as that the server software would be open source, the MTA has essentially forced their bus-tracking system to have good APIs — because the on-bus hardware uses published APIs to talk to the server software, and because the server software is now an independent piece whose value derives from being able to communicate with anyone’s client applications as easily as possible. Requiring that the server software be open source, as the MTA did, cements this last advantage: the best survival strategy for a piece of open source software in that position is to have as rich an API set as it can.

You might call this networked procurement, but it requires a certain level of competency and buy-in that not all agencies have. The MTA was building out a pilot project that captured real-time location data for certain buses in New York City, then delivered that information to users, primarily via text message. They were doing so with the heavy involvement of OpenPlans, which is incubating Civic Commons. Grossman came to Civic Commons from OpenPlans, and OpenPlans managed the contract from the MTA to implement this pilot. Part of Civic Commons' purpose is to help local governments develop the competency necessary to do that sort of work well — but as Fogel admits, switching to an open-source model doesn't necessarily result in any changes in cost.

Both Marketplace and Civic Commons are nascent ideas; Commons is about a year old, and Marketplace is not yet publicly accessible. But both propose to make fundamental changes to the way local governments procure IT good and services.

Marketplace is expected to open up to the public next weekend, in time to host profiles of winners of the GovFresh Awards, a contest to highlight some of the tech-in-government projects happening around the country. (I'm one of the judges.)

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