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The Social and Software Engineering of Open-Sourcing City Code

BY Nick Judd | Monday, February 21 2011

The team building Civic Commons stopped off in New York last week, and explained how the project — a Code for America initiative to stand up a system for fostering the use of open-source software in government — is starting to take shape.

As with other projects of Code for America, Civic Commons presently has a broad outline that its developers are only now starting to fill in. The technologists building it — a mix of developers, designers, project managers and other techies spending a year building civic technology as part of a fellowship through CfA — are responsible for collecting 100 interviews with the people who would be using Civic Commons by the end of this month. The results of those interviews will change what the Washington, D.C. based project looks like at launch.

The broad premise of Civic Commons is that local and state governments across the country are wasting money by paying different people to build the same software. In many cases, the thinking goes, one city or state could develop a piece of code and then open-source it — allowing the next city to adapt and improve upon it with the budget it would otherwise spend just getting the basic funcationality already built.

"One of the things we are hearing a lot about is the need for knowledge sharing between these organizations, so that is probably going to be a part of the catalog," Jeremy Canfield, one of the CfA fellows working on Civic Commons, told me in an email last week. "To put it another way: no one thinks that a mere listing of apps is sufficient to drive adoption."

Canfield is one of 20 people selected from 360 to be part of the CfA program, with a modest (for developers) stipend, and are part of an organization with some of the technology-in-government world's biggest names on its staff, board of directors, and advisory board, including O'Reilly Media CEO Tim O'Reilly, Canadian open-government expert David Eaves, Blue State Digital co-founders Clay Johnson and Jascha Franklin-Hodge, and geek alpha-thinker Clay Shirky.*

In that environment, as Canfield and his colleagues say, technology is the easy part. One of the hard parts will be explaining why it's of use to spend money on open-sourcing a software project. Another will be helping organizations figure out which projects are worth conducting in an open-source way and which won't be — some software is too purpose-specific to bother sharing with the rest of the world.

This all points to one possible outcome from the first year of the CfA experiment: That perhaps, for as much as technology can do for governments and their publics, CfA fellows will find that the obstacles to implementing that technology sometimes have more to do with social engineering than software engineering.

*Disclosure: Personal Democracy Forum founder Andrew Rasiej serves on the Code for America advisory board.