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Is Your City Open Source?

There is more to open source than software, hardware and the Creative Commons. Open source can also be seen as a guide for living life that is based on principles that go back to antiquity. Openness and sharing aren’t only for computers, electronics and creative writing.

Jason Hibbets is working to convince local governments to adapt open source ideas in their day to day operations. His book, “The Foundation for an Open Source City,” attempts to be a step by step guide for implementing open source ideas into government policies and solutions, based on his own experiences. He uses Raleigh, North Carolina, where he resides, as his example. He calls it the worlds first open source city. In a way, the small southern capital is his laboratory.

Jason Hibbets

Jason Hibbets, Director of OpenSource.com

He works as a project manager for Red Hat, where he’s currently in charge of the community website OpenSource.com. His work to bring open source ideas to Raleigh’s city hall is something he does on his own time as a private citizen. These days he spends a lot of time travelling to conferences, spreading the word about how people can engage their governments through the use of open source ideas.

At the All Things Open conference in Raleigh last fall, he explained what he means by “open sourcing government.” The backbone of this approach, the “Open Source Way” he calls it, would be familiar to anyone who’s worked with open source software: transparency, rapid prototyping, meritocracy and passion.

“What I’m really passionate about is taking all this great stuff from open source and applying it to government. It’s not just having government run open source code. It’s actually having them be more embracive and interactive with citizens.

“I think what’s happened recently, probably over the last two decades and we’re starting to emerge from it, is that people have a bad relationship with government. They think it’s just city services, but the reality is that government is all of us.

“We’ve just kind of gotten this bad taste in our mouth. Government is just you vote once a year. The politics has really ruined a lot of it. It gets really nasty during election season and we just tune it out because we just don’t want to hear about it anymore. So we pay our taxes and we get services…. People think of government as a vending machine. But it’s more than that, because it’s really [about] what we want our government to be doing.”

Oddly enough, the seed of the concept of applying open source ideology to government was planted in Hibbets mind by a politician.

Hibbets’ first interview as a journalist for OpenSource.com was with Charles Meeker, who was the mayor of Raleigh at the time. During the course of the interview, they discussed the idea of taking open source principles and applying them to “a living and breathing city.”

“After publishing this article I started to discover other people who had a similar vision and who wanted to change government from the outside in. So we started creating a community around that.”

The catalyst for what followed was an unconference called CityCamp Raleigh, which was attended by over 200 Raleigh residents and has gone on to become an annual event. Nowadays, the event has been expanded to include participants from other North Carolina cities and has been renamed CityCamp NC.

From the first CityCamp unconference, Triangle Wiki, “a hyper-local version of Wikipedia” was born. That was only the beginning. At the second CityCamp, a mobile app called RGreenway was developed to help people navigate Raleigh’s greenways and parks. The app has been so successful that Cary, a nearby town, has also rolled their maps into the system.

“The thing is, I don’t think the city’s going to develop an app like this. They’re not going to pay a developer to build the cool RGreenway app for the park system. So it really kind of took the initiative from the citizens to go do that.”

The accomplishments of Jason Hibbets and this dedicated group of Raleigh citizens determined to make a difference by bringing open source ideas to Raleigh is amazing. In the period of just a couple of years they’ve managed to work with the city to create an open data portal, resulting in a city government that is both more transparent and more accessible. There’s SeeClickFix, which allows residents to report problems, such as potholes or abandoned cars, directly from a mobile device.

The list goes on and on, and continues to grow.

Jason Hibbets will be giving his presentation, “Open Source All The Cities,” at the Great Wide Open conference in Atlanta on Wednesday, April 2. For those who wish to attend, special Early Bird pricing has been extended to March 24. That, along with the 50% discount the conference’s host is offering to FOSS Force readers, means you can attend both days for $75 or one day for $50. All that’s necessary to take advantage of this offer is to type “fossforce” (without the quotes) into the promotional code box when you register on the conference website.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux.

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