Unlocking the Power of Open Source for…
Kevin O'Neil

Kevin O'Neil Director, The Rockefeller Foundation

Durva Trivedi

Durva Trivedi Associate, The Rockefeller Foundation

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December 10, 2019

Unlocking the Power of Open Source for Government

Kevin O'Neil

Kevin O'Neil Director, The Rockefeller Foundation

Durva Trivedi

Durva Trivedi Associate, The Rockefeller Foundation

Tags for this post
December 10, 2019
city road with blurred streaks of car lights
Ottawa road in the evening. Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

Digital goods — a video, a song, a book, a network configuration, etc. —  can be duplicated an unlimited number of times at near-zero marginal cost. This is what economists call “non-rivalry.” A digital good need only be created once, and every subsequent sale brings nearly pure profit. Non-rivalry has led to some previously unimaginable ways of doing business.

The most widely used operating system in the world isn’t Microsoft’s Windows — it’s Linux. That’s because it’s open-source — available for free for anyone to use, adapt, or contribute to. Chances are good that the bulk of the flow of this blog entry from our web server to you — the intermediary servers, your WiFi router, maybe even the device you’re reading this on — are running some variety of Linux.

Chances are also good that very few of the companies that made these devices paid anything to use Linux. In fact, they probably used Linux because they didn’t need to pay anything for it. Linux is a global digital public good that’s used by every internet-connected person — half of the world’s population.

Non-rivalrous goods are a perfect fit for the mission of governments and non-profit organizations. The “open data” movement, the government’s role in setting the standards that defined the internet, and the many contributions of government-funded research to open-source software like Linux are all examples of that. But there’s an enormous amount of untapped benefit here.

“Software is how the public interfaces with government, and that interface is overpriced, outdated, and often broken.”

– Robin Carnahan, the Director of the State and Local Practice at 18F

Governments have largely failed to capitalize on the fact that a common set of agencies across states and municipalities have common needs that can be addressed with non-rivalrous goods. While there are many excellent examples of open software and standards projects for government, they haven’t been consistently backed with the business and organizational models needed to sustain them. However, that’s changing.

For example, The Rockefeller Foundation recently funded the launch of the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF). The OMF is dedicated to cultivating a set of standards and software that allow cities and providers of “mobility” solutions — like dockless scooters or bikes — to exchange data. This allows both the city and providers to understand how these vehicles are being used and to manage them jointly — identifying when, for example, too many scooters are cluttering sidewalks in a particular area or where there is more demand than there are scooters. This functionality will get more important with the rise of autonomous vehicles and drones.

One of many innovative things about the OMF is its organizational model. The project was launched by the city of Los Angeles, but to sustain and grow the technology, dozens of cities and businesses contribute to the project, which is governed by a board of city transport agencies. Already, an ecosystem of companies is popping up to help cities and mobility providers customize, build on, and extend the system. This looks a lot like the same virtuous circle of growth that Linux enjoys.

The OMF is working on the leading edge, but even bigger returns might be realized by adopting the same approach for the much larger body of tasks that government and nonprofits must accomplish.

… a better model would be for states to contribute to jointly developing common software platforms for common government services …

For Robin Carnahan, the Director of the State and Local Practice at 18F (one of the U.S. government’s digital services providers), the next frontier is the way U.S. states and cities procure technology. Currently, only 13% of large government software procurements succeed. “Billions of dollars are wasted annually, between failed procurements and redundancy,” said Carnahan. “Software is how the public interfaces with government, and that interface is overpriced, outdated, and often broken.”

For Carnahan and others trying to pull government into the non-rivalrous world of Linux, a better model would be for states to contribute to jointly developing common software platforms for common government services, ranging from Medicaid to child welfare to the Department of Motor Vehicles. With the basics efficiently taken care of, private contractors and government coders alike could customize and extend that software to meet the specific needs of each state or city and their residents.

Open-sourcing government technology is a disruptive vision, challenging deeply entrenched norms for both governments and the contractors they work with. But it’s possible for behemoths to change and thrive in a new era. Windows hasn’t yet made the leap to open source, but Microsoft has. It’s now a prolific open source contributor, and even owns GitHub, the platform that houses millions of open-source projects. Now is the time for government to follow.

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