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Red Hat's Jason Hibbets: How Open Source Software is Changing City Government

Jason Hibbets Linux and open source software have demonstrated that collaborative development is a successful model for rapid innovation in the tech sector. Now that model is being applied in other industries from health care, to city government, to education.

In Raleigh, North Carolina the open source way is transforming city government through increased access to government data and lower barriers to citizen participation. It's no coincidence that the city is also home to Red Hat, the first billion-dollar company built on Linux.

Jason Hibbets, a project manager in corporate marketing at Red Hat and community manager for Opensource.com, has been an integral part of the city's open transformation. In his keynote at ApacheCon in Denver next week, Hibbets will define the five principles of an open source city and share his experiences with civic hacking in Raleigh, and a government-focused unconference called CityCamp.

“What's really inspiring to me is that open source started as a software development model and has evolved as a way to positively change our society,” Hibbets says in the Q&A, below. “Open source is truly changing the world, and it’s doing so by being a great way of doing things even beyond software.”

Here he discusses the similarities between open source software and open city government; how he got involved in Raleigh's open government movement; and some lessons learned along the way.

Linux.com: How do you apply open source philosophy and governance principles outside of technology?

Jason Hibbets: I use many of the principles from open source and what has been defined as the open source way, such as transparency, rapid prototyping, and collaboration, in my work with both software and non-software communities. To help others understand how I apply the open source philosophy to everything I do, I share examples from my own experiences and strive to maintain a default to open attitude.

My day job as community manager and project manager for Opensource.com gives me insight into businesses, groups, and individuals who are applying the open source philosophy beyond technology every day. Their work and their projects include everything from tinkering with open hardware projects and using 3D printers for making prosthetics, to innovating how kids learn with programs like Scratch from MIT and extracting data from PDFs with efforts like DocHive. There are a lot of parallels between the stories that we share on Opensource.com and the work I do outside of that in my local community. The great thing is they build on one another.

In open source software projects, code is the great equalizer – or as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg so succinctly wrote in a letter to investors: “Code wins arguments.” Is there an equivalent to code in an open source city?

Hibbets: In some ways, cities do operate like a software project, and code is called just that: codes (or laws, rules, and regulations). There are people who write city code, and who propose new code, just as in a software project. Ideally, the principles of a meritocracy – that the best ideas win, or in this case, that the best code wins – are supported in the open government movement. Determining what the best idea is, however, involves more time and risk.

In a software project, new code can be tested and the results are immediate, so you can quickly evaluate which code is superior. When you change city code, however, it may take a long time before you can see the effects, and it’s not as easy to go back and undo harm from bad code. Changes in traffic patterns, building codes, or local environmental regulations can have a huge impact on the citizenry, but it could be months or even years before the full effects are known. Many of the barriers that passionate citizens and government IT shops face are related to changing entrenched cultures that develop to manage or minimize that risk. Transparency and collaboration may be easily achievable for an open source city, but rapid prototyping is more difficult; and that slows down decision-making. That means people can’t just bring their best ideas to the table; they must also become agents of cultural and community change. For us, that usually means not only demonstrating the benefits of open source and open data, but also demonstrating that these changes carry little risk.

Operating in an open source product and development environment, you come to expect quick decisions and rapid prototyping. Tips for those who want to bring their open source know-how to government: be prepared for a slower pace, understand how your government works including policy making and public process, start forming relationships and partnerships with influencers and talented people who can help the best ideas win.

What other parallels exist between an open source project and open government?

Hibbets: The first three that come to mind are transparency, collaboration, and participation. These principles are essential to both open source and open government. Many of us are familiar with how this works in open source projects, but not so much in government.

Transparency is important, because as citizens we should know how our tax dollars are being spent, how our representatives are voting, and what transpires in public meetings. Collaboration is critical to a better government. Our communities, our governments, need ideas from all citizens. On an open source project, collaboration is what makes everything tick because cultivating ideas from many participants is what generates the best results.

In a democracy it's not us versus them, so participation is essential. And, participation is not limited to voting. The government is "ours,” of the people, and how it operates and what it does should be a participatory process.

We’re starting to see government agencies bridge the gap; from holding in-person meetings to online collaboration and participation to gather feedback from more citizens. As we think about the bigger picture though, we need to be keen on open standards. Governments (and citizens) should not be limited to proprietary formats. Open standards create a level playing field and allow for interoperability. Deciding on and implementing open standards should be at the top of the list for government IT departments.

What inspired you to take what you've learned about open source communities and collaboration and apply it to your own city government in Raleigh?

Hibbets: Open source and my city is a blend of my passions. When I first started discovering the open government movement, I realized I could use my knowledge about open source and open source communities and apply that to my local government. For a number of years I used my open source know-how to promote transparency and participation in my neighborhood watch program and other neighborhood organizations.

My involvement and work with open source of my local government went to a new level when I got involved with an event called CityCamp. It's an international unconference series that brings open source and technology to local municipalities. Then, I had the privilege to co-chair a group of volunteers, of passionate citizens, to create CityCamp Raleigh. We've evolved this over the years to become CityCamp North Carolina  with more of a state-wide focus. Now in its fourth year, we're looking to inspire change in our state government by encouraging them to use more open source solutions, create open data.

For more on my journey through this process, from neighborhood watch to CityCamp and more, plus a ton of great tips for how to be more involved in open government, check out my book: The foundation for an open source city. When I reflect back, CityCamp was the catalyst and spark not only for me, but for Raleigh.

What valuable lessons have you learned about open source projects and about city government in doing so?

Hibbets: The first lesson I've learned is that having a core group of like-minded people working on the project with you is critical. Just like open source projects, you need a nucleus of dedicated leaders and contributors to be successful. This is no different in the open government world. And to be successful in open government, this core group needs to establish key relationships and partnerships with elected officials, city staff, and other stakeholders.

The second lesson I'll share is to embrace incremental progress. Earlier, I talked about transparency, collaboration, and participation. On the open government front, open source advocates may need to make compromises in order to move the needle and make some progress. For example, some tools that governments are implementing may not use open source software, but may get more citizens involved or engaged.

There are several platforms for engaging citizens online that foster participation, allow people to collaborate, and provide transparency around what ideas are winning and what’s being voted on. But many, if not all, are not built on open source software or licensing. Do we scrap the platform because it's not under an open source license? Or, do we choose to make incremental progress so that open source is an alternative in the future?

In many local governments, officials and leaders are looking for turnkey solutions to reduce the burden on the IT department. There is an opportunity there for start-ups to embrace the open source way and find a business model that works with the public sector.

What can the open source software community learn from open government projects? How can it contribute?

Hibbets: There are many similarities between these two communities, but one advantage that open government projects have is the ability to access and draw from a highly diverse community with a wide range of skills, talents, and resources. While there are a number of larger open source projects that do this very well, many smaller open source projects struggle with getting more project managers, designers, writers, marketers, and people with other valuable skill sets to participate in their project. I think the reason for this is that government projects have such a strong and direct relation to what the general public needs, on a more basic and daily level. Think transparent access to information and ways for citizens to report non-emergency issues. Whereas open source projects tend to be more focused on technology solutions.

As far as contributing to open government projects, it's just like any other open source community: identify your passion, find a community that fits that passion, and figure out a way to bring your skills to the community. One community that I'm involved in is Code for America. They have a variety of different projects and programs for people to get involved in. Because a lot of my skills are around community organizing and storytelling, as opposed to writing code, I help organize my local Code for America Brigade in Raleigh and share our progress through blogging and social media.

What else do you plan to cover in your ApacheCon keynote? Who should attend and why?

Hibbets: Attendees to my keynote should be anyone who wants to take their open source knowledge and apply it outside of technology. I will share stories from my experience with citizens and the local government of Raleigh, so attendees will gain insight into how they can replicate these ideas and projects in their city or town. The ideas I will share will also be applicable to other disciplines, like healthcare and education.

What's really inspiring to me is that open source started as a software development model and has evolved as a way to positively change our society. Open source is truly changing the world, and it’s doing so by being a great way of doing things even beyond software. 

 

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