My local government is facing a proprietary software scandal, reported in Software Dispute Could Imperil Oakland’s Budget. My sense is these scandals are extremely common, but rarely reported, so kudos to my local weekly paper. My comment below.
Thanks for reporting on this story. Complex software systems are incredibly important to the functioning of local government, which typically make themselves wholly dependent on private vendors: essentially the brains of city operations are being privatized, with all the misaligned incentives and corruption that entails.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Cities could get their collective acts together and create or procure free/open source software, which would not be subject to single vendor holdups, would allow cities to collaborate to get the features they want, and would increase the transparency of operations – anyone, say a software-savvy investigative reporter – could examine the algorithms that govern local government.
This is beginning to happen, eg with France, Italy, and India giving priority to free/open source software in government procurement. It’s a very long-term strategy which won’t fix the immediate scandal. But it’s necessary to prevent local government from being utterly overrun by such scandals and operational privatization as more and more operations and services are implemented as software. Oakland should take the lead in the U.S. It’d be especially appropriate as free/open source software presents a viable alternative vision for technology which benefits everyone rather than concentrating wealth and control in an elite.
Feedback on this comment, here or at the linked article, most welcome! I’d like to make a more concrete suggestion, but frankly there is no short-term solution and there is a big collective action problem. Other observations:
- Read more about free software prioritization in India, Italy, and France mentioned above at https://www.april.org/en/french-state-it-looks-take-example-free-software from April, an excellent French free software organization.
- I still worry that government open data advocates are making the problem worse to the extent they accept proprietary software, just creating yet another vector for government to be held hostage by proprietary vendors.
- The last sentence of my comment plays to a debate about tech-driven inequality that is both global and supercharged the San Francisco Bay Area/Greater Silicon Valley (in which Oakland is the third biggest city, and far poorer than the other two) but in which IP as a problem and commons-based production as a solution is almost wholly absent. I am mulling an essay or series on how IP is gentrifying the world.