Proprietary software imperils local government

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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 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.
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Proposed Free and Open Source Software Act in New York City would require chief procurement officer to create and implement a plan to minimize purchases of proprietary software.

The Public Agency is a new organization that aims to “improve the way governments design, acquire, and use technology” and believes:

  • Public sector technology should be for the public good.
  • Jargon, whether technical or political, is exclusionary.
  • Information created or collected with public money belongs to the public.

Found at

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FOSSA and The Public Agency are both welcome.

What a trip with the issues Oakland is having. This is one place I wish we had examples of alternatives, but I can’t even imagine what the software in question does. I mean, it is obviously a big database, but with what PSI is raking in, and that there are competitors, I’d imagine they have a hand in crafting the kinds of government requirements for such software.

Yeah, I doubt there are direct alternatives right now, and my 2nd and 3rd hand understanding is that crafting RFPs for a few known vendors is usual. There are consulting companies that exist in order to create RFPs for cities doing all sorts of software procurement. A couple years ago I heard about such RFPs and RFP consultants for two police systems Oakland was then upgrading, both also essentially highly specialized databases.

Like I said in last paragraph of comment, there is no short-term solution. Put policies in place to favor free software procurement and set up institutions favoring governments collaborating with each other rather than individually cutting horrible deals with vendors and occasionally there will be combinations of entrepreneurial cities, civic non-profits, and even vendors with competitive advantage in supporting free software (like Red Hat) that create alternatives.

My comment above was republished as a letter to the editor with the heading “Open Source Software Is the Answer” which I guess is OK even though it isn’t an immediate solution in this case and I’d prefer to emphasize policy or collective action over the artifact.

Mentioned above India giving priority to free software, How open software has become a source of grief for tech majors like Cisco, IBM & Oracle is an article about pushback from a lobby representing companies like those mentioned, suggesting instead “interoperability through open standards”; some quotes motivating the open source policy:

DeitY announced the open source policy in March, making it mandatory for all software applications and services of the government to be built using open source software, so that projects under Digital India “ensure efficiency, transparency and reliability of such services at affordable costs”.

“We are not here to support one vendor or the other, we are here to optimise the cost, without getting into vendor lock-in by using robust open source technology”

“Any software built using public money should be open source. Why should each state have to replicate the same app if it can be reused?”

Article closes with an odd quote that sounds good and probably has some truth:

"When the architecture and each of the individual layers of the stack are open, closed source software becomes like a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that does not fit, " said Venkatesh Hariharan, director, Alchemy Business Solutions.

Found at which compare with Mozilla 2015 Advocacy Plan

Update from April on French government priority for free software some clarification that US congressional offices can contribute to and procure free software, also mentions that an “open source caucus” will be formed soon by two US congresspeople. I’ve long wondered when there would be a US thing like and supporting initiatives, perhaps this is it.

Also needed, (another April-led initiative) around the world.

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Another exciting development from April – France: ‘tax source code will be made public’:

In January, CADA published a non-binding recommendation that the source code for France’s income tax software should be made publicly accessible. The intervention followed a FOI request by a computer scientist, who wanted to study the code.

Minister Lemaire reassured executive director of April Frédéric Couchet that the Tax Department director is aware of the CADA ruling. The department is coordinating with CADA to adapt its in-house IT systems to accommodate the decision, she said. The Tax Department is willing to cooperate, reported the French IT magazine Next Inpact in May. The IT publication hints that the tax source code can reveal the finest details, including biases in the interpretation of tax law.

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San Francisco has a Request for Information for a new voting system and last year passed a policy preferring open source for voting systems. All of the rationale could be applied to other government software systems, but this is a start.

Links to above and further background in!msg/code-for-san-francisco/ewRUGJFVBSU/lU_Nb4NEBgAJ (August)!topic/code-for-san-francisco/pCWvJ5GJzpo (October; a hearing with presentations from open source voting system vendors is tomorrow.