We began this session with a quick overview of what open source means.  The first point to understand is that open source IS a copyright licensing model.  This was an insight for someone like me who knows nothing about software development.  I had always understood open source to be the absence of a license.

In any case, open source licenses specify to what extent users have the right to copy, alter, or redistribute a copyrighted work.

One of the key implications of open source software is that it has the potential to increase transparency.  One interesting application of this is the Open Source Digital Voting Initiative.  (http://www.osdv.org/about).  The underlying principle of this initiative is that voting machine software should be open source so that there is no question about any built in vote fixing “bugs”

Open source licenses are particularly well suited to software, because software can be so easily modified and customized.  If open-source software doesn’t do exactly what you need, you can alter it in any way you want and can redistribute with limited restrictions.  The end result of this freedom is the formation of productive developer communities.  Cities and governments can benefit from these communities as well.

Because most open source software is distributed free one common question is how can it sustain itself in our market-driven economy.

The key insight I learned was that open-source, in and of itself, is not a business model.  It is a product distribution choice – but not the basis for a business.  The presenters used the analogy of a plumber to clarify.

Plumbing knowledge is fairly widely distributed.  Similarly, most plumbers are interchangeable and can work on anybody’s plumbing.   Yet, plumbing is a viable (indeed, lucrative) profession.

Similarly, although open source software, such as LINUX is available for free.  Companies that can add value by packaging LINUX, such as Red Hat, have been able to thrive.

For cities, open source can be particularly attractive.  Non-profits, such as OpenPlans (http://openplans.org/) are creating open-source platforms to provide citizen services at little to no cost to the city.  For instance, OpenPlans is producing a real-time bus tracking system in NYC that can be further developed by any programmer.

The Open Source model has even been extended into education. Again, in New York, the Public School NYC (http://nyc.thepublicschool.org/), is a disruptive model that proposes to provide fully-customizable classes based on public interest.


The open-source city has arrived.