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A New Approach Could Fill the Potholes in Digital Infrastructure

A new concept to develop open source digital infrastructure for the public sector is the focus of a new report by the Jacobs Urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech. Authors advocate for a much more collaborative approach to the building process.

A highway with bright light blue binary code hovering over it.
Developing the digital infrastructure needed by the public sector should become a more open source and collaborative effort aided by a nongovernmental group, according to a new report. These groups, authors write, should serve as a coordinator among public officials and traditional private-sector technology providers.

The report, titled How Cities Make Software Together, is from the Jacobs Urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech and asserts the concept that the many forms of digital infrastructure required by the public sector should be open source and should be created collaboratively, rather than through traditional public procurement processes.

“They [governments] should do open source. We sort of take that as a given,” said Anthony Townsend, an urbanist in residence at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute and one of the authors of the report.

The open source concept depends on the idea of “intermediaries,” those nongovernment groups who can connect municipalities with external funders like philanthropy and other levels of government into a collaborative network able to design, use and maintain open source software.

“Open source has a lot of benefits. It also has a lot of risks. The evolution of these intermediaries means that cities don’t have to do it alone,” Townsend explained.

Government identifies the need, which prompts the agency or department to bring in “intermediaries,” those experts who might have the development or engineering capacity to help build the open source tool, said Nneka Sobers, an urban designer and civic technologist at the Jacobs Urban Tech Hub and one of the report authors.

“Trying to help governments figure out, how can you have a relationship with an intermediary, that is more sustainable, that maybe isn’t as transactional as the classic procurement processes. You’re not just going to have an RFP, hire a vendor and then cross your fingers and hope to have success at the end,” she added.

The process works best when a champion within the government organizations — generally a chief information officer or chief innovation officer — leads the effort. In the language of the orchestrated development approach being offered by Jacobs Tech Hub, that person is known as a “boundary spanner.”

“Actually having that government champion who wants to work collaboratively with a vendor, so that they can have better communication between government and vendors is one recipe for more sustainable product development ideas,” said Sobers.

And it’s governments that can be the biggest catalysts for this open source and collaborative approach to developing digital infrastructure, advocates say.

“It’s really governments that might say, ‘Hey, we really would like to try to find a way to build technology that might be accessible to the public or even having our own technology that’s open source.’” Sobers explained, adding, this could be a procurement system or some tool that operates a procurement system. "But it’s usually the government that identifies that need that either they might have or the constituents may have, that technology — or open technology — can actually find value in.”

It was the visionary technology team at Tri-Met, the public transit provider in Portland, Ore., that turned to an open source software development concept to create the agency’s Trip Planner more than a decade ago. Open311 is another example of this collaborative approach to developing, in this case, a software protocol used by a number of cities.

However, with so much conversation in government around infrastructure following the passage of both the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as well as the Inflation Reduction Act, digital infrastructure ought not be overlooked, researchers warn.

“Why, here in 2023, are we spending literally thousands of times more public money on concrete and steel than we are on the essential digital infrastructure that our cities need,” said Townsend, pointing toward the lack of funding in the infrastructure law for digital infrastructure.

“It’s a huge gap, and part of what we’re trying to do is show, A.) that it’s needed and B.) there are pretty cost-effective ways of filling it that produce additional benefits beyond just the software,” he added.

“We’ve been fighting in the gov tech, smart-cities space for over a decade now against vendors who are trying to capture like entire verticals in city government,” said Townsend. “And this is one small investment and opportunity to kind of identify a different path.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.