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Will New York City Embrace Open Source Code?

A new proposal by Council Member Benjamin Kallos would require city agencies consider open source software for projects, and establish a code-sharing portal for the city.

New York City is on the cusp of a complete overhaul on how software is purchased and distributed by public agencies in the Big Apple.

Benjamin Kallos, a council member representing Gotham’s Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island, has authored legislation that mandates a preference for using free and open source software and computer code for city IT projects. Another bill establishes a code-sharing portal for agencies to share that open source software with each other.

On May 29, Int. 366, the Free and Open Source Software Act (FOSSA), and Int. 365, the Civic Commons Act, were introduced, and are open for public comment and amendment. They are part of an extensive package of technology bills from Kallos, who is a software developer.

In an interview with Government Technology, Kallos explained that “free” doesn’t mean the code comes free of charge – it means the city would no longer be subject to the proprietary constraints of the software being purchased. For example, NYC agencies would no longer need to pay private vendors multiple times to use the same program.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about a license, and the city is still going to get the same quality code,” Kallos said. “It’s just a question of being handcuffed to the vendor, or being able to have a free and open source license for it so that we can keep it, hire a new vendor to support that code, work with other cities on it and build institutional knowledge around that code.”

One of the challenges of moving to open source software, however, is making sure enough in-house expertise is available to properly support and further develop the code. Kallos agreed, but felt that municipalities were better off with moving toward an open source approach, particularly in the age of operating as an information-based economy with mountains of data to manage.

Kallos believes a hybrid approach for NYC is in the immediate future. If for some reason an open source option from an independent developer isn’t possible, purchases from a vendor would be done under a software-as-a-service platform. Additionally, Kallos hopes the city is better able to recruit the outside developers that work on the city’s systems. This way knowledge is transferred, resulting in potential cost savings for the city in the long run.

In a perfect world, Kallos sees a programming group being established between cities, where in-house developers from across the U.S. work together on complex code that can be used by multiple communities. In order to reach that goal, however, the software purchasing culture must change.

“Based on the current economic infrastructure and the way business is currently done, the first step is just changing the licenses so that the vendors we’re working with are no longer going to get paid to build [a system], and then support it indefinitely until we’re ready to move on to something else,” Kallos said.

Assuming the FOSSA makes it through NYC’s legislative process and becomes law, The Civic Commons Act is a measure that creates a portal to hold all of the open source code being used by city agencies. The idea is based on a similar project hosted by Code for America.

If Int. 365 passes, Kallos hopes to have one of NYC’s in-house developers grab the code for the portal and spend a week or two reconfiguring it for use by city agencies. Kallos believes the city should support the code commons site with tax dollars, but is open to discussing different ways to support the effort.

“We can choose to do it as volunteers, we can do it with nonprofit dollars, or we can do it with tax dollars,” Kallos said. “But because government will be such a large purveyor and user of this, I can’t imagine having a free and open source software preference without having a civic commons portal that the city is supporting.”

Crowdsourcing Playing a Role

Unlike the typical legislative process where a bill is primarily drafted and edited by a legislator and policy staff based on concerns expressed by both citizens and special interests, Int. 366 and 365 are open to the public to edit and amend the bills’ language. Kallos told Government Technology that he experimented with crowdsourcing during his campaign for city council, creating a Drupal-based site to enable people to comment on his platform and vote his solutions to issues up or down.

The experiment was a success, so Kallos is doing it again – this time with his legislation, encouraging the community to take a bigger role in shaping the NYC’s future. The FOSSA and Civic Commons Act are both posted on Madison and GitHub so that residents can vote on and comment on or edit the measures, respectively.

“The whole idea behind this is that people should be able to put forward ideas and get responses from myself and other community members,” Kallos said. “That creates a different sense of democracy when the discussion is being held in public and people get to see how the legislation is crafted.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.