Public Money, Public Code. Digitally empowering citizens and administrations

How to use free software to push organizations into the next level? How to digitally empower citizens and administrations?

This was the topic discussed last April 8th in Barcelona together with two experts, two representatives of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE): Erik Albers and Alexander Sander. The eventPublic Money, Public Code. Digitally empowering citizens and administrations” [1]  was organized by the Asociación KDE España and moderated by Dimmons (UOCIN3) and took place at the Escola de Trabaill of Barcelona in order to give an overview on the Free Software world and discuss public policies around it.

Event “Public Money, Public Code. Digitally empowering citizens and administrations”

The FSFE is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that works to create general understanding of and support for Free Software (FS) and opens standards in politics, business, law and society. It supports individuals and organizations in understanding how FS contributes to freedom, transparency and self-determination and, from a legal point of view, it collects and shares knowledge about legal and licensing aspects.

Software is deeply involved in all aspects of our lives and the Foundation stresses the importance to make sure that this technology empowers rather than restricts us. Free Software is a matter of liberty (not price); it gives everybody four rights :

1. use, since the FS can be used for any purpose and is free of restrictions such as licence expiry or geographic limitations;

2. study, since its code can be studied by anyone, without non-disclosure agreements or similar restrictions;

3. share, since it can be shared, redistributed and copied at no virtual cost;

4. improve, since it can be modified by anyone, and these improvements can be shared publicly.  

So, these rights help support other fundamental freedoms like freedom of speech, press and privacy.

“Public Money, Public Code” campaign poster

Looking to public administrations, it should be stressed that they are important users and providers of software. They procure, fund and support the development of products and services that can affect large groups of people. However, when these endeavours do not involve Free Software, critical questions concerning security, efficiency, distribution of power, and transparency arise. Indeed, in order to establish trustworthy systems, public bodies must ensure they have full control over the software and computer systems at the core of their state digital infrastructure. But right now, this is rarely the case due to restrictive software licenses that:

  • Forbid sharing and exchanging publicly funded codes, preventing cooperation between public administrations and hindering further development.
  • Support monopolies by hindering competition, with the result that many administrations become dependent on a handful of companies.
  • Pose a threat to the security of our digital infrastructure by forbidding access to the source code and creating fixing backdoors and security holes.

On the contrary the kind of software that fosters the sharing of good ideas and solutions, that guarantees freedom of choice, access, and competition, that allows IT services improvement, that helps public administrations regain full control of their critical digital infrastructure, and thus supporting them in becoming independent, is more and more necessary. The two experts of the FSFE stressed therefore the importance to rely on Free and Open Source Software in public administrations instead of proprietary software.

  • In this way, it is possible to see and inspect the code, learn from it and reuse. Thus, costs are minimized, since investment can be concentrated on human resources instead of capabilities; in addition, processes become transparent and shareable (still reducing costs).
  • The FS also guarantees technological sovereignty: it is possible to choose local entrepreneurs who respect users’ rights and freedoms, change providers if necessary and retain control of data; this means that it is possible to have tailored software that suits people’s needs and not just the vendor’s business model; at the same time the monopoly and the oligarchic dependence to big technological vendors is broken.
  • In addition, FS allows to work with communities. Indeed, it uses the talent of FS developers, represents and gives voice to users and developers, and, in that respect, local SMEs can become strong partners.
  • From a legal point of view, it allows to connect legal experts and companies, it represents a safe place to discuss issues and to find solutions to overcome problems.
  • From a political point of view, it favors the collaboration among cities working on joint projects, building networks.

Regionality, autonomy and efficiency are therefore three crucial key words.

But above all, publishing source code is a way to give taxpayers’ money back to society. For this reason, the FSFE has launched the campaign: Public Money, Public Code. Public bodies are financed through taxes and they must make sure they spend funds in the most efficient way possible.  Under the claim “if it is public money, it should be public code as well”, the Foundation pushes for legislation requiring that publicly financed software developed for the public sector be made publicly available, under a Free and Open Source Software license. The campaign revolves around an open letter advocating that publicly funded software should be free. Currently, this call to public agencies is supported by more than 21499 people and 161 organizations that have already signed the letter.

The venue of the event is not by chance: FS has become a core element of the Barcelona’s smart city and digitalization agenda, under the nudging action of Francesca Bria, the Commissioner of Technology and Digital Innovation at the City Council. Barcelona has a bigger City plan that aims to use technology and data to provide better, more affordable services to citizens, making government more transparent, participative and effective. As one can read on the City Council website “Strike a New Deal on Data to expand socially beneficial uses of data, while guaranteeing data sovereignty, ethics & privacy. Provide access to Internet for all. High-speed internet connectivity is not a luxury but a right for all citizens; it’s an absolute necessity for economic development and social mobility in the 21st century economy”. The city is working on several fronts:

  • Technology for a better government through an ambitious plan for digital transformation that includes strategic projects to counter social problems, detected as government priorities.
  • Urban technology to guarantee that the city has digital infrastructures it requires for its overall management and to ensure the provision of uniformed public cover for all city residents’ needs in terms of housing, unemployment, social exclusion, health, energy and mobility.
  • City data commons: data are a prime asset in the knowledge society and should be perceived as a common asset; the city promotes this view in order to achieve the democratic, open, transparent and regulated management of this resource.

Among all the different projects the city is running, DECIDIM has to be mentioned, since it is the biggest FS program of the city. It is a digital platform for the democratic participation that allows citizens to debate, attend meetings and create proposals. The platform’s source code is publicly available, enabling other cities to use it and adapt it (similar to the CONSUL of Madrid). This is not the place to detail the project, but it should be said that government is investing public money in FS so citizens can control the software, and platforms can remain in the public domain, managed and governed by the community. Barcelona has also been the first city to sign the campaign launched by the FSFE Public Money, Public Code. By date, it is running a migration plan with a pilot project on processing workstations into a completely free operating system. But the whole information infrastructure is moving towards open standards, open stocks and interoperability. Basically, Barcelona is migrating its computer system away from the windows platform; the strategy is first to replace all user’s applications with open-source alternatives, until the underlying Windows operating system is the only proprietary software remaining; in a final step, the operating system will be replaced with Linux.

We are moving in the frame of the “digital democracy” and “digital sovereignty”. That means taking back control of data and information generated by digital technologies, and promoting public digital infrastructures based on free and open source software, open standards and open formats. So, in order to regain sovereignty and guarantee citizen digital rights, public-common democratic infrastructures are required.

Today a growing number of public institutions started a transition to free-software solutions. This does not only grant independence but can address the often argued need for public access to publicly-funded developments. In addition, the experts highlighted that this is the only way that public services can ensure that citizen data is handled in a trustworthy manner since non-free software wouldn’t allow total control (or even knowledge) over the employed functions of the needed programs.

The migration process nevertheless is very complex and can also fail.  See what happen in Munich for example: the German city indeed was famous for rejecting Microsoft in favor of using Linux on its PCs, but in 2017, after more than a decade of running Linux-based PCs, it has decided to switch about 29,000 PCs to Windows 10.  A study of IT at the council by consultants Accenture and ARF said that it took the council too long to update software and fix bugs, resulting in “obsolete, partially unsafe, usually extremely cumbersome IT, leading to lots of wasted time and productivity”, but blamed a lack of coordination between the more than 20 IT departments serving the city, rather than the use of open-source software. The two experts of FSFE suggest to do the migration step by step. What is really important is not the duration of the process but the commitment of the administration.

What is important to highlight is that we are facing not only great technological change, but overall a cultural and a structural organizational change, and a change in the way public services are designed and delivered. For this reason, the digital revolution should be connected to a democratic revolution.

That means rethinking the relation between government and citizens to ensure that citizens take back democratic control and take an active part in the city life. Technology should be rethought and used from the angle of the Commons.

The point is that, in a democratic city, technology should serve to: digitally empower citizens, protect their privacy from abuses by public and private powers, fight against corruption and to advance towards a more equitable and sustainable economy. That means favoring the creation of technological models that are ethical, responsible and civil, and conquering technological digital sovereignty for common goods.

[1] Official teaser for the “Public Money, Public Code” campaign https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuVUzg6x2yo