The Open Source Path to Civic Geekdom

The following is a book review written by very cool SeeClickFix user Mickey Mercier.

Jason Hibbets adds some fresh spice to the open-government stew with his new book The Foundation for an Open Source City, which contends that municipalities, residents, and business can benefit from applying open-source software principles to governance.

A marketing manager at Linux distributor Red Hat in the North Carolina Research Triangle, Hibbets documents how the philosophies of open-source software were embraced by the Raleigh, NC city government.

The book describes the efforts of the author and his collaborators – local officials, citizens, civic geeks, programmers and business leaders to improve transparency, participation and economic development in the North Carolina capital (population 423,000). Hibbets hopes Raleigh will become the open-source capital of the world.

Like so many others before him, Hibbets' epiphany on civic participation came when he asked his city for help with a seemingly simple quality-of-life issue. His odyssey to get a section of road paved continued for 1,317 days – more time than it took to write the book!

Read the rest of the review after the jump.


According to the author, an open-source city:
• Fosters a culture of citizen participation
• Has an effective open-government policy
• Has an effective open-data initiative
• Promotes open-source user groups and conferences
• Is a hub for innovation and open-source businesses and conferences.

The first three points about citizen participation, open government and open data may be more difficult than they appear. All the software in the world won't improve transparency or participation if there isn't a buy-in from elected officials – whose interest in public approval and re-election may not be perfectly aligned with these ideals.

Other attributes that make a city open source include: willingness to share, willingness to receive information, and the desire to be innovative, creative and try new things. The author says the secret ingredient that makes it all to work together is passion – at the same fervent level that some coders bring to their craft.

Hibbets is also the community manager at He published The Foundation for an Open Source City under a Creative Commons license. The book is even typeset in an open-source font. It was printed by Lulu, a self-publishing platform based in Raleigh that embodies open-source ideals.


The open-source city concept reflects any number of progressive movements in governing, especially Gov 2.0, GovFresh, GovLook, Code for America, Civic Hacking and especially CityCamp.
Raleigh was one of the first jurisdictions to organize a local CityCamp. In the three years since, dozens of CityCamps have taken place in the United States and other countries.

CityCamp bills itself as an "unconference" – not just an event but an online community dedicated to innovation for municipal governments and community organizations. The program brings together local government officials, municipal officials, programmers, designers, citizens, and journalists to share perspectives and insights about the host city.

The original Raleigh CityCamp was three was three days of talks, workshops and problem-solving on the way the web, applications, technology and higher participation in government were shaping the future of the city. In 2013, it expanded to a statewide event held from May 30 to June 1, in conjunction with a National Day of Civic Hacking.

Interested in hosting your own CityCamp? Feel free because CityCamp is an open-source brand with a Creative Commons license – anyone can use, share, modify and improve it. #citycamp
Hibbets' book includes best practices for organizing a City Camp in your community, along with open-government and open-source resources. There are also case studies from other cities.

Raleigh enacted a "Resolution indicating the intent of city council to create an open government by encouraging the use of open source systems and ensuring open access to public data." The full text is included in the book for other cities to use as a model for similar legislation.


The CityCamp movement makes a point of urging organizers -- and particularly government officials -- to reduce their dependency on e-mail by using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media, along with collaborative tools like cloud docs.

The idea is that creating an online community of collaborators will lead to greater transparency and participation. While such approaches are common in the tech sector, government has adopted them much more slowly. Breaking the chain to the inbox that keeps many officials at their desks is a big first step toward new-age governing. #noemail

"Governments and other organizations work best when their actions and other decisions are carried out in public," says Ben Berkowitz, CEO of SeeClickFix, one of the pioneering open-government applications. He notes that while SeeClickFix provides the technology platform, it's the daily efforts of engaged citizens and public officials that have made it a near-universal solution for municipal problem reporting.

Another concept – this one sourced from the Maker movement -- is rapid prototyping in a collaborative setting to explore new ideas for government strategies and programs.


Hibbets believes that promoting open-source values in government and local culture will promote local economic development by attracting companies involved in open-source enterprises.
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane is quoted as saying, "Open source is a philosophy that has had a widespread impact both in creating software and in creating culture. Collaboration, transparency, and openness represent the culture of our business community – helping to foster a climate for innovation and business growth."

For a city that already has Red Hat headquarters and a small cluster of other open-source software companies, attracting more open-source businesses may be a promising economic development strategy.

Other cities may ask themselves whether recruiting open-source companies is really better than recruiting other sorts of businesses. Hibbets makes a passionate case that it is.
The Foundation for an Open Source City, published in 2013 by Lulu, Raleigh, NC. $14 in hard copy, with ePub and Kindle versions available.