Guest post: How the 'good virus' of open source is infecting, and revitalising, the culture of government

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Nat Wei (@natwei), is a social entrepreneur and adviser to the UK Government on their “Big Society” project. As one of the youngest people ever to have been made a Life Peer of the House of Lords, Lord Wei is the founding and former lead partner of the Shaftesbury Partnership, and a member of the founding team of Teach First. As “Baron Wei of Shoreditch” he is intensely interested in the emergence of the cluster of startup technology companies in the Shoreditch/Hoxton area of London which has come to be known as Silicon Roundabout and which has informed the UK government’s new “East London Tech City” initiative. This is the second in in a series of guest posts on the use of technology in re-building civic society. The first is here.

We are all familiar with the concept of open source software. It works on the principle of collaboration and on the idea that if we share information we are much stronger than if we pursue individual goals in a shared space. The success of the Internet has been driven primarily through open source technologies, both at the inception and in recent years.

The 90s gave us HTML – a simple mark-up language allowing people with zero programming background to post files onto open source servers, which users with no previous computer experience could access and read. And today, without the existence of PHP and MySQL, if you wanted to start something like Facebook or Wikipedia you’d need a large amount of corporate finance before you’d even got started.

Things like PHP, MySQL, Linux (which is behind pretty much every web server in the world), and the Apache web server (behind 60% of the world’s web traffic) are things that affect us daily (directly or indirectly) and yet would not have been possible without firstly a shared space like the Internet and secondly a collaborative ethos.

And of course, probably the best example is probably WordPress, which I’m writing this post on right now. It’s an open source web application, written in PHP, using MySQL for its database. The current blogging phenomenon wouldn’t have gotten close to where it is now without all these technologies being open source.

In this post I’d like to talk about how this open source principle is now being transferred to the culture of government. The most dramatic realisation of this within the planning system will be the upcoming reforms which form the backbone of the Localism Bill, and a major part of decentralising power and strengthening local initiatives.

Moving away from the era of a planning inspector with his clipboard and empty town hall meetings into a more collaborative approach will require new innovative ways of engaging with local communities. Technology will need to be at the forefront of this to facilitate conversations by providing accessible space for users. Other countries such as the US have through the Internet successfully forged the necessary culture change needed for collaborative planning; it is now time for Britain to follow their lead. This is why this week I will be profiling two different apps from the US that are worth taking note of for their potential to be transferred to the new British system.

The first of these apps is OpenNeighborhood. Initiated by Professor Justin Hollander and researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts, the project’s aim is to encourage community participation in town planning and to explore ways in which web-based technology and increased public involvement can be used to enhance the planning process.

The first pilot was in Acton, Massachusetts and focused on a well-known cross junction in the centre of town which was then recreated in virtual form through SecondLife. Its interactive nature then allowed users to move roads, plant trees, build pavements and make comments about the design. These changes and ideas were then saved in a gallery that could be accessed by other members of the community so that a portfolio of suggestions and ‘re-visioning’ could be built up.

Whilst the project still held public meetings in which to discuss these ideas, as well as to talk and help people through using the OpenNeighborhood platform, by using this online technology it meant that community members who were unable to make public meetings, had ideas in the meantime, or simply wanted to find out a bit more before getting involved were able to remotely access the information. The project then culminated in a Gallery Night which showcased the two months worth of ideas and a vision for the future of the cross junction.

Since Acton, the OpenNeighborhood has been working on a project called ‘Interactive Somerville’ in another local town. This project runs along similar lines, but here they are trying to encourage the community and public to imagine the changes they would like to see in the town following the opening of new mass transit links. By using online resources to enhance and work with the existing community work and meetings it was not only made easier for people to get involved, but the idea of a 3D virtual, game-like version of a town generated even more interest in the project.

The second app I would like to bring to your attention is OpenPlans. Created by Mark Gorton, the entrepreneur behind LimeWire file sharing, its intention is to open up planning processes to the wider public. Gorton first got involved in urban planning in 1999 with The Open Planning Project (TOPP) where he developed open-source transportation models. However, after finding that real-life data lacked the software to make it accessible to the public he developed GeoServer, an open source software programme written in Java, making geo-spatial data publicly available.

Gorton then went on to found OpenPlans to oversee his larger vision, a movement towards an opening up of public data and encouraging interaction in the planning process. OpenPlans is working on multiple projects related to planning, particularly public transport and its interaction with people and the environment.

Two of Gorton’s other ventures, OpenBlock and OpenGeo, highlight the change he is trying to effect in public data management. OpenBlock makes local, street-level data more available, while OpenGeo brings open source software to organisations, and the next step is to increase public awareness and engagement in planning issues. He has founded Streetsblog and Streetfilms to promote urban issues through news and film and through this hopes to see a culture shift in public participation and data accessibility.

In the UK we already have made some steps to emulate the movement in the US, the new police crime maps being a great example of this. The drive to create an entirely new open source planning system, however, stems from a realisation that the incentives within the current system are largely adversarial. Rather than encouraging communities to develop positive long-term visions for how they want their area to develop, the intensely centralised and bureaucratic nature of the system often gives communities little option but to rebel completely against options as there is no space for discussion. Rather like competing software designers working towards apps with no compatibility and ultimately frustrating users, planners have often been at odds with communities and other stakeholders, creating a zero-sum game where no one really wins. Neighbourhood plans, which are key to the open source planning process, on the other hand, give communities democratic local control over their own futures and incentivise them to be involved in the process.

Rather than just being another consultation exercise that is promptly ignored, neighbourhood plans which set out aspirations and development needs for the area can be voted on through a referendum. Further to this, the neighbourhood planning process will encourage development rather than entrenchment and nimbyism, as incentives such as the community infrastructure levy and New Homes Bonus will let communities keep a proportion of the money raised from development to invest back into their area.

Watching and learning from the US, I suggest that there are three questions we need to think about carefully if open source planning is going to take off in the UK. Firstly, how can we develop tech tools that link effectively into these new reforms? To do this successfully there needs to be dialogue and strong collaboration between activists, policy makers, and residents (users); whilst drawing in technical expertise. Apps will need to be ‘seamless’ like the Good Gym (which I wrote about here), linked into hyper local websites, integrated into local storytelling and not just the online equivalent of a poorly attended town hall planning meeting!

Just as with the Internet, for such platforms to be adopted and useful in the long term we need to think about how to incorporate incentives for people to join. So, secondly, how can we mashup apps with other sites and make sure people can link in easily? Imagine a local sports team, for instance, getting alerts on their phones about something on the plan that relates their to game; could they then be able to feed back or debate their views through a social networking site linked to a planning app?

And thirdly we need to think realistically about how these apps will be sustainable, perhaps by selling advertising on them (or having premium paid-for versions which carry no ads).

I’d be very interested to know if apps have already been developed in the UK or the rest of Europe that are starting to solve these problems for open source planning – so answers on a postcard (or rather comment below).