For those interested in my writing on open source, municipal issues and technology, I want to be blunt: I consider this to be one of the most important posts I’ll write this year.
A few months ago I wrote an article and blog post about “Muniforge,” an idea based on a speech I’d given at a conference in 2009 in which I advocated that cities with common needs should band together and co-develop software to reduce procurement costs and better meet requirements. I continued to believe in the idea, but have recognized that cultural barriers would likely mean it would be difficult to realize.
Last month that all changed. While at Northern Voice I ended up talking to Jens Haeusser an IT strategist at the University of British Columbia and confirmed something I’d long suspected: that some people much smarter than me had already had the same idea and had made it a reality… not among cities but among academic institutions.
The result? The Kuali foundation. “…A growing community of universities, colleges, businesses, and other organizations that have partnered to build and sustain open-source administrative software for higher education, by higher education.”
In other words for the past 5 years over 35 universities in the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa have been successfully co-developing software.
For cities everywhere interested in controlling spending or reducing costs, this should be an earth shattering revelation – a wake up call – for several reasons:
- First, a viable working model for muniforge has existed for 5 years and has been a demonstrable success, both in creating high quality software and in saving the participating institutions significant money. Devising a methodology to calculate how much a city could save by co-developing software with an open source license is probably very, very easy.
- Second, what is also great about universities is that they suffer from many of the challenges of cities. Both have: conservative bureaucracies, limited budgets, and significant legacy systems. In addition, neither have IT as the core competency and both are frequently concerned with licenses, liability and the “owning” intellectual property.
- Which thirdly, leads to possibly the best part. The Kuali Foundation has already addressed all the critical obstacles to such an endeavour and has developed licensing agreements, policies, decision-making structures, and work flows processes that address necessary for success. Moreover, all of this legal, policy and work infrastructure is itself available to be copied. For free. Right now.
- Fourth, the Kuali foundation is not a bunch of free-software hippies that depend on the kindness of strangers to patch their software (a stereotype that really must end). Quite the opposite. The Kuali foundation has helped spawn 10 different companies that specialize in implementing and supporting (through SLAs) the software the foundation develops. In other words, the universities have created a group of competing firms dedicated to serving their niche market. Think about that. Rather than deal with vendors who specialize in serving large multinationals and who’ve tweaked their software to (somewhat) work for cities, the foundation has fostered competing service providers (to say it again) within the higher education niche.
As a result, I believe a group of forwarding thinking cities – perhaps starting with those in North America – should fork the Kuali Foundation. That is, they should copy Kuali’s bylaws, it structure, its licenses and pretty much everything else – possibly even the source code for some of its projects – and create a Kuali for cities. Call it Muniforge, or Communiforge or CivicHub or whatever… but create it.
We can radically reduce the costs of software to cities, improve support by creating the right market incentive to help foster companies whose interests are directly aligned with cities and create better software that meets cities unique needs. The question is… will we? All that is required is for CIO’s to being networking and for a few to discover some common needs. One I idea I have immediately is for the City of Nanaimo to apply the Kuali modified Apache license to its council monitoring software package it developed in house, and to upload it to GitHub. That would be a great start – one that could collectively save cities millions.
If you are a city CIO/CTO/Technology Director and are interested in this idea, please check out these links:
Open Source Collaboration in Higher Education: Guidelines and Report of the Licensing and Policy Framework Summit for Software Sharing in Higher Education by Brad Wheeler and Daniel Greenstein (key architects behind Kuali)
Open Source 2010: Reflections on 2007 by Brad Wheeler (a must read, lots of great tips in here)
Heck, I suggest looking at all of Brad Wheeler’s articles and presentations.
Another overview article on Kuali by University Business
Phillip Ashlock of Open Plans has an overview article of where some cities are heading re open source.
And again, my original article on Muniforge.
If you aren’t already, consider reading the OpenSF blog – these guys are leaders and one way or another will be part of the mix.