The Town as an Open Source project

As a professional programmer, my main experience of sharing is a strongly positive one that causes me to believe that, as long as we all have a vested interest in the resources to which they are contributed, the sharing of ideas and effort can radically improve the quality of those resources. So, please allow me to rant about Open Source and how the principle might be applied to our everyday life.

Open Source projects (in computing terms) are projects where the supporting code for a piece of software or utility has been released in a publicly accessible form such that anyone with the required skillset can download that project’s code and edit it as they wish. It is very usual for people, once having made changes to an Open Source project, to then submit their changes back to the project and for those changes to have a positive effect on the software’s quality - people will contribute back for different reasons but those reasons are universally a balance between altruism and having a vested interest; sometimes it will lean to the former, usually it will lean to the latter.

Now, a lot of people are aware of what Open Source software projects are but hold them to be a kind of distant thing that don’t affect the way that they use computers all that much. It’s common to think, for instance, that the only frequent users of Open Source projects are people that are hardcore power-users with a Linux operating system, who use computers half for dreadfully convoluted software research purposes and half for World of Warcaft; who go to sleep each morning to dream, under the glow of a green-on-black terminal window, about liquid-nitrogen cooled processors and terrabyte broadband connections, bidding their mothers to wake them again when next lunchtime rolls around.

In reality though, Open Source projects are ubiquitous in computing and they affect every computer users life in a massive way. In direct terms, a lot of commonly used software is Open Source - Mozilla Firefox being a prime example. The more important thing though is the effect that Open Source projects have on your computing experience indirectly - most Open Source projects are not about creating software for the end-user but are instead about creating pools of resources for other programmers to use as a part of their non-Open software. Some Open Source projects are virtually omnipresent (gcc, zlib, openssl, etc.) but largely invisible to the end-user.

Because the entire, global programming community depends upon and uses such Open Source projects and because there are so many of them, us programmers are in an enviable position - we share between use a truly massive pool of resources and we share it freely. We share it eagerly even, as we are all aware that the mere act of sharing improves the quality of code by many, many orders of magnitude. The more people that use an Open Source project, the higher quality that project is.

The success and ubiquity of Open Source projects has influenced some people to start ‘real world’ projects with an Open philosophy: For examples, see the collaborative design projects described here:

The great thing about these projects is that it pulls from the experience and knowledge of the many. Unlike commercial-closed projects which aim to anticipate or set the needs of the many, Open projects are necessarily guided by the needs that already exist in the collaborators. I don’t see why the truly massive benefits which programmers enjoy from the application of the Open Source philosophy - which is, at its base, about sharing ideas and taking collaborative action - can’t be similarly applied to our real world lives.

What I wonder is whether the open design philosophy can be utilised more directly in day-to-day life?

For a very typical example - perhaps the next time that the town council is deciding on the layout and location of a children’s play-area, they could source their ideas directly from the public by allowing a web-accessible location where people could actively contribute to the design and development of that area - not just through allowing comment, but allowing actual direct collaboration? An online blueprint with an interface that allows annotation, or from which items can be removed, added, upvoted or downvoted?

Or for something simple - a map of the town, for road planning, to which citizens could visit and add markers where they have seen potholes that have developed? Or areas where they think a new crossing would be useful? Or places where they have seen dangerous driving - from being collected over a long span of time, this could be very useful information indeed!

Again, upvoting and downvoting could be useful for gauging interest and urgency.

Anyone have any other ideas how the collaboration and interests of the many can be captured and used for such ‘civil design and maintenance’?

It’s happening… :slight_smile:

Joe, thanks for a clear and articulate explanation of OS in the software world. You really have made a good case for sharing: I am giving you an extra +50 reputation for advocacy.

Now, onto your question. Urban planning proper is politically loaded, because zoning choices and the like shift a lot of money around. Opening up the process, while it could certainly generate a lot of brilliant ideas, is also likely to ignite conflict. Also, and critically, the legals are much less clear in town design than they are in the software world, where brilliant lawyers have developes an array of licenses to enable sharing in the sense you describe.

That said, in many countries a variant of British project Fixmystreet has been implemented. It works like a sort of “open debugging” of the town; you notice some problem (a hole in the road, a malfunctioning street lamp, a vandalized garbage bin), you fire up a web app and signal the problem. Fixmystreet knows the names and email addresses of every public official in charge of street maintenance in the country, so it informs her of the problem. You, the citizen, can also track the resolution of the issue you have flagged. This is now a fairly standard tool in the Open Government toolbox.

There are also more creative approaches to what you describe. Another Edgeryder from Italy, Augusto, is trying to transform not the physical city, but the experience of the city (with stuff like urban picnics, free hugs etc.) in an open source-ish way. Check out what he is doing.

Excellent. Fixmystreet is almost exactly what I described, thanks for the link - I’ll be sharing it around.

Very interesting stuff from Augusto as well, cheers.

Free Beer Project :smiley:

Thanks for the OS Living link … three projects were new to me and will go into my collection of “all things free and open”, that being Open Prosthetics, Open Journalism and Free Beer. And one is just hilarious, that being the Free Beer Project. Stallman or whoever coined the “Free as in free speech, not as in free beer.” phrase will have to invent something else :smiley:

As for open source style civic engagement, I found the Code for America projects to be a really valuable collection of efforts for that.

partecipatory budgeting and cataclysms

perhaps the next time that the town council is deciding on the layout and location of a children’s play-area, they could source their ideas directly from the public by allowing a web-accessible location where people could actively contribute to the design and development of that area”

This kind of use of “applied Open Source” could be a very usefull tool in partecipatory budgeting projects (there is a mission about it, in case you haven’t seen it yet!).

One other practical use could be for the rebuilding of cities after earthquakes or other natural cataclysms: people could use it to track the memories of their city if they want to try to reconstruct it as it was.

What do you think about it?

Good point

Thanks Ginevra, I was just about to point Joe to Stefano’s mission on participatory budgeting!

Thanks Ginevra - that mission report sounds interesting indeed. Something that I am enjoying about EdgeRyders so far is the plurality of ideas that I’m being exposed to. I can’t read it in full at the moment (it’s long, and I’m at work!) but I’m looking forward to reading it this evening.

“One other practical use could be for the rebuilding of cities after earthquakes or other natural cataclysms: people could use it to track the memories of their city if they want to try to reconstruct it as it was.”

Now, that is a fascinating idea. Even if it were not actionable, I wonder if such a tool would have additional value as a form of catharsis?

it’s possible!

I didn’t tought about that, but it’s a good point!

Speak of the devil

Since you are speaking of earthquakes: unfortunately a major earthquake hit my native northern Italy yesterday. I was prompted by the incredible sharing behavior of citizens hit by the cataclysm to write a mission report about what I and millions Italians are witnessing:

Urban OS


we actually worked on a concept for an urban OS some time ago before the term became popular amongst the “smart” city crowd - you can check  it out at

Three years later, still so relevant

Hi @JOYE and all, boy this thread got a little lost when we migrated onto this new platform.

I was doing research on Edgeryders about open cities for a new project, and I was reminded of this very useful thread.

I hope you don’t mind I assigned it to that other project’s group too so that it’s visible there - Spot the Future Bucharest.  With a little bit of help, we’ll even translate it into Romanian.

In the meantime in Romania there’s an advent of advocacy for open data - one that starts with visualizing where our money goes and will probably end up in participatory budgeting in more cities.

Thanks again!

a similar project in Egypt

what’s is great is that open philosophy is working in different cultures and languages. here is a similar project for visualizing the national budget.