Our world is changing. Transformations to mobility patterns, pressing air quality issues, and growing flood risks present new challenges for European cities. Now, however, thanks to digitization and data, cities can tackle these challenges together. Rather than reinventing the wheel or going down the traditional software vendor route with all its associated issues, cities can improve local services by co-developing and replicating digital solutions based on open-source software.
Improving Public Service Delivery with Data-Driven Solutions
When the Covid-19 pandemic ripped through Europe last spring, governments had to act fast. With populations confined to their homes, digital solutions were the obvious way forward. But as hospitals started filling up, there was little time for lengthy procurement processes or expensive software development.
For Belgium, battling one of the worst Covid-19 rates in Europe, the answer lay in open-source software. By basing its Covid-19 tracing app Coronalert on Germany’s open-source Corona Warn App, Belgium could develop its own app in just six weeks for under €1 million, a fraction of the €20 million Germany originally spent. Instead of starting from scratch, the development team reused 85% of the German code, adapting the rest to Belgium’s unique needs.
In addition to reduced costs and rapid development, by selecting open-source Belgium could also prioritize data transparency. The pandemic has been paralleled by a similarly unstoppable spread of misinformation and distrust. For some citizens, relinquishing deeply personal health and location data to a private vendor would be a step too far. By staying in control of the code, Belgium remained in control of citizen data. The app was based on the open-source DP-3T protocol, which doesn’t share personal data, and Belgium chose to ensure the absolute minimum of personal information was collected. In an area this sensitive, transparency and trust can be the difference between an effective tracing system and a public health disaster.
Take Back Control with Open-Source Software Solutions
While the pandemic has created a clear case for selecting fast, low cost and collaborative solutions, open-source software isn’t solely useful during times of crisis. Open source refers to something people can modify and share because its design is publicly accessible – so open-source software has code anyone can inspect, modify, enhance and share. Most people will have encountered the open-source movement at some point in their personal lives – think VLC, Open Word, or even Mozilla Firefox. But the benefits extend to public service delivery too.
Increasingly, it is software that runs society. From traffic management to accounting systems, flood monitoring to maintenance services, in the modern smart city software could even be considered public infrastructure. However, the code that keeps the city moving is frequently hidden in proprietary systems without democratic accountability. By selecting proprietary software solutions from vendors, cities run a risk, becoming dependent on the vendor for vital services. Not only do they lock themselves into a system that produces data for private ownership rather than the public good, but the commercial nature of software vendors also leaves cities vulnerable to changes to future terms, licensing policies, pricing, or even the eventual dissolution of the company.
A small but growing number of public authorities are beginning to look to open-source software for a more efficient, democratic, and secure way to run smart, data-driven public services. By selecting open-source cities can diffuse risk and stay in control of the software they use.
Open-source software is transparent and provides insight to serve the public interest. It offers cities independence, flexibility, and financial savings. Vendors can be slow to upgrade and inflexible, whereas cities that know their own code can adapt it to changing needs. And, fundamentally, by opening up software development to new networks and increasing the number of people testing and working on the code, cities can co-develop solutions that wouldn’t be possible individually. For both cities sharing their open-source code and cities replicating existing open source solutions, the result is more innovative public services that meet a broader range of needs.
Digital mapping developments illustrate how open-source software can accelerate better public service delivery.
Geo-data fuels the modern smart city – how could intelligent traffic control, or efficient waste collection, be implemented without digital geographic information? The Agency of Geoinformation and Surveying in Hamburg developed the modular, open-source Masterportal software solution to facilitate geospatial information applications. It’s since been replicated in many German cities for diverse public service uses such as waste management and disaster protection.
In Munich, for example, the location and status of mobile recycling stations are updated daily, and the fire service uses geo-data to identify affected streets, plot an unobstructed evacuation route, and locate the nearest hospital. Geo-data can help tackle the issues facing every modern city – and, as Hamburg built its open-source software with replicability in mind, any city can have a Masterportal at little cost. During a workshop, Bradford and Ghent even created their own test Masterportals, featuring some of the services unique to their communities, in a mere two hours.
Building a proof of concept in such a short time opens up the possibilities for cities looking to explore innovative ways to deal with their shared challenges. Unfortunately, neither Bradford nor Ghent found practical use-cases for their Mastersportals – illustrating the importance of laying the groundwork to ensure success with this relatively new way of approaching public services.
The Path to Successful Replication
In theory, building open-source software makes it possible to share digital public service solutions with other cities or departments, saving time and resources. However, the reality is that successful software replication requires preparation. As a new and innovative approach to public service delivery, adopting open source software requires overcoming several barriers. Foremost among these is resistance to change – as open-source often requires cities to adopt new approaches, from redesigning their digital architecture to rethinking organizational processes. Often, business as usual is too easy and navigating the political risk, regulatory bottlenecks, and vested interests in the status quo can prove challenging. For success, it’s also essential to select the right solution – or the right components of a solution. This means finding financing models, assessing political support, and engaging stakeholders, including users, to ensure sufficient interest and build confidence.
To pave the way for success when co-developing and replicating software, cities should create a replication plan. This entails mapping what lies ahead, staying on top of legal and technical requirements, and setting up plenty of opportunities for collaboration. For cities building replicable software, it helps to have a replication mindset right from the start. Open-source solutions that are clearly documented and thoroughly explained are much easier to replicate, whether that means implementing an exact copy of the solution under new conditions or (as is more often the case) replicating certain components in a new context.
The code needs to be high quality and the repository accessible to foster applicability, and it must have the right kind of open-source license. Other cities also need to find the solution – either online or through their networks – and for international audiences, it helps to have thorough English documentation and demonstrations. If cities take these steps, they can reap the rewards of collaborative development. If others replicate your solution, they will also rely on it, scrutinizing it, fixing bugs, and pointing out limitations. Over time, a community of developers working together will result in stronger code and better solutions for 21st-century challenges.
Take mobility, for example. Many of Europe’s cities aim to be carbon neutral in a few decades – which means moving to a low carbon transport system. To make the change, cities need to juggle many moving parts – from urban planning to implementing different transport services and assessing shifting demand. This is where data-driven solutions come in.
The City of Bergen built the replicable Mobility Dashboard to collate available but disparate near real-time data on mobility in one user-friendly place. This means Bergen’s traffic data is now available to urban planners, helping them choose the best place for bike infrastructure, optimize mobility services, and locate charging points for electric vehicles. However, when the Mobility Dashboard was sized up as a potential solution for another city, limitations were found surrounding the amount and type of data used.
Having more eyes on the code allowed Bergen to improve what they have, correct mistakes, and ensure their service meets a broader range of needs. To access these benefits, the developer – in this case, Bergen – needs to facilitate co-development and replication by sharing the original solution with all necessary information.
If you’re a city looking to co-develop or re-use, what’s available? Beyond the technical requirements, it’s important to know the right questions to ask. The unique nature of urban ecosystems means a public service software solution will rarely be perfect off the shelf. Instead, it’s crucial to get to the root of the city’s requirements, engage stakeholders, and tap into networks to determine which generic components of tried and tested solutions could be reused in a new context.
Preparing a City for Software Replication
There are a number of factors that enable successful, simple software replication:
- Pinpoint the Need: Successful digital public service delivery should be based on a real need, with a viable Applications and, ideally, policy backing.
- Engage your Stakeholders: Making sure city departments, local agencies, the private sector, and end-users are onboard are crucial – and a great way to do this is by building a strong business case together.
- Unique Problems Don’t Need Unique Solutions: Data can be the starting point for replicating public service solutions. While each city has different needs, every city collects data, and once the right, interoperable data source has been found, you can easily align the tech to make use of it.
- Ask the Right Questions: When a potential solution has been found, there are many important questions to ask to assess which components are useful to reuse and prepare a replication strategy.
- Plugin and Play: Replication means figuring out how to best re-use existing data sources in the software available without overhauling an entire city’s IT system.
- Be Ready to Adapt: A few technical changes will probably be necessary to ready software for its new context, but the replication process also offers new perspectives that could help you reconsider existing practices and which could even trigger innovation.
Read a detailed breakdown of the steps to successful replication in the SCORE Replication Guide.
By replicating existing open-source software solutions for public service delivery, cities can stay in control of their data while accessing wider expertise and networks in the co-development process. The bottom line is better public service delivery at a lower cost.