Public vs. Community Ownership in the Age of Open Source Civic Tech

Feb 07, 2019

In my last post, I said that services and service delivery infrastructure which are necessary for human rights need to be publicly owned. In that same post, I gave an example of a nonprofit entity and a community-owned open standards project that have the opportunity to be publicly owned. I realized then that I wasn’t quite sure about the difference between public and community ownership, and whether one was better than the other.

I’ve always played sports, and hey, I was raised in a capitalistic society, so the words I initially reached for were the competitive “better” and “versus,” but as with most things, the question isn’t about what’s better. Both are real and necessary parts of how our society works, and the question is about their relationship with each other. Furthermore, how is that relationship changing due to open source software and the civic tech movement?

What’s the difference between publicly owned and community-owned?

Publicly owned and community-owned are often used interchangeably. Community-owned and nonprofit are too, probably even more so. But publicly owned is not the same thing as community-owned, and community-owned is not a synonym of nonprofit or community-based. However, the differences aren’t cut-and-dried, and I think that trying to define and understand them is important for advancing public infrastructure, be it publicly or community owned.

Publicly owned infrastructure

Publicly owned infrastructure is infrastructure that is primarily funded by taxes or a government agency, and whose governance is owned by a government agency. Examples:

  • Streets
  • 311
  • Policies, law
  • Regulation of private industry
  • Open data and city developer portals like NYC’s developer portal

If you’re in the US or another country with a functioning government,1 you’ve experienced publicly owned infrastructure. It’s roads and sanitation and public school buildings. When it’s not physical, it’s regulation, policy, people, and funding systems that uphold human rights, provide a framework for order and safety, and in many cases, make our lives as residents and as humans better.2 Sometimes private companies own and run infrastructure: utilities like energy and telecom are classic examples. In these cases public infrastructure still exists, largely in the form of regulation to ensure that the companies in question, which usually have a geographic monopoly, can’t be too greedy or too incompetent at the expense of residents’ rights.

When it comes to publicly owned digital infrastructure, things resemble the Wild West. The groundwork for the internet was laid by government and by international government partnership, and since then tech industry has exploded but public infrastructure has not kept up. People are starting to realize this, and now we’re seeing policy like GDPR in Europe and the internal transformation of government through digital services agencies that are trying to bring tech talent and expertise into the government tech development and procurement processes.

We still have a long way to go, both in terms of policy and digital infrastructure (e.g. software used by government bodies, open government APIs, etc). In the meantime, and for over a decade, community-owned infrastructure initiatives have risen to fill this gap.

Community-owned infrastructure

Community-owned infrastructure is infrastructure that is not solely funded by taxes or a government agency, and whose governance is not owned by a government agency. Furthermore, community members who use or benefit from the infrastructure are involved in its governance. Examples:

Honestly, it was difficult defining this and finding examples, not because there aren’t lots of great community initiatives, but because it’s hard to say which are truly community-owned.

A critical part of community ownership is that the community actually owns the thing in question. This is not the case with many nonprofits or community-based organizations. From international NGOs like CERN to small nonprofit-run programs like 2-1-1, the third sector has been involved in infrastructure projects for years, sometimes decades, but structured organizations like these can be or seem exclusive. The community at large often has no real way to participate in the projects themselves, much less in the governance of those projects. The boards of directors of nonprofits are filled with the wealthy (and often passionate!), not with those with lived experience of the community the nonprofit seeks to serve.3 Nonprofits and the infrastructure they run, therefore, can still be valuable and good, but they are not community-owned.

Still, the distinction can be fuzzy. Take NYC Mesh for example: this group is building a community owned internet network to free people from the expensive and privacy-disregarding telecom agencies and to uphold what they see as the human right to communication. While they’re technically a project of the nonprofit Internet Society, I still consider the project to be community-owned because community members actually own the physical infrastructure that the mesh is built on, and because the governance of the project appears to be inclusive of that community.4

Where community-owned meets publicly owned

Now, you may be thinking that this whole “community-owned” idea, where the community members themselves govern the infrastructure, sounds a lot like government, particularly democratic government. You might say that “publicly-owned” means community ownership through government, and in democracies citizens have direct ownership in government through elections. You could even say government is us, with more formalized systems.

Unfortunately, like with nonprofits, the government doesn’t seem to be us. It seems inaccessible to, detached from, and sometimes even at odds with our community.5 This is especially true in the US, where voter turnout during presidential election years never goes over 70% and during midterm years has yet to reach 50%.

As a result, people have been looking for ways to take ownership in their communities, alongside, instead of, or in spite of government.

Community ownership through civic tech

The origins of the civic tech movement – at least as documented on the web – are somewhat murky: the earliest formal civic tech org according to Wikipedia was in Ukraine in 1991, but the movement really started to pick up steam in the 2000’s.6 In the US, a national nonprofit called Code for America launched in 2009, and their mission is to make “government work for the people, by the people, in the digital age.” Around the world, similar organizations have popped up, like Code for Australia, and many of them focus on improving government through citizen engagement in building infrastructure.

Despite that focus on government, in my experience the local initiatives that followed often had very little or even nothing to do with government. Brigades – the name for local chapters of Code for America – have a good degree of autonomy and are locally run, and every community has a different relationship with its government.7 At Code for Denver, for example, we often partnered with nonprofit initiatives like Fresh Food Connect or the Rocky Mountain Microfinance Institute because the organizers felt this was one of the most effective approaches to helping the community and also engaging community members. Independent groups like Progressive HackNight have also emerged, and these groups as well as brigades also offer attendees the chance to pitch their own projects.

I could see only two requirements any of these groups have for projects:

  1. Your project must be for the public good.
  2. Your project must be open source.

Open source as community-owned infrastructure

While the civic tech movement was taking off, so was the open source movement. While open source technology existed in the 1990’s and before,8 providers of free hosting for open source code like SourceForge (launched 1999) and Github (launched 2008) paved the way for open source to be successful and widely adopted.

Open source is infrastructure because it provides a methodology for code to be shared, collaborated on, and built on top of. Open source is community-owned because anyone can participate in a project by contributing code, comments, or questions. This is especially the case on a platform like Github, which has features for conversation about code, including reporting issues.

Governance for open source projects is a huge topic that I want to dive more into later, but because anyone can see and contribute to code and voice their opinions on decisions about code development, governance is at least transparent and typically has avenues for community members to participate. If you don’t like the way an open source project is being governed – or it’s a dead project that no longer has a group of maintainers approving contributions – then you can simply copy the code and start your own project.

There are problems with open source, such as inclusivity in participation and in code itself. Frankly, it needs to be more inclusive to be truly community-owned in practice rather than just theory. Regardless of these issues, open source software is a key manifestation of community-owned infrastructure that powers so much of technology, and by extension, our society.

Transforming publicly owned into community-owned

I don’t think it’s purely coincidence that Code for America started just a year after Github launched its platform, which enabled not only open source code hosting but also better collaboration on and engagement with open source projects.9 The first Code for America Github repository was created in October of 2010, and now the organization has 682, with many more than that existing under brigades’ Github organizations. I’m working on a deeper analysis of Github use and open source sustainability models in civic tech, but even without that being finished, I’m not sure if the civic tech movement could’ve taken off so much if there hadn’t been a tool like Github, and I’m confident that it definitely couldn’t have worked without open source as its bedrock.

The greatest impact of these open source civic tech projects isn’t the projects themselves. Those often don’t actually last very long: of the 682 open source Code for America repos on Github, 450 haven’t been updated in over 2 years, and 576 haven’t had code pushed to them in over 2 years. I’ll dive more into this later, but the point is that these projects in the form of Github repos maintained by volunteer groups aren’t what’s going to change the world. It’s the practice of making and collaborating on these projects, the education of individuals about their community and of government about open source and modern best technology practices, and the increased engagement of all parties with each other that will change the world.

To put it frankly, it’s the doing that matters.

We’re already seeing incredible changes to government to become more participatory.10 Take Washington, D.C., which publishes all of its laws on Github. That made it possible for founder Joshua Tauberer to change a law in classic open source style: by submitting a contribution in the form of a Github pull request.

For an example of more radical transformation, take vTaiwan. The “v” stands for virtual, and the goal of this new system for government is to increase the public’s participation in policy through technology and practices largely modeled on open source collaboration. Through vTaiwan, citizens engage in policy and legislation discussion from the comfort of their homes in a structured and surprisingly unchaotic way, scholars and public officials respond transparently, meetings about the policy are broadcast online, and outcomes have to be tied to the public discourse. Check out this post from Liz Barry describing the process and evolution of vTaiwan in more detail.

There are so many more examples of progress being made in open and participatory government, with so much due to both the open source and civic tech movements, especially those two working in tandem. Open source software created an infrastructure model for civic tech and by extension government tech that is making publicly owned infrastructure more collaborative, transparent, and truly community-owned.

1 The jokes are just too easy here – I’m going to resist.
2 Italy's first Digital Commissioner recently said that governments are here to make our lives better, but IMO they’re not: governments are here to uphold rights and anything else is a bonus.
3 Curious what boards do? Check out this handy doc.
4 It's hard to say for sure though about their governance -- everyone must agree to the Network Commons License and there are meetups for people to come and discuss, but otherwise there’s no information on the formal governance structure.
6 I think this history warrants more investigation and ana;ysis, but I’ve already gotten too bogged down in research this week.
7 I’ve posted previously about how in my early experiences of civic tech, the tech part was less important than the civic education I received. Wherever I joined a civic hacking group or a local brigade in the Code for America network, I learned about how that community functioned before I could learn how I could help it function better.
8 Linux, the poster child of open source, was released in 1991. The term "open source software" wasn't coined until 1998.
9 I'm not saying they planned it or there was necessarily direct causality, more that it was all part of the same Zeitgeist.
10 "Participatory government" (or variations thereof) is a major buzzword in civic circles these days.