Public Money, Public Code

Imagine that all publicly funded software were under a free license: Everybody would be able to use, study, share and improve it.

I have been waiting for Free Software Foundation Europe to launch the Public Money, Public Code campaign for almost a year now, when first Matthias told me about this being in the works. I have been arguing the same point, although not quite as organized, since back in 2009 when I complained about how the administration of Venice commissioned a GIS application to a company they directly own.

For those who have not seen the campaign yet, the idea is simple: software built with public money (that is, commissioned and paid for by public agencies), should be licensed using a FLOSS license, to make it public code. I like this idea and will support it fully. I even rejoined the Fellowship!

The timing of this campaign ended up resonating with a post on infrastructure projects and their costs, which I find particularly interesting and useful to point out. Unlike the article that is deep-linked there, which lamented of the costs associated with this project, this article focuses on pointing out how that money actually needs to be spent, because for the most part off the shelf Free Software is not really up to the task of complex infrastructure projects.

You may think the post I linked is overly critical of Free Software, and that it’s just a little rough around the edges and everything is okay once you spend some time on it. But that’s exactly what the article is saying! Free Software is a great baseline to build complex infrastructure on top of. This is what all the Cloud companies do, this is what even Microsoft has been doing in the past few years, and it is reasonable to expect most for-profit projects would do that, for a simple reason: you don’t want to spend money working on reinventing the wheel when you can charge for designing an innovative engine — which is a quite simplistic view of course, as sometimes you can invent a more efficient wheel indeed, but that’s a different topic.

Why am I bringing this topic up together with the FSFE campaign? Because I think this is exacly what we should be asking from our governments and public agencies, and the article I linked shows exactly why!

You can’t take off the shelf FLOSS packages and have them run a whole infrastructure, because they usually they are unpolished, and might not scale or require significant work to bring them up to the project required. You will have to spend money to do that, and maybe in some cases it will be cheaper to just not use already existing FLOSS projects at all, and build your own new, innovative wheel. So publicly funded projects need money to produce results, we should not complain about the cost1, but rather demand that the money spent actually produces something that will serve the public in all possible ways, not only with the objective of the project, but also with any byproduct of it, which include the source code.

Most of the products funded with public money are not particularly useful for individuals, or for most for-profit enterprises, but byproducts and improvements may very well be. For example, in the (Italian) post I wrote in 2009 I was complaining about a GIS application that was designed to report potholes and other roadwork problems. In abstract, this is a way to collect and query points of interests (POI), which is the base of many other current services, from review sites, to applications such as Field Trip.

But do we actually care? Sure, by making the code available of public projects, you may now actually be indirectly funding private companies that can reuse that code, and thus be jumpstarted into having applications that would otherwise cost time or money to build from scratch. On the other hand, this is what Free Software has been already about before: indeed, Linux, the GNU libraries and tools, Python, Ruby, and all those tools out there are nothing less than a full kit to quickly start projects that a long time ago would have taken a lot of money or a lot of time to start.

You could actually consider the software byproducts of these project similarly to the public infrastructure that we probably all take from granted: roads, power distribution, communication, and so on. Businesses couldn’t exist without all of this infrastructure, and while it is possible for a private enterprise to set out and build all the infrastructure themselves (road, power lines, fiber), we don’t expect them to do so. Instead we accept that we want more enterprises, because they bring more jobs, more value, and the public investment is part of it.

I actually fear the reason a number of people may disagree with this campaign is rooted in localism — as I said before, I’m a globalist. Having met many people with such ideas, I can hear them in my mind complaining that, to take again the example of the IRIS system in Venice, the Venetian shouldn’t have to pay for something and then give it away for free to Palermo. It’s a strawman, but just because I replaced the city that they complained about when I talked about my idea those eight years ago.

This argument may make sense if you really care about local money being spent locally and not counting on any higher-order funding. But myself I think that public money is public, and I don’t really care if the money from Venice is spent to help reporting potholes in Civitella del Tronto. Actually, I think that cities where the median disposable income is higher have a duty to help providing infrastructure for the smaller, poorer cities at the very least in their immediate vicinity, but overall too.

Unfortunately “public money” may not always be so, even if it appears like that. So I’m not sure if, even if a regulation was passed for publicly funded software development to be released as FLOSS, we’d get a lot in form of public transport infrastructure being open sourced. I would love for it to be though: we’d more easily get federated infrastructure, if they would share the same backend, and if you knew how the system worked you could actually build tools around it, for instance integrating Open Street Map directly with the transport system itself. But I fear this is all wishful thinking and it won’t happen in my lifetime.

There is also another interesting point to make here, which I think I may expand upon, for other contexts, later on. As I said above, I’m all for requiring the software developed with public money to be released to the public with a FLOSS-compatible license. Particularly one that allows using other FLOSS components, and the re-use of even part of the released code into bigger projects. This does not mean that everybody should have a say in what’s going on with that code.

While it makes perfect sense to be able to fix bugs and incompatibilities with websites you need to use as part of your citizen life (in the case of the Venetian GIS I would probably have liked to fix the way they identified the IP address they received the request for), adding new features may actually not be in line with the roadmap of the project itself. Particularly if the public money is already tight rather than lavish, I would surely prefer that they focused on delivering what the project needs and just drop the sources out in compatible licenses, without trying to create a community around them. While the latter would be nice to have, it should not steal the focus on the important part: a lot of this code is currently one-off and is not engineered to be re-used or extensible.

Of course on the long run, if you do have public software available already as open-source, there would be more and more situations where solving the same problem again may become easier, particularly if an option is added there, or a constant string can become a configured value, or translations were possible at all. And in that case, why not have them as features of a single repository, rather than have a lot of separate forks?

But all of this should really be secondary, in my opinion. Let’s focus on getting those sources, they are important, they matter and they can make a difference. Building communities around this will take time. And to be honest, even making these secure will take time. I’m fairly sure that in many cases right now if you do take a look at the software that is running for public services, you can find backdoors, voluntary or not, and even very simple security issues. While the “many eyes” idea is easily disproved, it’s also true that for the most part those projects cut corners, and are very difficult to make sure to begin with.

I want to believe we can do at least this bit.


  1. Okay, so there are case of artificially inflated costs due to friends-of-friends. Those are complicated issues, and I’ll leave them to experts. We should still not be complaining that these projects don’t appear for free.
    [return]

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