28 June 2023

Open-source software: who knew it could be so controversial? As new GovTech and Civic Tech enterprises emerge, and existing players continue to grow, there’s a lot of debate about whether open source is secure, reliable, and effective, and whether it should be the default for tools that governments use.

At CitizenLab, we found that combining open-source and ‘open-code’ options ensures a safe, reliable product that can still transparently accelerate innovation and inclusion. 

What is open-code?

Open-source software allows anyone to reproduce and modify a software’s code, enabling them to deploy the software on their own. Open code – sometimes referred to as source available – refers to software with code that is viewable, but usually requires a commercial license to fully activate.

Weighing the pros and cons of an open-source option

When my co-founders and I founded CitizenLab in 2015, our aim was to make decision-making more open, inclusive, and equitable. In 2021, we made the decision to go open source to further lower the participation threshold and increase transparency along the way. After all – democracy belongs to all of us!   

When deciding whether to adopt open source or open code, we carefully weighed the pros and cons. Eventually, we took a dual approach for two key interlocking reasons: 

  1. Enabling positive social change by removing barriers to participation. 

As a B Corp and social enterprise, we place a lot of emphasis on sharing and implementing ideas to bring about positive change for communities. Throughout our journey, we have seen firsthand the power of ideas to spark imaginations, foster deep(er) discussions, and open eyes and minds to new perspectives. We want all governments and organizations – regardless of their size or available resources – to be able to leverage our engagement platform to co-create a better future with their community members. By going open source, we removed some barriers to participation (primarily related to costs), giving smaller institutions a chance to launch consultation projects, create stronger links with their communities, and harness the power of collective intelligence.  

  1. Safeguarding needs and roles by offering options. 

When we decided to go open source, the potential vulnerabilities and sometimes-highly-technical elements meant that it was important to offer options – after all, we went open source to expand who gets to run and participate in engagement projects. As a result, we opted for a system where our core functionalities are open source and available on GitHub under an AGPL license so that anyone can view, reuse, or replicate our code. Our most advanced features are open code – or source available – meaning that the code is viewable but requires a commercial license to be activated. 

Moving to open code as an industry standard 

Open source presents exciting opportunities for developers from all walks of life to contribute to and enhance public participation. The more fresh ideas people can contribute, the better public participation can become for everyone. However, while this option tends to be more cost-effective for organizations upfront, it does require a certain level of technical expertise to set up and maintain, particularly if errors arise. 

Despite having heard many stories from the public sector attempting to use open-source tools and lacking the necessary skills or resources to run them efficiently, we opened our code as a commitment to our values. We knew that the option to purchase a license with support from our team would still be the right solution for many, and that’s why we continue to offer it. After all, the debate surrounding open source extends beyond the technology itself – the human aspect and technical support accompanying the technology can play a crucial role in driving the success of engagement efforts. For example, our Government Success team provides advisory and consulting to our clients, making a significant impact on teams that do need a partner as they build a culture of engagement.  

I personally advocate for my industry peers to open their code for transparency. Particularly for civic tech platforms that work with the public sector, opening our code and providing transparency seems integral to our missions. At a recent Innovation in Politics panel in Warsaw, we discussed the idea of regulating the civic tech sector for increased transparency and ensuring we build the right public interest tools. I recognize that open source may not be the end solution for everyone, but it should be part of the process.

What’s the verdict: open source vs. open code

The verdict on open source vs. open code is nuanced. There are many high-quality open-source projects with strong track records of security and efficacy. However, I advise anyone going down the open source road to carefully select their software providers to ensure they have the capacity and a plan in place to maintain it effectively. I appreciate the potential of open-source software to promote transparency and accountability, and ultimately serve the public interest. This commitment will enable more communities and the people in them to truly benefit from our quickly growing technological innovations. 

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!