Open-source software is the most obvious answer to these calls, and the one which is most frequently talked about. However, when it comes to opening up code and promoting transparent practices, there are many options to choose from. As CitizenLab is transitioning to open-core, here’s a useful reminder of what these options are and how they can work together.

Open-source: open all the way

Wikipedia defines open source as “source code that is made freely available for possible modification and redistribution”. In other words, open source products are products for which the source code is viewable, enabling anyone to copy and modify it to create their own version of the product – for free. The Open Source Initiative states that open-source must comply with a list of criteria, including:  

  1. Free distribution: an open-source license cannot require a fee or royalties for distribution.
  2. Source code: the source code of the open-source product must be easily accessible.
  3. Distribution: open-source code has the right to be distributed and modified. The reproductions and modifications of this code fall under the same terms as the license of the original software.

Open-source promotes transparency and accountability, therefore increasing trust. This trust is both critical to the process and the decisions made, so visible algorithms are especially important for tools like ours.

Open-source software also fosters collaborative innovation by enabling users to work together and contribute to the product. The Open Air Quality Index, an open source tool which enables users around the world to share and compare air quality data, is a fantastic example of how open-source can contribute to the public good. It also has a hugely positive impact on the public sector: museums like the Met are using open-source to share their collections with the world and initiatives like Code4Health (led by the NHS) have enabled residents across the UK to put their skills to the service of general interest.

Source available: transparency first

Despite the advantages that open-source presents, it isn’t a solution that works for all governments. First of all, open-source requires some advanced technical knowledge and resources: not all small governments and organizations have the technical expertise – and more importantly, the financial means – required to deploy and modify the software.

Security is another issue. The maintenance and security of a platform (and particularly of a community engagement platform, which can include sensitive personal information and where users discuss personal opinions) is of utmost importance. Working with a fully open-source tool requires internal maintenance, which comes at a human and financial cost.

As the open-source software Sentry repeats: open-source is far from free! Small players with limited means and technical knowledge often prefer source-available licenses, which enable them to maintain a high degree of transparency whilst ensuring technical support and safety at a lower cost. In this model, the code remains visible but a commercial license is required to copy, activate, or modify it. The technical support can also be ensured by a third party and shared across organisations, which limits  maintenance costs. Source-available licenses enable less collaboration, but they still ensure transparency and the increased trust it can bring.

Open core: essential functionalities

Open core is a somewhat hybrid model that combines open and closed-source software. As the name suggests, open core products often open-up their core functionalities whilst keeping some more advanced functionalities behind a paywall. It enables greater access and collaboration whilst providing reassurance to large institutions. Examples of open core companies used in local governments include GitLab (a software for developers) and Confluent (a data platform for governments).

For the past 5 years, CitizenLab has worked with more than 270 clients in 18 countries. As a community engagement platform used by governments to connect with residents and engage them in decision-making, we know the vital role that openness and trust play in consolidating our local democracies. We think that open access tools are the future, but we also know that our clients require advanced security, technical support, and guidance about participation best practices. In order to practice what we preach and adapt to local governments’ needs, we are moving to an open-core model.

The code for our core functionalities is moving to an open-source AGPL license, enabling small local governments and organizations to power their own participation projects. Our more advanced functionalities (those currently included in our Essential or Premium plan) will be going source available. If you want to know more, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

On the same topic