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Public Money, Public Code: why government software should be open source

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Aitor Alonso

May 26, 2024

5 min read

Hello everybody! As someone of you may already know, I'm from the European Union, from Spain, and I'm a big fan of free open-source software. Today, I want to talk about a very interesting initiative from the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) called "Public Money, Public Code". This initiative advocates that all software developed using public funds (paid from taxes) should be made available as Free and Open Source Software (FOSS).

European citizens will vote next 9th of June for the European Parliament, and I think it's a good time to talk about this initiative that could benefit all of us, not only in Europe but worldwide. You know that some tech-legal initiatives that start in the EU end coming or affecting to the US and the rest of the world too! Let's dive into why this is important and how it can benefit everyone.

What is "Public Money, Public Code"?

As said, it's all about making sure that software funded by the public is available to the public under free and open-source licenses. In other words, code paid by the people should be available to the people!

What are the advantages?

So, what’s at the heart of this initiative? Here are the main points:

  • Transparency: With open-source software, anyone can look at the code. This means bugs and security issues get spotted and fixed faster. Plus, it makes government operations way more accountable.

  • Cost-Efficiency: Sharing is caring, especially with code. Different government agencies can reuse and share software, cutting down on costs and avoiding repetitive spending.

  • Innovation: Open-source encourages collaboration. Developers worldwide can pitch in, improving public software and creating better solutions.

  • Sovereignty: Governments can break free from being dependent on big, proprietary software companies. This means more control over their digital tools and fewer worries about vendor lock-in.

Why Should You Care?

Think about all the digital services we rely on daily – e-government, healthcare systems, public transportation apps, online education platforms. These run on software that needs to be secure and efficient. Proprietary software can be limiting and expensive, tying up government funds that could be better spent elsewhere.

Free and open-source software (FOSS) offers a brilliant alternative. It's all about open access: anyone can see, modify, and propose improvements the code. This openness doesn’t just save money; it creates a more resilient and adaptable tech ecosystem. Plus, it’s a win for democracy, giving citizens more insight into how their governments operate and how their data is handled.

Real-World Wins

Several places have already jumped on the "Public Money, Public Code" bandwagon with great results:

  • Spain: During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Spanish government launched and app to track the spread and exposure to the virus by the Spanish citizens. The app used Bluetooth technology to track the proximity of the users to other users, and to link infected people with the people that have been in contact with them. As you can imagine, this raised a lot of privacy concerns, so the app was developed as open-source software, and the code was available for everyone to see it on GitHub

  • Spain: The city of Barcelona has massively adopted open-source software. This switch has saved money and boosted local tech communities while giving the city more control over its digital infrastructure. (Source)

  • France: The French government has been pushing for more free software in public administration. This move has made things more transparent and opened up more public participation in tech projects. (Source)

  • Germany: Munich’s famous "LiMux" project, which switched the city’s systems to open-source software, showed both the potential and the challenges of such a transition. Despite some setbacks, it was a significant step towards digital independence. (Source 1) (Source 2) (Source 3)

The Roadblocks

Switching to open-source isn’t a walk in the park. Governments often face pushback from big software vendors and have to deal with the headache of changing long-standing systems. Plus, there can be a steep learning curve for public sector IT departments to get up to speed with managing open-source solutions.

Also, those FOSS projects need to be maintained and updated, which can be a challenge for governments with limited resources. And in oposition to a normal FOSS project, the public sector has to deal with a lot of bureaucracy and regulations that can slow down the development process. It might be even possible that some projects are not allowed to directly receive contributions from the public, but we should aim for at least the code to be open and available for everyone to see and point out issues and possible improvements. So there is a big chance that those FOSS projects would be not as active as they should be.

But these challenges can be tackled. With the right planning, training, and support, governments can make the transition to open-source software a success. The benefits – in terms of cost savings, security, and innovation – are well worth the effort.

Looking Ahead

The "Public Money, Public Code" initiative isn’t just a cool idea; it’s a blueprint for a more transparent, efficient, and fair digital future. As more governments see the benefits of going open-source, this movement is likely to gain even more momentum.

In short, if public money is funding software, the public should benefit from it. By adopting open-source principles, governments can ensure their digital infrastructure is secure, transparent, and works for everyone. As we continue to move into an increasingly digital world, this approach will be crucial for building trust and fostering innovation in public services. It’s not just about saving money – it’s about creating a better, more open digital world for all of us.

If you want to know more about this initiative, you can visit the Public Money, Public Code website. And if you think a change like this would be positive, I highly encourage you to sign the Open Letter and support this initiative. You don't need to be a European Citizen to show support on the initiative. Let's make sure that public money is used for the public good!

I hope my article has helped you, or at least, that you have enjoyed reading it. I do this for fun and I don't need money to keep the blog running. However, if you'd like to show your gratitude, you can pay for my next coffee(s) with a one-time donation of just $1.00. Thank you!