"Open government" is a relatively recent addition to the "open"
family; it encompasses a range of specific
topics—everything from transparency issues to open access to
government data sets. Some—although arguably not all—of
these topics are a natural fit with the open source software movement,
and in the past few years open source software has taken on a more
prominent role within open government. The non-profit Knight Foundation just
awarded a sizable set of grants to open government efforts, a number
of which are also fledgling open source software projects.
Like a lot of large charitable foundations, the Knight Foundation
has a set of topic areas in which it regularly issues grant money.
The open government grants just announced were chosen through the
News Challenge," which deals specifically with news and media
projects, and runs several themed rounds of awards each year. The Open
Government round accepted entries in February and March, and the winning
projects were announced
on June 24.
Of the eight grant awardees, three are open source projects
already, with a fourth stating its intention to release its source
is a web-based application that cities can deploy as a self-service
site for citizens starting up small businesses. The application walks
users through the process of registering and applying for the various
permits, filling out forms, and handling other red tape that can be both
time-consuming and confusing. The live version currently online is the site
developed specifically for the city of Santa Cruz, California as part
of a fellowship with the non-profit Code For America, but the source is available on
is a project to build virtual machine images that conform to the
often-rigorous requirements of US government certification and
compliance policies (e.g., security certification), requirements which many off-the-shelf VMs evidently do not meet. The
project lead is the former founder of Sunlight Labs (another open
government software-development non-profit), and some of the source is already
in a Box is not yet available online, because the proposal is an
effort to take several of the existing free software
tools developed by OpenPlans and
merge them into a turn-key solution suitable for smaller city and
regional governments without large IT staffs. OpenPlans's existing
projects address things like
crowdsourced mapping (of, for example, broken streetlights),
transportation planning, and community project management. Several of
OpenPlans's lead developers are Code For America alumni. Procure.io
is an acquisitions-and-procurement platform also developed by a former
Sunlight Labs veteran. At the moment, the Procure.io URL redirects to
a commercial service, although a "community version" is available on Github
and the project's grant proposal says the result will be open source.
There are also two "open data" projects among the grant winners,
although neither seems interested in releasing source code. The first
Insight, a web-based tool to track urban issues like abandoned
houses. It originated as the "BlightStatus" site for New
Orleans, and was written during a Code For America
fellowship—although now its creators have started a for-profit company.
The Oyez Project at the
Chicago-Kent College of Law currently maintains a lossless,
high-bit-rate archive (in .wav format) of all of the US Supreme Court's audio
recordings; its grant
is supposed to fund expanding the archive to federal appellate courts
and state supreme courts.
The other grant winners include Open
Gov for the Rest of Us, which is a civic campaign to increase
local government engagement in low-income neighborhoods, and Outline.com,
a for-profit venture to develop a policy-modeling framework.
Outline.com is being funded as a start-up venture through a different
Knight Foundation fund. In addition to those eight top-tier winners,
several other minor grants were announced, some of which are also open
source software, like the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation's TrustTheVote.
Free money; who can resist?
Looking at the winners, there are several interesting patterns to
note. The first is that some of the projects sharply demarcate the
differences between open source and open data. There is obviously a
great deal of overlap in the communities that value these two
principles, but they are not inherently the same, either. One can
build a valuable public resource on top of an open data set (in a
sense, "consuming" the open data, like BlightStatus), but if
the software to access it remains non-free, it is fair to question its
ultimate value. On the flip side, of course, an open source
application that relies on proprietary data sets might also be
susceptible to criticism that it is not quite free enough. In either
case, the closed component can impose restrictions that limit its
usefulness; worse yet, if the closed component were to disappear,
users would be out of luck.
Perhaps more fundamentally, it is also interesting to see just how
much the grants are dominated by former members of Sunlight Labs and
Code For America. Both groups are non-profits, with a special
emphasis on open source in government and civic software development.
But neither has a direct connection to the Knight Foundation; they
simply have built up a sustainable process for applying and winning
grant money. And perhaps there is a lesson there for other, existing
free software projects; considering how difficult crowdfunding and
donation-soliciting can be in practice, maybe more large projects
ought to put serious effort into pursuing focused grants from
To be sure, the Knight News Challenge for Open
Government is a niche, and might be well outside of the scope of many
open source projects—but there are certainly some existing open
source projects that would fit. It is also not the only avenue for
private grant awards. In fact, the Knight Foundation is just ramping
up its next
round of the Knight News Challenge grant contest; this one focuses on
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