The five elements of an open source city

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open source city

How can you apply the concepts of open source to a living, breathing city? An open source city is a blend of open culture, open government policies, and economic development.

I derived these characteristics based on my experiences and while writing my book, The foundation for an open source city.

Characteristics such as collaboration, participation, transparency, rapid prototyping, and many others can be applied to any city that wants to create an open source culture. Let's take a look at these characteristics in more detail.

Five characteristics of an open source city

  1. Fostering a culture of citizen participation
  2. Having an effective open government policy
  3. Having an effective open data initiative
  4. Promoting open source user groups and conferences
  5. Being a hub for innovation and open source businesses

Citizen participation

Probably one of the most difficult components of an open source city is to foster a culture of citizen participation. Governments try a variety of tactics from public meetings to online forums, but if citizens aren't engaged or don't care, then that outreach and collaboration falls flat on its face. Having citizen champions around certain causes can really help boost citizen participation and engagement.

Open government policy and open data

Policy is another key component of an open source city. I've separated the open government policy from the open data initiative because they have different impacts and implications. These policies can go hand-in-hand, but sometimes governments will start with one policy and then as they feel more comfortable with the concepts of open source and open government, the other policy will follow. Take a look at this blueprint used to pass an open government resolution for the City of Raleigh.

User groups and conferences

Participation comes in another form with user groups and conferences—like-minded people gathering around their passions. Just go to and you'll discover a variety of groups gathering on just as many topics. User conferences, or cons, gather different open source communities. Hosting these conferences and supporting user groups will boost your open source city credibility.

Economic development

Finally, having an economic development strategy that includes open source companies can help foster innovation and create jobs. More and more cities are also seeing the advantages of having an open data policy tied to their startup community. Cities that can combine their open data policy with their economic development strategy can give a real boost to startups and other businesses. Being a hub for open source companies and a catalyst for open source startups can have a positive impact on the city's bottom line. More importantly, this feeds back in to culture and participation.

In my book, I take a look at how these five principles are being actively applied in Raleigh, North Carolina. I also incorporate other experiences from my open government adventures such as CityCamps and my first Code for America Summit. Although Raleigh is the case study, the book is a guide for how cities across the country, and world, can implement the open source city brand.

What do you think about the five elements of an open source city? Do they resonate with you? Does your city have a good head start? Speak up in the comments.



Adapted from The foundation for an open source city, © 2013 Jason Hibbets, published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license, available at


Jason Hibbets is a Community Director at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and community publications.


I would recommend to the interested reader the book "The Voluntary City" by Beito, et al.

An excerpt:

This looks interesting. Thanks!

Personally I think the 5 elements combined are key to an open government movement. I'm not sure if smaller towns would be able to get groups and conferences (4) off the ground though. If I look at my own town (Lansingerland, Netherlands, Europe) I can see them applying the other 4. But maybe this is also a difference in Culture?

I also think, that if local governments acquire community management skills, they would have more and faster results. Community Management can be the 'glue' between those elements.

I need to finish Jason's book, the foundation for an open source city. Still looking to compare culture, statistics like number of citizens, and find pratical examples if such a movement could work for my own town.

That's a good point about community management. With the complexity of social media in the mix, some local governments are just now learning how to really interact with citizens using social media. It's a great forum to interact, but there are learning curves and other complexities involved. I don't think a lot of government entities are viewing citizens from a community management perspective. But I'm glad you brought that up because I have some ideas perculating around that concept now.

On the user groups and conferences...I wouldn't get caught up on the "big" conferences piece. I think a simple unconference could work just as well. The point of chapter 4 is to have a supportive business and non-profit community that can help user groups achieve their missions. And that really boils down to supporting their weekly/montly meetings by giving them meeting space, maybe some food, and maybe some IT infrastructure--but as we know, there are a lot of free/cheap options nowawdays. Providing a place for user groups to thrive is really what it's all about.

Can't wait to hear more on the culture comparison. I have another topic that's been brewing...think Clay Shirky's "Cognitive Surplus" mashed up with culture. I've got something in the works for that.


Thanks for the reply Jason, especially about the groups and conferences. Helps put it in perspective. Once I've finished your book, I'll have another look at the culture comparison. And.... very curious what you are brewing on with both the community and Cognitive Surplus + culture mash up.

I've been reading the book and it's very refreshing. The definition is also novel. At least where I come from, it seems like the definition of an "open source foo" is passing law on it. I would love to hear about the impact that passing law (mandating open source, barring everything else, even mandating particular "types" of open source, behaviors and expectations) has had in the broader open source communities. When I take a look at the market share, contribution to broader projects, etc., of places where law has been passed, it is disheartening. See the focus being moved to open government, civism and knowledge sharing thru events is really refreshing. I think it's time for us as a community to step up and question the procurement law thingy where it hasn't been yielding results and come to a much necessary balance to move forward. Great job!


Thanks for reading the book. From my understanding, many of the existing IT procurement processes don't favor open source, which is why many of them our being updated--some mandating the use of open source software, others putting it on an equal playing field.

As I was reading your comment, I immediately thought about this post from Gunnar Hellekson: <a href="">Open source software policy is better without open source</a>. I think that post will provide more context. Now that I think about it, I should have included that in the book.


I think you'd both enjoy <a href="">Commingled Code</a> by Josh Lerner and Mark Schankerman. The research was funded by Microsoft, which is problematic, but it raises some interesting questions about open source mandates.

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