Open Source and Democracy — an event by Civic Lab Barcelona

On Monday, June 27th I attended a lively event on the theme of open source software and democracy. The event was organized by the Civic Lab Barcelona (@civiclab_bcn) and Makers of Barcelona (@MOB_BCN). Led by Paul-Marie, Alexis, Enrique and Natalia, the Civic Lab Barcelona connects citizens, innovators, technologists, community groups and entrepreneurs with civic tech initiatives through “an interactive space in which citizens and institutions could exchange ideas, propose tools and open a debate”.

Civic Lab Barcelona kicked off the event with a short introduction on the virtues and promise of open source technology, how it offers greater transparency and ease of use, as opposed to proprietary software which raises questions about individual privacy.

After this speech, a panel of speakers representing various Civic Tech initiatives introduced themselves to an audience of 40+ attendees, and presented their respective projects.

App4Citizens : Represented by Lucas Guardo, offers a selection of more than 400 apps for social and political participation as well as other tools. Its aim is to identify issues and social challenges at a collective and interactive level.

OpenSeneca : Represented by Damien Acheson, a global democracy app that offers a suite of participation and open government tools for citizens and local administrations.

Nabú : Represented by Sabrina Loren, built on a free software. Its aim is to allow everyone to see what everyone else thinks, with the final purpose of using a cooperative model to overcome the limitations of capitalism.

Autentika : Represented Virginia Barsco Regueira, is an online game aimed at encouraging creativity and collective organization by “Hashketing”, defined combining hashtags with marketing practices.

DecidimBarcelona : Represented by Xabier Barandiaran, a municipal participation service provided by the City of Barcelona. Presented as the legacy of 15-M, the Spanish anti-austerity movement, it offers participants the ability to make proposals and vote on them.

After the presentation, the audience asked the speakers a wide range of questions. First of all, representatives of each initiative we asked to explain why they chose to build their applications using open source software. Virginia Barsco Regueira from Autentika explained that her project was based on a free philosophy and the software closest to this philosophy is open source software. She went on to elaborate on her philosophy, saying, “Relying on Facebook allows you to reach the greatest amount of citizens and create the critical mass required to change the current political and social system. We have to use the tools owned by the master to destroy the master”.

Sabrina Loren from Nabú defended open source for its features, the fact that it is free and trustworthy. Xabier Barandiaran from DecidimBarcelona also supported open source software since it encourages communities to cooperate and improve source codes.

“Open source the is the most democratic form of software, since everyone is able to modify it.”

She went on to elaborate that freedom from ties to a private company is another benefit of open source, as “having connections with private companies would imply having connections with political parties”.

Damien Acheson, OpenSeneca´s speaker, said that it was important not to have an ideological view about open source and explained that most companies and developers today were in support of a hybrid system that combines open source and proprietary software. “People expect a great user experience and organizations want to build applications as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

“It’s unrealistic to think that at every part of the distribution chain, every component and service is 100% open source. It’s actually a little subtler than that. From the actual development to the distribution of the software, from the moment it is hosted on an application server, served via a content delivery network, rendered on a browser that’s running on a mobile operating system, there are dozens if not hundreds of intermediaries involved.”

Virginia from Autentika and Sabrina from Nabú both concurred and agreed with this idea. “The problem with open source is that a lot of companies compete among themselves. Most people can´t adopt multiple open source platforms, and at one point a choice has to be made. The result is hundreds of tools, platforms, but very few users on each platform. Thus, having a temporary mix of open and non-open source could represent an opportunity to use only one tool while achieving a critical number of users.”

Sabrina from Nabú defended open source and its links with cooperativism. “With open source there´s no need to place your trust in someone else. Cooperativism is tremendously efficient, even if, in principle, cooperativism and competitive enterprises shouldn´t be mixed, in the practice they are and need to be. In a society in which we are educated to compete, even a cooperative environment needs to adapt to this competition in order to survive.”

“Mixing private and public enterprises represents an opportunity to improve the system and spread new ideas.”

The moderator then asked speakers how they intended to build trust in their systems following the recent Spanish elections and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. For Lucas Guardo, “Launching App4Citizens represents an opportunity for citizens, or at least an invitation, to think in a different way.”

Damien Acheson chimed in. “I don’t believe it’s all about whether citizens trust the technology, it´s also about participation. It’s very hard to convince citizens to participate in a project, and they may hesitate to participate if they see that a certain online forum is dominated by an interest group or political party. And that’s just half of the equation. It’s even harder to build a sustainable service. At OpenSeneca we monetize our app so that we’re not dependent on a single political party or force. Ensuring the application is neutral and free from political influence creates the trust citizens needs to genuinely participate”.

“There is no such thing as neutral civic tech software” quipped Xabier Barandiaran from DecidimBarcelona, “If a tool impacts the political structure of a society, then by its very nature it is intensely political.”

The moderators then moved on to the last topic for speakers, on the collaboration between open and proprietary software developers.

DecidimBarcelona ruled out the possibility of collaborating or working with anyone that was not 100% open source, since citizens aren´t able to control the software. Nabú´s speaker agreed, albeit with a nuance. “Proprietary software right now is a necessary evil. It should be considered as a transitional phase, as our aim is to overcome a competitive environment. Like many other software projects, our resources are limited and we’d be open to promote our project on a larger platform such as OpenSeneca’s”.

Virginia from Autentika agreed. “The world isn’t black and white, and sometimes hybrid software is necessary. OpenSeneca, for instance, could help the wider civic tech community develop a critical mass of users and be used by smaller vendors as a platform for their own offerings.”

At that point the audience engaged in various exchanges from the use of FairCoin to crowd-sourcing. Wrapping up a vivid and entertaining night, Paul-Marie and Alexis from Civic Lab Barcelona encouraged everyone to sign that Civic Lab charter.