Open House- Free Week
ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Matthew DeMello

When the White House released the source code for the “We The People” petitions application on their official website earlier last month, hardly anyone from outside of the tech world batted an eyelash. In spite of an election year so focused on jobs, releasing those codes effectively crowdsourced a responsibility to the general public that would normally belong to a few government tech whizzes who now no longer need to be on Uncle Sam’s payroll.

President Barack Obama to Arizona speaking at Intel’s Fab 42, a state of that art chip manufacturing plant under construction in Chandler, AZ on January 25, 2012.
Photo by Nick Knupffer, courtesy of Intel Photos.

Since the headlines read that the Obama administration had ‘open sourced’ their petitions application, it’s no wonder the story was buried. The media focused on a largely esoteric term used principally among those privy to the language of ones and zeros, but it is an idea that is also having an ever-increasing influence on how individuals and institutions relate.

Open sourcing has a wide array of definitions, depending on the industry or field in question, but in regards to the worlds both in and outside of computers, it refers to the promotion and free distribution of access to a product’s final design or implementation.

To borrow a metaphor from the Wikipedia entry on the subject, cook books are a great example of the concept’s practical application. The cook book itself doesn’t deliver food to the consumer, it just shows them how to make different recipes. Purchasing the materials or even following the directions exactly is all in the hands of the chef – or in the case of computer code, the user. Essentially, this is what the U.S. government has done with their proverbial online complaint box.

“Open source is probably the most substantial improvement to civic participation in my lifetime. Software is eating the world and that includes government. More and more, our interactions with the government will be through software,” says Brian Doll, engineer marketer for Github, a service that can justifiably brag having the largest coding environment in the world. Shortly after releasing source code for a variety of online functions and applications, the White House made them all available on the San Francisco-based start up.

Doing so fulfilled a promise the president made at the United Nations General Assembly about two years ago, where he declared his intention to let the American people (read: those literate in the challenging language of computer code) share and improve how they and his administration exchange ideas over the internet. He encouraged the nations of the world to follow suit, and promised to grant them the same access.

“In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable. And now, we must build on that progress,” President Obama told the assembly. “And when we gather back here next year, we should bring specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement; to leverage new technologies so that we strengthen the foundations of freedom in our own countries, while living up to the ideals that can light the world.”

As with so much innovation in the public sector, local governments across the U.S. have made vocal use of open sourcing for far longer than the federal government has. Perhaps most prominently, San Francisco’s open government platform has been active for well over a year now. On the opposite coast, the city of Raleigh, N.C. followed suit late last spring by releasing data sets for a multitude of their online functions along with a forum for citizens to share helpful ideas using that data.

“Too many citizens have this ‘us against them [the government]’ mentality,” says Jason Hibbets, Lead Administrator at Opensource.com and Project Manager at Red Hat, a provider of open source softwares and servers. “We’ve forgotten that it’s our government. It got this way because some of us stopped participating. Technology is changing this. The crowdsourcing of ideas, openly available data, and open conversations with elected officials and government staff are all building momentum for the open government movement.”

Hibbets worked with the city of Raleigh on their open source initiatives as part of an event meant to increase online civic engagement, called CityCamp Raleigh. While he says that there is the capacity for increased government efficiency through open sourcing, crowdsourcing can not be a government’s single goal in making their online resources public.

“The most important thing that governments must do first is to restore trust with their citizens,” says Hibbets. “Once that is established, then they should have more success at opportunities for citizen engagement, such as crowdsourcing. One way to start this is by being more transparent. Share everything. Provide open data, but don’t just dump a bunch of files on a website–make it useful.”

Not only is online open sourcing changing how citizens relate to their government but also how consumers relate to businesses and service providers. A small but telling example recently arose from a small board and tabletop game development company who used open source code to let players design their own pieces to their latest strategy game.

Based out of Bellingham, Wa., the small, resilient team at Ill Gotten Games has spent the last seven years developing a complex strategy game system that lead designer Arian Croft describes as a “physics simulator for telling stories.” While still years away from being put in production, Croft and his team plan to routinely boil down this larger concept into smaller products as they become more practical to implement.

One such game is Pocket Tactics, their latest tabletop strategy game (think Dungeons and Dragons) that only became possible after Croft and Ill Gotten Games won a design contest with the 3-D printing company, Makerbot. With the advent of 3-D printing technology, Croft saw a new age of board gaming just on the horizon.

A set of pieces for Pocket Tactics by Ill Gotten Games.
Photo courtesy of Ill Gotten Games.

“The idea that I could take some concept and then design a miniature of my character, then have this physical representation of the world, appeals to an old school like me,” Croft tells BTR.

That the technology could be sitting in homes across the country in coming years changed the production paradigm for Ill Gotten Game’s business. No longer would they need to be responsible for all facets of manufacturing and distribution. They could save by putting instructions for building game pieces in the hands of gamers, like a Lego set that wouldn’t necessarily need to come with the pieces – just the set instructions.

Through access to source codes provided by Ill Gotten Games, gamers could design their own pieces to the game that would come to life through 3-D printing. With their innovative model fully realized, Ill Gotten Games began development on Pocket Tactics just three weeks ago. Croft tells BTR that the influence of open sourcing on his product directly speaks to the change he always sought to bring to his industry.

“What it means to me is availability,” says Croft. “So many gaming companies are super proprietary with their designs and products. That’s cool – it’s a different business model for sure, but I’ve always been interested in things being made public so that people can take their own bent on it and improve upon the existing material.”

For more with Arian Croft of Ill Gotten Games, check out today’s episode of BTR’s current events podcast, Third Eye Weekly.

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