Shortly before Detroit filed for bankruptcy, a community volunteer and would-be mayor of the city wrote a short blog post calling for an "open source Detroit." That phrase got kind of stuck in my head; the city's problems are much deeper than software, but when you listen to interviews with city officials, IT costs come up again and again -- right alongside pensions and basic infrastructure.
Open source isn't panacea, of course, and you still need knowledgable humans to implement and use the software. That's the crucial missing piece. But there are several areas where it's not hard to imagine open source solutions bolstering municipalities:
- Office and education tools: This is probably the most obvious. Lightweight Linux distros can turn even very outdated hardware into functional office or learning machines. You can write in AbiWord, edit images in GIMP, and learn to code in Geany. Barebones distros on old computers can make robust platforms for learning and working with plenty of powerful technologies.
- Configuration management: Of course, implementing and teaching new technologies carries its own costs, but these costs can be mitigated somewhat by open source configuration management solutions. I wrote recently about Mitchell Hashimoto's Packer, a machine imaging tool that allows you to build identical machine images with configured operating systems and pre-installed, ready-to-go software. Tools like this could ease the way for agencies and school systems to quickly distribute, implement, and set up new tools in a consistent and standardized way.
- Analytics: Marketplace reported on state agencies running cost-benefit analyses to identify both effective and wasteful spending. As always, the value of your answers will tend to depend on the sophistication of the questions, but open source big data tools like Hadoop can bring powerful analytics to bear on questions of statistics and trends.