The case for an Open Source approach

Open source data, open source software, peer to peer development – what does it all mean, and what could it mean for the way we think about cities?

A snapshot

Open source is something that I have recently become interested in, mainly through involvement in the Open Food Network and Hacking for Humanity. It made me realise the value in allowing lots of different types of people to get involved with an idea, add to it and shape it in a way that would not be possible without a collaborative approach.

Open source software and data can be a bit tricky to understand, so let’s first think about something physical - open source machinery. TED fellow Marcin Jakubowski is open sourcing the blue prints for industrial machinery. He has come up with a modular, DIY, low cost, high performance open source platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different industrial machines that it takes to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts and no reliance on big business. He is giving everyone the opportunity to build homes, tractors, seeders, wind turbines and even cars from scratch and for themselves.

The importance of free and open software has unimaginable potential – as Dan Gillmor notes, it is the basis for the Android operating system, we wouldn’t be able to use most of internet services that we do today without the code people who believe in freedom have provided.

But what does all of this mean for planning and design, how can we collaborate with ‘the people formally known as the audience’, and who are they?

Open source software

Open-source software is developed with a code which is made publicly available, with a license which provides the rights to study, change and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose.

What this means is that globally people are able to help, to shape and to improve software, it’s the opposite of proprietary closed-source systems where users rely on private companies for support.

An example of this in a planning context is Mark Gorton’s Open Source Planning Project. This project builds open source software to model public transit and traffic systems. Mark th0ught the system wasn’t working and decided to build a better one. He did, and it works.

Open source data

Open source software relies in open source data. For example, when creating software to model transportation – you need to be able to access mapping data.

There are a lot of exciting happenings in the world of open source data. The NYC Open Data initiative makes the wealth of public data generated by various New York City agencies and other City organizations available for public use. Anyone can use these data sets to participate in and improve government by conducting research and analysis or creating applications. This data is being used for all kinds of innovations – by the City, by Civic Hackers and the private sector to improve the lives of New Yorkers and to create new businesses.

One example of the successful use and application of open data is the 596 Acres initiative.  The aim of this project is to help communities throughout Brooklyn form connections to vacant public land within their neighbourhoods, so that these spaces can be improved and better utilised.  An online interactive map identifies and locates the vacant land parcels across the city and provides the tools and information to support communities in getting access to these sites for the primary purpose of growing food and networking with neighbours.

This project has inspired Planisphere’s 3000acres project which has recently won the VicHealth SEED Challenge and will be appearing in a vacant lot near you!   


The 3000acres website will be developed as an open source web platform, available on GitHub or similar for others to use, develop, improve and debug.

Alongside the Open Food Network we are completely committed to open source software: if code is closed then we cannot learn and build on each others' ideas. Every community and every space has a different context and needs. No one has 'the answer' to how we are going to be able to re-localise food systems, support community development, reduce greenhouse emissions AND provide good, affordable food to everyone - so we're hoping that those of us trying (all around the world) can build on each others' ideas, challenges and successes.

Open source cities

The possibilities for cities are endless. Harnessing the power of collective intelligence to iteratively test solutions for anything from software, to tractors  to onsite solutions.

3000acres will test the concept of emergent intelligence by providing like minded people with the right container, the right rules and places to interact. These vacant lots, lying underutilised in plain site could become containers for collaborative solutions.


Posted on April 24, 2015 .