Open Source Software: Good enough for Croatia, good enough for Chapel Hill

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006

As a citizen, I came to my first Chapel Hill Technology Advisory Board meeting with a list of technology-related propositions that would help our town increase transparency while improving operational effeciency. Part of my proposal hinged on the use of open source software (OSS) – software that is flexible, reliable, transparent, “evergreen” and, based on selecting the proper open licensing, always in the public domain.

Various U.S. and European Union jurisdictions have whole-heartedly adopted both open-standards and the open source software (OSS) that supports those formats. For instance, Massachusetts’ is requiring use of Open Document (ODF) formats for longterm document retention.

Under my initiative, our citizen-owned information assets – the town’s geographical, environmental, financial, governance [minutes of meetings, etc.] records – would remain free and forever unencumbered by proprietary format and software restrictions.

Oh, and it would save us taxpayers a chunk of bucks – like the $253,000 our town unnecessarily spent on Microsoft Office license renewals (we could’ve doubled some of our town’s social program outlays on that savings alone).

I had some success, both before and after I joined the town’s Tech Board, getting limited Council adoption of a few open governance proposals. Open source adoption was a tougher nut to crack as both top town management and some IT staff were highly resistive to change.

Today’s Newsforge carries an article on Croatia’s adoption of OSS.

Last month the Croatian government adopted an open source software policy and issued guidelines for developing and using open source software in the government institutions. The Croatian government is concerned that proprietary software leads to too much dependence on the software suppliers. Open source software will make the government’s work more transparent, according to the government’s document, entitled “Open Source Software Policy.”

The document includes the following guidelines:

  • Government institutions will choose and/or develop open source solutions as much as possible, instead of using closed source alternatives.
  • The government will support development of closed source solutions that use open standards for protocols and file formats, and which are developed in Croatia.
  • The government will support the use of open source programs and open standards outside of its institutions.
  • The government will support the use of open source solutions in educational institutions; both closed and open source solutions will be equally presented to students

Domagoj Juricic, deputy state secretary at the Central State Administrative Office for e-Croatia and the leader of this project, explains what made the government publish the policy: “The use of information technology in government administration bodies is increasingly becoming important. So far, most of the software we use is proprietary software, so we cannot modify or complement it, or link software from different vendors. These software products impose rigid commercial conditions of use and limit our possibilities. In this way, government administration bodies may be led into a dependent position on the supplier of the software. This could lead to closed information systems, which make the success and efficiency of our eAdministration project more difficult.

Beyond efficiencies, adaptability, etc. Croatia desired control of their information assets:

“The state administration bodies create and exchange a lot of electronic documents,” Juricic says. “There is a great danger that documents cannot be opened and presented in readable form after a certain time, because we don’t have the licence anymore of the proprietary software, or the vendor can seize support of the old types of documents. Therefore we require the state administration bodies to use open standards for creating electronic documents.”

Now, while the Council, which nearly unanimously and quite precipitously, ditched our Technology Board, the necessity for implementing open standards, adopting agile technology-enhanced work processes, using the ‘net and ‘net-based tools to improve transparency and increasing productivity have not gone away.

The citizen chorus is gone but the song remains to be sung. Supposedly the Council will redress this issue come Fall.

And, yes, like many things in life that are worthwhile, implementing these changes can and will be difficult. Croatia’s government realizes that, so should we.

Kosturjak warns against euphoria with the policy. “Although the Croatian open source community is very positive about the open source software policy, we’ll see how serious the Croatian government is when the next step comes: the implementation of the policy. This will not be easy, as there are obvious practical problems. For example, most of the government bodies have now proprietary technologies together with proprietary file formats implemented in their IT systems. Migration to open standards and open source software can be technically difficult and painful. From the non-technical point of view, this is also a political and financial issue. We (the open source advocates) hope that the Croatian government will have the strength to actually implement the open source policy. Until that moment, the policy is just like an unsent letter.”

Tapping into our community’s aggregate wisdom

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

My April 26th Daily Tar Heel guest column:

During the November campaign, I spoke of tapping into Chapel Hill’s “talent, innovation and creativity,” a reflection of my belief that good governance flows from maximizing citizen involvement.

How best to tap Chapel Hill’s wisdom?

(more…)

Catch the NextBus VII – Stone knives and bear skins…

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

A Web 2.0 nod to Spock and Kirk.

What if I endeavored “to construct a pneumonic memory circuit using stone knives and bear skins”?

To wit, could I recreate the NextBus system using “off the shelf” Web 2.0 infrastructure and cheap gear?

For a modestly discounted fee of $850,000? Yes! Yes! Yes!

My tinkertoy Web 2.0 application might resemble the MoloGoGo web service: (more…)

Catch the NextBus V – Fairly Balanced

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

Near the end of my day of NextBus posting, here’s a quick overview of my and others impressions of the NextBus system.NextBus provides near realtime tracking of vehicles by analyzing their predicted movements, modeling traffic conditions, estimating location and then verifying position. In 2003, this combination of GPS, cell and computer technologies probably had a bit of a WOW factor.

A quick check of the NextBus tracking site demonstrates a reasonably responsive interface.

Boulder, Colorado, as noted in these December 12th, 2005 Transportation Advisory Board minutes, has had a few problems:

Cris Jones presented information showing an increase in numbers of people accessing the NexBus website. Still have telecommunications issues. 11 signs have problems with cell network and are not working. Should be fixed within the next couple of months. Information is pulled every two minutes through the orbital technology, so can only see busses every two minutes. Project is in the works to improve this. HOP and Buff Bus have much better prediction times than the rest of the RTD system.

  • Roettker: Is NextBus giving us some compensation for the lack of effectiveness in their system?
  • Jones: Yes.

So did Arlington, Virginia:

The NextBus technology service which allowed riders of the 38B Ballston-Farragut Square line to get real-time arrival information on their computers, cell phone, or web-enabled PDA has ended. The NextBus technology was installed on the 38B buses in September, 2001. However, the sevice turned out to be unreliable and the NextBus contract was not renewed. Service ended on March 1, 2004.

Zooming to February 19th, 2006, this San Franciscan gives a qualified “thumbs up”:

I find that NextBus works very well for my commute on the MUNI in San Francisco. I have a choice of taking a bus that stops two blocks from my house or a streetcar three blocks away. The streetcar is covered by NextBus but the bus is not. Both lines supposedly run every twenty minutes but in reality are rarely on time. As I leave my house, I check the streetcar on NextBus and if there is one coming in between 5 and 15 minutes I head down to the streetcar stop and catch it, otherwise I take my chances with the bus. It is very reassuring to know exactly when the streetcar will arrive. The accuracy of NextBus is uncanny. When NextBus says the streetcar will arrive in one minute, I can always see it down the tracks a block or two away.

The only bad thing about NextBus and MUNI is that only 10 of the agency’s 86 lines are covered. Cost is obviously a factor. Each vehicle needs a GPS receiver and radio transmitter and of course there is the expense of the software and web hosting. An approximate idea of the cost can be gleaned from this public document (pdf) which shows that it will cost AC-Transit, another San Francisco Bay Area agency about $1 million for equipment, implementation and seven years of operating expenses for a NextBus system covering 199 buses on 25 routes including 44 electronic signs along with mobile and web access.

December 25th, 2005, another San Franciscan not only notes the secret “backdoors” into NextBus’ tracking system:

Tipped off by the fine folks at the SFist, I’ve learned that there are “secret” links to MUNI routes not listed in the main Nextbus directory, meaning that for a good chunk of MUNI’s routes, you can see exactly where the buses are in real time. (This will probably mean nothing to you if (a) you do not live in San Francisco or (b) are not a hard-core public transportation zealot. You have been warned in advance that this post contains some frighteningly pedantic information.)

This is fantastic because, at long last, MUNI riders can now capture irrefutable evidence of those two hour minute driver breaks at the end of the line. (I can second Mattymatt’s observation that the standard MUNI driver response: “Another bus will be along in a minute,” is pretty much the norm.)

but observes that real-world discrimination has a way of leaking into cyberspace:

Some bus lines are wired; some are not. In fact, when we examine this list, it’s interesting that nearly every route which limns the rich and superficial pockets of the Marina is listed (including the rinky-dink 41!), while the crosstown routes that serve the people who don’t wear overpriced Hugo Boss suits on a regular basis (the 29, the 38 — at 54,000 daily passengers, the nation’s busiest bus line, and the 71) aren’t wired up yet. Nor are any of the Owl lines. The latter, in particular, would be helpful for those who need to catch the only damn buses running at 3 AM and stand waiting in the shivering cold with an empty wallet and a dead cell phone (thus precluding a taxi) for 90 minutes hoping to hell the bus in question will actually stop for them.

The Federal Transit Administration observes that adding “predictability” into the transit system does increase ridership:

While waiting may always be a part of the commuter experience – in a car or on a bus – commuters appear to be less affected by “hurry sickness” if they simply know how long they will be waiting.

Some of the most successful transit agencies have taken advantage of technology to deliver real time transit information to riders on their palm pilots or cell phones. Others have created web-based trip planners. A great example of this is on our ridership web page. In Ithaca, New York, the local transit agency (Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit) added trip planning software to its website in March 2002. The trip planner lets customers select routes and schedules 24 hours a day, 7 days a week based on mode, need for a bike rack, wheel chair accessibility, and traffic conditions. Within one year, fixed route bus ridership increased almost 4 percent.

In Ventura County, California, the Ventura Intercity Service Transit Authority (VISTA) has seen real results from adopting new technology. In August 2002, they contracted with NEXTBus on behalf of VISTA and five other municipal transit operators in the county to provide bus tracking and arrival prediction services. Approximately 100 buses have been equipped with tracking equipment. Now, arrival times and related information is provided on electronic signs at 26 transit transfer points and via the internet. The result? Between 2003 and 2004, ridership increased over 15%.

Clearly, the strategic use of information technology can be an important tool for attracting new riders – especially among today’s hurried commuters.

I won’t argue against the FTA. It makes sense that eliminating uncertainty in the transit system will increase overall satisfaction leading to increased ridership.

But we don’t need NextBus’ system to remove that uncertainty.

Catch the NextBus IV – New Hope?

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

Thank you town staff, Ms. Hall especially, for the assistance in assembling this information.

April 24th, 2006 – two days ago – after concerns were raised about the NextBus, Inc. deal – the town signed a contract with NextBus, Inc. for their proprietary system.

Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re my only hope.

The schedule of work starts May 1st, 2006:

  • May 1st, 2006 – Order vehicle hardware – $230,350.00
  • July 1st, 2006 – Automatic vehicle location, maps, website – $276,000
  • Aug. 1st, 2006 – Install signs – $75,000
  • Sep. 15th, 2006 – System acceptance – $367,675

This will cover 14 signs, a website with 26 routes and equipment for 83 buses.

What a terrible deal compared to the recent ACTransit’s!.

ACTransit: 100 signs, 25 routes, 199 vehicles, 7 year warrantee – $1,031,079.
Chapel Hill: 14 signs, 26 routes, 83 vehicles, unknown warrantee – $949,025.

[UPDATE:]

May 8th I had an opportunity to speak with one of the folk from ACTransit who negotiated their great deal.

Turns out ACTransit got for their $1M:

  • 54 new signs, 46 existing
  • 125 new vehicles, 74 existing
  • 13 new routes, 12 existing

7 years of support for their existing and new infrastructure.

New material: 54 signs, 125 vehicles, 13 routes. Coverage for existing 46 signs, 74 vehicles and 12 routes. Chapel Hill: 14 signs, 83 vehicles, 26 routes.
What a great deal!

I’ve contacted our IT director, Bob Avery, to get the detailed specifications, the criteria used to select a vendor and the results of comparing various solutions.

General Tagge: What of the Rebellion? If the Rebels have obtained a complete technical reading of this station, it is possible, however unlikely, they might find a weakness and exploit it.

Darth Vader: The plans you refer to will soon be back in our hands.

Admiral Motti: Any attack made by the Rebels against this station would be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they have obtained. This station is now the ultimate power in the universe. I suggest we use it.

Even without the Death Star’s plans, based on Exhibit A of the contract, the obvious, expensive problems of this system are evident.

Six of seven questions to NextBus reveal a concern about additional costs due to excessive cellular phone charges. The concern appears to center on keeping the data flow to less than 5MB (megabytes) per month.

NextBus will be reselling Cingular Service to the town to support this data flow.

As an individual, I can get unlimited Cingular data service for $60 per month (that is, I can get it where their cruddy signal can reach – imagine NextBus’ problems getting a decent signal!). I have to believe it’ll be quite a bit cheaper for NextBus.

Is this a misplaced concern from a transit system with a 2006-2007 operating fund of $13.6 million ( $5M from UNC, $2.6M from Chapel Hill)?

But that’s beside the point! Why cellular at all?

We should be using a standards-based system that supports fixed and mobile networking, is expandable using off-the-shelf components, satisfies the highspeed connectivity demands of our first-responders and, for gosh sakes, advances the town’s technology infrastructure.

Two birds – one stone or a pig in the poke?

I hope the Council can intervene before the pig comes home to roost….

Catch the NextBus III – ACTransit’s Better Deal

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District

…an innovative, modern bus system, owned by the public of the East Bay. Its family tree dates back to 1869…the year America’s two coasts were joined by the transcontinental railroad with the driving of the golden spike. In the same year, 1869, the Suez Canal opened, linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. That’s the year when AC Transit’s first predecessor began carrying passengers from the Jack London Waterfront into burgeoning Oakland in a horse-drawn rail car.

on January 18th, 2006 cut a new deal with NextBus, Inc. covering:

[ UPDATED May 8th, 2006 after speaking to ACTransit ]

  • 25 routes – 13 new, 12 existing
  • 100 signs – 54 new, 46 existing
  • 199 vehicles tracked – 125 new, 74 existing
  • 7 years of warrantee on equipment and services

Cost? $1,031,079

Authorize the General Manager to negotiate and execute a contract with NextBus, Inc., for real time bus arrival information on two BRT/Rapid lines and at two BART/AC Transit Centers, for a capital investment including a seven-year warrantee, in the amount of $1,031, 079.

Sounds like a much better deal than 14 signs, our small smaller (83) fleet, at a cost of $949,025.

There’s an interesting breakout of costs in the contract.

One item that caught my attention, $201,600 for airtime. Nearly 1/5th of the contracted cost goes to communication, an expensive element that distinguishes this proprietary technology from the standards-based, dual-use WiFi/WiMax-based alternatives.
(more…)

Catch the NextBus

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

I’m curious about both the process our town went through selecting NextBus, Inc. and the “real-world” results of other communities.

I’ll be documenting more of what I find over the next couple days, including why the town’s Technology advisory board, in spite of staff knowing of our particular interest in this technology, was shut out of the decision-making process.

To start with, here’s the manager’s recommendation to purchase NextBus’s system. I haven’t found any other online materials documenting the criteria, methodology and test results of the trial comparisons.

While “googling” NextBus, I accidentally ran into this bit of data:

MARESCA, JAMES F. – SAN FRANCISCO,CA 94118 – NEXTBUS/EXECUTIVE

Date Amount Recipient
3/22/2002 $1,000 Price, David
6/5/2002 $500 Price, David
6/24/2002 $500 Price, David
6/24/2002 ($500) Price, David

Documented here, here and here.

One of the lobbyist for NextBus at the time, Charles S. Walsh of FLEISCHMAN & WALSH , also made a 9/16/2002 donation of $1,000 to Price.

[ UPDATE: ] Turns out two lobbyists from Fleischman & Walsh gave $1,000. Aaron Fleischman gave $1,000 on 06/05/2002.

Walsh, Charles S. Fleischman & Walsh LLP/Attorney 1,000 G 09/16/2002 Annapolis MD 21401
Fleischman, Aaron Fleischman and Walsh LLP/Attorney 1,000 P 06/05/2002 Washington DC 20008

NextBus only retained FLEISCHMAN & WALSH 2001-2003 in which they paid $20K in 2001, $100K in 2002 and $80K in 2003.

The only other Congressman to receive NextBus executive’s direct largesse, Tom Davis, Republican representative for Virginia’s 11th district, got $1,000 in 2002.

This is only of interest in light of the recent HeraldSun article on the NextBus purchase:

Federal money helped fund the bulk of the $949,025 project, he said.

“This was something that Rep. David Price’s [D-4th district] office became involved in, that there were federal dollars available for transit enhancement,” Neufang said. “We’re very appreciative that Cong. Price has assisted us in this process.”

and the comment in the manager’s recommendation:

In 2003, Congressman David Price obtained for the Town an earmark grant for an Intelligent Transportation System deployment program. The funds were to be used for obtaining a Real Time Passenger Information System for Chapel Hill Transit.

While 2002 was just a year before the initial run at doing this project, it has been quite awhile ago and both Maresca and FLEISCHMAN & WALSH have long moved on.

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