Why Los Angeles decided to open source its future

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation needed a way to improve traffic, so it open sourced it.

Traffic jam in Los Angeles

Image: egdigital, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst should be proud. Over a decade ago Whitehurst lamented the waste inherent in traditional enterprise IT, where every organization rolled their own systems and shared little. Now, there's an increasing trend toward open source, with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (DOT) taking the lead in building out the Mobility Data Specification (MDS) to manage the influx of dockless e-scooters and bicycles. The project made sense for a city plagued by horrendous traffic, but it's the open sourcing of MDS that makes it powerful, with over 80 cities worldwide now embracing it. 

To understand the motivations and future of MDS and enterprise open source, I talked with Jascha Franklin-Hodge, until recently Boston's chief information officer and now executive director of the Open Mobility Foundation

SEE: IT leader's guide to the rise of smart cities, volume 3 (TechRepublic Premium)

An LA story

In July, LA became a founding member of the Open Mobility Foundation, run under OASIS, which has the large mission of helping cities welcome alternative forms of transportation while managing their integration into transportation infrastructure for the overall good and safety of the general public. LA DOT is also contributing its work on MDS to the Open Mobility Foundation as a means to promulgate the work to other cities, not to mention technology companies and e-scooter suppliers. 

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The Open Mobility Foundation is now up and running with 15 large municipalities in the US, plus Bogota, Colombia. Five private companies hold memberships with representation by technology companies like Microsoft, plus scooter companies Bird and Spin. OMF is free for cities that want to join.

This is a great response to Whitehurst's concern so long ago:

The vast majority of software written today is written in enterprise and not for resale. And the vast majority of that is never actually used. The waste in IT software development is extraordinary....Ultimately, for open source to provide value to all of our customers worldwide, we need to get our customers not only as users of open source products but truly engaged in open source and taking part in the development community.

Now fast forward to today, where Los Angeles (and Santa Monica) were trying to figure out how to incorporate e-scooters and bikes into their infrastructure as a way of taming traffic gridlock. Talking to Franklin-Hodge, he stressed that "While on the one hand, this alternative form of clean transportation was welcome, it created a new challenge in terms of managing infrastructure and maintaining safety on streets and sidewalks." 

The question is how open source would help to fix the problem.

Open sourcing the city

When asked about the motivation behind open sourcing MDS, Franklin-Hodge was quick to point out that "LA wanted its work to grow beyond LA and potentially to other forms of transportation, as well, and benefit other municipalities that are dealing with similar issues." In other words, he continued, "From the beginning, there was belief that a larger collaboration would deliver a better outcome for everyone, including cities and the mobility companies themselves."

Often open source lands with a thud, whether because of disinterest in the problem the code purports to solve or bad documentation or other reasons (some of which Gordon Haff has described). In the case of MDS and LA, Franklin-Hodge indicated that there "was a very reasonable expectation because of contact with some other municipalities," giving the city confidence that others would pitch in. And they have. In his words, "It has expanded much faster and more widely than expected—even into other parts of the world, which has been amazing and inspiring to see."

SEE: Open source champion Munich heads back to Windows (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

One little-discussed aspect of open source is how hard it can be to relax control and allow others to participate. It's all peace, love, and Linux until someone submits a pull request that the original maintainers may not like. Google is a great example of how to do this right with Kubernetes, but plenty of other projects have failed. LA DOT decided to move the project to the Open Mobility Foundation as a way to ensure a true community approach to ongoing development. Franklin-Hodge said:

As work progressed and collaboration expanded, it became increasingly obvious that a coalition of municipalities working together would be most efficient moving forward. That's what led to the formation of the Open Mobility Foundation and our partnership with OASIS, a leader in the open-source and software standards industry. The OMF governs the platform called Mobility Data Specification (MDS), which is comprised of a set of APIs that create standard communications between cities and private companies to improve their operations. The APIs allow cities to collect data that can inform real-time traffic management and public policy decisions to enhance safety, equity and quality of life. More than 50 cities across the United States—and dozens across the globe—already use MDS to manage micro-mobility services.

So, is this a sign of good (open source) government to come? Franklin-Hodge thinks so: "Cities increasingly see the value in open source as a way to save money, avoid vendor lock-in, and get access to the most capable, tested, and widely-supported technology solutions. Most cities aren't looking to eliminate vendor relationships, but rather to make sure they're getting the best value for the taxpayer money they spend on technology." Part of that value lies in providing an open foundation for MDS to flourish and expand, perhaps even into areas like autonomous vehicles and drones.

Good government, indeed.

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By Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.