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Using Free Software to build a more democratic, inclusive and sustainable digital society - interview with Francesca Bria, CTO of Barcelona.

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Barcelona, the second most populous municipality of Spain, is actively working on a "smart city" agenda that is reshaping modern city's infrastucture and technologies to put citizen's needs first. Key to Barcelona's agenda is the use and promotion of Free Software and open technologies as a social good, to enable collaboration between administrations and to escape vendor lock-ins. Barcelona is also the first City Council who signed the open letter for “Public Money? Public Code!”. To shed light on Barcelona's best practice, we have conducted an interview with Francesca Bria, Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer at the Barcelona City Council, to ask her about ongoing innovations and developments in Barcelona.

FSFE: In the last months you participated in many panels and conferences to talk about digital sovereignty and ethical digital standards. Could you briefly explain what is digital sovereignty and what is the role of Free Software in it?

Francesca Bria: I have been appointed as CTO of Barcelona by the Mayor Ada Colau to rethink the digital and technology agenda of the city, in particular the so-called “Smart City agenda”. And this is where I start: Nowadays, the smart city agenda is still mainly technology-led. Many cities fall into the hands of tech vendors that are pushing their own technology solutions, instead of starting from the real needs of the citizens and concrete urban problems. In this way cities end up solving technology problems since they are locked-in by proprietary, non-interoperable solutions and unsustainable business models. My mission instead, is to democratise data and technology, and rethink their governance in a way that they can serve the people. We are aligning technology with the real policy goals of the city: such as the right to housing, energy transition, the creation of public spaces , the fight against climate change, and participatory democracy.

Picture of Francesca Bria

Francesca Bria is Senior Researcher and Advisor on Technology and Innovation policy. She has a PhD in Innovation Economics for Imperial College, London and MSc on Digital Economy from University of London, Birbeck.
Francesca Bria is an adviser for the European Commission on Future Internet and Innovation Policy. She is currently the Commissioner of Digital Technology and Innovation for the City of Barcelona in Spain and she is leading the DECODE project on data sovereignty in Europe.

Digital transformation is not only about technological change, but about structural organizational and cultural changes. We need to couple the digital revolution with a democratic revolution. For us it is about rethinking the relationship between governments and citizens, to make sure citizens can take back democratic control, and can fully participate in the definition of the public policies. That's why Barcelona is running a strong participatory democracy experiment, that is a hybrid mix of large scale online and offline democratic participation. We are involving thousands of citizens and give them the power to propose policy actions and ideas through a free software platform, that is called “Decidim” . Today our Government Agenda includes 70% of proposals that come directly from citizens. We want to change the way government works and make it more open, transparent, collaborative and participative.

What difference does it make if such a platform, “Decidim”, is Free Software or not?

Free Software makes all the difference. First of all, government is investing public money and that's why citizens should control the software and the platform should remain in the public domain. “Decidim” is built together with an open community called “Metadecidim”. It is a community that includes software developers, designers, social organizations, activists, data scientists, researchers, and community managers. All these people participate in the co-creation of the platform, and they manage it as a common good.

For us, privacy awareness, data sovereignty, distributed technology and Free Software are key components of city's digital infrastructures.

We are learning a lot from “Decidim Barcelona” as one of Barcelona's biggest Free Software projects. We had to change procurement standards, to introduce Free Software and to make sure that government legislation allows a platform which is managed and governed by a community. And of course, another advantage is that all code is accessible, reusable, and auditable because it is Free Software.

Now we are adding a module on “Decidim Barcelona” thanks to another project, called “Decode”, that wants to give back control of the data to the citizens. The module is a distributed ledger with a cryptographic layer that helps people control their data. We ensure that the data is secure and anonymous and people can decide what data they want to keep private and what data they want to donate to the city and on what terms. For us, privacy awareness, data sovereignty, distributed technology and Free Software are key components of city's digital infrastructures. In particular, whenever technology mediates democratic decisions and shapes people's collective thinking, we should avoid the kind of political manipulation and surveillance we have experienced with the latest scandals regarding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

What is the key advantage of Free Software in this respect?

The benefit of working in a collaborative way with community, the possibility to study, audit the code and inspect it. You can learn from it and share it – also you can reuse it. Which is very important, because you minimize the costs, maximize the public value and shift public spending from expensive proprietary licensing to the creation of new knowledge and human capabilities.

Free Software allows us to work with communities, use the talent of Free Software developers and the local industry, and collaborate with other cities and public administration on common Free Software projects.

Another key reason for us is technological sovereignty. The idea is to get away from vendor lock-in and dependency on big corporate players, most of the time foreign corporations, and instead being able to change providers, work with local entrepreneurs and companies that respect users' rights and freedoms, and retain the control of our data. One problem is that proprietary platforms offer no interoperability and they won’t let you move your data from one service provider to the other, which is also the reason why over time we have lost critical knowledge and capabilities needed to run our services and systems. Over the last years public administrations have outsourced most critical IT and tech systems to external providers and IT consultancies. However, it is important to stop funding the same big tech firms, diversify the ecosystem of providers, retain know-how, and control critical infrastructures.

Free Software allows us to work with communities, use the talent of Free Software developers and the local industry, and collaborate with other cities and public administration on common Free Software projects. So, in the long run, you can be more autonomous and independent, you can be more transparent and by publishing the code and the data in the public domain, we can create public value and maximize the use of taxpayers' money. The ecosystem of small and medium-sized businesses is another important issue for us. The majority of local software entrepreneurs use Free or Open Source Software and we want to make sure that Barcelona's procurement policy allows them to work with the city administration and develop future applications and services that can improve our city.

Last but not least, it is an ethical and political decision. Barcelona has a specific technological sovereignty guide and digital ethical standards – a regulation, which states that the digital information and infrastructure that we use should be a public good, owned and controlled by the citizens. We also mandate privacy and security by design and the use of encryption as a human right.

A right to privacy enforced by the public sector?

Exactly, technology built with fundamental rights at its core. And talking about Free Software, Barcelona's Digital Transformation Plan has committed to invest 70% of its budget devoted to new services into Free and Open Source Software development. Also we are running a migration plan gradually and we have a pilot on migrating workstations into a completely free operating system. Right now they run on Ubuntu and all applications they have are Free Software.

These workstations are already a part of the infrastructure?

Yes, they are already completely integrated to the infrastructure of the city – we are delivering a pilot project of 1.000 workstations. For the rest, we do not change the operating system but we replace all possible applications and programmes with Free Software on top of the windows machines. Also we are shifting our email service to Open-Xchange. Basically, all the things that we can replace, we do replace with Free Software, but we do it gradually, so we can involve our public workers and create confidence.

In five years, how do you think the situation will look like?

Barcelona is constantly developing software applications and tools. When we start from scratch, we give preference to the use of Free and Open Source Software. For instance, our e-ID system is now going to be open source. Then, we are opening up critical service applications, like a map of events in the city, our city dashboard, our citizens' portal and our sensor network for example. This is "not just" about workstations. It is the whole informational infrastructure that we are moving towards open standards, open stack and interoperability. Like we also run Linux servers in our data centre, for example. But of course, Barcelona has a vendor lock-in to the usual big companies like every other city has. So even changing everything gradually is not easy, however completely sensible.

There are many cities, that are interested in what we are doing and ask to collaborate on Free Software projects, and the use of ethical digital standards.

And we are not alone: There is the example of the UK government digital service that put in place a national plan for shifting towards Free and Open Source Software. Then the Italian government's digital team is using a lot of open source tools. Sweden is making adjustments to procurement policy in favour of Free and Open-Source Software, just like Estonia is using a lot of Free Software. There are many other cities that are interested in what we are doing and that ask to collaborate on Free Software projects, and the use of ethical digital standards.

It is really important to migrate to Free Software and I think it will go on even when we are no longer in the government. I am working with that in mind, because such decisions should not depend on one person, or on the political orientation of one government. This is also the reason why we focus on proper documentation of what we do, and of course we have to win the hearts and minds of the workers in our public administrations, otherwise this switch will not be relevant in the future. They have to lead this transformation and own the process.

That is an important point because, for example, in Germany there was the case of Munich in that shortly after finishing their migration plan to GNU/Linux, there was a change in the local government and the new government then decided to switch back to proprietary Microsoft. What are you doing to avoid this happening in Barcelona?

Well, first of all, the case of Munich was a political choice, it was not a technical failure. Second, they started a long time ago and it was a completely different tech industry, which has evolved a lot since then. We know how much money tech companies invest in lobby, and they have a lot of influence, thus this kind of changes are never easy.

Munich was a political choice, it was not a technical failure.

I believe for Munich it will still be hard to migrate back to Microsoft, it costs a lot of money and in the end it might still not work as desired. But generally, I think a right way to do such a major transition, is to create empowerment for the workers, invest in training and build knowledge-sharing processes inside the organizations. This is what I have been doing with the workers in the City Hall, so in the end they are leading the process and they are driving the transformation.

Like a bottom-up organizational change?

Yes, from the workers’ side. For your changes to last, you need to achieve this kind of organisational change as well. For us, it is very clear that we want a digital revolution which will benefit the many, not the few, and of course we want the entire society to benefit from it in many ways.

Do you have any experience so far with reuse of the Free Software you are developing, like “Sentilo”, for example?

“Sentilo” and “Decidim” are used by many cities. “Sentilo” is run by a consortium with a good governance structure and it has been reused in Italy, in Dubai, in the US and in the other parts of Europe. “Decidim” is used by many cities nowadays and we have ambitions to extend it. Then we have other software products like the digital ID, that we share locally with smaller town halls in Catalonia. We are also doing interviews and research, to identify projects that other cities have developed and published as Free Software. For instance, Helsinki has developed a very good app for transport sharing and they also have another citizen apps like ours. Then we are collaborating with Amsterdam, Torino, NYC and others. There is a lot of collaboration going on, without Free Software this would not be possible.

“Decidim" is used by many cities nowadays and we have ambitions to extend it. [...] There is a lot of collaboration going on, without Free Software this would not be possible.

To further foster collaboration, the city of Barcelona has now created a policy toolkit for administrations, that includes our ethical digital standards, and also a guide explaining how you publish code on GitHub and maintain this code. It will be very useful also for other cities, because it allows a transition to the next level of collaboration via GitHub, where you can properly manage all contributions. This is the next step that we should take: makes it very easy for cities to run free software projects collaboratively and develop decentralized and privacy-enhancing technology that serve the people and respect their rights.

Barcelona is also the first city Council who signed the open letter for “Public Money? Public Code!”. Why was this important for Barcelona?

Because we need alliances. We want to strengthen the legitimacy around developing and publishing Free Software, we want other cities to join and we want to build community. We need open source entrepreneurs, we need companies and we need civil society to be a part of this movement. Barcelona is working on licensing together with lawyers, who are a part of the Free Software Foundation Europe and a part of the Free Software movement. When we saw the campaign, we had our cities transition plan already approved and the campaign's demand was perfectly in line. So we were very happy to build that kind of coalition. The more awareness, the better.

We have been talking a little bit about the local companies before and you mentioned you invest 70% of the new development budget into free software development. What effect does this have on the local economy?

It creates local free software and open tech ecosystem that can strengthen the collaborative innovation economy. Public procurement can create new markets and leverage the local industry. We have also launched a specific fund to promote the development of free software, open hardware, open data and privacy-enhancing technology with social impact: we call this Digital Social Innovation. One of the biggest technological projects we are developing now is called CityOS. We have been developing it through contracts that require the use of Free and Open Source Software, and agile methodology. But also we have other development projects happening, where Free Software communities will be able to participate and work together with the city. In order to make this possible, we changed the clauses of the public contracts, so we are making it possible to compete less on price but on requirements like using and publishing the code as Free Software and in Open Standards, and adding clauses related to data sovereignty and privacy and security by design.

These contracts benefit from having no lock-in or technical preconditions, so whoever has the capacity can win these contracts. We really hope that smaller companies can bid for government contracts this way.

We want to get to a point where free software becomes the norm. That's why we demand our public officials to explain the reason behind not choosing Free Software and Open Standards if this happens. It was the other way around before and now they at least they have to justify why they are making such decisions on software procurement.

And this has helped the local economy? Is there a measurable impact?

We are working with one of our local universities to measure the economic impact of these open source projects to have some statistics, and show citizens that their money has been well spent. Now we have 3,000 companies that work with us through public procurement and over 60% are small and medium sized companies. We want to increase the number of companies that use Free Software and agile development, to show that we are diversifying the number of companies and the type of companies we work with. And then, using GitLab, we also try to create communities around the governance of the code and the projects. This is a big change for a city administration. We want to empower the local free and open source movement and provide a platform to sustain and develop.

Now we have 3,000 companies that work with us through public procurement and over 60% are small and medium sized companies.

Final question: you already said there are other cities that see the advantages of Free Software, but unfortunately there are also some administrations that have concerns. How would you convince them? What would be the main argument or the biggest benefit for them?

I think this is a good approach to rethink technology to benefit and empower people. First, public money gets reinvested into the local ecosystem of companies, to empower the local industry and local entrepreneurs. Second, we can improve our ability to collaborate with other cities on joint projects and help smaller cities to benefit from these projects. Third, we can retain technological sovereignty and democratic control of critical infrastructure, data, and services. Finally, we can empower citizens by building technology applications and services that address their real needs and create public value. It is really important to build a more democratic, inclusive and sustainable digital society.

Interviewer: Erik Albers

With our Public Money? Public Code! campaign, the FSFE demands that publicly financed software developed for the public sector shall be made publicly available under a Free and Open Source Software licence. In order to help understand our call and its benefits, we run a series of interviews that highlight good examples and use-cases as best practices. Our interview partners will be policy makers and decision takers, authorities and developers, that in one way or another are already implementing public code.