Pillars of Openness: Lessons from Buenos Aires

In Buenos Aires, Argentina — as well as in many U.S. states and municipalities — government content can be subject to copyright, meaning that oftentimes works such as information on state and local government websites are not actually in the public domain.

But this week, the City of Buenos Aires announced that they will be licensing all of the city’s digital content under a Creative Commons 2.5 license. By doing so, they are ensuring that their government information remains free for the public to reuse and disseminate.

This is a great example of a city thinking about “openness” from unexpected — and important — angles. We need to think about open government not as a state that can be achieved by checking a few boxes (Open data? Done!) but as a deeply engrained principle that must be proactively upheld in many different facets of government operations.

Buenos Aires’ open government (or gobierno abierto) efforts have been under way since 2011, and Rudi Borrmann is a city employee who has been a central part in setting the strategy since the beginning. In 2008, Borrmann was asked to develop the city’s social media strategy. “At the time I was working at a digital marketing agency,” he says. “Initially, working for the government did not look attractive at all, but after considering the scale of the challenge, I accepted the offer.”

After building out the new media office, in 2011 he was asked to develop an Innovation and Open Government initiative for the city. Now, he serves as the city’s Open Government Director.

The Buenos Aires open government team focuses not only on opening data and building technology, but also on working with other City departments to promote a culture of openness that touches all corners of City Hall.

“I don’t think there is any one thing that constitutes ‘open government,’” explains Borrmann. “I believe it is a bigger process.”

Buenos Aires’ open government initiative addresses many aspects of the process of becoming open, as exemplified by their adoption of the Creative Commons licenses. Here are just a few ways that Buenos Aires is institutionalizing openness in practice:

  • Open Source Software: Buenos Aires uses open source software when possible rather than building or purchasing proprietary solutions. The city website is built using open source content management system Drupal and their open data catalog is powered by the open source CKAN platform.
  • Open Licenses: The City has now released their digital content under a Creative Commons license to allow for reuse, adaptation, and distribution with attribution. Proactive, informed licensing is important to ensure that intellectual property ownership legally reflects the principle of openness.
  • Open Engagement: The City hosts regular hackathons and community events to encourage citizen involvement, such as this year’s annual hackathon that attracted more than 400 participants. While these events are just starting points to sustainable engagement, it’s a proactive invitation to citizens to participate in collaborative governance.
  • Open Data: The City has posted dozens of datasets online in open, machine-readable formats so that others can easily access and build off of this public information.
  • Open Design: The City has posted both their internal user experience guide and the HTML/CSS code for their website design on GitHub, licensed so that others can reuse and adapt it.
  • Open Collaboration: Rather than siloing the function of “innovation” within one department or team, part of the Buenos Aires Open Government Department’s mission is to disseminate a culture of openness throughout different parts of the government.

All of these different efforts are ultimately in support of a few larger goals. “Our focus has always been improving public services, empowering citizens, and creating a civic innovation ecosystem. All our actions link back to these pillars,” says Borrmann. In Buenos Aires — and in the context of other cities and countries too — openness in service of higher level goals should be embedded and institutionalized in government culture from many angles.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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