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2013 Melbourne Software Freedom Day talk - FOSS in Public Decision Making


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Slides from my talk at the Melbourne Software Freedom Day, 21st September 2013, on the topic of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in public decision-making, particularly in the policy areas of climate change and transportation.

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2013 Melbourne Software Freedom Day talk - FOSS in Public Decision Making

  1. 1. SoftwareFreedomDay2013: TheImportanceofFreeandOpenSource SoftwareforPublicDecision-Making Patrick Sunter (PhD Candidate in Architecture Building and Planning, University of Melbourne) 17 September, 2013
  2. 2. Key Ideas for FOSS in Public Decision-Making   Aspects of supporting ‘democratic autonomy’ (Held, 2006):   1) Supporting the conditions for living up to the best traditions of science :- reproducibility, contestability, peer-review   2) A view of government that is a bit more ‘bazaar’ than ‘cathedral’:   Supporting more distributed, pluralistic policy-making   FOS software as part of a broader agenda of engaging the public in decision-making   Illustrated by examples from:   Climate change (economics)   Large-scale transport planning.
  3. 3. Analogies to FOSS in Science   The ideal of science is a process where alternative ideas put forward, in an open- debate to prove which theories best match evidence (Popper etc)   Journals, science institutes support this by requiring precise details of experiments to be published with papers   Computational science, where computer models are key part :- hasn’t always lived up to this Within the world of science, computation is now rightly seen as a third vertex of a triangle complementing experiment and theory. However, as it is now often practiced, one can make a good case that computing is the last refuge of the scientific scoundrel. – Randall LeVeque
  4. 4. Example: “Climategate”   A complex case where back in 2009 after a series of almost overwhelming FoI requests, the emails of researchers at University of East Anglia were hacked and placed on internet etc …   Accusations of cover-ups, manipulation – however researchers later completely exonerated (See climategate-out-there-4428 )   However, a case to answer:- if Climate change is so crucial to public policy over next century:- shouldn’t the models used, data etc be as open to scrutiny, reproducible as possible?
  5. 5. Socio-Technical Responses   Several calls for greater openness in computational science;   A project to specifically re-code climate models using higher-level languages, and release as FOSS - (Nick Barnes);   A big concern with ‘provenance’ of results :-   Metafor in climate science   Accountability, traceability of models   Also ACRID – Advanced Climate Research Infrastructure for Data   UK Software Sustainability Institute (
  6. 6. Reproducibility more generally Reproducibility PI Manifesto, Prof Lorena Barba of Boston University ( pi-manifesto.html): 1.  I will teach my graduate students about reproducibility. 2.  All our research code (and writing) is under version control. 3.  We will always carry out verification and validation. 4.  For main results in a paper, we will share data, plotting script & figure under CC-BY. 5.  We will upload the preprint to arXiv at the time of submission of a paper. 6.  We will release code at the time of submission of a paper. 7.  We will add a "Reproducibility" declaration at the end of each paper. 8.  I will keep an up-to-date web presence. See also
  7. 7. FOSS Tools to support this   Madagascar ( “an open-source software package for multidimensional data analysis and reproducible computational experiments.”   Kepler ( “designed to help scientists, analysts, and computer programmers create, execute, and share models and analyses across a broad range of scientific and engineering disciplines.”   Nimrod ( Grid computing …   great Python-based tools more generally, and the R package for statistics, …
  8. 8. My contribution: CREDO Supporting regular testing of scientific ‘benchmarks’ of Geophysics models ThermakConvB enchmarkDim. xml Model Results: - Images - Data CREDO records (XML): -Test suite ran - Models ran -Test results
  9. 9. ‘Props’ to Commonwealth & US NSF …   In 2 projects I was involved with, FOSS licensing of research software was a standard requirement for receiving grants as part of a view of greater value:   Geoframework project (later , Computational Infrastructure for Geodynamics)   ACcESS and later AuScope ( ) Australian Commonweath research projects   Bureau of Meteorology is now increasingly good at supporting FOSS
  10. 10. Moving from science to public policy: integrating economics++ “The growing importance of computer models raises many challenging issues for scientists, engineers, decision makers, and ultimately the public at large. If decisions are to be based (at least in part) on model output, we must be concerned that the computer codes that implement numerical models are correct; that the assumptions that underpin models are communicated clearly; that models are carefully validated; and that the conclusions claimed on the basis of model output do not exceed the information content of that output. Similar concerns apply to the data on which models are based. Given the considerable public interest in these issues, we should demand the most transparent evaluation process possible.” Prof Ian Foster, in a keynote address to 2010 e-Science conference:
  11. 11. “Contestable Evidence-Based Policy”   The point is these decisions will inevitably be a) controversial, b) affect many people, and c) involve scenarios based on human behaviour, a ‘science’ that is a long-way from predictive certainly   ‘Contestable Evidence-Based Policy’:- (Wigan, 2008)   C.f. Doug Harley’s recent public comments on East-West tunnel assessment:-   “If they really have good evidence for their claims, these should be out there to be reviewed and assessed.” Picture source:
  12. 12. 2) A more ‘bazaar’ as well as ‘cathedral’ view of govt & policy   But I argue FOSS is not just about transparency, reproducibilty of government or expert decisions;   It also connects to a view of a more engaged democracy, where multiple groups and individuals can assess the evidence for policies:- develop their own views, and put them forward.   This is especially important where society may be on the wrong policy path, and need new views / alternatives   FOSS can be a crucial plank in supporting this
  13. 13. A quick intro to my PhD   View for public transport to be an effective option, we need a new ‘paradigm’ (Curtis & Low, 2012) of running the system as an integrated, multimodal network (Nielsen et al, 2005, Mees, 2010).   Computer Models and GIS have important role in transport futures – as a “knowledge technology” (Gudmundsson, 2011)   Interpretive Action Research (Info Systems): Undertake a GIS-T System Design, Development & Evaluation with 2 Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in Melbourne Network image from HiTrans Best Practice Guide (Nielsen et al, 2005). Photo credits:, Wikimedia commons user "voland b", Flickr user "avlxyz”. Travel time map from
  14. 14. Public Transport Network Analysis: Travel-Time Maps   “Travel Time Maps” (IsoChrone maps)   Display either:-   Locations reachable from a given origin in a given time;   ‘Catchment’ to reach a given destination   Generally involve A* network calculation but can be optimised.   Good because they indicate overall network quality, including interchanges Travel time map from
  15. 15. Data for PT Schedules: GTFS   GTFS = “General Transit Feed Specification’    Emerged in mid 2000s from Portland TriMet and Google’s ‘20% time’   Plaintext format: Entire GTFS feed of Portland is ~169 Mb   Live feeds available from 376+ agencies, see:-   Includes Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra: not yet Melbourne A good set of tools for examining/updating is TransitFeedDistribution
  16. 16. OpenStreetMap is other key data source   A very impressive collaboratively-developed street database   Hint: segments for major city-regions, inc. Melbourne, downloadable from Image from : showing global edits to OSM in 2008
  17. 17. OpenTripPlanner (Analysis)   One of a range of new FOSS transit network-analysis tools including GraphServer, but has most mature interface and web-capabilities   Java, designed to work with standard popular FOSS building-blocks (Tomcat web server, PostgreSQL, OpenLayers (though working on new Leaflet client) Demo URL1 Demo URL2
  18. 18. Melb Example: RMIT (close)
  19. 19. Melb Example: RMIT (train+tram+walk)
  20. 20. Melb Example: RMIT (all, inc bus)
  21. 21. Melb Example: Monash
  22. 22. Melb Example: Chadstone (train +tram)
  23. 23. Melb Example: Chadstone (all)
  24. 24. Melb Example: Dandenong (all)
  25. 25. Augmenting Accessibility More advanced analysis using OTP, including evaluation of network’s support for existing travel Journey-to-Work data, modal- difference to car, and job-based access. McGurrin, M. F. & Greczner, D. 2011, 'Performance Metrics: Calculating Accessibility Using Open Source Software and Open Data', 11-0230.
  26. 26. Visualising Network Change   Differential impact to New York Transit network after Hurricane Sandy ( maps-weve-seen-sandys-transit-outage-new-york/4488/)
  27. 27. What sort of model does this mean for ecosystems?   In scenario models, code is not just about computation, its about ideas :- and people outside government and elite research groups have them too (especially about systems like transport and urban planning)!   However this may require a model of service learning where universities, or public servants, see part of their role as working with the public to understand and use models. Proprietary Model S/W Company $ licence User Open Source Ecosystem Software code: digital commons Governance Process Host (personal, institutional, public) (Peer Support Community) (Derivative Services) (code improvments) Custom version Expert Company Companies/ Government Test Reports Expert User Expert User Casual User/ Hobbyist Clients Founder (BDFL)
  28. 28. Relationship between Information Technology & Democracy? Local:-   International:-     (LUTRAQ project)  “Modelers should ensure that legitimate policy positions in debates that do not have modeling support obtain necessary support, either as an entitlement of participation in the policy process, or via third-party arrangements involving philanthropic or other organisations.” -- King, J & Kraemer, K, 1993, “Models, Facts, and the Policy Process: The Political Ecology of Estimated Truth’, University of California working papers.
  29. 29. Contacts & References  , T: @PatSunter  References:   Curtis, C. & Low, N. 2012, 'Sustainable Transport and Institutional Barriers', in Institutional Barriers to Sustainable Transport, Ashgate, .   Curtis, C. & Schuerer, J. 2009, 'Network City Activity Centres: Developing an analysis, conception and communication tool for integrated land use and transport planning in the Perth metropolitan area', Curtin University, Research Report.   Held, D. 2006, Models of democracy, Polity Press, California.   Foster, I. 2010, 'Open source modeling as an enabler of transparent decision making', IEEE e-Science 2010 Conference ( )   Gudmundsson, H. 2011, 'Analysing models as a knowledge technology in transport planning', Transport Reviews, 31, 2, 145--159.   Mees, P. 2010, Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age, Earthscan, London, UK .   Nielsen, G., Nelson, J., Mulley, C., Tegnér, G., Lind, G., & Lange, T. 2005, Public transport - Planning the networks. HiTrans Best practice guide No. 2., , .   Wigan, M. 2008, 'The role of information contestability in evidence based policy in planning and transport', NECTAR Policy and Environment Workshop: Transition towards Sustainable Mobility: the Role of Instruments, Individuals and Institutions