The power of a tweet: How proprietary software vendor Socrata succumbed to community pressure


His past week Socrata, an American proprietary software vendor making solutions for (open) data handling, launched a new application for handling spending data. In general this company is everything that the non-profit open-source software producer and advocacy org Open Knowledge that I work for, is not. Basically, they make closed-source subscription-based tools to handle open data (ironic, yes) and sell it at high prices to wealthy governments.

Their new product was called Socrata Open Spending, which - if you're an open source software proponent like me - will ring a bell with you, because that is the exact title of another piece of software - OpenSpending - that Open Knowledge has been developing with the help of a global community of volunteer software developers over the last few years. The Open Knowledge OpenSpending software is free and open source and helps citizens open data pioneers around the world learn about spending data and gives them tools to create transparency in public spending and procurement in order to hold governments accountable - while the Socrata software is an expensive solution for governments and public bodies to manage and release spending data at their own pace. The Socrata Open Spending software is closed-source and subscription-based - which means that it will only run and make data available to the public as long as Socrata gets paid.

Naturally this high-jacking of the name put the open source OpenSpending community in commotion. I was also agitated and couldn't help myself send out this tweet alongside similar tweets from my friends @zararah and @pudo:

Usually this doesn't help a whole lot even if those being criticized are listening on Twitter. Big companies normally just ignore it and wait for it to pass. However a few days later this came in on the wire:

Wow. Three well-phrased tweets can really have an impact? Socrata even published an apology in a blog post that outlined their reasoning:

On April 2nd, 2014, Socrata launched our new suite of financial transparency apps. One of those apps is designed to help citizens better understand government expenditures. We named that app Socrata Open Spending because we believed that name best reflected the purpose and benefit of the app. While unintended, our naming choice of this app has created confusion for some in the open data community, due to the similar naming of Open Knowledge Foundation’s project, On behalf of Socrata, I apologize for creating that confusion.

Legally they didn't have to do that. Contrary to the new name Socrata Open Expenditures, which has been neatly trademarked (of course), the OpenSpending name is not protected, and why should it: As open source software it's not owned by anyone other than the general public. But Socrata chose to change their name anyway and I think that shows us an important lesson about the difference between "open" and "closed": When something is community driven and part of the commons you don't need legal protection: It's automatically everyone's and that means you cannot steal it. Or you'd be a fool to try. I'm glad Socrata realized that, an they deserve some credit for that - despite their otherwise loathsome (and old-fashion) way of doing business in general. David 1, Goliath 0.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *