The 311 Podcast

02 - Open source government with Bianca Tomazeli

September 02, 2020 The 311 Podcast Season 1 Episode 2
02 - Open source government with Bianca Tomazeli
The 311 Podcast
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The 311 Podcast
02 - Open source government with Bianca Tomazeli
Sep 02, 2020 Season 1 Episode 2
The 311 Podcast

Bianca Tomazeli, senior advisor for architecture, security and innovation at Ville du Montreal, joins Paul to share her experience building an open source practice and talks about collaboration, cost management, and long term support.

Find out more about Montreal's open source work at:

Show Notes Transcript

Bianca Tomazeli, senior advisor for architecture, security and innovation at Ville du Montreal, joins Paul to share her experience building an open source practice and talks about collaboration, cost management, and long term support.

Find out more about Montreal's open source work at:

Paul Bellows: This is the 311 podcast, it's a show about the people that make digital  government work. 

I'm your host Paul Bellows, if you'd like to find out more, visit

Today my guest is Bianca Tomazeli. 

Bianca and I met at the Open Government Partnership Conference in 2019.

Bianca works at the City of Montreal and she's responsible for Montreal's shift to open source software. 

In this episode Bianca and I talked about the business model impacts of open source, and the change management process that the city has gone through to bring in this new way of procuring and working with software. 

Let's dive into our conversation, which we held in the Ottawa convention centre. 

So, in the seven years that you've been at Montreal, what are some of the biggest changes that you've started to see, the things that are most impacting how IT work gets done in the city? 

Bianca Tomazeli: In the last four years and a half, we have had a really big shift on the technology that we use. 

Paul Bellows: Mhmm

Bianca Tomazeli: We can serve better the citizens using those new technologies. It's huge, the change for us. 

Paul Bellows: I think there's sort of a mistaken idea that often exists in government of, "well we get commercial software and it will just work but open source, you need to learn it and build and it's all custom", is that true?  You've had  commercial software, can you just use it or does it also require customization?

Bianca Tomazeli: in Montreal, what we decided  is that we don't want to develop all the solutions, as we used to do. So, what we have to do is, when we have a new problem or a new business need, that needs a new solution, we're going to do a market analysis. So we're gonna go and look, based on our business need what the market can offer to us. If we can have an off -the-shelf solution that does exactly what we need then we go to RFP.  Sometimes we don't have anything in the market and then we see the need to develop. When there is a need to develop is where we do an in-house solution, but since we had our policy for open source approved by our Council, then we can do the solution in an open-source manner and then is where we see the potential for cities to improve and accelerate digital innovation. 

Paul Bellows: So when you see this opportunity to do a custom software project to build what you truly need because it's not available in the market,  you've got a new policy that advocates open source first, is it working? Are people adopting open source? What are some of the barriers that you see, or the friction to bringing open source in that exist. 

Bianca Tomazeli: Our policy doesn't state to be open first. We state that if we have a commercial solution and an open source solution in the same level that responds to our business need then we are going to prefer the open source. 

Paul Bellows: Great, OK

Bianca Tomazeli: OK? So that's a little difference from the federal policy, which states open first, but it's not our case because we really want to focus on the business need because we have to serve the citizens. 

Paul Bellows: Absolutely.

Bianca Tomazeli: So, not reinventing the wheel if we can have something from the shelf that does the job. Right?

Paul Bellows: Yeah. 

Do you have the ability, yet - and you're only a year and a half in - but do you have the ability yet to start to look at total cost of ownership between you know, commercial versus open source software? 

Bianca Tomazeli: We are doing this right now.  We have a broader vision, but we have seen that in order to decide to have one product, our first product, totally City of Montreal-made open source, we have to compare how much would it cost to do it in an open way instead of doing it the way we are used to,  OK? And these will help us , to take decisions in, which one we're going to choose to do first. 

That's really important, but it is true or at least at the point we are right now, we don't have much information available for how much it costs. How is the difference, and as soon as we figure out that math or the steps and how to do, we're going to share with everybody

Paul Bellows: Great.

Bianca Tomazeli: That's for sure. We see talking to other cities on this matter of open source and how to do it, I  think they can leverage from that experience that we are doing, since we have many projects that are so big and touch so many business needs of the city. 

Paul Bellows: Now, one of the things that you said that I think is really interesting, which is I think an emerging trend in Canada, you talked about working with other cities.

So, Montreal is, as I understand, involved in a couple of initiatives that are bringing you together with other comparable municipalities to look at how you can start to share technology in an open source. Is that happening yet?

Bianca Tomazeli: Yes, it is happening right now. We started last August to do that because of our policy.

It opened up for us a huge opportunity to use open source to facilitate that kind of collaboration. We think that if we need to develop a  solution, for a problem that is related to municipal business, why not collaborate with other cities that do the same business and not reinvent the wheel. 

So the collaboration will help us today to develop new things but as well in the near future or maybe right now, if we do have something open source that we can take it and, let's say 60 percent is already there, I can just add on what is missing and reuse. So that will turn it faster for digital innovation for municipalities, and collaboration is the key point right now.

Paul Bellows: Yeah

Bianca Tomazeli: We see a huge potential to do that and we are connecting with many , but we want to scale, we really want to scale, we see that's a huge potential for everybody. 

Paul Bellows: I love the idea because there have been so many efforts in the past to make a city-in-the-box technology, you know, just a "hey, you just turn it on and it works" but every city's so different with culture and population and language and legislation and, and you know, like provincial context , but I love the idea, if you would take 60% of something and hand it off because that's, you know, you hand something like that to another municipality or they hand something to you and your 60% farther along than you would have been, so it's not saying "hey everything is a cookie cutter", but it's saying "hey we can we can all accelerate the work that we're doing and share best practices". 

Who are some of the other cities that you're working with?

Bianca Tomazeli: We are working right now with Edmonton. We are working with Sarnia, Guelph, the region of Niagara. Yeah, I think it's those key players right now. So we are looking for cities that want to embrace that new way of doing IT solutions 

Paul Bellows: mmhm

Bianca Tomazeli: just to develop the methodology, and how to do it and enable other cities to learn from that experience and then in the near future, maybe we're going to have many poles within the country doing IT solutions for cities. Why not? 

Paul Bellows: Absolutely 

Bianca Tomazeli: right? 

Paul Bellows: yeah

Bianca Tomazeli: So, that's the position that we are right now, but we have a big vision for the future.

Paul Bellows: A lot of the focus on "why open source" often comes down to "oh, it's, it's free". You know and this idea of the cost of the solution, which isn't really always the most important determinor. What are some of the reasons within Montreal that open source is getting this kind of focus other than just the idea that "oh the software is free"?

What are some of the other benefits?

Bianca Tomazeli: Yeah, we have seen that's not the case on the case at all for "free", but when we analyze solutions, we really want to see how is the business model involved on that open source solution as well, because when you make a decision to implement a solution in the city you are not doing that for the one-year, two-year term, you're doing it for the long term.

Paul Bellows: Yeah

Bianca Tomazeli: The long term can be 5, 10 years for a solution  within the city, so you cannot focus only on the part "oh it's free, I'm okay." No. So we have some criteria that we analize to make sure that the solution is a good one for the business , but as well, their business model can be supported in the long term.

Okay, so that's really important for us. But we have risks. We have the security matters. We have the budgeting matters. We have so many aspects that we see as a benefit. Like as I was mentioning about budgeting, I can share, if I do have like say 100,000 dollars to invest to develop a solution for permit and the City of Quebec, just my neighbor, has the same project for that year. If I put in 50,000 and they put in 50,000 it will cost less for me, less for them, and we're going to have a solution that responds to both of us and can be replicated for another city in the near future

Paul Bellows: Right

Bianca Tomazeli: So I'm saving $50,000, which I can expend that money in another manner that I would not be able to do for that year,

Paul Bellows: yeah

Bianca Tomazeli: budget-wise speaking. So we really evolve and I'm sharing risks, right? Developing a solution is not just me, I have another city that is doing it. We are sharing the investment. We are sharing the code, the security matters, we have more eyes developing more people involved, the whole aspect of doing a solution it comes up in a way that, it is for the better good. We have the community that we can engage to come up and help us to develop. 

So the gains are immeasurable right now. 

Paul Bellows: Yeah 

Bianca Tomazeli: Maybe we are going to touch a nerve and one day become a big thing for a solution from cities. We never know.

Paul Bellows: Yeah, 

Bianca Tomazeli: so, the exploration is there, the open source market they are already really big and everybody knows about it, but in the spectrum of public organization is not there yet. 

We need more leaders to support the idea and support that open source is another way of doing things. It doesn't cut out the way we do things already it's just an add-on and that add-on helps us to evolve and accelerate the way we need to for the future of the solutions that we have to develop.

Paul Bellows: Just another tool in the toolkit.

Bianca Tomazeli: Exactly.

Paul Bellows: Now, you talked a little bit about this idea of you know, sort of sharing, y'know maybe two cities pooling resources. In a commercial software environment, is that even a conversation you can have? Like is that even possible?  

Bianca Tomazeli: I don't see it yet. Maybe in the future, if we as public organizations get together and start to build a strong foundation for us, maybe we're going to have a position where the private sector will see the advantage to come and collaborate more with us. Maybe one day, we'll be able to develop a solution a half and a half, 

Paul Bellows: Yeah

Bianca Tomazeli: private with the public sector and all open. 

Paul Bellows: Yeah

Bianca Tomazeli: ...Why not? But they have to change the way they do business with us. In our days, if we need a solution, most of the cities will have to adopt themselves to the system and it's not the best way to go. We want the solution to adapt to our business need

Paul Bellows: Yeah

Bianca Tomazeli: It's just that because we have this concept that we are so tiny in the market, we don't have the power, 

Paul Bellows: mhmm

Bianca Tomazeli: to do those types of change but, if we get together is where we can be stronger.

Paul Bellows: There's an estado to the UK recently where a group sort of measured the global public sector technology market at about 400 billion dollars, which makes government a massive massive global market, and yet, government doesn't behave like a unified market, you know, it's not like, "oh i created a solution so I'll just go sell it to government." You know, it's all sort of one, one at a time, but wouldn't it be great if government became more like a market, so that vendors could say "well I have these open source solutions, I can sell them in at 60 percent done, you can do finalizing. What is your vision, you know, as you sort of think of that other way you can sort of open up collaboration with the private sector, thinking about Montreal and economic development within Montreal, sort of the growing strong businesses inside of Montreal that will pay taxes and will hire employees, y'know, do you have any sense of how this could change your relationship with the local software industry in the city that you work in, 'cause every city wants their own technology economy to thrive. 

Bianca Tomazeli: It's true. What we see so far as a great opportunity for our local economy to evolve from the open source area, is that since we decided to go and do open source, we have the policy now that help us to do this, and not just the code; we are talking about open science, open standards, we can maybe develop one day a city protocol, that every city can fit in and the market has to adapt to that protocol. Why not? 

Paul Bellows: Yeah 

Bianca Tomazeli: that's the thing that I see is possible, but we have to get together and put in efforts together to work towards that.  The one thing that is now possible with our policy is that we have seen many smaller cities within the province, that doesn't have the same IT power as Montreal but since we are developing, we're helping to evolve the open source market, those companies can come up and help those other cities to implement what we are using, or what we are putting up as an open code. So they can benefit even though they don't have the support and IT within their service, the city. So that's a market that many companies can get a part of and help cities really evolve. 

Paul Bellows: There's sometimes an idea within procurement in cities that " our citizens tax dollars paid for a solution, we can't let that benefit other cities or you know, suddenly we've taken this citizen and if we're using to enrich some private sector company whose now selling that solution", how do you see that? I s that a problem, or what's the benefit for Montreal of making these types of investments? 

Bianca Tomazeli: Yeah, we decided our solutions open source would be with the MIT license 

Paul Bellows: Great

Bianca Tomazeli: because we want to encourage companies, if there is a company that takes one of our solutions and they package that and start to sell, I'm encouraged the economy the local economy to do so, so there is a benefit. And taxpayers, they give the money to the city and we have to spend it wisely. But to the government in the open concept of  government is the transparency. Where am I putting that money?

So I'm giving back to the citizen, "Look I did the solution, here is the code, if you want to come and contribute, if you want to come and help us to find faults or fix bugs or maybe improve that solution to another matter within the city, why not? It's just helpful for everybody.

And collaborating with other cities, yes, we don't share the same citizens, but we share business. There's some cases that their citizens come to our city to study, or to participate to a social activity, we never know, we never know, but the money's public. Since the money is public it's for everybody, so why not share with other cities? This is a huge improvement for everybody. 

Paul Bellows: Now, you said something earlier that I think is really important to talk about which is the idea of security, and that's one of the most common reasons that people say open source is scary, you know is security and who's responsible in these you know, big, distributed systems that no one really owns, who's ensuring that things are secure?

Is that a reality in your world at all is security in open source actually a problem, or what is the state of security in open source versus the commercial applications that you see in your portfolio?

Bianca Tomazeli: Well, the security matter there are many aspects that's still a taboo, but it's just a taboo. We, we do have assessments, we do have tools available to make sure that your solution doesn't have those critical gaps when you release the code, and if we do have any type of problem with security when the, the code will be open, let's face it, you know, it's a risk, yes, but any company has this type of risk. Even if my code's not open, I can be hacked, right?

So, can we be safe all the time? No, we can't. So, if we open up is where I think we have the more stability and opportunity to have those that are engaged with the city to help us to get better service and serve better. So it's a win-win situation. You know, we do have many specialized people in IT and security . Each day they are looking to improve security within the service that we offer, but the public can do the same, so I don't see it as a risk, I see it as a gain and an improvement that can be faster. Maybe if I just do it by myself, within the city, it takes five years to discover a problem, and if I open it up, in one week someone will give the flag, "look! I found something!", you know, we can gain a lot from that . 

Paul Bellows: Absolutely. 

You said something that I think is really interesting which is, maybe 10 years ago in a municipal IT context, someone would say, "well we buy software from vendors, vendors test for security, and so we assume that the software is secure", but you're talking about it's now Montreal's responsibility to have security testing for all the software because security is ultimately your responsibility.

I think that's just sort of evidence of this change where, ten years ago, you know a CIO would say "well, we're in the business of buying things that we then use" but now government's becoming a software company, it's starting to build digital teams and digital capabilities in-house to say well security's now our business. How is this changing the people who work inside of government and inside the city of Montreal, just the idea that you know, there's these centralized services that that have to be available to everybody.

How's it starting to change the workforce of the city? 

Bianca Tomazeli: Well,  we suppose that proprietary solutions are secure, but that there's no security on that as well, right? When you need or you have any type of problem with the proprietary solution, still, sometimes you don't have the answer from the company on that matter. Maybe they are just doing so many things that you won't have your answer right away. 

Right now, within the city it is important we have a whole direction that takes care of the IT security matters, in many levels, but it is important because we serve, we have like the Police Department, Fire Department, they have service 24 hours, 7 days a week. So all those supports that we have is for the public security so we cannot be apart on that taking care of the security, and always looking forward for new things coming, and new technology, how to do better, how to improve  the processes and assessments that we do. So it's an iterative process, always learning from and improving the service that we offer. 

Paul Bellows: Absolutely. Now, you've talked about how Montreal has had this, you know open source policy for just over a year and a half now, and I can't imagine that you can be successful without that type of top-down support for it.

How did Montreal come to a position where that policy existed? What  was the journey?

Bianca Tomazeli: Well the journey started with our last mayor, he decided that he wanted  Montreal to become a smart city. And with that comes a lot of change on the technology part, right? To support and to become a smart city, and because of that support, that political support, came all the strategy that has to build up in order to implement the smart city aspect. 

So, with that support, we have the council support, we have the leaders' support, the CIO, directors, everybody has to agree on the vision, on the business plan to implement that. Because we had that structure it helped us to be able to make the policy a reality. It's one of the things that we have seen so far with many cities that don't have that yet, is that they don't have that clear plan and that clear  vision that all their leaders support. Sometimes they do, but they don't have the policy, like in our case, we changed the mayor, so we had to prove all over again , all the the strategy that we did, and he had to buy it, in order to make it happen. So we saw that transition and how hard it was because we have two mayors that approve it now we did the policy so we don't have to go over it again. So that is the tools in order to make sure that the strategy is in place and the tools within the public spectrum that we have to put in place. 

Paul Bellows: Everyone wants to be a smart city, but it's great to hear Montreal taking active steps towards being just smarter in every way. 

Do you have any advice for someone who's in your role in another municipality who maybe doesn't have that top-down support yet, and who's struggling to bring open source thinking, Open Standards thinking, into the organization. Any words of advice?

Bianca Tomazeli: What we are doing, I see as a support for those who are in that position is, Montreal is opening all our process and what we have done for making that decisions and get that support like any type of training or presentations on the matter. It doesn't matter which technology or which part of the Smart City plan you have to do, we are opening up that. So we are helping them, they can come and learn from what we did in order to do by themselves.

The basic is education sometimes councils and directors, they fear, just because they don't know all the risks that are involved and how much effort it takes to do. So, sometimes just a lack of information, it's not that people are totally against the idea, it's just that if they can see the benefit of doing it, they will buy it, they will give the support.

Paul Bellows: Well, I know that our species craves stories, and we like to follow stories, so it's great to hear that you're using that, kind of like bringing people in and showing them what's working and letting them see and get that evidence  and thanks for sharing the story of Montreal's journey with us, this is great. 

Bianca Tomazeli: Thank you very much for having us. 

Paul Bellows: Absolutely, thanks Bianca. 

Bianca Tomazeli: Really great pleasure, thank you.

Paul Bellows: Great!

Open source software can be a powerful element in the toolbox that cities use for getting things done.

I'm grateful to Bianca for making time to share some of Montreal's journey. You can find out more about some of the projects Montreal is working on at, or find the link in the show notes. 

This episode was part one of two-part series on open source in goverment. Next up we'll talk to Norman Mendoza from the city of Edmonton, who is part of a group of cities including Montreal who are sharing their open source projects with each other.

We're going to keep having conversations like this, thanks for tuning in.

If you've got ideas for guests we should speak to send us an email to 

Government is about all of us, let's keep making a better world.

This has been the 311 Podcast, and I'm your host, Paul Bellows.m