Bringing institutions and people closer together

Picture of persons looking at theirs smartphones in a city

The Barcelona City Council decided to bet on participatory democracy to consolidate democratic culture and strengthen the social fabric of one of the fastest growing tech hubs in Europe.

In order to accomplish that, they looked at what the Madrid city council had in place, and initially they wanted to adapt it to Barcelona. The original developers of the Madrid platform recommended us to do the project, and so it began.

After trying to adapt the original platform, we realized that there were some architectural flaws that resulted in very low upgrade rate —every new installation required forking the project, and ended up almost never incorporating upstream changes and security updates. It had been a project designed for a specific city council, and naturally it wasn't as well suited to expansion to other councils and institutions.

And so we decided to go back to the drawing board: we built a new platform from the ground up with maintainability, extensibility and customization in mind. After releasing it under an open-source license, we continue to lead the contributions of more than 50+ community contributors. It has been now adopted by 30+ cities and 20+ other regional institutions and federations all over the world, some of them with customizations to better suit their own unique processes.

Drawing of a tablet displaying decidim website.

A free open-source participatory democracy for cities and organizations

The challenge: from one to many organizations

After trying to adapt the inherited Madrid platform to the Barcelona City Council needs, we quickly realized there were some serious challenges — practically every aspect was specifically tailored to the Madrid City Council needs.

However, the major problem we saw wasn't in maintainability and customization —it was in the process of porting to other councils and organizations. It was a monolithic codebase that needed to be forked for every new installation, as each organization required its own modifications. In practice, any new code upstream would rarely end up in every installation, as merging changes became more difficult and less worthwhile —and so installations were gradually diverging.

The solution: not an application, but a framework

We chose to leverage the power of Rails engines to flip the problem on its head —each installation would be its own application, using Decidim as a gem that provided functionality. This way, each installation could pick and choose which features they needed and implement independent customizations in their own application. When a new update was released upstream, they just needed to update the version and pull the new one.

By keeping Decidim as a library, the code contracts were much clearer and easier to respect —it was impossible for an application to couple themselves to non-public parts of the APIs we provided, and thus upgrades became trivially safe.

"We chose to leverage the power of Rails engines to flip the problem on its head —each installation would be its own application"

Several screenshots of decidim webstie

An open platform with international adoption

Even though it required a little bit more design and architectural work upfront, we launched on time and under budget, and our extensible architecture began to pay off immediately —more and more institutions came on board, and the ecosystem continues to thrive today.

Decidim has become a very popular project, being in active use by more than 30 city councils worldwide and 20 civil organizations.

We continue to lead the open-source project with more than 50+ contributors, performing code reviews and resolving community questions.

"We launched on time and under budget, and our extensible architecture began to pay off immediately"

Drawing of people and diferent electronic devicesIlustration of people connections graph

Company type

  • Participatory Democracy, Public Sector

Solution

  • Product development
  • Software Architecture & Development

Outcome

Huge adoption after launch (30 cities, 6 regional institutions, 15 federations), high update rates, 50+ open-source contributors

Location

Barcelona, Spain

Technologies

  • Ruby on Rails

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