Undertaken as a collaboration between Open Knowledge and the CIVICUSDataShift, the report contains seven case studies accompanied by a series of recommendations for civil society groups, public institutions and policy-makers. The case studies cover data collection initiatives around a wide variety of different topics – from literacy rates in East Africa to water access in Malawi, migration deaths in Europe to fracking pollution in the US. It was researched and written by myself, Danny Lämmerhirt and Liliana Bounegru.
We hope that it will contribute to advancing policies and practices to make public information systems more responsive to the interests and concerns of civil society. You can download the full report here.
Here is an excerpt from the introduction:
The information systems of public institutions play a crucial role in how we collectively look at and act in the world. They shape the way decisions are made, progress is evaluated, resources are allocated, issues are flagged, debates are framed and action is taken. As a United Nations (UN) report recently put it, “Data are the lifeblood of decision-making and the raw material for accountability.”1
Every information system renders certain aspects of the world visible and lets others recede into the background. Datasets highlight some things and not others. They make the world comprehensible and navigable in their own way – whether for the purposes of policy evaluation, public service delivery, administration or governance.
Given the critical role of public information systems, what happens when they leave out parts of the picture that civil society groups consider vital? What can civil society actors do to shape or influence these systems so they can be used to advance progress around social, democratic and environmental issues?
This report looks at how citizens and civil society groups can generate data as a means to influence institutional data collection. In the following pages, we profile citizen generated and civil society data projects and how they have been used as advocacy instruments to change institutional data collection – including looking at the strategies, methods, technologies and resources that have been mobilised to this end. We conclude with a series of recommendations for civil society groups, public institutions, policy-makers and funders.
The report was commissioned as part of a research series by DataShift, an initiative that builds the capacity and confidence of civil society organisations to produce and use citizen-generated data. It follows on from another recent discussion paper from Open Knowledge on what can be done to make the “data revolution” more responsive to the interests and concerns of civil society,2 as well as a briefing note by DataShift on how institutions can support sustainability of citizen-generated data initiatives.3
Every year countries lose billions of dollars to tax avoidance, tax evasion and more generally to illicit financial flows. According to a recent IMF estimate around $700 billion of tax revenues is lost each year due to profit-shifting. In developing countries the loss is estimated to be around $200 billion, which as a share of GDP represents nearly three times the loss suffered by OECD countries. Meanwhile, economist Gabriel Zucman estimates that certain components of undeclared offshore wealth total above $7 trillion, implying tax losses of $200 billion annually; Jim Henry’s work for TJN suggests the full total of offshore assets may range between $21 trillion and $32 trillion.
We want to transform the way that data is used for advocacy, journalism and public policy to address this urgent challenge by creating of a global network of civil society groups, investigative reporters, data journalists, civic hackers, researchers, public servants and others.
Today, Open Knowledge and the Tax Justice Network are delighted to announce the launch of a new initiative in this area: Open Data for Tax Justice. We want to initiate a global network of people and organisations working to create, use and share data to improve advocacy and journalism around tax justice. The website is: http://datafortaxjustice.net/ and using the hashtag #od4tj.
The network will work to rally campaigners, civil society groups, investigative reporters, data journalists, civic hackers, researchers, public servants and others; it will aim to catalyse collaborations and forge lasting alliances between the tax justice movement and the open data movement. We have received a huge level of support and encouragement from preliminary discussions with our initial members, and look forward to expanding the network and its activities over the coming months.
What is on the cards? We’re working on a white paper on what a global data infrastructure for tax justice might look like. We also want to generate more practical guidance materials for data projects – as well as to build momentum with online and offline events. We will kick off with some preliminary activities at this year’s global Open Data Day on Saturday 5th March. Tax justice will be one of the main themes of the London Open Data Day, and if you’d like to have a go at doing something tax related at an event that you’re going to, you can join the discussion here.
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We are happy to announce that The Latin American Open Data initiative (ILDA) is joining the global efforts to enrich Open Data Day mini aims to promote and support the engagement of the Latin American community on Open Data Day. Our support will go to Latin American individuals and organisation that already applied to this year’s call.
In 2015, almost every country in Latin America held an Open Data Day event. Latin America is one of the most active regions in the world in the field of open data, with a number of growing national and city-based organisations, a strong community and very creative ideas. We hope this contribution will keep the movement growing by exploring relevant challenges for an Open Latin America that will lead to new forms of innovation and strengthen relationships between citizens and their governments.
This is a guest post from Richard Pietro the writer and director of Open.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely familiar with the terms Open Government, Open Data, and Open Source. You probably understand how civic engagement is being radically transformed through these movements.
Therein lays the challenge: How can we reach everyone else? The ones who haven’t heard these terms and have little interest in civic engagement.
Here’s what I think: Civic engagement is a bad brand. If we’re to capture the attention of more people, we need to change its brand for the better.
When most people think of civic engagement, they probably imagine people in a community meeting somewhere yelling at each other. Or, maybe they picture a snooze-fest municipal planning and development consultation. Who has time to fit that in with everything else going on in their lives? I think most people would prefer to invest their spare time on something they’re passionate about; not sitting in a stuffy meeting! (If stuffy meetings ARE your passion, that’s cool too!)
Civic engagement is seen as dry and boring, or meant solely for the hyper-informed, hyper-engaged, policy-wonk. Between these two scenarios, you feel your voice will never be heard – so why bother? Civic engagement has bad PR. It isn’t viewed as fun for most people. Plus, I think there’s also an air of elitism, especially when it’s spoken as a right, duty, privilege, or punishment (judges issue community service as a punishment).
That’s why I’ve adopted a different perspective: Civic Engagement as Art. This was motivated via Seth Godin’s book “Linchpin” where he suggests that art shouldn’t only be thought of as fine art. Rather, he argues that art is a product of passion; art is creating something, and that’s what civic engagement is all about – creating something in your community that comes from passion.
I’m hoping that Open will introduce Open Government, Open Data, and Open Source to new people in simply because it is being done in a new way. My intention is to begin changing the civic engagement brand by having fun with it.
For example, I call myself an Open Government Fanboy, so Open uses as many pop-culture and “fanboy-type” references as we could squeeze in. As a matter of fact, I call the film a “spoofy adaptation” of The Matrix. What we did was take the scene where Morpheus is explaining to Neo the difference between the “Real World” and the “Matrix” and adapts it to the “Open World” versus the “Closed World.” We also included nods to Office Space, The Simpsons, Monty Python, and Star Trek.
As a bonus, I’m hoping that these familiar themes and references will make it easier for “newbies” to understand Open Government, Open Data, and Open Source space.
So, without further Apu (Simpsons fans will get it), I give you Open – The World’s first short film on Open Government, Open Data, and Open Source.
Writer and Director: Richard Pietro
Screenplay: Richard Pietro & Rick Weiss
Executive Producers: Keith Loo and Bruce Chau
Cinematographers: Gord Poon & Mike Donis
Technical Lead: Brian Wong
Composer and Sound Engineer: GARU
Actors: Mish Tam & Julian Friday
Getting together at a public event can be a fun way to contribute to the 2015 Global Open Data Index. It can also be a great way to engage and organize people locally around open data. Here are some guidelines and tips for hosting an event in support of the 2015 Index and getting the most out of it.
Hosting an event around the Global Open Data Index is an excellent opportunity to spread the word about open data in your community and country, not to mention a chance to make a contribution to this year’s Index. Ideally, your event would focus broadly on open data themes, possibly even identifying the status of all 15 key datasets and completing the survey. Set a reasonable goal for yourself based on the audience you think you can attract. You may choose to not even make a submission at your event, but just discuss the state of open data in your country, that’s fine too.
It may make sense to host an event focused around one or more of the datasets. For instance, if you can organize people around government spending issues, host a party focused on the budget, spending, and procurement tender datasets. If you can organize people around environmental issues, focus on the pollutant emissions and water quality datasets. Choose whichever path you wish, but it’s good to establish a focused agenda, a clear set of goals and outcomes for any event you plan.
We believe the datasets included in the survey represent a solid baseline of open data for any nation and any citizenry; you should be prepared to make this case to the participants at your events. You don’t have to have be an expert yourself, or even have topical experts on hand to discuss or contribute to the survey. Any group of interested and motivated citizens can contribute to a successful event. Meet people where they are at, and help them understand why this work is important in your community and country. It will set a good tone for your event by helping participants realize they are part of a global effort and that the outcomes of their work will be a valuable national asset.
It defines a benchmark to assess how healthy and helpful our open datasets are.
It allows us to make comparisons between different countries.
Allows us to asses what countries are doing right and what countries are doing wrong and to learn from each other.
Provides a standard framework that allows us to identify what we need to do or even how to implement or make use of open data in our countries and identify what we are strong at or what we are week at.
What to do at an Open Data Index event
It’s great to start your event with an open discussion so you can gauge the experience in the room and how much time you should spend educating and discussing introductory materials. You might not even get around to making a contribution, and that’s ok. Introducing the Index in anyway will put your group on the right path.
If you’re hosting an event with mostly newcomers, it’s always a good idea to look to the Open Definition and the Open Data Handbookfor inspiration and basic information.
If your group is more experienced, everything you need to contribute to the survey can be found in this year’s Index contribution tutorial.
If you’re actively contributing at an event, we recommend splitting into teams and assigning one or more datasets to each of the group and having them use the Tutorial as a guide. There can only be one submission per dataset, so be sure to not have teams working on the same task.
Pair more experienced people with less experienced people so teams can better rely on themselves to answer questions and solve problems.
Good things can often go unnoticed, especially if they’re not immediately visible. Last month the government of Sweden, through Vinnova, released a revamped version of their open data portal, Öppnadata.se. The portal still runs on CKAN, the open data management system. It even has the same visual feeling but the principles behind the portal are completely different. The main idea behind the new version of Öppnadata.se is automation. Open Knowledge teamed up with the Swedish company Metasolutions to build and deliver an automated open data portal.
In modern web development, one aspect of website automation called responsive design has become very popular. With this technique the website automatically adjusts the presentation depending on the screen size. That is, it knows how best to present the content given different screen sizes. Öppnadata.se got a slight facelift in terms of tweaks to its appearance, but the big news on that front is that it now has a responsive design. The portal looks different if you access it on mobile phones or if you visit it on desktops, but the content is still the same.
These changes were contributed to CKAN. They are now a part of the CKAN core web application as of version 2.3. This means everyone can now have responsive data portals as long as they use a recent version of CKAN.
Perhaps the biggest innovation of Öppnadata.se is how the automation process works for adding new datasets to the catalog. Normally with CKAN, data publishers log in and create or update their datasets on the CKAN site. CKAN has for a long time also supported something called harvesting, where an instance of CKAN goes out and fetches new datasets and makes them available. That’s a form of automation, but it’s dependent on specific software being used or special harvesters for each source. So harvesting from one CKAN instance to another is simple. Harvesting from a specific geospatial data source is simple. Automatically harvesting from something you don’t know and doesn’t exist yet is hard.
That’s the reality which Öppnadata.se faces. Only a minority of public organisations and municipalities in Sweden publish open data at the moment. So a decision hasn’t been made by a majority of the public entities for what software or solution will be used to publish open data.
To tackle this problem, Öppnadata.se relies on an open standard from the World Wide Web Consortium called DCAT (Data Catalog Vocabulary). The open standard describes how to publish a list of datasets and it allows Swedish public bodies to pick whatever solution they like to publish datasets, as long as one of its outputs conforms with DCAT.
Thanks to this effort significant improvements have been made to CKAN’s support for RDF and DCAT. They include application profiles (like the Swedish one) for harvesting and exposing DCAT metadata in different formats. So a CKAN instance can now automatically harvest datasets from a range of DCAT sources, which is exactly what Öppnadata.se does. For Öppnadata.se, the CKAN support also makes it easy for Swedish public bodies who use CKAN to automatically expose their datasets correctly so that they can be automatically harvested by Öppnadata.se. For more information have a look at the CKAN DCAT extension documentation.
Dead or alive
The Web is decentralised and always changing. A link to a webpage that worked yesterday might not work today because the page was moved. When automatically adding external links, for example, links to resources for a dataset, you run into the risk of adding links to resources that no longer exist.
To counter that Öppnadata.se uses a CKAN extension called Dead or alive. It may not be the best name, but that’s what it does. It checks if a link is dead or alive. The checking itself is performed by an external service called deadoralive. The extension just serves a set of links that the external service decides to check to see if some links are alive. In this way dead links are automatically marked as broken and system administrators of Öppnadata.se can find problematic public bodies and notify them that they need to update their DCAT catalog (this is not automatic because nobody likes spam).
These are only the automation highlights of the new Öppnadata.se. Other changes were made that have little to do with automation but are still not immediately visible, so a lot of Öppnadata.se’s beauty happens behind the scenes. That’s also the case for other open data portals. You might just visit your open data portal to get some open data, but you might not realise the amount of effort and coordination it takes to get that data to you.
If you are interested in Open Access and Open Data and haven’t hear about ContentMine yet then you are missing out! Graham Steel, ContentMine Community Manager, has written a post for us introducing this exciting new tool.
ContentMine aims to liberate 100,000,000 facts from the scientific literature.
We believe that “The Right to Read is the Right to Mine“: anyone who has lawful access to read the literature with their eyes should be able to do so with a machine.
We want to make this right a reality and enable everyone to perform research using humanity’s accumulated scientific knowledge. The extracted facts are CC0.
The ContentMine Team & Helen Turvey, Executive Director, Shuttleworth Foundation at the Panton Arms in Cambridge
Research which relies on aggregating large amounts of dynamic information to benefit society is particularly key to our work – we want to see the right information getting to the right people at the right time and work with professionals such as clinical trials specialists and conservationists. ContentMine tools, resources, services and content are fully Open and can be re-used by anybody for any legal purpose.
ContentMine is inspired by the community successes of Wikimedia, Open StreetMap, Open Knowledge, and others and encourages the growth of subcommunities which design, implement and pursue their particular aims. We are funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation, a philanthropic organisation who are unafraid to re-imagine the world and fund people who’ll change it.
“New technologies are leading to an exponential increase in the volume and types of data available, creating unprecedented possibilities for informing and transforming society and protecting the environment. Governments, companies, researchers and citizen groups are in a ferment of experimentation, innovation and adaptation to the new world of data, a world in which data are bigger, faster and more detailed than ever before. This is the data revolution.” – UN Data Revolution Group, 2014
What will the “data revolution” do? What will it be about? What will it count? What kinds of risks and harms might it bring? Whom and what will it serve? And who will get to decide?
Today we are launching a new discussion paper on “Democratising the Data Revolution”, which is intended to advance thinking and action around civil society engagement with the data revolution. It looks beyond the disclosure of existing information, towards more ambitious and substantive forms of democratic engagement with data infrastructures.1
It concludes with a series of questions about what practical steps institutions and civil society organisations might take to change what is measured and how, and how these measurements are put to work.
You can download the full PDF report here, or continue to read on in this blog post.
How might civil society actors shape the data revolution? In particular, how might they go beyond the question of what data is disclosed towards looking at what is measured in the first place? To kickstart discussion around this topic, we will look at three kinds of intervention: changing existing forms of measurement, advocating new forms of measurement and undertaking new forms of measurement.
Changing Existing Forms of Measurement
Rather than just focusing on the transparency, disclosure and openness of public information, civil society groups can argue for changing what is measured with existing data infrastructures. One example of this is recent campaigning around company ownership in the UK. Advocacy groups wanted to unpick networks of corporate ownership and control in order to support their campaigning and investigations around tax avoidance, tax evasion and illicit financial flows.
As well as changing or recalibrating existing forms of measurement, campaigners and civil society organisations can make the case for the measurement of things which were not previously measured. For example, over the past several decades social and political campaigning has resulted in new indicators about many different issues – such as gender inequality, health, work, disability, pollution or education.3 In such cases activists aimed to establish a given indicator as important and relevant for public institutions, decision makers, and broader publics – in order to, for example, inform policy development or resource allocation.
Undertaking New Forms of Measurement
Historically, many civil society organisations and advocacy groups have collected their own data to make the case for action on issues that they work on – from human rights abuses to endangered species.
Recently there have been several data journalism projects which highlight gaps in what is officially counted. The Migrant Files is an open database containing information about over 29,000 people who died on their way to Europe since 2000, collated from publicly available sources. It was created by a network of journalists (coordinated by J++) who were concerned that this data was not being systematically collected by European institutions. In a similar vein The Counted project from The Guardian records information about deaths in police custody in the US, explicitly in response to the lack of official data collection on this topic.
The Role of the Open Data Movement
The nascent open data movement has often focused on the release of pre-existing information about things which are already routinely measured by public institutions. Advocates have pushed for the release of datasets under open licenses in machine-readable formats to facilitate widespread re-use – whether to develop new applications and services, or to facilitate new forms of journalism and advocacy. Datasets are often published via data portals, of which there are now hundreds around the world at local, regional, national and supranational levels.
As well as opening up new datasets, some public institutions have implemented mechanisms to gather input and feedback on open data release priorities, such as:
In principle these kinds of mechanisms could be used not just to inform priorities for the release of existing datasets – but also in order to facilitate engagement between institutions and civil society actors around what should be measured by the public sector and how.
To use a metaphor, if data can be compared to photography, then might the open data movement play a role in intervening not just around access and circulation of snapshots taken by public institutions, but also around what is depicted and how it is shot?
Questions for Discussion
We would like to catalyse discussion and gather input about how to increase civil society engagement around the data revolution and questions about what should be measured and how. To this end, we invite advocacy groups, journalists, public institutions, data users, researchers and others to respond to the following questions.
What Can Civil Society Groups Do?
What can civil society organisations do to engage with the data revolution?
What role might the nascent open data movement play in mediating between civil society organisations and public institutions around what should be measured?
What opportunities does the data revolution present for civil society organisations?
What are the best examples of democratic interventions to change, advocate or create new forms of measurement (both present and past)?
What are the biggest obstacles to greater civil society engagement with the data revolution? How might these be addressed?
Which kinds of transnational challenges and issues (e.g. climate change, tax base erosion) are currently inadequately dealt with by national data infrastructures?
What areas might new kinds of measurement make the biggest difference, and how?
What factors are most important in ensuring that data leads to action?
What might civil society groups do to flag potential risks and unwanted consequences of data infrastructures as well as their benefits?
What Can Public Institutions Do?
What can public institutions do to better understand the interests and priorities of civil society organisations around what should be measured?
Are there examples of where open data initiatives have facilitated significant changes to existing datasets, or the creation of new kinds of datasets?
Which kinds of mechanisms might be most effective in understanding and responding to the interests of civil society organisations around what is measured and how?
What are the biggest obstacles to public institutions responding more effectively to the data needs and interests of civil society groups? How might these be addressed?
How to Respond
We welcome responses on these and other topics via the channels below:
Tag your responses with the #ourdatarev hashtag on Twitter
In this context we understand data infrastructures as composites of technical, legal and social systems (e.g. software, laws, policies, practices, standards) involved in the creation and management of data. ↩
See: Gray, J. & Davies, T (2015) “Fighting Phantom Firms in the UK: From Opening Up Datasets to Reshaping Data Infrastructures?”. Working paper available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2610937↩
Latest crime data shows that the UK is getting significantly more ‘peaceful’. Last month, the Institute for Economics and Peace published the UK Peace Index, revealing UK crime figures have fallen the most of all EU countries in the past decade. Homicide rates, to take one indicator, have halved over the last decade.
But the British public still feels that crime levels are rising. How can opening up crime data play a part in convincing us we are less likely to experience crime than ever before?
The ‘Perception Gap’
The discrepancy between crime data and perceptions of the likelihood of crime is particularly marked in the UK. Although it has been found that a majority of the public broadly trust official statistics, the figures are markedly lower for those relating to crime. In one study, 85% of people agreed that the Census accurately reflects changes in the UK, but only 63% said the same of crime statistics.
Credibility of Police Data
Police forces have been publishing crime statistics in the UK since 2008, using their own web-based crime mapping tools or via the national crime mapping facility (http://maps.police.uk/ and http://www.police.uk). This has been purportedly for the purpose of improving engagement with local communities alongside other policy objectives, such as promoting transparency.
But allegations of ‘figure fiddling’ on the part of the police have undermined the data’s credibility and in 2014, the UK Statistics Authority withdrew its gold-standard status from police figures, pointing to ‘accumulating evidence’ of unreliability.
But the credibility of the data has been called into question. Just recently, data relating to stop-search incidents for children aged under-12 was proved ‘inaccurate’. The site itself details many issues which call the accuracy of the data into question: inconsistent geocoding policies in police forces; “Six police forces we suspect may be double-reporting certain types of incidents“; ‘siloed systems’ within police records; and differing IT systems from regional force to force.
In summary, we cannot be sure the ‘data provided is fully accurate or consistent.’
The Role the Media Plays: If it Bleeds, it Leads
In response to persistent and widespread public disbelief, the policies of successive UK governments on crime have toughened: much tougher sentencing, more people in prison, more police on the streets. When the British public were asked why they think there is more crime now than in the past, more than half (57%) stated that it was because of what they see on television and almost half (48%) said it was because of what they read in newspapers [Ipsos MORI poll on Closing the Gaps. One tabloid newspaper, exclaimed just recently: “Rape still at record levels and violent crime rises” and “Crime shows biggest rise for a decade“. As the adage goes, If it Bleeds, it Leads.
But many remain less than convinced. According to official statistics, in 1999-2000, a black person was five times more likely than a white person to be stopped by police. A decade later, they were seven times more likely. One criminologist commented: “Claims that the Lawrence inquiry’s finding of institutional racism no longer apply have a hollow ring when we look at the evidence on police stops.” [Michael Shiner reported in the Guardian].
Equally, the police distrust the public too. The murder of two young, female police officers in Manchester in 2012 ignited the long-rumbling debate over whether the police should be armed. So the divide between the police and the public is a serious one.
Improving the presentation of crime statistics to make them more authoritative
Reviewing the availability of local crime and criminal justice data on government websites to identify opportunities for consolidation
Sharing of best practice and improvements in metadata and providing reassurance on the quality of police crime records.
It’s clear that the UK police recognise the importance of improving their publication of data. But it seems that opening data alone won’t fix the shattered trust between the public and the police, even if the proof that Britons are safer than ever before is there in transparent, easily navigable data. We need to go further back in the chain of provenance, scrutinise the reporting methods of the police for instance.
But this is about forgiveness too, and the British public might just not be ready for that yet.
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In 2004 I founded a non-profit called Open Knowledge
The mission we set ourselves was to open up all public interest information – and see it used to create insight that drives change.
What sort of public interest information? In short, all of it. From big issues like how our government spends our taxes or how fast climate change is happening to simple, everyday, things like when the next bus is arriving or the exact address of that coffee shop down the street.
For the last decade, we have been pioneers and leaders in the open data and open knowledge movement. We wrote the original definition of open data in 2005, we’ve helped unlock thousands of datasets. And we’ve built tools like CKAN, that powers dozens of open data portals, like data.gov in the US and data.gov.uk in the UK. We’ve created a network of individuals and organizations in more than 30 countries, who are all working to make information open, because they want to drive insight and change.
But today I’m not here to talk specifically about Open Knowledge or what we do.
Instead, I want to step back and talk about the bigger picture. I want to talk to you about digital age, where all that glitters is bits, and why we need to put openness at its heart.
Gutenberg and Tyndale
To do that I first want to tell you a story. Its a true story and it happened a while ago – nearly 500 years ago. It involves two people. The first one is Johannes Gutenberg. In 1450 Gutenberg invented this: the printing press. Like the Internet in our own time, it was revolutionary. It is estimated that before the printing press was invented, there were just 30,000 books in all of Europe. 50 years later, there were more than 10 million. Revolutionary, then, though it moved at the pace of the fifteenth century, a pace of decades not years. Over the next five hundred years, Gutenberg’s invention would transform our ability to share knowledge and help create the modern world.
The second is William Tyndale. He was born in England around 1494, so he grew up in world of Gutenberg’s invention.
Tyndale followed the classic path of a scholar at the time and was ordained as a priest. In the 1510s, when he was still a young man, the Reformation still hadn’t happened and the Pope was supreme ruler of a united church across Europe. The Church – and the papacy – guarded its power over knowledge, forbidding the translation of the bible from Latin so that only its official priests could understand and interpret it.
Tyndale had an independent mind. There’s a story that he got into an argument with a local priest. The priest told him:
“We are better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.”
“If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the scriptures than you!”
What Tyndale meant was that he would open up the Bible to everyone.
Tyndale made good on his promise. Having fled abroad to avoid persecution, between 1524 and 1527 he produced the first printed English translation of the Bible which was secretly shipped back to England hidden in the barrels of merchant ships. Despite being banned and publicly burnt, his translation spread rapidly, giving ordinary people access to the Bible and sowing the seeds of the Reformation in England.
However, Tyndale did not live to see it. In hiding because of his efforts to liberate knowledge, he was betrayed and captured in 1534. Convicted of heresy for his work, on the 6th October 1536, he was strangled then burnt at the stake in a prison yard at Vilvoorden castle just north of modern day Brussels. He was just over 40 years old.
So let’s fast forward now back to today, or not quite today – the late 1990s.
I go to college and I discover the Internet.
It just hit me: wow! I remember days spent just surfing around. I’d always been an information junkie, and I felt like I’d found this incredible, never-ending information funfair.
And I got that I was going to grow up in a special moment, at the transition to an information age. We’d be living in this magical world, where the the main thing we create and use – information – could be instantaneously and freely shared with everyone on the whole planet.
But … why Openness
So, OK the Internet’s awesome …
Bet you haven’t heard that before!
BUT … – and this is the big but.
The Internet is NOT my religion.
The Internet – and digital technology – are not enough.
I’m not sure I have a religion at all, but if I believe in something in this digital age, I believe in openness.
This talk is not about technology. It’s about how putting openness at the heart of the digital age is essential if we really want to make a difference, really create change, really challenge inequity and injustice.
Which brings me back to Tyndale and Gutenberg.
Because, you see, the person that inspired me wasn’t Gutenberg. It was Tyndale.
Gutenberg created the technology that laid the groundwork for change. But the printing press could very well have been used to pump out more Latin bibles, which would then only have made it easier for local priests to be in charge of telling their congregations the word of God every Sunday. More of the same, basically.
Tyndale did something different. Something so threatening to the powers that be that he was executed for it.
What did he do? He translated the Bible into English.
Of course, he needed the printing press. In a world of hand-copying by scribes or painstaking woodcut printing, it wouldn’t make much difference if the Bible was in English or not because so few people could get their hands on a copy.
But, the printing press was just the means: it was Tyndale’s work putting the Bible in everyday language that actually opened it up. And he did this with the express purpose of empowering and liberating ordinary people – giving them the opportunity to understand, think and decide for themselves. This was open knowledge as freedom, open knowledge as systematic change.
Now I’m not religious, but when I talk about opening up knowledge I am coming from a similar place: I want anyone and everyone to be able to access, build on and share that knowledge for themselves and for any purpose. I want everyone to have the power and freedom to use, create and share knowledge.
Knowledge power in the 16th century was controlling the Bible. Today, in our data driven world it’s much broader: it’s about everything from maps to medicines, sonnets to statistics. Its about opening up all the essential information and building insight and knowledge together.
This isn’t just dreaming – we have inspiring, concrete examples of what this means. Right now I’ll highlight just two: medicines and maps.
Everyday, millions of people around the world take billions of pills, of medicines.
Whether those drugs actually do you good – and what side effects they have – is obviously essential information for researchers, for doctors, for patients, for regulators – pretty much everyone.
We have a great way of assessing the effectiveness of drugs: randomized control trials in which a drug is compared to its next best alternative.
So all we need is all the data on all those trials (this would be non-personal information only – any information that could identify individuals would be removed). In an Internet age you’d imagine that that this would be a simple matter – we just need all the data openly available and maybe some way to search it.
You’d be wrong.
Many studies, especially negative ones, are never published – the vast majority of studies are funded by industry who use restrictive contracts to control what gets published. Even where pharmaceutical companies are required to report on the clinical trials they perform, the regulator often keeps the information secret or publishes it as 8,000 page PDFs each page hand-scanned and unreadable by a computer.
If you think I’m joking I’ll give just one very quick example which comes straight from Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma. In 2007 researchers in Europe wanted to review the evidence on a diet drug called rimonabant. They asked the European regulator for access to the original clinical trials information submitted when the drug was approved. For three years they were refused access on a variety of grounds. When they did get access this is what they got initially – that’s right 60 pages of blacked out PDF.
We might think this was funny if it weren’t so deadly serious: in 2009, just before the researchers finally got access to the data, rimonabant was removed from the market on the grounds that it increased the risk of serious psychiatric problems and suicide.
This situation needs to change.
And I’m happy to say something is happening. Working with Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Pharma, we’ve just started the OpenTrials project. This will bring together all the data, on all the trials and link it together and make it open so that everyone from researchers to regulators, doctors to patients can find it, access it and use it.
Our second example is maps. If you were looking for the “scriptures” of this age of digital data, you might well pick maps, or, more specifically the geographic data on which they are built. Geodata is everywhere: from every online purchase to the response to the recent earthquakes in Nepal.
Though you may not realize it, most maps are closed and proprietary – you can’t get the raw data that underpins the map, you can’t alter it or adapt it yourself.
But since 2004 a project called OpenStreetMap has been creating a completely open map of the planet – raw geodata and all. Not only is it open for access and reuse use the database itself is collaboratively built by hundreds of thousands of contributors from all over the world.
What does this mean? Just one example. Because of its openness OpenStreetMap is perfect for rapid updating when disaster strikes – showing which bridges are out, which roads are still passable, what buildings are still standing. For example, when a disastrous earthquake struck Nepal in April this year, volunteers updated 13,199 miles of roads and 110,681 buildings in under 48 hours providing crucial support to relief efforts.
The Message not the Medium
To repeat then: technology is NOT teleology. The medium is NOT the message – and it’s the message that matters.
The printing press made possible an “open” bible but it was Tyndale who made it open – and it was the openness that mattered.
Digital technology gives us unprecedented potential for creativity, sharing, for freedom. But they are possible not inevitable. Technology alone does not make a choice for us.
Remember that we’ve been here before: the printing press was revolutionary but we still ended up with a print media that was often dominated by the few and the powerful.
Think of radio. If you read about how people talked about it in the 1910s and 1920s, it sounds like the way we used to talk about the Internet today. The radio was going to revolutionize human communications and society. It was going to enable a peer to peer world where everyone can broadcast, it was going to allow new forms of democracy and politics, etc. What happened? We got a one way medium, controlled by the state and a few huge corporations.
Look around you today.
The Internet’s costless transmission can – and is – just as easily creating information empires and information robber barons as it can creating digital democracy and information equality.
We already know that this technology offers unprecedented opportunities for surveillance, for monitoring, for tracking. It can just as easily exploit us as empower us.
We need to put openness at the heart of this information age, and at the heart of the Net, if we are really to realize its possibilities for freedom, empowerment, and connection.
The fight then is on the soul of this information age and we have a choice.
A choice of open versus closed.
Of collaboration versus control.
Of empowerment versus exploitation.
Its a long road ahead – longer perhaps than our lifetimes. But we can walk it together.
In this 21st century knowledge revolution, William Tyndale isn’t one person. It’s all of us, making small and big choices: from getting governments and private companies to release their data, to building open databases and infrastructures together, from choosing apps on your phone that are built on open to using social networks that give you control of your data rather than taking it from you.
Let’s choose openness, let’s choose freedom, let’s choose the infinite possibilities of this digital age by putting openness at its heart.
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