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GitLaw: How The Law Factory turns the French parliamentary process into 300 version-controlled Open Data visualizations

Guest - June 25, 2014 in Featured Project

This is a guest blog post by the French NGO Regards Citoyens, which actively promotes public Open Data principles in France since 2009 and lobbying transparency since 2010. They create web projects using public data to provide tools for a better dialogue between citizens and representatives. Their most known initiative is a parliamentary monitoring website: NosDeputes.fr.

TheLawFactory.fr

Law is Code!

Over the last few years, a number of people have explored the idea of inverting Lawrence Lessig’s metaphor “code is law”, looking at the evolution of laws through the lens of coding tools. The parliamentary process is indeed so similar to a collaborative software development workflow that it is only natural to try and use a version control tool such as git to track individual legislative changes.

The analogy between both processes is deep: in each case, there is a group of people collaborating on a textual artifact (bill or program source code), proposing changes (amendments or patches), adopting or rejecting them (through votes or pull requests), and iterating until a stable, public version is made available (by promulgation or release). This new paradigm to think about legislation paves the way for new, innovative approaches of law-tracking. Some exciting work has already been made, most notably in Germany: the BundesGit project invites citizens to propose their own legal modifications as “pull requests”, and Gregor Aisch produced an unprecedented visualization of modifications to one law over 40 years of amendments.

Initiated in 2011, the Law Factory project worked on the French legislative process to answer a simple question: does the Parliament actually write the law, or are MPs only validating the executive’s drafts, as most people commonly assume? A collaboration between Regards Citoyens, an NGO that has monitored the French Parliament’s work through its project NosDéputés.fr since 2009, and two research laboratories at Sciences Po Paris, the médialab and the Centre d’études européennes, the project also sought support from all over the world.

Two international conferences, in June 2012 and May 2014, gathered in Paris activists, NGOs, researchers, public servants and journalists, in order to share projects and ideas from a wide range of expertise. In June 2013, a two-day DesignCamp with the italian info-designers of Density Design and the portuguese hacktivists of Manufactura Independente led to a collaboration with Density Design to forge innovative ways to represent and explore bills throughout the legislative process.

The Law Factory: browsing through 290 adopted bills

After three years, TheLawFactory.fr was finally released on May 28, 2014 as a free software web application, combining all available information on 290 bills promulgated since 2010. All of the text of these bills and their amendments, as well as contextual documents such as debate transcripts, are redistributed as open data, published as version-controlled text into git repositories, and made accessible through four interactive tools that enable users – researchers, journalists, lobbyists, citizens, legislators and legislative staff – to browse the legislative process under various levels of zoom.

Similar to a Gantt chart, the first visualization proposes to navigate through time and discover within the legislative agenda which bills were discussed, when, within which chamber and for how long. The display can be switched from the top menu to other views: a comparative one to compare the global time taken to study each bill, and a quantitative one to consider only the times when the text was actually being discussed and not just sitting in between the two chambers. The menu also contains filters to display only the most amended bills or those that took the most time to consider. Another feature allows the user to select a theme or legislative year.

Clicking on a bill provides (on the right) a small set of metrics offering a first estimate of a bill’s controversiality, including measures of how much the actual text grew and changed during the whole process, how many amendments were proposed and adopted and how many words were spoken during the debates. Contrary to popular belief, first analyses reveal that the French Parliament impacts the law writing process significantly: 74 % of the amended texts studied were modified by at least 50 %, and 61 % increased in length by at least 50 %. Only a handful of texts – highly controversial ones – reveal a decrease in volume by the end of the parliamentary process. Clicking on the button “Explorer les articles” allows the user to study the legislative process of each bill individually.

Studying each bill’s changes individually

All of the changes measured can be further explored in a second module for each bill. Each step of a bill’s legislative process is displayed as a column: the first draft proposal from the government or an MP on the left, followed by each version successively adopted in committee and plenary (by the Senate and the National Assembly) during a first reading, sometimes a conciliation committee, and quite often a few more readings. In each column, the text is split into articles or sections grouping multiple articles. Each article at each step is represented as a box with a proportional height to the actual length in characters of its text.

Switching the display view into a “compact mode” reveals how much the whole text actually grew at each step. New articles are marked in green, while those that have been removed are marked in red. All other aticles are shaded in grey depending on how much the text of their alineas was modified during that step so that any highly rewritten article can be quickly identified. Clicking on an article gives access on the right to the full text of the article at the step, and optionnally display the differences with the previous version as within developers usual code-diff tools.

Exploring the debates and amendments of the parliamentary process

When the text of a bill was modified at a step, a third tool is made accessible to explore all the related amendments via a folder icon in the column header. Each amendment is represented as a small square with the color of its originating political party and an ideogram revealing its resulting status: adopted, rejected or left out. Here again, clicking on an amendment reveals (on the right) the complete amendment text, its author(s) and an explanation of the amendment.

Switching the view into a “grouped mode” and ordering the amendments per political party gives a visual estimate of the origin of all adopted modifications. This can also help visualize parliamentary obstruction, for example, when a political group purposely floods the debate to slow it down with hundreds of amendments destined to fail.

A last visualization, accessible via a discussion icon in the column header, proposes to get to the root of the bill changes: the actual discussions between the members of the parliament at a selected step. Presidents, rapporteurs, government members and the different parliamentary party groups share the speaking time differently during the successive parts of the debate, beginning with a general discussion, followed with a focus on each article and related amendments individually. Throughout these steps, each group of speakers is represented as a stream graph, each step being a box with a size proportional to the number of words spoken per subject.

This visualization aids the user to identify highly debated articles and evaluate the evolving position of each political party on a text. Once again, clicking on a box displays on the right the detailed list of the speakers, with links to the actual minutes of the debate as republished oat NosDéputés.fr and NosSénateurs.fr, offering an unprecedented way to trace the discussions related to specific modifications of the law in just a few clicks.

How does it work?

Like with most projects handling parliamentary data, at least two thirds of the development time had to be spent not on building the visual exploration tools, but on collecting, assembling, cleaning and processing the data. The French Senate has made great efforts towards open data over the past couple years and recently started distributing complete dumps of some of their databases on a daily basis. On the other hand, the National Assembly remains hermetic to any sign of openness, most probably due to its members’ irrational fears of already existing activity rankings by the press…

Ultimately, the Senate’s efforts were only marginally useful for this initiative. Data related to amendments and debates was already preprocessed and waiting to be reused within NosDéputés.fr and NosSénateurs.fr’s databases, only requiring some adjustments and enrichments to their APIs in order to provide direct access to a specific bill’s debates, which can now also benefit other interested users.

But the missing data required here was the version-controlled legislative one: the actual text of the bills at each step of the parliamentary process. Both chambers only publish these as HTML and PDF documents, requiring the extraction of the desired information with automated . Transforming this into data requires parsing the various layouts and scraping the legislative structure and text out of each document. At this stage only half of the work is achieved; the biggest challenge is to autocomplete the many missing pieces within the text . For what are likely practical syntaxic reasons, the texts published by the two chambers often do not include unmodified articles or pieces of articles, letting the reader, hence our robots, crawl though a maze of previous versions to look for the actual missing pieces of text.

Once the data was finally assembled and the code published as a free software, it could be redistributed for anyone to reuse as an open data API tree giving access to each data file used to display the visualizations, as well as all source data that was assembled to generate it.

Following the GitLaw ideas, it only seemed natural to also host version-controlled git repositories for each one of the bills: as within a computer programme project, a bill’s articles become text files, and at the date of each step of the parliamentary process, an institution commits a new version for each article it modified. Using the free software GitLab, anyone can browse the repositories on a web platform, and, like on GitHub, propose their own amendments by “forking” a project and submitting their “pull request”.

What’s next?

Still, the automated handling of the sources’ discrepancies remains imperfect. Our robots fail today over 125 of the texts promulgated since 2010, which means our corpus represents only 70% of the considered texts. We remain confident that we will soon be able to process the majority of the missing bills on one hand, and further on to integrate texts during their on-going adoption process, allowing anyone to access the detailed version of a text with the proposed amendments during the debates. If some of the parsing errors are clearly identified as procedure issues for financial laws for instance, some exceptional cases will certainly reach the limits of automation, as for this erratum we encountered which further “amends” the adopted text that was published.

This whole work will always retain a variety of complex challenges unless the institutions step forward. This is only one example of the many reasons why Parliaments all over the world should progressively migrate their legislative processes towards fully integrated routines into their information systems. Let’s just imagine how both the institutions themselves and the societies they serve would benefit from the positive externalities which can only emerge from parliamentary openness and transparency.

Anyone curious to see more on the subject should feel free to browse through the hours of video captation of the latest Open Legislative Data Conference :)

Capture your events

Heather Leson - June 24, 2014 in Community Stories, Events, Featured, OKFest, OKFestival

We’re on a skillshare craze leading up to OKFestival. A few weeks ago we hosted a session all about how to create great videos with our guest Sam Muirhead. This week we are inviting you to join a Photography Skillshare. Events is one of the top ways that you are involved in Open Knowledge. So, while we might be focused on OKFest, the skills transcend storytelling any event.

Photography Skillshare

Join us on Thursday, June 26, 2014 for a Photography Skillshare. The team and community will share best practices in photos as well as

  • Times: Thursday, June 26, 2014 @ 9:30 EDT/ 13:30 UTC/ 14:30 BST/15:30 CEST
  • To join

We will record it to share back in case your timezone or work schedule is different.

Video Skillshare

Does your video or photos look like this? While it is super artistic, it might not show your story in the best context. While the camera for this session was not playing nice, the content is full of all kinds of tips and resources to make your video shine. Thanks to Sam Muirhead of Camera Libre for donating his time. See the G+ hangout notes for a stack of resources to help your video learning.

Note: Community Sessions are taking a break for the summer. Stay tuned for more sessions in the future.

The Business Case for Open Data

Martin Tisne - June 23, 2014 in Business, Open Data

Martin Tisné, Omidyar Network’s director, policy (UK) and Nicholas Gruen, economist and CEO of Lateral Economics, last week unveiled in Canberra the report, Open for Business. It is the first study to quantify and illustrate the potential of Open Data to help achieve the G20’s economic growth target. Martin makes the economic case for open data below.

Manhattan

The G20 and Open Data: Open for Business

Open data cuts across a number of this year’s G20 priorities and could achieve more than half of the G20’s 2% growth target.

The business case for open data

Economic analysis has confirmed the significant contribution to economic growth and productivity achievable through an open data agenda. Governments, the private sector, individuals and communities all stand to benefit from the innovation and information that will inform investment, drive the creation of new industries, and inform decision making and research. To mark a step change in the way valuable information is created and reused, the G20 should release information as open data.

In May 2014, Omidyar Network commissioned Lateral Economics to undertake economic analysis on the potential of open data to support the G20’s 2% growth target and illustrate how an open data agenda can make a significant contribution to economic growth and productivity. Combining all G20 economies, output could increase by USD 13 trillion cumulatively over the next five years. Implementation of open data policies would thus boost cumulative G20 GDP by around 1.1 percentage points (almost 55%) of the G20’s 2% growth target over five years.

Recommendations

Importantly, open data cuts across a number of this year’s G20 priorities: attracting private infrastructure investment, creating jobs and lifting participation, strengthening tax systems and fighting corruption. This memo suggests an open data thread that runs across all G20 priorities. The more data is opened, the more it can be used, reused, repurposed and built on—in combination with other data—for everyone’s benefit.

We call on G20 economies to sign up to the Open Data Charter.

The G20 should ensure that data released by G20 working groups and themes is in line with agreed open data standards. This will lead to more accountable, efficient, effective governments who are going further to expose inadequacy, fight corruption and spur innovation.

Data is a national resource and open data is a ‘win-win’ policy. It is about making more of existing resources. We know that the cost of opening data is smaller than the economic returns, which could be significant. Methods to respect privacy concerns must be taken into account. If this is done, as the public and private sector share of information grows, there will be increasing positive returns.

The G20 opportunity

This November, leaders of the G20 Member States will meet in Australia to drive forward commitments made in the St Petersburg G20 Leaders Declaration last September and to make firm progress on stimulating growth. Actions across the G20 will include increasing investment, lifting employment and participation, enhancing trade and promoting competition.

The resulting ‘Brisbane Action Plan’ will encapsulate all of these commitments with the aim of raising the level of G20 output by at least 2% above the currently projected level over the next five years. There are major opportunities for cooperative and collective action by G20 governments.

Governments should intensify the release of existing public sector data – both government and publicly funded research data. But much more can be done to promote open data than simply releasing more government data. In appropriate circumstances, governments can mandate public disclosure of private sector data (e.g. in corporate financial reporting).

Recommendations for action

  • G20 governments should adopt the principles of the Open Data Charter to encourage the building of stronger, more interconnected societies that better meet the needs of our citizens and allow innovation and prosperity to flourish.
  • G20 governments should adopt specific open data targets under each G20 theme, as illustrated below, such as releasing open data related to beneficial owners of companies, as well revenues from extractive industries
  • G20 governments should consider harmonizing licensing regimes across the G20
  • G20 governments should adopt metrics for measuring the quantity and quality of open data publication, e.g. using the Open Data Institute’s Open Data Certificates as a bottom-up mechanism for driving the adoption of common standards.

Illustrative G20 examples

Fiscal and monetary policy

Governments possess rich real time data that is not open or accessed by government macro-economic managers. G20 governments should:

  • Open up models that lie behind economic forecasts and help assess alternative policy settings;
  • Publish spending and contractual data to enable comparative shopping by government between government suppliers.

Anti corruption

Open data may directly contribute to reduced corruption by increasing the likelihood corruption will be detected. G20 governments should:

  • Release open data related to beneficial owners of companies as well as revenues from extractive industries,
  • Collaborate on harmonised technical standards that permit the tracing of international money flows – including the tracing of beneficial owners of commercial entities, and the comparison and reconciliation of transactions across borders.

Trade

Obtaining and using trade data from multiple jurisdictions is difficult. Access fees, specific licenses, and non-machine readable formats all involve large transaction costs. G20 governments should:

  • Harmonise open data policies related to trade data.
  • Use standard trade schema and formats.

Employment

Higher quality information on employment conditions would facilitate better matching of employees to organizations, producing greater job-satisfaction and improved productivity. G20 governments should:

  • Open up centralised job vacancy registers to provide new mechanisms for people to find jobs.
  • Provide open statistical information about the demand for skills in particular areas to help those supporting training and education to hone their offerings.

Energy

Open data will help reduce the cost of energy supply and improve energy efficiency. G20 governments should:

  • Provide incentives for energy companies to publish open data from consumers and suppliers to enable cost savings through optimizing energy plans.
  • Release energy performance certifications for buildings
  • Publish real-time energy consumption for government buildings.

Infrastructure

Current infrastructure asset information is fragmented and inefficient. Exposing current asset data would be a significant first step in understanding gaps and providing new insights. G20 governments should:

  • Publish open data on governments’ infrastructure assets and plans to better understand infrastructure gaps, enable greater efficiency and insights in infrastructure development and use and analyse cost/benefits.
  • Publish open infrastructure data, including contracts via Open Contracting Partnership, in a consistent and harmonised way across G20 countries.

Other examples of value to date

  • In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s decision nearly three decades ago to release their data sets to the public resulted in a burst of innovations — including forecasts, mobile applications, websites, research – and a multi-billion dollar weather industry.
  • Open government data in the EU would increase business activity by €40Bn. Indirect benefits (people using data driven services) total up to €140Bn a year[1].
  • Mckinsey research suggests that seven sectors alone could generate more than $3 trillion a year in additional value as a result of open data.
  • Releasing as open data in Denmark in 2002 gave €62m benefits 2005-2009 against €2m cost. ROI in 2010: €14m benefit against €0.2m cost[2].
  • Open data exposed C$3.2Bn misuse of charitable status in tax code in Canada[3].
  • Over £200m/year could have been saved by the NHS from the publication of open data on just one class of prescription drugs[4].

[1] https://www.ereg-association.eu/actualities/archive.php?action=show_article&news_id=167

[2] http://www.adresse-info.dk/Portals/2/Benefit/Value_Assessment_Danish_Address_Data_UK_2010-07-07b.pdf

[3] http://eaves.ca/2010/04/14/case-study-open-data-and-the-public-purse/

[4] http://theodi.org/news/prescription-savings-worth-millions-identified-odi-incubated-company

OKFestival Spotlight: Patrick Alley

Katelyn Rogers - June 20, 2014 in Events

This year, we have the great honour of welcoming Patrick Alley, co-founder and director of Global Witness, to the Open Knowledge Festival stage.

Patrick Alley took part in the organisation’s first investigations into the Thai-Khmer Rouge timber trade in 1995 and  has since participated in over fifty field investigations in South East Asia, Africa and Europe. His focus has primarily  been on natural resource governance issues in resource-rich countries.

Patrick’s talk will draw on over two decades of experience in obtaining and using hard evidence in order to expose corruption related to natural  resources, funding of conflict and the looting of entire states. He will talk us through how we can best highlight the human,  environmental and economic consequences of illegal, immoral or unethical practices - and by doing so, how we can deepen and broaden our impact - in an effort  to ultimately achieve long-lasting global change. If you want to learn from a true change-maker, then there is no better person or place than Patrick speaking at Open Knowledge festival 2014.

Can’t wait for July? Here is sneak peak of Patrick Alley describing a perfect crime – industrial logging – at  TEDxExeter.

There are still tickets left; buy yours now to join Patrick Alley, Neelie Kroes and hundreds of other members of the global open knowledge community to share experiences, learn from peers and collectively build a stronger open knowledge movement.

Don’t miss out, buy your OKFestival tickets today.

Open Steps: Documenting open knowledge in South America

Guest - June 19, 2014 in Featured Project

This is the fourth and (so far) final travel-guest blog post from Open Steps, an initiative by two young Berliners Alex (a software developer from Spain) and Margo (a graduate in European politics from France) who decided to leave their daily lives and travel around the world for one year to meet people and organizations working actively in open knowledge related projects, documenting them on their website. Read also the first blog post, the second one and the third one.

Documenting Open Knowledge in South America, the last continent of an enriching one-year research journey.

It is very impressive for us to think that already a year has passed since we left Berlin in July 2013 and began this project that has taken us to so many places in the world. Looking back at the last twelve months and thinking about all what we have experienced, we can only feel honoured and thankful! We enjoyed so much meeting all these amazing persons and collectives, documenting their inspiring initiatives. Definitely, the most important thing we have learnt is the belief that, wherever in the world, applying an “open” approach to our lives (and thinking about common benefit while doing it) can achieve a positive, sustainable and meaningful development of our society.

South America: a fertile environment for Openness

We did not know this when we started our journey but we have had the opportunity to meet and document so many interesting Open Knowledge related projects in this continent that we could not imagine a better context to conclude our project than here in South America. After these last three months in a part of the South-American continent, our conclusion is that the quantity, diversity and scale of open knowledge initiatives here is without doubt big. So big as the distances we have travelled to get from one location to the other …

Chile’s community flourishing

Among the list of countries we have visited worldwide, Chile seems for us one of the countries showing the most diverse panel of open knowledge actors. There, not only the national administration promotes the use of Open Data through different platforms (Open Government initiatives, Open Data portal) but further agencies (INRIA Chile, independent agency for transparency) and groups from the civil society (Poderopedia, Ciudadano Inteligente) are advocating to empower the citizen. Opening and sharing knowledge is already an established practice there, not so strange that one of the most active hackerspaces in South America, STGO Makerspace, found its rooms in the city of Santiago.

Furthermore, we could find on the continent numerous examples of administrations at city level which can be considered as models, being much more advanced than their respective national governments. The first south-american municipality building its Open Data platform was the city of Buenos Aires which has led to successful experiments in Argentina (Bahía Blanca) and other countries (Rio de Janeiro, the both sites Numeros and Data Viva in Belo Horizonte, Municipality of Lima, Peñalolén), not counting further local initiatives still at their initial phase by the time we write these lines.

Argentina coming on the right track

All of them seem pioneers since the national contexts are not everywhere so bright as in Chile. In Argentina, a FOI law is still missing and the government appears to be slow to catch on the great job of both its capital city (above mentioned) and La Nación Data. This team of passionate journalists within La Nación’s newsroom is dedicated to Data journalism: it has its own Open Data platform, has set up many interesting data projects (Gastos del Senato, VozData) and works promoting the use of Open Data for journalistic purposes by organising intern trainings and public events. It is definitely there where we found the most active data journalists! Also to mention the local chapter of HacksHackers in Buenos Aires, one of the biggest in the world and the first one in South America.

Interesting initiatives brewing in Brazil, Peru and Uruguay despite difficult environment

In Brazil, even if we could find an Open Data platform at national level and a site committed to transparency, a lot of improvements have still to be done. But two main facts let us think that the global situation is changing today: first, a “Bill of Rights for the Internet” has finally been approved end of March by the Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies after being rejected nine times since 2012. Secondly, a Brazilian chapter of the OKFN has been created these last months and that gives the best auspices towards more initiatives from the civil society.

In Peru, the national status of Open Knowledge and Open Data is almost non-existent, although there is a FOI law since 2012 and a site devoted to transparency, plus the already mentioned platform of the municipality of Lima. Undoubtedly, the energy of few individuals, journalists included, (gathered in the university hackerspace FabLab Uni to quote only one) as well as the recent creation of local groups who are right now growing (Open Data Perú, HacksHackers Lima) ensure that ideas and projects will soon arise.

The perspectives appears good in Uruguay too, where there is already a momentum towards Openness. Indeed, a FOI law guarantees since 2008 the free access to public data. A governmental Open Data platform was initiated in 2010 by AGESIC, the Uruguayan Agency for E-government, and the site should contain 120 datasets by the end of this year, prioritising quality over quantity. The engagement of the civil society is also remarkable seeing as the citizens group named DATA which works since 2009 on making Open Data more known and efficiently used. They host regular meet-ups in Montevideo for collaborative projects and co-organised last year, together with their fellows from Chile (Ciudadano Inteligente) and Mexico (Socialtic and Fundar), the ABRE LATAM gathering, the first pan-Latinamerican unconference on Open Data and Transparency.

Lots of large events taking place across the region

Because the OK community in South America is so rich, a lot has been done to facilitate their talks and interactions with the aim to learn from the others. In addition to ABRE LATAM, other regional events are regularly organised (as the Uruguayan DataBootcamp we took part in or the annual Mediaparty from the HacksHackers Buenos Aires) and even a pan-Latinamerican Open Data platform has been set up, Open Data Latin America, which was built by Junar, a company which helps administrations and others building their own platform.

FLOK Society: a remarkable initiative made in Ecuador

There is one thing in particular we want to emphasize. Soon after arriving in South America and thanks to Louis Leclerc, we discovered FLOK Society and the “plan of good living” of the Ecuadorian government: Starting in November 2013, a team of ecuadorian and international researchers has been studying how the actual system based on finite resources can be switched towards a future sustained by free knowledge and Open Source paradigms that encourages the commons. The amazing point for us is the support of the Ecuadorian government and the coherence and respect with the local cultural context the project has. Willing to learn more about it and sadly not being able to travel to Ecuador, we managed to speak with Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2PFoundation who is leading the research team at FLOK. He could give us some insights that we shared on the article we published on our website shortly after, which we kindly invite you to read for more details.

Last but not least there are Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica and Ecuador among the list of countries we did not make it to visit but are definitely worth to explore regarding Open Knowledge.

The journey comes to an end but Open Steps has some plans for the future

Since the beginning, our project has been closely related to this amazing journey that was meant to last one year. The twelve months have already passed and now it is time to come back to Berlin. However, Open Steps will keep documenting open knowledge initiatives worldwide, exposing the state of the art in all things open and divulging the principles we believe are making our society better.

Also, if you have been following us, you might know about our Directory, a list of the individuals and organisations actively working in the field. Our intention is to bring this directory to the next level. With it, we aim to raise the visibility of remarkable projects and facilitate the collaboration between activists, hackers, designers, journalists and developers all over the world. Because, as we have experienced during this journey, the OK movement is absolutely global.

Such a project could not end without a big event and we are going to enjoy the opportunity of attending this year’s OKFestival (Berlin, 15th-17th July) to share our experiences. Also, fellows visiting our stand at the OKFair on the 15th will be able to contribute to our directory on the spot, sharing with us relevant projects worth to be documented. Are you going to be there? Come over and say hello!

Why are patents and locked-up science seen as the way forward for growth and innovation?

Christian Villum - June 18, 2014 in OKF Denmark, Open Science

This is a translated and edited version of a blog post originally appearing on the Danish denfri.dk blog. See the original post here.

These past few weeks have highlighted the crossroads that we as a society are facing: Whether non-open data, siloed knowledge and patented ideas make up the best way for growth and innovation? Or whether the logic of the Internet with it’s open data, open knowledge sharing, open sourcing and remix-culture is the right path for the modern society?

A couple of weeks ago we saw the premiere of “The Internet’s Own Boy”, the documentary of Aaron Swartz, the now world-famous young Internet prodigy that despite enormous success with his start up business chose to throw himself actively into the battle to secure everyone free access to the large academic database JSTOR: An access that is normally only granted to the few that can afford a university degree. Appalled by the unproportionally high fees charged by JSTOR for access to (often tax funded) scientific journals Swartz set up a computer in the basement of the American MIT university, and started to download all the journals in the database. His scheme was unravelled when caught by a security camera, and contrary to all legal precedence, in order to make an example of Swartz, the federal government chose to charge him with a felony: Something that would likely send Swarz behind bars for up to 35 years. The pressure from the government and the FBI hurled Swartz into a depression and he ends up taking his own life. A horrible and tragic story.

A society currently building on intellectual ownership

As an entrepreneur and Danish translator of some of Swarz’ texts I had the pleasure of being invited to participate in a panel at the Danish premiere event for the film in Copenhagen earlier this month. In this panel was also Director for the Danish National Library, Pernille Drost, who explained to the audience that even Denmark, with our free educational system, have similar draconian rules for access to our scientific journals (and cultural heritage as well). Science and culture is held systematically locked up behind technical and legal iron gates and is thereby closed off for the general public – both domestically and abroad – unless you are wealthy enough to pay huge sums of money. This goes even for journals that are a 100 years old!

Additionally, we recently had a referendum in Denmark to determine if we were to join the unified European patent court. The result was a resounding ‘yes’ (roughly 70% of the votes in favor of joining), which sent a clear signal – mainly inspired by the majority of the Danish political parties, both left and right – that we as a society believe ideas are developed best by being locked up and protected. Apparently, the idea is that only those companies rich enough to be able to afford expensive patent lawyers and navigate the complicated intellectual property rights universe should be the ones to ensure our continued growth, improve our welfare and create a balanced and fair global society. In other words, we choose to keep our knowledge hermetically locked in and accessible only to a very few hands, both in the United States and in Denmark. The same applies to the rest of the world, especially the developed world. But is this the best way forward? For ourselves and for the world?

What “open” enables…

In “The Internet’s Own Boy”, for instance, we saw examples of how free access to knowledge can create some very defining breakthroughs in science. Among other the film tells the story of a 14-year old boy in the US, who independently from the school system uses his wit and access to a series of otherwise unavailable science journals to develop a groundbreaking quantum leap in cancer science – to the great surprise of all doctors and scientists within that area.

This example made me think of the story about the English economy student Thomas Herndon, who in 2010 via access to a financial study made by Carmen Reinhart & Kenneth Rogoff discovered a critical error in one of the most prolific analyses therein: An analysis with calculations used by governments around the world to guide economic austerity policy during the global financial crisis. The critical error had created an erroneous foundation for political work on the highest level – and it wasn’t discovered until Herndon, a graduate student at the time, obtained access and started looking into the numbers.

It also reminded me of the story of “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”; a tale which in book form by author Bryan Mealer became an international bestseller. Mealer describes how another 14-year old, William Kamkvamba in Malawi, gets access to a handful of old science books and builds a fully functional wind turbine from scrap metal and all of a sudden produces power for his village in the chronically poor (and 98% powerless) African country.

Let’s zoom back to Denmark again. Two weeks ago an interesting story occurred in the news: A group of amateur data analysis enthusiasts (most of them actually from the Open Knowledge Denmark group) had looked into the data from Unified Patent Court referendum, which had been released in a somewhat open format. This made the group discover an anomaly in the reporting of votes from the small city of Taarsbaek north of Copenhagen: Something didn’t look right. The group contacted the authorities and further investigation showed that the officials in Taarsbaek had accidentally switched the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes! A human error, yes, and not something that had any influence on the final result. But at the same time an error that had never been discovered if the data hadn’t been released for the public to scrutinize.

What does these examples say about the gigantic potential of free access to knowledge?

Unleashing the gigantic supercomputer

Imagine if citizens in general had the opportunity to access scientific journals? Build on existing technology? Look into all our non-sensitive public data? How many errors could be corrected? How many breakthroughs would we see in medicine research? How many inventions and infrastructural improvements would proliferate in the developing world? Sadly, it’s a utopia, because we keep our knowledge locked up and kept away from the public eye. Isn’t it time we get rid of that kind of old-fashion pre-Internet thinking?

All the peoples around the world make up a huge brain trust, a giant computer, which holds a potential for growth and welfare that we can hardly imagine. The Internettet is the nerve system in this latent supercomputer. But to activate it we need to stop seeing science and knowledge as only a tradable product, which only the richest 5% of the world’s population has access to. By opening up knowledge for everyone, we create a foundation for citizen science that will enrich us all with a growth potential that exceeds our own capability by many unimaginable lengths.

Learning from the Internet

“Sure,” you think, “but what about the cost? It’s not cheap to research and develop ideas!”. Of course not, but look at the economies already developing on the Internet: For example open source software, where developers around the world share computer code and stand on each other’s shoulders, even if they are competitors. An billion dollar economy, where all parties become richer, and where companies flourish and where millions of jobs are made, while the core of it all, the code – that is, the product – is freely available for anyone to continue building on.

In the software world a large part of the major actors have already abandoned patents and tossed away the iron gates in favor of a much more powerful growth paradigm: Sharing of knowledge, crowdsourcing and open data. This open source mindset can easily be transferred to the rest of society, including the science world and business in general. The economic potential is gigantic – for all of the world’s population. Let’s all lead the way for this kind of thinking. That is real innovation.

OKFestival Keynote Spotlight: Neelie Kroes

Katelyn Rogers - June 17, 2014 in Events, Featured

We are pleased to announce that Neelie Kroes, the Vice President of the European Commission and a staunch supporter of open data, open government and open access, will join us in Berlin this year as a keynote speaker.

Neelie Kroes is responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe, one of seven flagship initiatives of Europe 2020, the European Union’s strategy for inclusive and sustainable growth. The Digital Agenda for Europe recognises that the digital economy is growing seven times faster than the rest of the economy and lays out seven priority areas that must be addressed in order to ensure that European citizens are truly able to take advantage of and receive the full benefits of digital technologies.

Opening up public sector information is a key part of the Digital Agenda for Europe and progress on open data in Europe has benefited significantly from the strong and unwavering support from Neelie Kroes. In a recent interview with OpenSource.com, Mrs. Kroes stated,

“Data is at the heart of the knowledge economy. All our decision-making is becoming ever more determined by data as a basis, not only inside companies, but also in our capacity as ordinary citizens. The products of the future are information-based products that will make our lives easier. Opening up data for use and reuse has therefore an enormous potential to change the way we live and make choices. A better use of data will thus contribute to smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, the creation of jobs and the promotion of web-entrepreneurship and start-ups throughout the EU.”

We couldn’t agree more. We are honoured that Mrs. Kroes will take part in this year’s Open Knowledge Festival and look forward to engaging her in a fruitful discussion about how we can better harness the power and potential of open data for the benefit of society.

There are still tickets left, join Neelie Kroes and hundreds of other members of the global open knowledge community to share experiences, learn from peers and collectively build a stronger open knowledge movement. Don’t miss out, buy your OKFestival tickets today.

The OKFestival keynote excitement begins!

Megan McGrattan - June 16, 2014 in Events, Featured, OKFestival, Uncategorized

This is a cross-post from the OKFestival blog, see the original here

The time is now. The time is today!

If you haven’t already, it’s time to buy your tickets because today, we announce the names of our four amazing keynote speakers!

This year, we have the pleasure of welcoming this stellar line-up of activists, experts, founders, leaders and visionaries who have each impacted the world as we know it in significant ways; pushing forward reform, demanding accountability, increasing transparency and creating new points of contact between governments and their people – to name but a few of their achievements!

We’re delighted to be able to confirm that these incredible speakers will be opening both full days of the festival and we hope that their ideas and stories will inspire you to think harder, make better and connect more during the discussions and activities which will follow later each day.

We’ll be letting you know more about each of our Keynote’s talks throughout this week, with a daily drop including their bios, their keynote details and some stellar prep material you can watch to get you excited about how incredible it will be to see this lot live!

As if that wasn’t exciting enough, later this week we’ll let you in on an extra special addition to this line-up, so stay tuned to Twitter for hints on who it might be and tuned to our site for in-the-moment updates! Don’t miss out, OKFestival is the best place to be Open this summer!

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Neelie Kroes Vice President & EU Commissioner for Digital Agenda, European Commission

Neelie Kroes is currently Vice President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe. Since 2004, she has worked as one of the 27 European Commissioners aiming to maintain a peaceful and prosperous Europe. From 2004 to 2009, she was Competition Commissioner, responsible for ensuring a level playing field for business in Europe. In 2010, she became Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe. This portfolio includes ensuring trust and security for the Internet and new technologies; building world-class European research and innovation in this sector; and above all getting every European Digital, with access to fast broadband, so Europe can make the most out of the Internet to support a strong economy and society.

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Patrick Alley Founder of Global Witness and a member of the WEF Global Agenda Council for Conflict prevention.

Patrick Alley is a director of Global Witness and co-founded the organisation in 1993. He took part in Global Witness’ first investigations into the Thai-Khmer Rouge timber trade in 1995, and since then has taken part in over fifty field investigations in South East Asia, Africa and Europe, and in subsequent advocacy activities. Patrick has focused on natural resource governance issues in resource-rich countries, including post-conflict, including Cambodia, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Zimbabwe, and focuses on the thematic issue of Conflict Resources, and on forest and land issues, especially challenging industrial scale logging and land grabbing in the tropics. Patrick is involved in the strategic leadership of Global Witness, and is a member of the WEF Global Agenda Council for Conflict prevention.

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Eric Hysen Director of Google’s elections and civic engagement products and programs, creator of tools for Harvard Institute of Politics designed to drive youth voter turnout through social media.

Eric manages Google’s elections and civic engagement products and programs. His team has launched tools that have helped hundreds of millions of people vote and engage in the political process in over 25 countries, including India, Kenya, Germany, Australia, the US, Mexico, and Egypt. Eric’s team recently launched the Google Civic Information API to make it easier for developers to build useful new civic apps. Prior to joining Google in 2009, Eric built tools to drive youth voter turnout through social media at the Harvard Institute of Politics. Eric holds a BA with honors in Computer Science from Harvard College, and has published research on using advanced crowdsourcing techniques to solve complex problems.

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Beatriz Busaniche Founder of Wikimedia Argentina and key member of Argentina’s Fundacion Via Libre

Beatriz Busaniche is a member of the Fundacion Via Libre and is also a founding member of Wikimedia Argentina, local chapter of Wikimedia Foundation. She has a Mass Communication Degree from National University of Rosario, and is currently a part time professor at Social Sciences Faculty, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She’s preparing her Master Degree on Intellectual Property at FLACSO Argentina.

Join us!

The Open Knowledge Festival 2014 invites you to come and learn from these experts; to hear their thoughts, share their ideas and discuss the progress that we can make towards a more Open world when we work together. Come and join the conversation at OKFestival 2014, knowing that when you leave, it will be with more inspiration, more connections and more conviction than you might have imagined possible.

See you next month!

Financial aid allocation completed for OKFestival 2014

Megan McGrattan - June 16, 2014 in Events, OKFestival, Uncategorized

This is a cross-post from the OKFestival blog, see the original here

OKFestival collaboration

Thank you to everyone who applied for Financial Aid this year – we so appreciate your patience while we’ve worked hard with various partners and sponsors to allocate funding.

Over the past few weeks we’ve been reaching out to successful applicants so while we’re incredible excited to welcome those who were successful to OKFestival, we are also very sad to have to confirm that if you haven’t heard from us at this point, you’ll need to look elsewhere for funding. We were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm shown by all those who applied for help to attend this year’s OKFestival – over 400 people requested support – and it’s taken quite some time to work through all of these applications and to calculate travel and accommodation funds.

If you’re unsuccessful this time around, we’d like to encourage you to, at the very least, take part from afar; we do try to make the festival as inclusive as possible and we will be livestreaming the keynote talks and interviews, and radio broadcasting much more amazing material – keep your eyes open for more information soon on that! There is also an etherpad for every session, so follow along and find the ways you can get involved with individual sessions and workshops. You can check out the individual session pages for details of the session facilitators and email them or contribute questions to their etherpads!

Allocation of financial aid was determined by a balance of factors, not least the generous donations made by our sponsors. So please join us in thanking Google, Omidyar, Make All Voices Count and Partnership for Open Data for their vital contributions to this year’s event.

Brazil’s Development Bank – The Elephant in the Stadium

Guest - June 13, 2014 in Campaigning, Featured, Stop Secret Contracts

This is a guest blog post by Andrew Simms analyst and campaigner at our StopSecretContracts.org coalition partner Global Witness. If you believe public contracts should be open contracts, sign our petition and let world leaders know. This article first appeared on Global Witness’s website.


WorldCup


Symbolism doesn’t get much better than this – thousands of homeless Brazilians set up camp outside São Paolo’s stadium as it prepares for the opening game of the most expensive World Cup ever.

Brazil’s World Cup stadiums have become monuments to broken promises – largely publicly-funded (contrary to government assurances), colossally expensive (around four times over-budget on average, with allegations of overpricing abounding), and some fated to become post-Cup white elephants because their host cities can’t sustain them.

A who’s who of World Cup infrastructure sheds light on a paradox in Brazil’s development model. A major investor in its stadiums was the biggest bank most people haven’t heard of – the country’s national development bank (Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social (BNDES)), a majority public-funded bank whose mandate involves ‘promoting socio-environmental sustainability and reducing inequalities.’

These goals sit uncomfortably alongside the World Cup’s potential legacy.

Take the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre, for example, built by Brazil’s second largest construction company, Andrade Gutierrez (which Associated Press says increased its political donations 500-fold in Brazil’s most recent elections). The cost of building Beira Rio went more than 150% over budget, and 80% of total costs were carried by the BNDES.

Andrade Gutierrez also built Brasilia’s Mane Garrincha stadium, along with engineering firm Via Engenharia. A seat in that stadium cost three times what an average stadium seat cost in South Africa and Germany for the last two World Cups.

The BNDES is a major player in Brazil and parts of Latin America and Africa, with a bigger investment portfolio even than the World Bank’s. In 2012 around a quarter of the bank’s funds came from Brazil’s Worker’s Assistance Fund and just over half from the National Treasury. As much as 70 percent of the bank’s expenditure meanwhile goes to ‘big companies’ whose gross annual revenue exceeds US$ 135 million.

Global Witness has three major concerns about the BNDES:

  1. Choice of investment partners

Senior officials from six World Cup contractors – Construcap, Galvão, Mendes Júnior, OAS, Odebrecht and Via Engenharia – are currently on trial for alleged illicit enrichment through the construction of key infrastructure at ten Brazilian airports between 2003 and 2006 – infrastructure that will bring millions of visitors to World Cup venues. Dozens of representatives stand accused of being part of a criminal association with officials at Infraero, a government-owned company that operates Brazil’s key airports.

Together they are charged with illicit enrichment that Brazil’s Public Attorney claims resulted in over US$ 440 million in public money being diverted. Investigators say that price inflation occurred on such a scale that at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas Airport alone the footbridges used by passengers to board planes were overpriced by 190%, amounting to US$ 2.6 million lost to Brazilian taxpayers.

This case first came to court in 2011. Three years later there have been no convictions. The accused deny the charges.

  1. Lack of transparency

While some ad hoc data is available on the volumes of money that BNDES invests in certain companies, the bank’s transparency tends to end there.

BNDES does not publish details of its loans to private entities inside or outside Brazil, claiming exemption to freedom of information requests on the basis of banking secrecy.

In the absence of publicly available information on BNDES’ rationale for financing certain companies over others, or the objectives or results of the projects it is funding, citizens are unable to scrutinise what their taxes are spent on.

BNDES investments in public institutions continue to be audited by public officials, but those in companies are not. This seems inconsistent considering that the BNDES is a federal public company under the supervision of the Ministry of Development, Industry and Trade.

  1. Social and environmental footprint

The BNDES lacks effective environmental and social safeguards to guide its investment choices or monitor their impact. This is evidenced by the fact that the bank is the majority funder of an infrastructure boom in the Amazon basin region, home to the world’s largest rainforest. Globally we are losing forests at a rate of fifty football pitches a minute.

One particularly controversial BNDES-backed project is the Belo Monte Dam, being built on one of the Amazon’s major tributaries. It is anticipated that the dam will result in the destruction of an area of over 1,500 square kilometres of rainforest, the forced displacement of between 20,000 and 40,000 people, and untold impacts on local livelihoods and eco-systems.

The economic viability of the dam has also been called into question, with industry analysts claiming that due to the challenges of building a project of this size in the Amazon total costs could easily exceed government predictions by US$ 5 billion.

The camp for homeless families outside São Paolo’s stadium has been nicknamed ‘The People’s Cup’ and is a stark reminder to World Cup visitors that Brazil’s booming economy remains elusive in much of the country.

Brazil’s month-long football revelries will likely distract from the real winners and losers of the 2014 World Cup, but the tournament offers critical insights into Brazil’s development trajectory – embodied in a bank that facilitates the cosy relationship between business and politics, lacks accountability back to its tax-payer donors, and finances projects that may undermine rather than further sustainable development.

 

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