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.
This is a guest post by Kersti Ruth Wissenbach, our Open Knowledge Ambassador in the Netherlands.
At our Re:publica session in May we set out to bring together transparency and accountability practitioners from traditional NGOs as well as from the civic tech scene. We came to recognise that, to a large extent, we keep working in silos rather than merging together in new ways so as to collaborate and benefit from each others expertise and experiences. Thus, we wanted to identify the reasons and, together, explore how to enable closer collaboration.
Over the last few years, new global networks of civic activists have emerged and are rapidly spreading across the globe, building and sharing technologies, serving their advocacy for a more open and just society. We are witnessing a vast variety of collaboration, from individual hacker groups towards more structured networks working around different topics and eventually being connected to a more organisational body, such as Open Knowledge.
Also, traditional NGOs increasingly embraced the potential opportunities emerging from the fast pervasion of ICTs, mirrored in the ICT4D, mobile and recent big data ‘hype’. Both groups clearly work in overlapping spaces, however, they are to a big extent disconnected from each other. Partly this seems to be due to the perception of the spaces; Civic tech NGOs are often relatively new and young, and want to move and work fast on “innovations” but the perception is that more traditional NGOs are slower moving and hampered by bureaucracy. This siloing of work from NGOs and civic tech activists becomes most apparent in transparency and accountability work.
Therefore, Tech4TA, on a global scale, should very much be about active collaboration between traditional NGOs and civic tech groups, in order to -
Use existing and build upon tools (stop building from scratch but use what civic techies are building and sharing)
Prevent exclusion and structural power imbalances in policies or deriving project activities (learn from NGOs experiences to actively work towards inclusive, context relevant project design and implementation, especially in areas where accessibility and availability of ICTs remains challenging and is oftentimes not a feasible mechanism at all)
Safeguard TA (Transparency and Accountability) practitioners (learning from digital activists in how to ensure security, privacy and enable responsible data handling)
Make the most use of the expertise in delivering locally appropriate projects in challenging situations
Understand the strengths and weaknesses of both types of organisation, so that they can work to complement each other
We gathered an unexpectedly big group of techies, NGOers and donors, which brought many different perspectives to the table. In two cross-disciplinary groups we gathered a profound first set of barriers for stronger collaboration and had some vital discussions on what to do about them.
Collaborating at OKFest 14
What we need and how to get there
It does not seem to be common practise within all NGOs to identify and reach out to local digital activists or civic tech groups on the ground when beginning to prepare new projects in specific countries. Those actors are the experts in the local technology context! Therefore, they are the best people to collaborate with in order to explore chances and boundaries when it comes to using tech or data in the respective contexts. Also do they know what is in place already and potentially just need some support in order to take the current projects to the next phase or scale them up.
– The question is how can this become a fundamental practice for NGOs? What mechanisms need to be integrated into normal practice, that don’t require too much for both civic tech NGOs or traditional NGOs?
Speaking the same language
Data activists and traditional NGO practitioners oftentimes do not speak the same ‘language’, creating a huge barrier for communicating and smooth collaboration. It can be difficult for the non-technical among us to understand why something that sounds so simple, could be hard to accomplish or take a long time, when conversely sometimes things that sound extremely challenging can be solved in a few simple steps.
Finding (still rare) hybrids which are home on both sides or alternatively work with mediators who can bridge between both sites will be of great value to overcome this boundary. People that can bridge the technical and non-technical divide to explain how a project can work and where the pain points might be would smooth relations and enable a greater ease of understanding.
– The question is what this could realistically look like. Who are those hybrids or mediators and how can they be strategically integrated?
Consider if Civic Tech is user friendly enough
In line with a common lingua, it has been emphasized that often the willingness to use and reuse civic tech tools is there but that tools, code usage etc. are far too abstract for less techie people or the technologists in question normally use other languages as a matter of course.
– The question here is how can we make civic tech apps more applicable for less tech-affine TA practitioners and more user friendly on the ground or what else would be needed to overcome such obstacles?
Moving at the same pace
Civic tech groups and NGOs have a different pace of connecting and moving things.
Given the different pace of groups, where different teams of digital activists and NGOs collaborate, it will help to depart with a clear shared vision. Clarifying if all parties are sharing the same cause from the start will help to prevent frustration further down the road. Making sure there’s a product or project owner that understands both the technical and non-technical sides of the project, and that can coordinate the competing priorities of both sectors, is a must for a smooth project. Otherwise misunderstandings can occur (again based on misunderstanding of the difficulties of each aspect of the work.)
More agile project design opportunities
Achieving true transparency and accountability is a very long-term process, not a field for fast wins and not suitable to be pressed into 1 year NGO or donor project frameworks.
The result focus of NGOs, often rooted in donor frameworks, are seen as a big obstacles in those regards. Opportunities for more agile project design would be a crucial precondition. NGOs and donors need to move from result focus to a more agile process focus in project design. Moving to this sort of project design would also open up frameworks for a more user-driven project design process which would benefit the donors and the users by creating projects that answer a real need and have a true impact.
All participants agreed that educating the donors is needed in order to prevent the continuation of rigid and usually very tech/tool driven proposal frameworks.
– Educating the donors, how do we best do that?
Focus on problems, not solutions (often grant etc. framings already solution driven)
Plenty of grants and project designs are already entailing the solution. Driven by e.g. what online platform will do the change rather than focusing on the actual problem or challenge at stake in all its facets necessary to be considered.
Such prevailing tech and solution centrism is strongly interlinked with our oftentimes diverging and inflatious definitions of innovation. A common understanding is needed that innovation is not the latest tech but a combination of solutions that truly features into each very context and is self-sustainable (can be the radio or village gathering if that is the natural communication sphere is). Such understanding furthermore needs to derive in clear action.
Allowing NGOs some pre-project funding to do their own needs assessments in order to inform project design and create user focused projects involving technology as part of the solution seems like it would have a greater impact. The traditional NGOs understand a needs assessment process and the Civic Tech NGOs understand user design processes. These could be combined to create a strong pre-project design framework, provided that donors could accept and understand that there would need to be a small amount of up-front funding with no specific targets (beyond a full project proposal) granted to organisations they were working with.
In conclusion, an open dialogue and clear commitments are needed between digital activists, NGOs and donors, seriously identifying steps to tackle the above outlined issues.
Some thoughts on the global Open Knowledge Community
As ambassador of Open Knowledge, and as a doctoral researcher exploring Open Knowledge as a case study in my research on transnational activism and community building, a few thoughts came to mind reflecting on those above mentioned issues.
Our network has grown fast and widely over the last couple of years and it was great to see the community getting bigger. At the same time, working as a consultant in Tech4TA in various countries and often with less connected groups, I see how we still have the great opportunity to work on increasing the diversity of our community and to stronger invest in fostering inclusion and recognizing that it is not in everyone’s culture to naturally connect to dispersed, translocal or transnational networks. For a while it gave the impression that we easily label contributions from the ‘developing’ world under the development working group tag. Given contemporary dynamics of network expansion and opportunities, we may want to reconsider if we wish to maintain such thematic area at all. If we strive for open government, open science, open culture, you name it, requires context-sensitivity when it comes to potential tactics and tools to reach our goals in different countries and regions, no matter where those are located. So two things to consider within the OK community when it comes to global collaboration are
Taking a stand in how OK addresses inclusion in its work and in expanding its community
Gathering lessons learned and exploring an OK approach to context-relevant work and according tinkering of tools and tactics
“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↩
The EU has committed to spending €959.988 billion between 2014 and 2020. This money is disbursed through over 80 funds and programmes that are managed by over 100 different authorities. Where does this money come from? How is it allocated? And how is it spent?
Today we are delighted to announce the release of “Where Does Europe’s Money Go? A Guide to EU Budget Data Sources”, which aims to help civil society groups, journalists and others to navigate the vast landscape of documents and datasets in order to “follow the money” in the EU. The guide also suggests steps that institutions should take in order to enable greater democratic oversight of EU public finances. It was undertaken by Open Knowledge with support from the Adessium Foundation.
Groups of journalists on these projects have spent many months requesting, scraping, cleaning and assembling data to get an overview of just a handful of the many different funds and programmes through which EU money is spent. The analysis of this data has led to many dozens of news stories, and in some cases even criminal investigations.
Better data, documentation, advocacy and journalism around EU public money is vital to addressing the “democratic deficit” in EU fiscal policy. To this end, we make the following recommendations to EU institutions and civil society organisations:
Establish a single central point of reference for data and documents about EU revenue, budgeting and expenditure and ensure all the information is up to date at this domain (e.g. at a website such as ec.europa.eu/budget). At the same time, ensure all EU budget data are available from the EU open data portal as open data.
Create an open dataset with key details about each EU fund, including name of the fund, heading, policy, type of management, implementing authorities, link to information on beneficiaries, link to legal basis in Eur-Lex and link to regulation in Eur-Lex.
Extend the Financial Transparency System to all EU funds by integrating or federating detailed data expenditures from Members States, non-EU Members and international organisations. Data on beneficiaries should include, when relevant, a unique European identifier of company, and when the project is co-financed, the exact amount of EU funding received and the total amount of the project.
Clarify and harmonise the legal framework regarding transparency rules for the beneficiaries of EU funds.
Support and strengthen funding for civil society groups and journalists working on EU public finances.
Conduct a more detailed assessment of beneficiary data availability for all EU funds and for all implementing authorities – e.g., through a dedicated “open data audit”.
Build a stronger central base of evidence about the uses and users of EU fiscal data – including data projects, investigative journalism projects and data users in the media and civil society.
Our intention is that the material in this report will become a living resource that we can continue to expand and update. If you have any comments or suggestions, we’d love to hear from you.
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.
Open Knowledge project The Public Domain Review launches a major new fundraising drive, encouraging people to become Friends of the site by giving an annual donation.
For those not yet in the know, The Public Domain Review is a project dedicated to protecting and celebrating, in all its richness and variety, the cultural public domain. In particular, our focus is on the digital copies of public domain works, the mission being to facilitate the appreciation, use and growth of a digital cultural commons which is open for everyone.
We create collections of openly licensed works comprised of highlights from a variety of galleries, libraries, archives, and museums, many of whom also contribute to our popular Curator’s Choice series (including The British Library, Rijksmuseum, and The Getty). We also host a fortnightly essay series in which top academics and authors write about interesting and unusual public domain works which are available online.
Founded in 2011, the site has gone from strength to strength. In its 4 plus years it has seen contributions from the likes of Jack Zipes, Frank Delaney, and Julian Barnes – and garnered praise from such media luminaries as The Paris Review, who called us “one of their favourite journals”, and The Guardian, who hailed us as a “model of digital curation”.
This is all very exciting but we need your help to continue the project into the future.
We are currently only bringing in around half of the base minimum required – the amount we need in order to tick along in a healthy manner. (And around a third of our ideal goal, which would allow us to pay contributors). So it is of urgent importance that we increase our donations if we want the project to continue.
Hence the launch of a brand new fundraising model through which we hope to make The Public Domain Review sustainable and able to continue into the future. Introducing “Friends of The Public Domain Review” – https://publicdomainreview.org/support/
Image 1: one of the eight postcards included in the inaugural postcard set. The theme is “Flight” and the set will be sent out to all Friends donating $30/£20/€27.50 or more before 8th July. Source = http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/00650258.
What is it?
This new model revolves around building a group of loyal PDR (Public Domain Review) supporters – the “Friends” – each of whom makes an annual donation to the project. This club of patrons will form the beating heart of the site, creating a bedrock of support vital to the project’s survival.
How can one become a Friend?
There is no fixed yearly cost to become a Friend – any annual donation will qualify you – but there is a guide price of $60 a year (£40/€55).
Are there any perks of being a Friend?
Yes! Any donation above $30 will make you eligible to receive our exclusive twice-a-year “postcard set” – 8 beautiful postcards curated around a theme, with a textual insert. Friends will also be honoured in a special section of the site and on a dedicated page in all PDR Press publications. They will also get first refusal in all future limited edition PDR Press creations, and receive a special end of year letter from the Editor.
How do I make my donation?
We’ve worked hard to make it as easy as possible to donate. You no longer have to use PayPal on the PDR site, but can rather donate using your credit or debit card directly on the site.
Become a Friend before 8th July to receive the inaugural postcard set upon the theme of “Flight”
Image 2: one of the eight postcards included in the inaugural postcard set. The theme is “Flight” and the set will be sent out to all Friends donating $30/£20/€27.50 or more before 8th July. Source = http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002722387/.
Three years ago we decided to begin to systematically track the state of open data around the world. We wanted to know which countries were the strongest and which national governments were lagging behind in releasing the key datasets as open data so that we could better understand the gaps and work with our global community to advocate for these to be addressed.
In order to do this, we created the Global Open Data Index, which was a global civil society collaboration to map the state of open data in countries around the world. The result was more than just a benchmark. Governments started to use the Index as a reference to inform their priorities on open data. Civil society actors began to use it as a tool to teach newcomers about open data and as advocacy mechanism to encourage governments to improve their performance in releasing key datasets.
Three years on we want the Global Open Data Index to become much more than a measurement tool. We would like it to become a civil society audit of the data revolution. As a tool driven by campaigners, researchers and advocacy organisations, it can help us, as a movement, determine the topics and issues we want to promote and to track progress on them together. This will mean going beyond a “baseline” of reference datasets which are widely held to be important. We would like the Index to include more datasets which are critical for democratic accountability but which may be more ambitious than what is made available by many governments today.
The 10 datasets we have now and their score in France
To do this, we are today opening a consultation on what themes and datasets civil society think should be included in the Global Open Data Index. We want you to help us decide on the priority datasets that we should be tracking and advocating to have opened up. We want to work with our global network to collaboratively determine the datasets that are most important to obtaining progress on different issues – from democratic accountability, to stronger action on climate change, to tackling tax avoidance and tax evasion.
Drawing inspiration from our chapter Open Knowledge Belgium’s activities to run their own local open data census, we decided to conduct a public consultation. This public consultation will be divided into two parts:
Crowdsourced Survey – Using the platform of WikiSurvey, a platform inspired by kittens war (and as we all know, anything inspired by viral kittens cannot be bad), we are interested in what you think about which datasets are most important. The platform is simple, just choose between two datasets the one that you see as being a higher priority to include in the Global Open Data Index. Can’t find a dataset that you think is important? Add your own idea to the pool. You do not have a vote limit, so vote as much as you want and shape the index. SUBMIT YOUR DATA NOW
Our Wiki Survey
Focused consultation with civil society organisations- This survey will be sent to a group of NGOs working on a variety of issues to find out what they think about what specific datasets are needed and how they can be used. We will add ideas from the survey to general pool as they come in. Want to answer the survey as well? You can find it here.
This public consultation will be open for the next 10 days and will be closed at June 28th. At the end of the process we will analyse the results and share them with you.
We hope that this new process that we are starting today will lead to an even better index. If you have thoughts about the process, please do share your thoughts with us on our new forum on this topic: https://discuss.okfn.org/c/open-data-index
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.
Jonathan Gray from Open Knowledge is on the organising committee and we are very excited to be supporting this event! Open Knowledge’s mission is to open up all essential public interest information and see it used to create insight that drives change. Open Access, Open Access to Research data and Open Education are an important part of this mission.
Applications to attend OpenCon are open until June 22nd, but applicants are encouraged to apply early. OpenCon seeks to bring together the most capable, motivated students and early career academic professionals from around the world to advance Open Access, Open Education, and Open Data—regardless of their ability to cover travel costs. In 2014, more than 80% of attendees received support. Due to this, attendance at OpenCon is by application only.
Applicants can request a full or partial travel scholarship, which will be awarded to most of those accepted. OpenCon 2015 will convene students and early career academic professionals from around the world and serve as a powerful catalyst for projects led by the next generation to advance OpenCon’s three focus areas—Open Access, Open Education, and Open Research Data. Through a program of keynotes, panel discussions, workshops, and hackathons, participants will build skills in key areas—from raising institutional awareness to coordinating national-level campaigns effectively. Apply early at www.opencon2015.org/attend.
This is a guest post by Seember Nyager. Seember is an Open Knowledge/Code4Africa Open Government Fellow advocating for the adoption of open contracting data standards in Nigeria.
To be honest, the state of public services across Africa shames us. Often, you find that public services do not meet the generally accepted standards of efficiency, regular maintenance and service delivery. In most cases, it is unknown and improbable whether public services followed any specifications in the phase of contract execution and service delivery is often poor and non-standardized.
The state of public services on the continent is hard to relate with the abundance of our natural resources and the amount of external financing that is channeled to Africa in each year. The standard of Public service delivery has consequences; sometimes tragic and the prevalence of tragedy is witnessed in our health care systems. Arguably the most tragic consequence of low standards in public service delivery is the erosion of trust between the Government and the people as this is the greatest saboteur of good intentions that are in the public interest.
There is no quick fix to the infrastructure and service delivery deficit that plagues the continent. Some public services such as efficient transportation networks may only be fully operational after a decade. But there are ways to rebuild trust between Governments and the citizens and chart a formidable course for sustained efficiency in public service delivery.
In another vein, citizens of OGP participating countries may not know about the OGP and in the light of the current commitments being made by countries, may view OGP as an abstract concept that they do not need to involve themselves with. But there is compelling reason to believe that citizens of OGP participating countries may be able to relate and internalize the values behind the OGP if Open Contracting practices are made a part of the OGP agenda in each of these countries.
Open contracting advocates for all stages that lead to public service delivery to be exposed to scrutiny subject to narrowly defined exceptions. Open contracting also advocates that such routine information ought not be requested for but made readily available through multiple channels so that as much as it is possible, the people know where responsibility for the success or failure of public project lies and can participate in the contracting process which ultimately leads to public service delivery.
The scrutiny of the public contracting process requires that information is presented in ways that enables one set of information to be linked to other related information on a public project or service to be delivered. This would require data standards to be followed. Open contracting would require that information is shared through multiple channels and taken to people in formats that they would understand. Open contracting requires that information on public contracts has milestones that show expectations at each stage of contract implementation and specifications that must have been met at each milestone. Open contracting requires that there is publicly available information of the service to be expected at the end of contract execution. Open contracting requires information around the contracting process to be regularly updated and for contracting information to facilitate continuous dialogue between representatives of Government, the people, the contractors and other stakeholders within a community.
For OGP Africa participating countries like Kenya and Ghana who have FOI and RTI bills currently going through parliament, it is recommended that their bills reflect the proactive disclosure provisions on public finance information as contained in the Model Law on Access to Information. This would provide the legal backing for a robust open contracting practice to thrive.
For OGP Africa participating countries like South Africa that are currently undergoing a reform to public sector procurement, it is recommended that there are clear requirements backed by law to ensure public participation in each phase of the contracting process.
For OGP participating countries like Sierra Leone who already have a robust access to information and Public Procurement Law, it is recommended that Contracting data such as pricing benchmarks for public contracts is made readily available, the data follows specified standard, is updated regularly and distributed through multiple channels, in ways that the people can understand.
Committing to open contracting practices would require Government and civil society organizations working closely together and the OGP provides that platform. Further, the Open Contracting Partnership and the web foundation have developed Open contracting data standards that would be of great help to each country willing to adopt open contracting practices. As a non-participant to the OGP, I am hopeful that my own country, Nigeria, would prioritize trust in public service delivery by adopting the spirit and practice of Open Contracting.