This essay is a first attempt at putting down in hard text a coherent explanation of the reasons for setting up the Open Knowledge Foundation. Undoubtedly this vision will both change and improve with the passage of time.

The Open Knowledge Revolution

The arrival of pervasive information technology has unleashed a revolution in the realm of knowledge to parallel that of the invention of the printing press.

However while the rise of the ‘knowledge economy’ provides a unique opportunity it has also given rise to new threats. Just as technological developments have permitted the ‘open source’ revolution in software so we now stand upon the threshold of an analogous revolution for knowledge.

The Threat

  • Knowledge is becoming more and more proprietarized. While the importance of property rights for incentivizing knowledge creation is acknowledged, the current situation shows a large deviation from the correct balance between openness and proprietarization. This endangers not only the public domain but the welfare of all of society due to the resulting reduction in innovation and creativity.
  • At the same time knowledge is increasingly important to culture and the economy: the public domain is more valuable than ever before.
  • Recent years have witnessed a major strengthening of intellectual property laws at a time when trends in technology (see below) would have suggested that the opposite should occur. The current legal framework often appears outdated and threatens important freedoms as well as stifling the potential of new forms of innovation and creativity.

The Opportunity

With the computer and communications revolution:

  • The cost of data transmission has dropped radically.
  • The cost of computer equipment has also dropped radically (and power has increased). This means not only that more powerful and complex hardware and software tools are available for knowledge creation, but that knowledge, in its widest sense, becomes comparatively more important – the development of the ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘information society’

This has given rise to:

New Opportunities for Knowledge Creation and Production

The costs of knowledge creation and production have been dramatically reduced which created new opportunities and vastly lessened the barriers to entry and participation. For example film editing suites that cost $25,000 five years now retail for under $500; database systems that twenty years ago would have required a minicomputer now run on hardware that costs less than $300.

Plummeting Costs for Disseminating and Communicating Information

This permits easier and more efficient knowledge transmission, sharing and transfer. It also reduces the obstacles posed by time and space to collaboration and communication.

Componentization and Reuse of Knowledge

Improved componentization allows a project to be easily broken down into, and rapidly built up from, smaller pieces. Technological advances have created both novel form of reuse and improved existing methods where reuse reworking or recombination of existing work to form something new. For example the sampling of video in a VJ set (the equivalent of DJing for video) or the datamining of a protein database.

Why does this matter

  1. Knowledge is a good in itself
  2. Knowledge is good for democracy. It empowers citizens, especially those among the more disadvantaged sections of society, and increases informed participation in the political process. It also lowers the cost of coordination and interaction, helping to solve the coordination issues that plague politics. It thereby improves the allocation of resources and social welfare.
  3. Knowledge is essential to innovation – the key driver of economic growth and development. Making knowledge more widely and cheaply available promotes creativity and innovation while also assisting in the transfer and diffusion of the existing knowledge base – something especially important go growth in the world’s less developed countries.

What are the Implications of this Revolution?

We need to take advantage of these new opportunities and ensure they are not stifled legally or technologically. Openness must be protected and promoted in an this new digital age. The Open Knowledge Foundation and the network that it supports exists to support these ends.

An Example OKF Project

Tools for Developing and Collaborating on Knowledge Projects

Projects both large and small, commercial and volunteer, can now be organized more easily, more efficiently and more effectively. What is essential to the success of projects, especially larger ones?

  • Ability to collaborate easily
  • Ability to absord participant turnover.
  • Stable basic infrastructure (servers etc)
  • Creation of institutional framework (cf. point 2)

These possibilities are best demonstrated by an analogy with opensource/free software. SourceForge and Apache Software Foundation both show the dramatic possibilities for collaborative, community-based volunteer software development. They have radicalized the production of software and shown that a not-for-profit approach can deliver on large complex software projects. They have reduced cost of participation while increasing payoff and exploit the non-rival nature of an information good such as software.

Taking our cue from such developments over the last ten years which could be termed the open source revolution we look to an open knowledge revolution to parallel this. While there has always been collaboration among creators and intellectuals and there have been notable recent successes such as wikipedia there is still a dearth of tools and communities for the creation and development of knowledge projects.

The Idea of KnowledgeForge

A first step in addressing this lack would be provide the basic infrastructure for collaboration on open knowledge projects and the development of open knowledge communities. It would be a SourceForge for open knowledge that we christen KnowledgeForge.

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Rufus Pollock is Founder and President of Open Knowledge.