Open Knowledge Foundation Director Rufus Pollock has been interviewed by the Guardian in the run up to its Activate Summit 2010 which will take place on Thursday.

From the interview:

How, in your experience, have web technologies been employed to make the world a better place?

The internet and new digital technologies have had and will continue to have a huge impact on the way that knowledge is disseminated in society. Sharing knowledge more effectively has the potential to improve the world in all kinds of ways — from closing the loop between citizens and public bodies, allowing for greater accountability and improved service provision, to improving large-scale collaboration in science, e.g. on the development of life-saving drugs and treatments. Better knowledge sharing enables us to understand some of the world’s biggest problems — from our changing climate to our troubled economies — and to respond to them more effectively. In addition to these extrinsic merits, digital content can also be intrinsically valuable — such as in the case of classic literary or musical works which have entered the public domain or recordings of lecture courses which anyone can freely listen to and share.

And where for you are the real problem areas that remain that you think the internet and its associated technologies can help to tackle?

While we have started to see the positive benefits of opening up different kinds of content and data, there is still a long way to go! Our copyright laws mean that in many cases we are not permitted to republish or combine different sources of information available online. Publication workflows in government still revolve around polished documents for people to read in print rather than datasets which can be manipulated, analysed, and represented by computers. Scientists often do not publish the raw data underlying their research publications — meaning that potentially valuable experimental data or analysis can sit gathering dust. In many countries public bodies are often protective of their information assets, hoping to sell them to private companies rather than opening them up for reuse by the public. Across the board we still have vast silos of data that is not shared.

In some cases we have overcome some of the various obstacles to sharing knowledge. We have licenses and legal tools which can be used to give the green light to those wishing to reuse documents or datasets, akin those used for open source software. We have technologies such as wikis and versioned databases to enable widespread collaboration in knowledge development. We have policy documents and good examples to point to which indicate the benefits of opening up data for others to reuse. But these are the exception rather than the rule. Many institutions and communities are now facing decisions which will help to shape the future of how knowledge is shared — and which will help to determine whether we will have plethora of poorly connected walled gardens, or a shared ecosystem that everyone can benefit from.

So what projects are you currently engaged in on a day to day basis and how does the internet fit into this?

At the Open Knowledge Foundation we are involved in a broad range of projects that aim to promote or demonstrate the value of open material — from sonnets to statistics, genes to geodata. Many of these projects are driven by a dispersed community of contributors, who collaborate using a whole range of digital technologies – including things which have been around for a while now like blogs, wikis, mailing lists, as well as newer things like Etherpad, versioned databases and so on.

Our projects include:

  • Where Does My Money Go? – a project which aggregates, cleans up and republishes information about UK public finances in a form which makes it easy to reuse, and provides a dashboard and other tools and services for analysing, visualising and exploring the material.
  • CKAN – an open source registry of open data, currently used to power We are currently working with open government data advocates around the world to set up over a dozen new instances so that citizens around the world can easily find and reuse official information.
  • Open Data Commons – a set of easy to use legal tools which can be used to open up datasets and databases. Open Street Map is currently looking to use one of the licenses from this project.

Who do you admire in this space? Who’s inspiring you? Who’s pushing the boundaries and how?

There are so many people who are doing fantastic things in the world of open data at the moment! Open data enables unprecedented large scale collaboration on efforts to clean up, link together, deliver and represent all different kinds of information. The recent work undertaken by the Open Street Map community to provide mapping assistance to humanitarian organisations is a really tangible example of what is possible. Hans Rosling’s Gapminder project and his accompanying video lectures are an excellent example of telling stories with open data to help improve the public understanding of complex issues. Countless public servants in both central and local government bodies in the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere have been hard at work behind the scenes to help open up official information for the public to reuse. Similarly there is growing support for open data in the library world, and in scientific fields like chemistry and bioinformatics.

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Dr. Jonathan Gray is Lecturer in Critical Infrastructure Studies at the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London, where he is currently writing a book on data worlds. He is also Cofounder of the Public Data Lab; and Research Associate at the Digital Methods Initiative (University of Amsterdam) and the médialab (Sciences Po, Paris). More about his work can be found at and he tweets at @jwyg.

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