This is my first week in my new role as Chief Executive of Open Knowledge International.
Digital skills and data use have always been a personal passion, and I can’t wait to work alongside and meet so many talented people fighting for a more open world. It is a privilege to be part of an organisation that has set the global standard for genuinely free and open sharing of information, building on the vision of founder Dr Rufus Pollock who wants to create an open information age.
There have been many gains in recent years that have made our society more open, with experts – be they scientists, entrepreneurs or campaigners – using data for the common good.
But I join OKI at a time when openness is at risk. The acceptance of basic facts is under threat, with many expert views dismissed and a culture of ‘anti-intellectualism’ from those on the extremes of politics. Facts are simply branded ‘fake news’. The rise of the far right and the far left brings with it an authoritarian approach that could return us to a closed society.
The way forward is to resuscitate the three foundations of tolerance, facts and ideas, to prevent the drift to the extremes. I want to help harness the power of open data and unleash its potential for the public good.
In the last century, philosopher Karl Popper argued that openness to analysis and questioning would foster social and political progress. His vision can today be seen in the way that open data can enhance our 21st century life. There are cities in Europe using real-time sensor data to let motorists know the precise availability of parking spaces on streets and the location of buses in real-time.
Open data can help the environment, by analysing usage trends in how we treat household waste, it can improve the health of a nation by predicting outbreaks of diseases, and it can allow authorities to respond to extreme weather events like snowstorms and floods in a more coordinated way.
And it can benefit consumers as well. Last week at a technology conference in Edinburgh I met with a Scottish company called Get Market Fit, which has designed a free online tool called Think Check. It lets shoppers check whether a product or seller is all it seems and warn you if you’re being exposed to fakes, fraud or shopping scams.
When open data becomes useful, usable and used – when it is accessible and meaningful and can help someone solve a problem – that’s when it becomes open knowledge.
And it is not just about making our lives easier. Open knowledge can make powerful institutions more accountable, and vital research information can help us tackle challenges such as poverty, disease and climate change.
If we know how governments spend our money — both their plans and the reality — they are more accountable to citizens.
The poet Robert Frost, who spoke at President John F Kennedy’s inauguration, wrote about a man who said ‘good fences make good neighbours’. But the truth is that good neighbours don’t put up fences – they share knowledge across an open space. It is incumbent on us all to become good neighbours so that we can build a more open world.
Catherine was the Chief Executive Officer of the Open Knowledge Foundation until August 2020 when she became the Chief Executive Officer of Creative Commons. She represented Scotland in the European Parliament between 1999 and 2019. As Vice-Chair of the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, Catherine worked on digital policy, prioritising the digital single market, digital skills, better accessibility of digital products for the disabled, as well as citizen online data protection and privacy.