The Open Knowledge Conference 2013

A shorter, edited version of the article below has been published on The Conversation.

Last week, I was one of 900 delegates from 55 countries who travelled to Geneva to attend OKCon, the Open Knowledge conference. We convened at Geneva’s International Conference Centre, co-incidentally located next door to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and just ten minutes walk from the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).  The theme of this year’s conference (which have been running since 2005) was ‘Open Data. Broad, Deep, Connected’. Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) co-founder, Dr. Rufus Pollock explained in his opening speech that this is “the century of the open knowledge society” and that the conference aimed to broaden access, deepen commitment to openness and connect people.

A post-war legacy

If today we are living through the century of the open knowledge society, we might recognise that the roots of the movement – and it really does feel like a movement – are to be found in the development of 20th century Liberalism as it confronted the totalitarianism of Nazi Fascism and Stalinist Communism. The horrors of World War Two and the paranoia of the Cold War led to intense reflection on the nature of freedom and democracy. In 1945, Karl Popper published his two-volume critique of totalitarianism, The Open Society and its Enemies, two-years after Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom, a foundational text for neo-liberalism. Elsewhere in the wartime academy, Norbert Wiener and others were developing the discipline of Cybernetics, which analysed society as a system of communication and feedback – an information society. In 1948, Wiener published the landmark book, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine which would influence the emerging disciplines of Cognitive Science, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Computer Science.

A convergence of this history of ideas could be clearly felt at the Open Knowledge Conference in Geneva. The themes of the conference included open government, open development, open culture, open science, open education and open innovation. While increasingly broad in its coverage, there remained a tendency in the workshops and talks to view these avenues of openness through the singular lens of open data and the efficiencies that it promises in all aspects of civic life.  In his speech, Pollock was clear that openness in itself doesn’t change the world, but that without open data, “we’re driving blind” and he identified open data with “empowerment” – enabling people to change the world. In his closing speech, Pollock said that the Open Knowledge Foundation is “pragmatic, not fanatic”, recognising that there are degrees of openness, despite having once co-authored the pivotal ‘Open Definition’.

The ‘logic’ of openness

My reason for attending the conference was to participate in a meeting around scholarly infrastructure, but having attended last year’s Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki, I was also curious about how the Open Knowledge movement is progressing, especially in the areas of open education and open science. In the past few years I have been awarded grants by Jisc to undertake research and development projects which produced Open Educational Resources, Open Data and Open Source Software. You see, once you catch the openness bug, it remains infectious. This has been neatly articulated by Christopher Kelty, who wrote about the ‘recursive public’ of the Internet, which turns freedom of information advocates into activists who find themselves necessarily campaigning for open standards, open infrastructure, open source and so on, so as to protect the thing they cherish.

We can see this in the Open Access movement, having its roots in the Free and Open Source Software movement that emerged out of the Artificial Intelligence labs of the 1970s. Now over a decade old, Open Access has initiated a recursive response within the academy whereby the ‘logic’ of Open Access – free, public access to scholarly research papers enabled by the Internet – increasingly demands that the underlying research data is also made openly accessible so that the research can be reproduced and verified. But it does not stop there: The source code for the software employed during the research, as well as the algorithms and lab notes should be made open, too. And while we’re at it, why not open peer-review? During one workshop I attended on tools for open science, we were shown how some researchers are now writing ‘executable papers’, constructed in such a way that open source software can reproduce and verify the results of the paper and embedded data sources.

Open data by default

The acceptance of Open Access is opening up much more than access to scholarly research publications. With Open Access now embedded in the policies of major research funders around the world, open research data is next on the agenda. In June this year, the G8 Science Ministers published four principles for open scientific data, focusing on openness, access, efficiency and supporting policy. This statement was published concurrently with the G8’s Open Data Charter, a set of principles intended to improve the transparency and responsiveness of governments, increase innovation and improve government efficiency.

The politics of openness

This year’s Open Knowledge Conference had much to celebrate in terms of what has been achieved since the Open Knowledge Foundation was established in 2004. This was underlined by the announcement of a $1.2m grant from the World Bank, which will fund the ‘Open Data Partnership for Development’, a joint project between the World Bank, the OKF and the Open Data Institute.  The announcement highlights the three objectives of the Partnership: “Supporting developing countries to plan, execute and run open data initiatives; increasing the use of open data in developing countries; and growing the evidence-base on the impact of open data for development.” It is worth remembering that the World Bank is itself the product of and advocate of another form of openness: Open markets. It was established as an outcome of the 1944 Breton Woods Conference and along with the International Monetary Fund, intended to promote international development and trade.

Openness has always been a political project with advocates from across the political spectrum. For some it is about power and accountability, for others it is about innovation and efficiency. Choosing pragmatism over fanaticism has been a sound choice so far. However, if Kelty’s analysis is right – and in my experience it is – the recursive ‘logic’ of openness will continue to extend itself to all aspects of public life while the definition of openness will be contested and stretched to ever greater degrees. Here in the academy, it is re-shaping the nature of scientific practice and discovery and before long will contest the way science has been valorised since it was institutionalised over a century ago.

Situating this year’s Open Knowledge Conference beside the ITU and WIPO buildings was a logistical coincidence. Yet in many ways, delegates at OKCon have a deep interest in the work of both of these agencies of the United Nations and are challenging them to re-think the way in which the ‘information society’ and the ‘knowledge economy’ achieves some of the ideals of openness that were established in the post-war climate and have yet to be fulfilled.

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