“Open”–“Necessary” but not “Sufficient”

Posted on July 6, 2011


My somewhat off the cuff comments/reflections on the recent OKCon(ference), the annual event of the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) seems to have caused a bit of a stir among certain of the more senior members of the latter group. The result has been a series of comments on my original blog post and now a blogpost on a separate blog by Peter Murray-Rust an OKF Board Member, taking considerable issue with my comments.

Since the discussion now has moved down to #29 or so in the breadcrumb trail of comments and responses it’s probably worthwhile to reprise and refocus the discussion a bit and hence this new blogpost taking off from the end point of the latter discussion thread.

To start, as I said in a parallel discussion concerning the original post: “It is a measure I think, of the success of a blogpost if it elicits comments which exceed the original in passion, knowledge and intelligence and this one I think, succeeded in spades.”

So where are we… First let me state FWIW as clearly as possible my own position—I am strongly in favour of “openness” both in the somewhat trivial sense of an “open everything” meme where not being “open” is equated with supporting the darkside AND in the rather more thoughtful and constructive definition given to the term by the OKF on their website “A piece of content or data is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike.”

A wee bit of biography might be relevant here.  I’ve spent much of the last 15 years or so working in and around what has come to be known as Community Informatics (CI)—the use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) to enable and empower communities. There are several thousand people world wide who would in some way consider themselves as working within that overall discipline/strategy/approach.  There is an open access open archive peer reviewed journal (which I edit), a wiki, several elists, conferences, several blogs (including this one), even university courses etc.etc. I mention this because CI to some extent grew up in the broad context of local, technical, policy, advocacy based responses to the Digital Divide (DD)—broadly understood as the divide between those who have access to ICTs and those do not.

CI however, added a key component to the mix which was that while “access” to ICTs were a “necessary” condition for over-coming the DD, access alone was “insufficient” to make available (and operational) the range of opportunities for economic and social advance on the broadest possible basis of which ICTs are capable and which have so massively transformed (and enabled, enriched and empowered) business and governments. Hence the need for additional steps and interventions/supports to transform “access” into the opportunity for what I call “effective use“.

I see a direct parallel between the issues that I and my colleagues (and many many other  people) have been addressing over the last 15 years or so in the context of the DD and what I am now seeing with respect to the Open Data and related movements.

I most certainly am not against Open Data/Open Government (OD/OG) in the same way as I am not (and as has been the focus of my work for much of the last 15 years) against the broadest possible distribution of access to the Internet and all of the associated ICT tools.  However, I do see Open Data as defined above as not being sufficient to effect the positive changes in government, science, democracy itself as is being indicated as the overall goal of the OD/OG movement.

In some ways the argument here is even clearer than it was concerning the efforts to overcome the DD. Egon Willighagen commenting on Peter Murray-Rusk response to my blogpost  writes:

Open Data is *not* about how to present (governmental) data in a human readable way to the general public to take advantage of (though I understand why he got that idea), but Open Data is about making this technically and legally *possible*. He did not get that point, unfortunately.

 To respond to Egon (and Peter), I did understand that very well about “Open Data”; and it is precisely that of which I am being critical.  I am arguing that “Open Data” as presented in this way is sufficient only (as argued in the original post)  to provide additional resources to the Sheriff of Nottingham rather than to Robin Hood.

“Open Data” as articulated above by Willighagen has the form of a private club—open “technically” (and “legally”) to all to join but whose membership requires a degree of education, ressources, technical skill such as to put it out of the reach of any but a very select group.

Allison Powell in her thoughtful comments on my blogpost talks (in the context of “Open Hardware”) about those who are in a position through pre-existing conditions of wealth, technical knowledge and power to “appropriate” the outcome of  “(hardware) Openness” for their own private corporate purposes.

Parminder Jeet Singh in his own comments contrasts Open Data with Public Data—a terminology and conceptual shift with which I am coming to agree—where Public Data is data which is not only “open” but also is designed and structured so as to be usable by the broad “public” (“the people”).

Originally in the context of the Digital Divide I articulated notions around what I called “effective use” that is the factors that need to be in place for “access” to be translated into “use” by those at the grassroots level. In an earlier blogpost I transferred these concepts and updated them into an “Open Data/Open Knowledge” context and I would modestly suggest that it is through the implementation of a strategy incorporating “effective (data) use” that the full measure and value of Open Data/Open Knowledge can be achieved and the parallel dangers of a very damaging and socially divisive “Data Divide” avoided.