The promise of an open world
The Open Knowledge festival was a spectacular event with experts, key change agents & motivated lay people like me from all across the world converging in Helsinki’s Aalto University campus. The corridors were abuzz with a flurry of activity and a positive energy around the promise of ‘open’. The three days of the festival had multiple tracks running simultaneously, each track an exposition of the open philosophy as applied to a particular field – such as ‘open development’, ‘open culture’, ‘open cities’, ‘open business’, ‘open design & manufacturing’ and so on. This was essential to cater to a wide array of festival participants – from software developers to policy developers; from journalists & NGO representatives to corporate representatives, lawyers & government officials. What emerged from this multiplicity was an array of electric conversations in the corridors and during sessions.
In a sense, the multiple tracks were parallel and yet not similar. While some, such as the ‘open culture’ track saw creation of some amazing projects and ideas, some others such as the ‘open development’ and ‘open governance’ tracks had to cover the primary ground about what it means to be ‘open’ and the complexities that need to be addressed before realizing the potential of an open world. In a sense, participation in these tracks gave me a quick glimpse into the current stage of evolution of openness. Initiatives such as Wikipedia, the Gutenberg project, Linux, sourceforge.net & the most maverick – wikileaks – have set the tone for the future of creation, consumption & the ethics of it all in our digital lives. And therein lies the first chasm between the divergent evolution trajectories of the philosophy of open.
The first chasm is that of digital lives and non-connected lives. The promise of open is not restricted to realization through digital tools and digital communities. Yet, the conversations in the festival were largely about projects and case studies of digital tools and communities. I pointed this out to one of the panel members with an example of the ‘transparency wall’ in an Indian village, which hosts the data about workers, the work being completed under the NREGA scheme, and payments issued thereby. A similar question was raised by a Ugandan participant when he asked about the utility of ‘open apps’ to his grandmother in a small village of Nigeria. How can she access it & use it? Perhaps in the next edition of Open Knowledge festival, there should be a track dedicated to optimum medium prioritization for task at hand and audience in question.
The second chasm is best showcased with the comment of Italy’s representative in the session, ‘State-of-play: The open government data movements and related initiatives’. He said that they have data, but they lack clarity about the strategy to utilize that data. There is relatively more clarity about how we are going to build tools, what standards will be used, what digital ecology needs to be sustained and so on. But there is relatively less clarity about the social, organizational, economical impact of the ‘open movement’. One of the first questions asked to Martin Tisne (director of policy at Omidyar Network) in the opening plenary was about the ‘risk to open government data’. Martin said that open data is “not a holy benign force”. The answer in some ways is obvious: open datasets that could pose a threat to national security will not be out, mechanisms to ensure impact assessment will be in place and so on.
However, the significance of the doubt was not answered. The non-benign force is currently unseen and unknown. The unknown often causes us to fear the worst possibilities. We humans do not entertain the company of uncertainty and risks. For Open initiatives to be successful, the uncertainties must be removed at once through a communication strategy targeting citizenry to create a clear conception of what entails ‘open government data’.
Towards a clearer conception, Martin did share with us the roadblock he faces in his experience. He said that it is essential to know the reformers among the government bureaucracies & legislatures. Once the question of ‘whom to ally with?’ is convincingly answered, the wheels can start to turn. He shared insight about the enthusiasm for open governance in cities with examples such as ‘fixmystreet.com‘. He shared the encouraging factoid that there are 270 start-ups using health data released by the government. These stories of innovation and application are needed to propagate the open culture.
Another example of creating clarity was through ihubs in Africa where techies meet policy people. New hubs are being set every 2-3 weeks in Africa. Martin specifically also talked about the need to encourage technological usage to traditional communities such faith based communities, civic communities and so on.
The third chasm is between the government and the governed. Though inextricably linked, there seems to be a lack of common vocabulary in the exchange of ideas. Addressing this chasm was an excellent idea called European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), explained by Carsten Berg (general coordinator of the ECI Campaign).
Its perhaps one of the most profound innovations in democracy is recent times. An idea, backed by at least one million citizens from at least one quarter of the EU member states, can affect legal acts in areas where the commission has the power to do so. This ‘soft tool of democracy’ took 2 years to get going, due to bureaucratic hurdles. Even now it continues to face many practical hurdles, with only one ECI being initiated as of now. Yet, I am sure it will go a long way in lending democratic credentials to EU.