What I learned at OKCon…

19th century data visualisation

19th century data visualisation

After taking out a loan and selling a kidney, I was in Geneva. Okay, so it’s maybe not that expensive, but as world cities go it has to be up near the top of the cost-of-living index. I was there for 2013’s Open Knowledge Conference, ‘the world’s leading open data and open knowledge conference’. Like most people there, we believe that open data and greater access to information can – under the right circumstances – improve living standards, reduce corruption and save money. OKCon 2013 sought to examine the role played by open data and how it was spreading beyond its traditional remit of open government to incorporate new and different areas of life and policymaking in education, development, transport and business. Here’s what I learned…

  1. Open research is reaching a tipping point: About 50% of scientific research conducted in 2011 is now freely available online. The European Commission is aiming to have 60% of publicly-funded scientific research open and available by 2016. This new model is rapidly turning research and education on its head. For decades, scientific research – funded by taxpayers – has been locked away in expensive specialist journals to which a small minority has access. It’s now increasingly difficult for publishers to justify the high fees that they charge for access to this sort of material and they are finding that this model just doesn’t work any more.
  2. Open by default is the next big thing: Ever since Sweden passed its landmark Freedom of the Press Act in 1766 (the first modern Freedom of Information law), campaigners have worked to ensure that governments around the world adopt similar legislation. This has been particularly evident in the last 30 years, as the number of countries with FOI legislation has jumped from ten to 94. In reality, though, FOI still gives states the upper hand, as it requires a proactive citizenry capable of submitting, tracking and understanding FOI requests and the data they result in. What if we moved to a model where information was available automatically? Citizens would no longer have to write to the relevant state body and request access to thatgenf1 information; they could instead simply find it themselves and sidestep the data gatekeepers altogether. After decades of FOI campaigning, are we on the verge of a boom in ‘open by default’ activism?
  3. Open data is just better: Most people simply aren’t interested in ‘open’ or ‘data’. Citizens don’t understand it and (some) governments and corporations view it with suspicion or hostility. But citizens, governments and corporations are interested in efficiency and saving money. And for this, open data beats closed data hands down. Closed data often contains errors and gaps, it often comes in a proprietary format that can’t be cross-checked and it’s difficult to know where or how the data came from. Open data, by contrast, is subject to scrutiny by many more people, meaning that errors and gaps can be easily spotted. It’s open and reusable, meaning that it can be combined with other datasets and sources. And it’s clear for everyone to see how, when and where that data was collected. All of this means that open data is simply more reliable, cheaper and helps people do things more effectively. Whether you’re in government or in business, that’s not something you can afford to ignore. It’s why the UK Government, for example, is using open data to identify areas where savings can be made, e.g. in the prescribing of certain branded drugs, rather than identical generic versions.
  4. Open data is a business opportunity: The sheer volume and availability of data is creating rich pickings for tech companies, start-ups and others. As choice and availability increase, so too do uncertainty and indecision. Among the morass of data, it becomes increasingly hard to find what you actually want or need. Companies have realised this and are starting to offer paid services that build on the basics of open data. In Canada, for example, Ajah take publicly available data from a number of different sources, crunch and analyse it to produce a useful, meaningful service for charity fundraisers, foundations and others. In cities around the world, developers are using genfopen transport data to create apps and services around journey planning and next bus times. Open health data, meanwhile, will allow medical companies to target certain areas or communities with advertising for relevant services or products.
  5. The OGP is an imperfect creature: There are lots of problems with the open government partnership. In many ways the OGP is the embodiment of the Groucho Marx joke ‘I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member’. Many members of the OGP are not exactly paragons of transparency, but that’s not the point. By signing up to the OGP, governments place themselves in a position where opacity and obfuscation become increasingly difficult. The Ukrainian Government, for example, was forced to scrap its open data plan when activists there designed a better and more comprehensive open data plan. Under the gaze of open data activists the world over, they could hardly refuse. In Ghana, civil society have used the OGP to push for FOI legislation. The upcoming OGP Summit (London Oct 31-Nov 1) offers civil society and open data activists with a unique opportunity to push their governments further to open up information and become more transparent, according to OGP co-chair, Rakesh Rajani.

Having been to three OK Conferences/Festivals/Camps, I get the sense that open data – while still a minority interest – is starting to gain a lot of traction and interest in government, the private sector and within charities. For many, it’s still a bit of a minefield, but that is starting to change. The next twelve months will be very interesting and I’ll be intrigued to see what happens at OKCon 2014, which will take place in Berlin July 15-18.