An open letter to Open Knowledge

One year ago, our international organization announced its new leadership search with a mission statement that included:

  • People – support people and organisations to create a free, fair and open future
  • Places – extend our global reach into new geographies and industries, in particular, health, education and work
  • Policies – have policies and procedures that support our vision and make us fit for purpose
  • Partnerships – work in partnership with others who can help us achieve our vision, and secure funding and income that enable us to be sustainable

“We will achieve all of this as the world struggles to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, faces a new global recession and an ongoing climate emergency. There is a crossroad ahead, with a choice between two paths – open or closed. We can be the inspiration for others to follow and ensure society takes the most equitable route. It is an exciting time for our organisation.”

The result of the search was revealed last month as Renata Ávila, international Human Rights lawyer, digital rights advocate, and by all accounts kicker of asses. In an open letter, I propose a couple of ideas of where we could work more closely - or, let’s rather say, more consistently - going forward.

Dear Renata,

This personal letter is a statement of my own opinion. My colleagues on the board and in our community may disagree partially or wholesomely, at their discretion. Please allow me to start by quoting your words from the introduction post, which go straight into the heart of my own engagement:

including everyone, and equipping people with skills to transform data into actionable knowledge

Yes - including everyone is hard. It is easy to forget the responsibilities that come with privilege of access to renowned institutions, competent people, adequate funding, high-quality data sources and infrastructures. It’s very hard to see what a gap in data literacy really means when you’ve been used to working with computers and data structures for most of your life. Open Knowledge gives meaning and hope to contribute to a global movement, while, Frictionless Data, the School of Data, CKAN and our Index, these were some of my concrete opportunities to do so. I wish to see us continue thriving as a truly global NGO, truly responsive, and dedicated to upskilling. These last years have taken their toll on that global feeling, and I would really like to start closing some of the mental distance between Bern, Berlin, Boston and Shoreditch. So, where would be good places to start?

How about in our own backyard.

I see open data as an open door to give back time and skills to the local community, first and foremost. I also serve the parent’s council, support independent local media, student networks, and a variety of associations - but working with the purposes and methods of OKFN has been the most helpful to frame my commitment in relation to my information systems training. When people say they see me as an open data “expert” (a word and connotation I strongly disagree with), it often (for better, or worse) puts me into the heat of things. Frustrated about working behind closed doors, even at small startups, where too many levels of abstraction can detach one from even the beginning of an understanding of impact? Support a non-profit! You might just (first) want to make sure of having a way to keep the lights on. Then think about what you want to improve in your own street, block, neighbourhood (I am), make your way through to actionable knowledge, and work on up from there.

Through FixMyStreet, civic urbanism was my introduction to open data. In a roundabout way, Open Knowledge about cities is at the core of the whitepaper and open source stack I helped to design to help city planners and architects put open data to use. Being part of a Pioneer Fund gave a basis to invest into less-profitable but more-beneficial products, committed us to being more transparent and outgoing as a civic tech organization. If such products can help to pave the way to more open data and open access to plans and public infrastructure, then we can hopefully demonstrate how Frictionless Data can be advantageous to digital startups as well as the more traditional, inscrutable, and relationship-driven industries. The team has very recently been accepted into the Bluelion incubator to build on these foundations, and I hope we will keep this connection alive. Right now, our focus here should be the formalizing of a geospatial spec. My personal role is an advisory capacity, now that the operational/consulting parts are in good hands.

There are several data cooperatives we are supporting in Switzerland, such as alternative data sources for mobility and health data, as well the new Hestia Labs incubation-style project. People are working on ideas in energy and finance. It was a popular topic of discussion at our annual forum, and I am sure it is taking place in the wider network. I’m not sure the “my data” umbrella really works anymore or where else it fits in, just that it would be a Very Good Thing to pay attention to the people. Innovative transparency projects with city administrations, the fact that data packages are making an appearance on government portals, these are the latest signs of open data progress. But we are still scratching the surface of democratizing data stewardship. We could be working with Decidim and other participation platforms to open new insights and alternatives to classical census-making. We could be deploying many more tools like Streetwise, our framework for research into crowdsourcing open data for machine learning.

Everyone wants to be on the blockchain, so of course we have a Crypto Valley in Switzerland, excellent hubs and think tanks and all that. Feelings about this in our community are rather mixed: people are somehow not keen to admit to dabbling in crypto or dapps. Let’s move past the intimidation, even if we’re not ready to accept this brave new world, and focus on our need for trustless networks and distributed governance. Last year the Covid App campaign here discussed the impact of this massive distributed-tech deployment, and I started to think more seriously about processes to certify datasets and to maintain a chunk of code to try to learn how to make this happen. In the recent discussion of revising the governance process at OKFN, I brought up my experiences here, related to DAOs and more specific mechanisms of encoded policy. For some time the ODI has been issuing certificates, providing datasets with both qualitative indicators and a stamp of authenticity. We used to try to certify people, a.k.a. the ambassador scheme, incentivizing self-growth and introspection. Qualifying responsibilities and empowering members is just what distributed organizations do - right?

We took the scenic route and are now arriving at our destination. Through csv,conf and many many other platforms the impression is that we are mostly educating relatively technical people, who have experience in coding/analytics tools. As a committed techie, I really want to provide people with my support, plug meaningful questions into local forums, and bring OKFN projects to Hackdays and other popular scenes. I was for example quite thrilled to help provide some virtual acceleration for the Frictionless Hackathon by setting up a recently enhanced instance of dribdat. Is this the best way to champion data literacy? I think so. It would make sense to create a shared repository and work together on simple bootstraps and curricula for data packaging.

There’s so much we can do to better visualize the paths to higher quality data and better feedback loops. I imagine that we could all see the benefits of a more incentive-based, empathetic, cross-disciplinary and purpose-oriented kind of data reuse. There are thoughts along these lines in my current whitepaper. There are more thoughts and papers coming out of a research group I am part of. I recently voiced some of these thoughts to a high calibre audience and got a surprising-yet-obvious response: if data literacy is a 21st century driver’s license, then hackathons are the road test. Thus, I am investing a lot of time right now in classrooms for the drivers and autopilot-trainers of the next decade, always slightly improving my understanding of the contexts in which Open Knowledge clicks with the Common Sense of our everyday needs. As I trust that you are, too.

Let’s try to bring our data points closer together, as time and geography permits. Until then, I hope you have a very excellent start in letting your sparks fly all over the map!




We had a lovely call with Renata and reps from around the network a few days ago, and made plans to meet and reconnect early next year. Again I got the impression that individually our chapters are very active and making a lot of progress, and that our international organization is working hard to build up momentum on their initiatives. Closing ties between our leadership and communities is a priority for 2022.

Some inspiring/fun posts from :earth_africa: Planet Open Knowledge:

With best wishes from Bern.