Reflections about the Open Knowledge Conference 2013

After Heslinki, the 2013 edition of the OkCon, gracefully organised by the Open Knowledge Foundation and Lift, was held in Geneva this September. Raising the questions of how to broaden and deepen open data but also connect its ecosystem, the conference offered the view of many experts in various fields as science, culture, governance, technology or business, all concerned by open data. I’d like to share with you a few points which held my attention.

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Contextualization of data

Brought by Francesca de Chiara from the Open Knowledge Foundation Italy during the Open Data: A drive for Development and Sustainability talk, the contextualisation of data is in my opinion one of the most important and urgent points that open data is confronted with.

Surely, context is not a new notion about data, it is one of the most important components of any (design) issue. Though, most of the data sets we have access to today have hardly any proper contextual information. Usually, the most basics questions like what the data is about, how the information was collected or who collected it are absent from the picture or are mixed into the data set itself. In any case, it needs additional work and research to figure out what it is all about and to have a solid and accurate understanding of the data. Leave alone to have the data in a proper format in order to exploit it. What we observe right now can be described as a hybrid situation with contextualized data mixed with raw data.

To solve this problem, we have to address several issues as the resistance to share data, creating a lack of transparency, and the lack of standards for the data, making it hard to cross data from different sources.

On the other hand we also have to think about the context of using the data: in which way will we use it, in which environment, to answer what kind of need? To do this we need to take into account dimensions such as time, cultural diversity, cultural environment, and urgency among others. To illustrate this point, I would like to use the example of the Fruit Fermentation project done by the HONF foundation. In Indonesia there is a high mortality rate due to the consumption of poor quality self-made alcohol. The lab created this project to educate people about how to ferment the fruits and therefore creating non-toxic alcohol. From a Western point of view, this project may be seen as controversial, but in this particular context and different cultural setting, the project makes total sense.

To sum up, the contextualization of data is a key point to facilitate good and meaningful use thereof. In my opinion, this contextualization may be composed of two parts. First, the understanding of the context in which the data is produced. Second, the understanding of the context in which the data will be used.

The future of social

The modern vision of the social network has been established at the beginning of this century thanks to networking services such as Facebook and Twitter. These new tools for human interactions reshape the notion of social behaviour insomuch the technology is now shaping it. The current social interaction is now based on sharing our experiences, through pictures, videos, opinions… and connecting us with as many people as possible. But after ten years of existence, we notice a change of paradigm.

First in its content: the network is becoming collaborative. As Ezio Manzini, DESIS international coordinator, explained us, people are seeking to connect with each other to build things together. This new way of approaching the social interaction can be explained by the wish of creating something useful and meaningful for the community in order to express opinion, share information and ideas and act on the world. We are assisting to a change of culture, more sustainable, where citizens become deeper involved in their communities. This trend is confirmed with the emergence of an highly increasing number of collaborative services as car-sharing (zipcar), cook-sharing (CoLunching) or platforms (OuiShare).

This first change implies a second one regarding the nature of the relationships between people. In his talk Geert Lovink, Founder of the Institue of Network Culture, shows that the network has been used as a way of reaching as many people as possible. This has been used especially in business where people are exploiting weak links to achieve their objectives. Though research shows that we don’t go further than around 20 core friends, 180 being an average number of acquaintances. In fact, we already see the emergence of organized networks involving less people but focusing on making things happen.

Those two new ways of considering the network raise several questions. First, should we be more in a qualitative approach to our relations than a quantitative one and therefore abandoning massive connection? If we go for a qualitative approach, it begs for the question of time: where and with whom do I want to spend my empathic energy? But it is really valid to reject entirely massive connection ? This brings a second reflexion wondering, if we shouldn’t strive for a more balanced network with few strong relationships and lots of acquaintances.

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Data privacy in the intention economy

Right now, the open data movement concerns mainly universal data covering fields as mobility, politics, crime, education, or science. By nature, this data should, and hopefully will in a near future, be available to anyone, but we already know issues with this kind of data. First on a purely technical level as mentioned earlier in the contextualization part. Secondly on a societal level where we are struggling with the change of policies for example.

One of the main issue of todays society is privacy, which becomes more and more important with each new technological evolution. Of late, the distribution of products like Google Glass has reawakened the debate about privacy. I feel that, this kind of personal data can still be considered as external to some extent. In the future a new kind of data will appear being far more personal: individual health data. One striking fact is that in 65 years, most of us will have their genome encoded, and it is likely that we will also have implanted sensors, as Kevin Warwick already has. Those different tools will create an almost endless stream of data about our health condition. From this observation we can first wonder about where to store this data and how to manage it? This implies a second question of the impact it will have on our healthcare systems?

Actually, there are already some businesses specialized in the management of health data. They rely on people sharing their knowledge about diseases from personal experience or from genome encoding. Examples include 23andme.com or meforyou.org. In my opinion, those initiatives encounter the following two problems. The first one is a lack of people involved to make the system really accurate. The second is the commercial use of this data which can stop people of using or participating to the service.

As an alternative, and maybe a solution, to this existing services,Ernst Hafen, CSO of the Healthbank, proposes the involvement of the individual in the management of his health data. This involvement means to educate people about how to collect data for themselves, how to understand it and with whom to share it. This would lead to an intention economy as describe by Doc Searls which would create to a whole new healthcare system using a health bank account, connected apps, health cooperative… and eventually putting the citizen at the center of the process.

Reshaping society

The last point, which summarizes the whole conference for me, is that we are facing a choice of society and culture: in what society do we want to live in the future? And it will mainly depend on how we decide to use the increasing amount of data available nowadays, and therefore how we shape the information society.

The need of transparency is key to the involvement of citizens in the political life of their community, city, region and country. This transparency will also play a crucial role in their involvement in the future services and products based on their data that will progressively appear. This involvement will trigger a stronger sense of community in a more sustainable way. This will have an impact on the economy which is already moving towards a decentralized and collaborative state. This engagement of the citizen should also be visible in the making of policies where, right now, many of the actors concerned by their changes are absent from the dialogue.

Finally, we should also observe an increasing interest in the commons and free culture by facilitating the sharing of ideas and the access to knowledge which are key components to lead to a creative and innovative society.

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