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Appetite grows for open data

Open data is being embraced all around the world in hundreds of different fields. Tim Bird found out why it's so becoming so popular and why Finland's international Open Knowledge Festival was such as a success...


Transparency and citizen participation are key elements of open data – a trend that gained an enthusiastic boost in Helsinki this autumn.

When the OKFestival was held in Helsinki in September 2012 to promote and spread the word on open data, nobody was quite prepared for the amount of enthusiasm that it generated. Organised by the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Finnish Institute in London and the Aalto Media Factory, with Sitra as one of the facilitators, the event attracted hundreds of public sector institution designers, businessmen, activists and officials and other experts from many different countries.

Open data means what it says: information that is freely available to everyone. “Open data can help shape our shared world into one that is more creative, egalitarian and that has less systemic blind spots which can be unfairly exploited by special interests,” says Sitra Leading Specialist Ossi Kuittinen. The transparency and citizen participation that go hand in hand with the principles of open data, says Kuittinen, are close to Sitra’s heart.

Feedback from participants in the OKFestival’s talks and workshops was appreciative. “I admire this mission to develop understanding and promote openness in the widest range possible,” said Attila Bujdosó, a senior research advisory from Hungary. “Knowledge has a certain structure which is often very rigid and is full of boundaries that limit the flow of knowledge … between different disciplines, art and science, cultural and corporate, public and private, academic and non-academic. Many of them are hard to cross. Openness dissolves these boundaries. If knowledge is power, openness is a tool to empower people.”

James Cameron, founder and non-executive chairman of Climate Change Capital, clarified what open data can mean in practice in his keynote speech. He described the ideal open data scenario whereby in the event of an environmental disaster or emergency, for example, all available geophysical data would be available on a single monitor, enabling a coordinated response to the event. In this scenario, real time, filtered information about rivers, forests, atmospheric conditions, the economy and the emergency resources of any given country or region would be openly available on one monitor.

“I would want information coming in but also fed out, a two way stream, in a way that I can make comparisons but so I am not dependent on a single source,” said Cameron. “All those elements – immense data sets on water, on ecosystems, on weather – are already available online, but they are not necessarily connected.”

Cameron also referred to the Carbon Disclosure Project, an independent non-profit organization driving greenhouse gas emissions reduction and sustainable water use, as a best practice case in terms of open data. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s work in Africa on soil fertility, said Cameron, takes a similarly open approach to collecting and applying knowhow.

Wikipedia’s democratic approach to information distribution and the Linux open source computer operating system are more instances of how open data is already manifested. The Wisdom of Crowds is a term adopted to describe how the free flow of input and output of ideas and expertise can enhance social, intellectual and commercial success and development.

Open data can be seen in the widest possible context, furthering open and transparent government on the broadest scale. As another keynote speaker at the festival, European Parliament Member Anneli Jäätteenmäki, said: “A political system can only be legitimate if the citizens trust it.”

Tim Bird