Okfestival 2014

James Smith

I spent last week in Berlin at the 2014 Open Knowledge Festival, along with a good number of other ODI staff.

My main reason for going over was to give a talk at csv,conf, a fringe conference about “small data” and the practicalities of working with it. There was a lot of talk about validation, testing, and collaboration on data, which will be useful information for our future experiments in that area. There was a particularly good talk by Nick Stenning, technical director of Open Knowledge, about containerised shipping and datapackages. His argument was that just as the international shipping market exploded once the container was invented, standard boxes help us to work with all sorts of things, and that’s what we need for data. I quite agree, which is one reason that all the tools we build at the ODI support datapackage, and we contribute to pushing the spec forward.

My own talk was about csvlint.io, our tool for CSV validation. You can watch it below, though the first 30 seconds or so have been lost to history due to a late-starting camera! The slides are also online, so you can fill in the gap if you want.

For me, I admit that the actual sessions and talks aren’t the main draw of OKFestival (though they are great). For me, it’s about the relationships we have with the grassroots open data community, without which I’m sure the ODI wouldn’t exist. It’s a place full of people who are like-minded colleagues, but who are more importantly friends. It’s a place to find out what’s going on around the world with open data, and to reconnect with how important it is. To see the real examples, in particular from the global south, of exposed corruption and better lives for citizens, is incredibly important in reminding us why we do this every day. Also it can put context on larger issues; I will not forget in a hurry the story told by one attendee of actually living in a state that openly uses its surveillance machinery against its activist citizens to suppress dissent; this stuff is not theoretical, a fact we forget at our peril.

I was asked on the OKCast (which you can listen to here) which important conversations I thought weren’t happening at OKFestival; I found it completely impossible to answer, because while the official sessions don’t cover everything, the range of other conversations between individuals and groups happening on the sidelines is absolutely enormous. I am quite confident that pretty much everything was being discussed somewhere, and some of the side conversations I had were truly fascinating!

One message that I took away was that everyone now understands that the challenge of open data isn’t technical any more, it’s cultural. We need to change the mindsets of those with power and data to accept that opening it up is a Good Thing, and to do that we need powerful stories and examples of where it’s made a real impact, both socially and environmentally, but also economically.

That cultural mind-changing is the core of our mission at the ODI, and I am quite sure we have a very important role to play in bringing about a future of open data that works for everyone; citizens, companies, and governments alike. But to do that, we need to stay closely connected to the grassroots community that is making this happen all across the world, and without which we’d be a very lonely voice indeed.