Q&A  | 

The power of open data to change society with Rufus Pollock

"The human genome project is one of the most successful open data projects ever".

Tags: 'Código abierto' 'Datos abiertos' 'Genoma humano' 'Humane genome' 'Life itself' 'Open movement' 'Open Revolution' 'The open revolution'


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Rufus Pollock is one of the pioneers of the Open Data Movement worldwide - he founded the Open Knowledge Foundation (https://okfn.org/) in 2004 and is the author of 'The Open Revolution', among others.

As such, Pollock works to make a fair and free information economy – one that works for everyone. He advices governments, companies, citizens and organizations on open data and open knowledge. He believes in empowering people and organizations with access to information -and the tools and skills- to use it to make a difference.

Can you give us an overview of your work?

I’m an entrepreneur, researcher and technologist working to make a fair and free information economy – one that works for everyone.

I believe the essential step to achieving that is to make information open – together with remuneration rights to pay innovators and creators. I detail more about this in my recent book The Open Revolution https://openrevolution.net/.

I’m very active in the open knowledge and open data movement, advising governments, international organisations and industry on how to successfully adopt open strategies. I founded the Open Knowledge Foundation in 2004, an international non-profit that continues to be one of the leading organizations and voices in this space. Recently, I started a new initiative called Life Itself, which is committed to creating a wiser, weller world through research and activism http://lifeitself.us/.

What's the open data movement, and what's the difference between open data and open source?

When software is described as ‘open source,’ this means the original source code is freely accessible with no – or very minimal – restrictions on its use, modification and redistribution.

Similarly, ‘open data’ is data that can be freely accessed, used, shared and built on by anyone, for any purpose.

So they both describe approaches to supporting innovation and collaboration through freedom of access and re-use.

The Open Data Movement, which I and Open Knowledge helped pioneer, is an effort to have more and more (non-personal) data openly available – for the purpose of transparency, collaboration, innovation and empowerment.

The Open Data Movement is part of the broader Open Movement, which seeks to contribute to creating a fairer, freer and more innovative knowledge economy.

In which other ways can open data impact society?

There is huge potential in making more data available to access and re-use. There’s a famous phrase in the open source movement; ‘to many eyes all bugs are shallow.’

The same is true of data; if data is open, more people can look at it and see problems and opportunities that would otherwise be missed.

One success story is the UK Government’s publication of departmental spending in 2010 and the aggregation of this data by the platform OpenSpending, which meant users didn’t have to look through hundreds of separate spreadsheets to find important information. In 2013 this allowed the Government’s CTO Liam Maxwell to discover that different departments were unnecessarily buying the same expensive research reports. He saved an estimated £4 million in about 15 minutes.

Another example of open data having a hugely positive impact is the work of OpenStreetMap  – a collaborative project to create an open map of the world – after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Crisis responders were being slowed down by a lack of up-to-date maps of the devastated area, so hundreds of OpenStreetMap volunteers created maps using recently released satellite imagery, showing usable roads, hospitals, displacement camps and collapsed buildings. In just a few weeks these were the default maps used by many disaster relief agencies.

Which areas in life are more in need of open data nowadays?

There’s a long list of areas that would benefit from more open data: transport, power use, government budgets, scientific research, health, law and education, to name a few, are areas where more open data would support innovation and empower people to make better decisions – whether they’re technologists, policy-makers, journalists, or citizens.

Rufus Pollock

You've also spoken about the difference between wisdom and information. In the current information society, are we becoming wiser or less so? Why?

Let me start by defining wisdom. When I talk about wisdom, I am referring to a number of qualities, including compassion, equanimity, self-awareness and self-control.

Making wise decisions also requires the ability to listen and practice non-attachment to our views, adjusting them in light of new evidence.

It is very clear at the moment that our wisdom is not keeping pace with our exponentially increasing technological capabilities, nor is it great enough to solve collective action problems such as climate change. We still fight wars, hoard wealth and cause widespread environmental destruction. Meanwhile, an existential threat caused by advanced artificial intelligence has become a serious possibility – and climate change poses another existential threat unless we can act together to solve it.

While we invest in technological advances and eagerly adopt them, as societies we have not seriously invested in developing our collective wisdom. Access to factual information can certainly support better decision-making, but it will not be enough to make us wise; and this is what we must become if we are to avoid disaster and realise our collective potential for well-being. I’ve written in more detail about the importance of developing our collective wisdom here: https://rufuspollock.com/2019/04/08/children-playing-with-sharp-knives-humanity-and-the-digital-age/

Openstreetmap and Wikipedia are two of the most popular open data projects. Which other successful case studies are there?

The human genome project is one of humanity’s great scientific achievements and also one of the most successful open data projects ever accomplished.

The public effort had competition from a private company and we came close to having a ‘closed’ genome, with access to the data restricted and its use controlled by patents.

As it is, the genome being ‘open’ means that anyone who wants to use the information to research and innovate can do so freely. The open genome has saved lives and generated billions of dollars of economic value. It’s also an example of what a project built on a philosophy of openness can achieve on a huge scale. You can read more about this in my book The Open Revolution (Chapter 8) https://openrevolution.net/

The scientific community has underlined the amount of knowledge and unusual level of collaboration among scientists worldwide in the fight against the current pandemic, which has enabled research to move faster than during any previous outbreak. As a matter of fact, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web to help scientists share data across a platform called the Internet. Could this pandemic partially take us back to the open source origins of the World Wide Web?

It’s certainly an opportunity to reflect on the enormous value of data being easily accessible for analysis and reuse. Scientists and governments often don’t publish raw data and even if they do it’s in a format that makes it time-consuming to extract and reuse. During the pandemic, open, easily reusable data has facilitated valuable research and informed the public and policy-makers. So this could be an opportunity for various institutions and public bodies to realise the value of – and move toward – an open data model.

Organisations such as the one you created, Open Knowledge, advocate for a society in which all non personal information is open to everybody. But, isn't the business model of the tech companies based on just the opposite, capturing, purchasing and selling data?

The current business models of many corporations certainly involve monetising people’s data to drive targeted advertising, although greater openness of non-personal information alone wouldn’t render this an unworkable business model.

Additionally, although internet monopolies like Google and Facebook monetise our personal data, they would retain their dominant positions even if they lost access to our data, due to a combination of costless copying, platform effects and monopoly rights. It would only be by making the protocols, algorithms and software of these companies openly available to build on and share that their monopoly power would decrease. I explain this in more detail here: https://rufuspollock.com/2018/02/24/solving-the-internet-monopolies-problem-google-facebook-etc/

Therefore, does open data clash with the current predominating economic model?

Yes. In an Open world where there were no copyrights and patents we would certainly see monopolies disrupted, as non-personal data, algorithms and software would be openly available to others to build on and share. This would decrease monopoly power – and its deleterious effects on innovation and freedom.

It would still be important to fund innovation of all kinds. Right now, other than direct public funding like in universities, the primary way we fund innovators is via monopoly rights such as patents and copyrights. These are incompatible with “open”. However, there is an alternative: remuneration rights.

Remuneration rights would support and reward continued innovation, without the restrictions imposed by current laws. Creators and innovators would be entitled to payment from a central Remuneration Rights fund, proportional to the usage and value generated by their creation. In return for the remuneration, the creation would be free for all to use, share and build upon. We would also continue to see innovation supported by public funding and philanthropy, just as we do today. I’ve discussed how this could work in my book The Open Revolution and here: https://openrevolution.net/remuneration-rights/