Image by OKF, CC BY 4.0

Open Minds to Open Action was the theme of OKFestival 2014, focussing on encouraging people to use open knowledge, open research, open data and technology to make changes in their communities and society. Here, Andrew Gray, Iain Gray and Natalia Madjarevic share their highlights of the festival…

“Open is now Mainstream” – Andrew Gray, Research Support Librarian, Goldsmiths, University of London

In stating that ‘Transparency, Fairness and Innovation’ are the 3 reasons for ‘Open’ Neelie Kroes, EU Commissioner for Digital Agenda, firmly positions ‘Open’ in mainstream political and social debate and no longer just the concern of digital activists. Moves to create an infrastructure and portal for data and laws requiring governments to release their data with very few restrictions are evidence of how serious Open is being taken. In addition the 80 billion Horizon 2020 research programme will make all its research articles Open Access and as much data as possible. However there are still obstacles and resistance from powerful ‘players’. Beatriz Busaniche (Fundacion Via Libre) indicated in her history of copyright that only by learning how to lobby effectively can we provide the necessary counterbalance to the entertainment, technology and pharmaceutical companies who have consistently fought against ‘openness’. Ory Okollah (Omidyar Network) echoed this idea of ‘speaking the same language’ when she said that ‘activism inevitably involves a lot of passion, however passionate people are not always the most tactful’. While just pitching to those in power can cause some unease we also need to ensure that we communicate the ideas of ‘open’ to the wider publics. We need to learn how to use online social tools, videos, data visualisations that are the result of openness to ‘storytell’ the benefits of ‘Open’.

Many of the sessions and workshops underlined this idea of engaging the mainstream and bringing those outside into the centre. Penny Andrew’s workshop on ‘Enabling Reliable Narrators’ required us to think about how ‘openness’ can only truly be called ‘open’ when it also includes those with disabilities and that ‘disability awareness’ must be part of mainstream thinking. The session on ‘Maintaining a healthy and thriving public domain’ explained and discussed how the Europeana project in aggregating public domain images also confronted a reality of cultural institutions appropriating public domain images once digitised. While some of this was the result of ignorance, in many cases it was also the result of economic necessity with digitisation only happening as the result of partnerships with commercial organisations who required their own benefits. This relationship between ‘open’ and the mainstream seemed to me to appear throughout OKFestival from workshops on how to data mine, creating activist art, doing citizen science, highlighting environmental abuses and building standards for civic engagement.

Open Educational Resources Review” – Iain Gray – Moodle Business Analyst, City University London

Although I was aware of the open movement I wasn’t prepared for the number of attendees and the numerous talks, workshops and session available at the Open Knowledge festival. First stop, and probably the movement most related to my current role, was a session on Open Educational Resources. The session was aimed at people working in other open movements but not knowledgeable about OER. So along with a very brief history of the OER movement (the term was coined in 2002 but it wasn’t until the Capetown Declaration of 2007 that it became a global movement) we were told that content could only be considered open if it satisfied the 5 Rs:

  1. Reuse
  2. Remix
  3. Revise
  4. Redistribute
  5. Retain

A member of the Polish OER movement described how they built a strong community of OER advocates before approaching government with policy ideas and requests for funding and support. The American OER experience is somewhat different: in some states there is support for the production and distribution of OER content, in others OER is banned as taking anything for free can be seen as a bribe.

There were then breakout sessions where participants would discuss OER experiences and policies from around the world. Participants from Brazil explained how they had been in numerous policy meetings where the number of lawyers far outweighed the educators.  They also mentioned that OER does not have to mean online; in countries where access to electricity, never mind internet, is not guaranteed the only way to make OER materials is via the printed page.

In the UK the issues are more to do with uptake and retention of students on courses using OER materials. The quality of materials is not great and this leads to poor experiences for a lot of students. Where students already have a degree this isn’t so much of an issue as they are likely to be self-motivated and can find other resources. But the target audience for most is those who have left education at an early age and a badly designed OER course is likely to put them off for good, confirming their preconceived ideas that education is not for them. A recurring theme of the OKFestival was that the open movement is no longer knocking at a closed door and that activism needs to make way for a more mature approach. However, from this session on OER it seems that the movement is maturing at different rates across the world and that there is still a need for activists to get the message across.

Open knowledge and the campaign against corruption – Natalia Madjarevic, Research Support Services Manager, LSE

A highlight of the Open Knowledge Festival was the keynote from Patrick Alley, co-founder and director of Global Witness, on the importance of open information when investigating and exposing corruption and environmental destruction. Global Witness is a campaigns organisation based in the UK, which leads investigations into damage caused by corruption in the oil, timber and mining trades across Africa, Asia, South and Central America and the Caribbean. Alley talked about the ‘resource curse’ – the paradox that some of the world’s most resource rich countries face high levels of poverty and conflict. Global Witness gathers and releases information on the economic realities behind such corruption, e.g. evidence of money laundering, in order to present as evidence to decision makers and head of states to make necessary changes or impose sanctions.

Alley shared examples of Global Witness’s successes, for example in Equatorial Guinea and Liberia. This session illustrated the power of open information on a global scale and the importance of releasing government and financial information. If you’d like to hear more about Global Witness’ work, I recommend watching Patrick Alley’s TEDxExeter Talk: A Perfect Crime.


Image by Natalia Madjarevic

Aside from the keynotes, OKFestival included a number of useful practical sessions, including Peter Murray-Rust’s workshop: Introduction to Text and Data Mining. If you’re new to Text and Data Mining, a useful summary can be found here. The session involved manually tagging the title page of a journal article by highlighting ‘named entities’ such as dates, names, unique identifiers etc. This process demonstrated the need for publishers to standardise metadata across item types in order to support meaningful text and data mining for researchers.

OKFestival was three days of all kinds of ‘open’ and offered a brilliant insight into the breadth of the open knowledge movement outside my usual remit of open access to research and data. I left Berlin planning new ways to bring open activism to the research community!