Guest post: What does ‘open knowledge’ have to do with ‘open development’?

Or, why international development practitioners should make a date with OKFest.

After a bit of guest blogging around the web myself this week, I thought it was time to feature a guest post over here. This time from the fantastic Linda Raftree of Plan International, who writes about the upcoming Open Knowledge Festival and the open development track we’re co-organising…


Linda Raftree

The Open Knowledge Festival (OKFest) happens this September 17-22 in Helsinki, Finland with the theme Open Knowledge in Action. OKFest will explore the benefits of opening up knowledge and information, look at the ecosystems of organisations that can benefit from openness, and discuss the impact that more transparency can have in our societies. OKFest will run 13 key Topic Streams, one of which will focus on the topic of ‘Open Development’.

So what does ‘open knowledge’ have to do with ‘open development’? And why are people putting the word ‘open’ in front of everything these days?

Well, in addition to being a bit of a buzz word or trend, the idea behind ‘open’ is that making data and information more accessible and less restricted can enhance transparency, accountability, sharing, and collaboration. This in turn can benefit development processes. (See this post for ideas on how openness and information literacy links with participatory governance, for example.)

As Matthew Smith, a strong proponent of ‘open development,’ says, ‘openness’ is not a new concept, especially with respect to development theory. Democracy and participation represent an opening up of decision-making processes to more people. Transparency and accountability are about opening up organizations, people and processes to scrutiny and feedback.

The Internet and new ICTs such as mobile phones play a big part in the idea of ‘open’ since these platforms and tools can allow data and information to be shared more freely and widely. The concept of ‘open development’ according to Smith is enhanced by ICTs when it favors:

  • Universal over restricted access to communication tools and information. For example, access to the telecommunications infrastructure through a mobile phone or access to online [educational] content or government information.
  • Universal over restricted participation in informal and formal groups/institutions. For example, the use of SMS to mobilize political protests or new e-government implementations that provide increased transparency and new accountability arrangements.
  • Collaborative over centralized production of information, cultural content, and physical goods. For example, collaborative production of school textbooks, co-creation of government services, mesh networks.

Attitudes and behaviors also play a part in ‘openness.’ Smith notes that egalitarianism and sharing are two core concepts within ‘openness:’

  • Egalitarianism suggests an equal right to participate (access, use and collaborate).
  • Sharing is embedded in the idea of enhanced access to things that were otherwise normally restricted. This enhanced access is often motivated by the normative desire to share – whether through an obligation to contribute to the common good or to participate in a coordinated or collaborative activity.

Policies, practices and philosophies that allow data and information to be shared are also a part of ‘open’. Tim Davies explains ‘open data‘ as:

  • a set of policies and practices – open data should be accessible (online); standardized (in a common format) and reusable (open licenses)
  • a response to how tech and society is changing –  bandwidth is growing, there is more capacity to share and analyze data, people want to do things for themselves and analyze information for themselves rather than have someone do it for them.
  • a tendency towards new combinations of data – seen in ‘mash-up’ websites where people pull data from different sources, combine it with other sources, add crowd-sourced information and maps, etc.
  • a philosophy or movement – there is a push to open information and access to knowledge because information is power; there is a tendency toward greater collaboration, transparency and collaboration

The Open Development stream at OKFest will explore ways that openness can help address key development challenges, from reducing poverty to improving access to education and healthcare to mitigating climate change and managing natural resources to improving transparency, accountability and governance. One of the most important aspects of the Open Development stream will be the participation of development practitioners and thematic experts on development.

As guest program planners for the Open Development stream*, we are determined to support two-way learning about how open data and open knowledge can benefit development. We know that ICTs and new technologies cannot work in a vacuum and that open information on its own is not enough. We know that creating ICT tools and applications without basing them on real needs and local context is not helpful, useful or sustainable. We also know that traditionally excluded and marginalized populations are the ones that most often do not have access to information and new ICTs, and therefore open access to information and knowledge needs to be part of a broader and more holistic development approach that takes care to include those who are often marginalized and excluded.

Within the Open Development stream, we will offer space where those working with new technologies and those working on development issues can learn more about each other and work on joint solutions that are based on local realities and that take advantage of new opportunities that new ICTs and ‘open knowledge’ can offer.

The Open Development stream will bring together key thinkers and doers in the ‘open’ movement and the development sector via a panel discussion. We are also organizing 3 working sessions to explore:

Open development and aid flows.  Here we will look more internally at ways that greater openness in aid and development funding, activities and impact (such as the  International Aid Transparency Initiative – IATI) can help make aid more transparent, accountable, coordinated and effective. What are the new opportunities Open Data and Open Knowledge provide? How can aid and aid organizations be more open, transparent and accountable?

Open = accessible? In this session we will explore practical issues and the realities of access to and use of open information in low-resource settings. We will hear opinions and realities from development practitioners regarding a series of critical questions such as: Open for who? Open for what? Is open data enough? How can we design for accessibility in communities with lower resources and access and/or in ‘developing’ countries? Who are the new information intermediaries (aka ‘infomediaries‘)? How can we ensure that ‘open’ is not replicating existing exclusions, creating a new middle-class or benefiting already well-off sections of communities and societies?

Technologies for open development In this session we will focus on the role that ICTs and open technologies, from open source to open hardware, can play in development. We will hear ideas from development workers, technology evangelists and those who bridge the two fields.

In addition to these sessions, there will be an ‘Open Development Hack Day‘ where development practitioners can share development challenges with the OKFest community to create mobile and other ICT applications.

Events like OKFest can be overwhelming the first time you participate in them, butwe are committed to making sure everyone who attends OKFest can join the discussions, contribute ideas, and learn from the wealth of keynotes, sessions and workshops. The organizers of the Open Development Stream will be on hand to support participants working in development and those who are new to the Open Knowledge World to navigate the conference via daily birds-of-a-feather gatherings, catch-up sessions and more.

In order for our stream to be a success, we need the participation of development practitioners and development workers!  The core OKFest team has made a number of travel bursaries available to help potential participants with the costs of getting to Finland, and the open development stream team are also working hard to encourage development organisations to support staff and associates from projects in the ‘global south’ to take part. If you need help securing support from your organization or funders to take part, then get in touch with the team (okfest-dev@practicalparticipation.co.uk) and we will do what we can to help.

For more on OKFest, watch the slideshow below:

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