What is Open Development?

In just over a week I’ll be at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki, where thanks to the work of an amazing team of volunteers, we will have a series of sessions taking place under the banner of ‘Open Development‘, looking at where Open Knowledge themes meet international development.

In one of those sessions we’ll be asking what we really mean by open development: inviting participants to share their own responses to the question ‘What does open development mean to you?’. I realised that, for all the time I’ve spent moderating the OKF open-development working group’s mailing list, and inputting to the OKFest Open Development stream, I’ve not had a clear answer to that question. I’m hoping that next weeks session will help address that, but in advance I thought it would be useful to jot down some reflections on how I might answer the question right now.

Of course, as luck would have it, I’m at just that stage in the PhD process of working out the questions, but not yet getting to the simplified crisp answers, so what follows is some thinking aloud, rather than a set answer…

The essence of open

I’ve written before about the way that the prefix ‘open’ does not necessarily pick out some common property across it’s wide usage for ‘open access’, ‘open source’, ‘open data’ and ‘open content’, ‘open government’, and ‘open development’ – but at best can be seen as offering these labels a broad ‘family resemblance‘. There is an important distinction to observe between openness focussed on artifacts such as data, source code, or academic articles, and openness of processes, such as democracy and development. Formal definitions of the former may tend to be concerned more with the legal or technical status of the artifact, whereas definitions of the latter may focus on questions of who is participating, how they are allowed to participate.

In so far as we can find a common family trait amongst ‘the opens’, then I would suggest ‘access and permission’ is a good candidate. Openness should remove barriers to access, and should grant relevant permissions that allow either use of an artifact, or participation in a process.

Note that whilst the artifact and process distinction might be possible to make at the level of formal definitions, many times when terms like ‘open source’, or ‘open government’ are deployed, they are used to refer to refer to both artifacts and processes. For example, we might use open source to refer to the processes of the open source community and movement, rather than just the properties of the source code itself; or we might use the term open government to refer to the papers and documents of government, as well as to participative processes that let citizens input into governance. Open artifacts may in some cases be necessary, but not sufficient, for an open process. In their work on Open ICT’s for Development, Smith et. al provide a definition that combines ‘artifact’ and ‘process’ elements in understanding how open ICTs may be a matter of access, participation and collaboration. In the case of development though I think it can be sustained that development is a process, and a process that is concerned primarily with increasing human quality of life.

Of course, development in practice involves many processes, and in assessing in any case whether we have open development or not we might have to ask about the relative openness of any number of processes, from priority setting, to planning, to spending, to monitoring and governance.

Open as oppositional

If openness is about ‘access and permission’, then generally it is articulated in opposition to some set of ‘closed’ arrangements. For example, open access is articulated in opposition to the tight intellectual property control and high prices of journal articles that restrict academics access to articles, and their permission to share them. Open movements are hard to isolate and specify separately from those arrangements they oppose (this tends to cloud the artifact/process distinction – as getting a process to open up might well involve some opening of its constituent artifacts).

So, in the case of international development, what is being opposed? It would be easy to generate a long list of things wrong with the way development is done, and to suggest that ‘open development’ is simply the negation of these – but that would overload the concept of open development, and lead to it being seen as a panacea for all that is wrong. Rather, where is there a lack of access, and a lack of permission, in development as it is currently practised? My own initial answer would focus on the fact that those whose human welfare is supposed to be increased by development often have very little stake in the decision making about where resources for development will be used, or in wider policy debates with an influence on their welfare. Access to decision making, and permission to participate, are limited right now – and open development should be about addressing the closed nature of information artifacts, and communication opportunities, that support exclusive processes of governance.

Others may want to focus on different ‘closed’ areas of the current development field, and in doing so, to articulate different visions, or different aspects of the same vision, for open development.

Open X for open development

Counter to the argument above, open development could be said to simply be the application of other open initiatives to the development field. That is – using open data for international development could be said to in itself be ‘open development’. However, I would argue that this is overly reductive, and indeed misses that open technologies or artifacts could potentially be used for non-open development.

‘Open ICT for development’, ‘open source for development’ and ‘open data for development’ are all potentially very good things – but we might also want to ask about whether they need an extra open in there – as in ‘open data for open development’ and so-on.

Open is not enough

As I outlined above, openness removes specific barriers to access, and provides permissions to participate. However, this does not mean effective access to decision making for all. That requires additional attention.

Again, we could load this into the concept of open development, to suggest that openness of process necessarily requires us to ensure all potential participants can overcome barriers outside the process that inhibit their participation. For example, we could say that a community meeting which is formally open to all, is not truly open unless we have been able to pay all the travel costs of everyone who might want to participate and to translate it into all local languages, because without this, there are still barriers to access. However, rather than build these ideas into ‘open development’ I would suggest that we are better to see ‘open’ as amongst a number of desirable prefixes and modifiers for development, such as ‘inclusive’ and ‘egalitarian’.

So what is open development?

When I started writing, I wasn’t sure if I would get down to one clear sentence, or nothing at all. As it is, I think I can offer the following as an interim answer to the question:

  • Open development is a process
  • Open development is about providing access to information, and permission to participate
  • Open development is about challenging closed and distant decision making on development issues
  • Open development is a companion to inclusive development and can provide the foundations for greater inclusion
  • Open development is more than just using open data for development, or taking open source to developing countries
  • Open development is still open to debate

Whether I’ll say the same after next weeks debate we’ll find out – and if you want to suggest your own definition of open development to feed into the discussions, you can do so before 19th September 2012 in this Etherpad.

3 thoughts on “What is Open Development?”

  1. Thanks for this Tim – I have been on the OK list for ages and appreciate the ideas and information shred!

    I very much agree that we need to see ‘open development’ as MUCH more than open source or open access … getting to wider (and better) engagement and participation in decisions is where we need to be … empowerment.

    At ILRI we are pursuing ways to make our research for development more open and accessible – though the journal articles stay a nightmare and data needs lots more effort!

    We also try to make our research more open (by working out loud and sharing the processes and thinking and choices long before the results are ready); and we try out ways to do research differently so it is more participatory, engaging of different stakeholders etc.

    I shared some of this at: http://infoilri.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/using-open-knowledge-and-innovation-to-support-program-learning-at-ilri/

    One of the recurring questions is if we have evidence that such ‘open’ approaches and mindsets result in more effective results…?



  2. Openness should remove barriers to access, and should grant relevant permissions that allow either use of an artifact, or participation in a process.

    Openness means participation. Participation means democracy. Democracy means freedom

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