Reflections on open development from OKFest

[Summary: trying to capture some of the depth of discussion from a session on open (international) development at the Open Knowledge Festival]

“I don’t have a problem with the word open, I have a problem with the word development.”
Philip Thigo, in visions of open development panel at OKFest.

To international development practitioners, or communities receiving development aid, much of the ‘visions of open development’ discussion at the Open Knowledge Festival will have sounded familiar. Call for more participatory processes have a long history on the development field; and countless conferences have been spent focussing on the need for greater inclusion of local communities in setting priorities, and in holding institutions to account for what they deliver. Yet, for the Open Knowledge movement, where many are just now discovering and exploring the potential application of open technologies, data and knowledge to challenges of human development in the global South, engaging with well established critiques of development is important. Open data, open knowledge, open source and open hardware could all potentially be used in the pursuit of centralised, top-down models of development, rather than supporting emancipatory and participatory development practice; highlighting the need to ensure vision of open development import thinking and experience from development practice over recent decades if open development is to avoid leading to missed opportunities, or even leading to oppressive forms of development practice.

Yet, articulating open development involves more than importing established critical perspectives into the application of open data, open technologies and open knowledge to development problems. It involves working out both how the application of these ‘open’ technologies can impact on development practice, and identifying new cross-cutting values, rules and institutional arrangements that can guide their adoption. As our panel in Helsinki explored, this exploration will have to deal with a number of tensions.

Decentralising development?
Linda Raftree opened the panel with an input that talked of the ‘horizontality’ of networked communication. Linda suggested that, whilst open development is not about the technology, it has much to learn from the structures and organising principles we find in contemporary technologies. The Internet, with it’s networked and broadly peer-to-peer architecture, in which anyone with access can participate without prior permission offers a potential template for structuring development co-operation. Karina Banfi picked up the theme in arguing against ‘top-down’ development, and advocating consultation and active engagement of communities in setting development priorities and processes.

An illustration of the potential difference between centralised and decentralised development at the infrastructure level was offered by Urs Riggenbach of Solar Fire, who described the development of open source hardware for small-scale hydro-electric power generation. Urs argued that, rather than massive cost large-scale Dams projects, with their visible ecological impacts, potential to displace communities, and scope for corruption in their contracting arrangements, communities could make use of Intellectual Property free designs to construct their own small-scale solutions.

There might be a distinction here to draw between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ decentralisation. In the former, citizens are given access to information (perhaps via data) and channels through which to feedback to those who control budgets and power. Decision making and ultimate executive responsibility remains large scale, and final authority invested in representative institutions. In the later, decision making and executive responsibility are devolved down to the local level with open knowledge used to support communities to be more self-reliant. Underlying this (as underlying all choices about how we practice openness) is a political choice about the level at which communities should co-ordinate their activities, and the mechanisms through which that co-ordination should take place: from formal states, to voluntary associations, to distributed ‘market’ mechanisms.

Although Tariq Kochkhar suggested that open development achieved would mean that ‘all people have the freedom to make choices over their own development’, panelists and participants from the audience emphasised a number of times that it is important not to ignore power, and to recognise that open development shifts where power lies, but does not necessarily decentralise or remove it altogether. In fact, this is something the Internet potentially shows us too. Although theoretically a decentralised medium, in practice there are a small number of companies who wield significant power online, such as the search services that not only act as a gateway to available information, but also in their choices about what to index or not, create incentives for other actors on the Web to shape their content in particular ways.

Rules for openness
I’ve suggested that most notions of openness are articulated in opposition to some set of closed arrangements, but that does not mean that openness involves just the negation of those arrangements. Rather, openness may need it’s own rules to function. In our panel, Blane Harvey emphasised, openness is not the same as de-regulation, although, as Jyrki Pulkkinen reminded us, the term open may be in active use with such connotations, as in the case of discussing an ‘open and free markets’.

The need to scaffold openness with rules and institutions if it is to lead to positive development has gone relatively unexplored in past discussions. Yet is an important debate for the open development community to engage in. Rules may be needed to protect the privacy and security of certain development actors through non-disclosure of information (Pernilla Nastfor’s of the Swedish International Development Agency highlighted the potential risks the human rights activists they fund may face in repressive regimes if full details of these projects were transparent). Rules may also be needed to ensure citizens can benefit from open knowledge, and to manage the distribution of benefits from openness.

Linda Raftree raised the question of whether the open development discourse is too often one of ‘trickle down openness’, where the fact that new technologies are securing greater openness for some, is assumed to mean that more openness for all will eventually result via some trickle-down process. This echoes the critique from Michael Gurstein that open data risks simply empowering the empowered. Some of the rules needed, like Right to Information guarantees, rather than just openness as an optional extra granted by governments, are well known – but there may be other rules required to ensure the benefits of open information and technologies are more equally distributed. For example Jyrki Pulkkinen noted that ‘open innovation’ was a key engine to convert open knowledge into enterprise and activity that can work for development, and yet so often innovation is frustrated by restrictive intellectual property and patent laws that create a thicket innovators may struggle to get through, even when much of the knowledge they need to innovate has been made more accessible. In a similar vein, Jyrki noted that open information in the political domain should not just be about freedom to receive, but should also open outwards into freedoms of expression that need to be guaranteed.

Before moving on from a consideration of the rules, regulations and institutions that enable or constrain equitable outcomes from openness, it is worth remembering Lessig’s phrase ‘Code as law’. Many of the ‘rules’ which will affect how open development operates in practice may not be within formal legal or regulatory frameworks, but may exist built into the technical artifacts and networks which deliver open content, data, information and hardware designs.

Culture, structure, policy
The importance of culture change was another theme that came out during our panel. Tariq Khokhar suggested that the World Bank’s policies on open data had brought new actors into the bank, creating the potential for a positive feedback loop, slowly shifting the culture of the organisation. Though Tariq also highlighted that big organisational change may require ‘principles of open development': organisational tools that can be used to determine when projects are ‘open development’ projects or not – to avoid the latest buzz-word being applied to any project. Asked about how far development has shifted in recent years, Philip Thigo focussed on a perceived increase in the accessibility of staff from large institutions, and how more doors were open for conversation. Perhaps underplayed in our discussions so far has been the influence of e-mail, social media, search and generally accessible online information in creating more ‘open communications’ between development donors and others.

An input from Anahi Ayala Iacucci also got us thinking about the processes of development aid decision making, and the tensions between a desire for locally owned and defined projects, and a requirement from donors to have clear project plans and deliverables. Creating a culture supportive of emergent project plans is a challenge (as the aptly named ‘IKM Emergent‘ programme discovered over it’s five year duration), and it is possible that a focus on transparency and accountability, without looking carefully at the balance of power and who is doing the calling to account, could lead to a greater focus on fixed project plans rather than a greater freedom and flexibility, and openness to local pressures and demands. As technological and open information interventions of open development unfold, tracking how they feed into culture change in positive and negative ways is likely to be instructive.

Next steps in the conversation
The last post I started on Open Development, I didn’t think I would reach any conclusions, but I ended with a rough minimal description of what I saw to be some essential elements of open development. This time, following an incredibly rich discussion at the Open Knowledge Festival, I find I’ve got a sense of many more jigsaw puzzle pieces of open development –  from the role of rules and policies; to the tensions of decentralisation – yet I’m less sure how these fit together, or how far there is a clear concept of open development to be articulated.

In debriefing from the Open Knowledge Festival, one of the general feelings amongst the open development track team was that bringing together these conversations in Helsinki was important to open up a space in the Open Knowledge movement to recognise how the themes being discussed had impacts beyond the US and Europe. It may be that open development is ultimately about providing a space to critically bridge between knowledge and perspectives from development, and ideas and perspectives from the diverse networks of open access, open hardware, open data, open culture and open knowledge currently developing across the world. In any case, as the conversation moves forward hopefully we can combine the practical and critical edge that discussions at OKFest displayed…

One thought on “Reflections on open development from OKFest

  1. bill badham

    I am struck by this article, especially it leaves me recognising that creating pathways for open knowledge requires more work and conscious effort than closing down access to information and sharing knowledge (Popper Open and Closed Societies perhaps?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>