Data, information, knowledge and power – exploring Open Knowledge’s new core purpose

[Summary: a contribution to debate about the development of open knowledge movements]

New 'Open Knowledge' data-earth logo.

New ‘Open Knowledge Foundation’ name and ‘data earth’ branding.

The Open Knowledge Foundation (re-named as as ‘Open Knowledge’) are soft-launching a new brand over the coming months.

Alongside the new logo, and details of how the new brand was developed, posted on the OK Wiki, appear a set of statements about the motivations, core purpose and tag-line of the organisation. In this post I want to offer an initial critical reading of this particular process and, more importantly, text.

Preliminary notes

Before going further, I want to offer a number of background points that frame the spirit in which the critique is offered.

  1. I have nothing but respect for the work of the leaders, staff team, volunteers and wider community of the Open Knowledge Foundation – and have been greatly inspired by the dedication I’ve seen to changing defaults and practices around how we handle data, information and knowledge. There are so many great projects, and so much political progress on openness, which OKFN as a whole can rightly take credit for.
  2. I recognise that there are massive challenges involved in founding, running and scaling up organisations. These challenges are magnified many times in community based and open organisations.
  3. Organisations with a commitment to openness, or democracy, whether the co-operative movement, open source communities like Mozilla, communities such as Creative Commons and indeed, the Open Knowledge Foundation – are generally held to much higher standards and face much more complex pressures from engaging their communities in what they do – than do closed and conventional organisations. And, as the other examples show, the path is not always an easy one. There are inevitably growing pains and challenges.
  4. It is generally better to raise concerns and critiques and talk about them, than leave things unsaid. A critique is about getting into the details. Details matter.
  5. See (1).

(Disclosure: I have previously worked as a voluntary coordinator for the open-development working group of OKF (with support from AidInfo), and have participated in many community activities. I have never carried out paid work for OKF, and have no current formal affiliation.)

The text

Here’s the three statements in the OK Branding notes that caught my attention and sparked some reflections:

About our brand and what motivates us:
A revolution in technology is happening and it’s changing everything we do. Never before has so much data been collected and analysed. Never before have so many people had the ability to freely, easily and quickly share information across the globe. Governments and corporations are using this data to create knowledge about our world, and make decisions about our future. But who should control this data and the ability to find insights and make decisions? The many, or the few? This is a choice that we get to make. The future is up for grabs. Do we want to live in a world where access to knowledge is “closed”, and the power and understanding it brings is controlled by the few? Or, do we choose a world where knowledge is “open” and we are all empowered to make informed choices about our future? We believe that knowledge should be open, and that everyone – from citizens to scientists, from enterprises to entrepreneurs, – should have access to the information they need to understand and shape the world around them.

Our core purpose:

  • A world where knowledge creates power for the many, not the few.
  • A world where data frees us – to make informed choices about how we live, what we buy and who gets our vote.
  • A world where information and insights are accessible – and apparent – to everyone.
  • This is the world we choose.

Our tagline:
See how data can change the world

The critique

My concerns are not about the new logo or name. I understand (all too well) the way that having ‘Foundation’ in a non-profits name can mean different things in different contexts (not least people expecting you to have an endowment and funds to distribute), and so the move to Open Knowledge as a name has a good rationale. Rather, I wanted to raise four concerns:

(1) Process and representativeness

Tag Cloud from Open Knowledge Foundation Survey. See http://blog.okfn.org/2014/02/12/who-are-you-community-survey-results-part-1/ for details.

Tag Cloud from Open Knowledge Foundation Survey. See blog post for details.

The message introducing the new brand to OKF-Discuss notes that “The network has been involved in the brand development process especially in the early stages as we explored what open knowledge meant to us all” referring primarily to the Community Survey run at the end of 2013 and written up here and here. However, the later parts of developing the brand appear to have been outsourced to a commercial brand consultancy consulting with a limited set of staff and stakeholders, and what is now presented appears to be being offered as given, rather than for consultation. The result has been a narrow focus on the ‘data’ aspects of OKF.

Looking back over the feedback from the 2013 survey, that data-centricity fails to represent the breadth of interests in the OKF community (particularly when looking beyond the quantitative survey questions which had an in-built bias towards data in the original survey design). Qualitative responses to the Survey talk of addressing specific global challenges, holding governments accountable, seeking diversity, and going beyond open data to develop broader critiques around intellectual property regimes. Yet none of this surfaces in the motivation statement, or visibly in the core purpose.

OKF has not yet grappled in full with idea of internal democracy and governance – yet as a network made up of many working groups, local chapters and more, for a ‘core purpose’ statement to emerge without wider consultation seem problematic. There is a big missed opportunity here for deeper discussion about ideas and ideals, and for the conceptualisation of a much richer vision of open knowledge. The result is, I think, a core purpose statement that fails to represent the diversity of the community OKF has been able to bring together, and that may threaten it’s ability to bring together those communities in shared space in future.

Process points aside however (see growing pains point above), there are three more substantive issues to be raised.

(2) Data and tech-centricity

A selection of OKF Working Groups

The Open Knowledge movement I’ve met at OKFestival and other events, and that is evident through the pages of the working groups is one committed to many forms of openness – education, hardware, sustainability, economics, political processes and development amongst others. It is a community that has been discussing diversity and building a global movement. Data may be an element of varying importance across the working groups and interest areas of OKF. And technology may be an enabler of action for each. But a lot are not fundamentally about data, or even technology, as their core focus. As we found when we explored how different members of the Open Development working group understood the concept of open development in 2012, many members focussed more upon open processes than on data and tech. Yet, for all this diversity of focus – the new OK tagline emphasises data alone.

I work on issues of open data everyday. I think it’s an important area. But it’s not the only element of open knowledge that should matter in the broad movement.

Whilst the Open Knowledge Foundation has rarely articulated the kinds of broad political critique of intellectual property regimes that might be found in prior Access to Knowledge movements, developing a concrete motivation and purpose statement gave the OKF chance to deepen it’s vision rather than narrow it. The risk Jo Bates has written about, of intellectual of the ‘open’ movement being co-opted into dominant narratives of neoliberalism, appears to be a very real one. In the motivation statement above, government and big corporates are cast as the problem, and technology and data in the hands of ‘citizens’, ‘scientists’, ‘entrepreneurs’ and (perhaps contradictorily) ‘enterprises’, as the solution. Alternative approaches to improving processes of government and governance through opening more spaces for participation is off the table here, as are any specific normative goals for opening knowledge. Data-centricity displaces all of these.

Now – it might be argued that although the motivation statement takes data as a starting point – is is really at its core about the balance of power: asking who should control data, information and knowledge. Yet – the analysis appears to entirely conflate the terms ‘data’, ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ – which clouds this substantially.

(3) Data, Information and Knowledge

Data, Information, Knowledge ,Wisdom

The DIKW pyramid offers a useful way of thinking about the relationship between Data, Information, Knowledge (and Wisdom). This has sometimes been described as a hierarchy from ‘know nothing’ (data is symbols and signs encoding things about the world, but useless without interpretation), ‘know what’, ‘know how’ and ‘know why’.

Data is not the same as information, nor the same as knowledge. Converting data into information requires the addition of context. Converting information into knowledge requires skill and experience, obtained through practice and dialogue.

Data and information can be treated as artefacts/thigns. I can e-mail you some data or some information. But knowledge involves a process – sharing it involves more than just sending a file.

OKF has historically worked very much on the transition from data to information, and information to knowledge, through providing training, tools and capacity building, yet this is not captured at all in the core purpose. Knowledge, not data, has the potential to free, bringing greater autonomy. And it is arguably proprietary control of data and information that is at the basis of the power of the few, not any superior access to knowledge that they possess. And if we recognise that turning data into information and into knowledge involves contextualisation and subjectivity, then ‘information and insights’ cannot be by simultaneously ‘apparent’ to everyone, if this is taken to represent some consensus on ‘truths’, rather than recognising that insights are generated, and contested, through processes of dialogue.

It feels like there is a strong implicit positivism within the current core purpose: which stands to raise particular problems for broadening the diversity of Open Knowledge beyond a few countries and communities.

(4) Power, individualism and collective action

I’ve already touched upon issues of power. Addressing “global challenges like justice, climate changes, cultural matters” (from survey responses) will not come from empowering individuals alone – but will have to involve new forms of co-ordination and collective action. Yet power in the ‘core purpose’ statement appears to be primarily conceptualised in terms of individual “informed choices about how we live, what we buy and who gets our vote”, suggesting change is purely the result of aggregating ‘choice’, yet failing to explore how knowledge needs to be used to also challenge the frameworks in which choices are presented to us.

The ideas that ‘everyone’ can be empowered, and that when “knowledge is ‘open’ [...] we are all empowered to make informed choices about our future” fails to take account of the wider constraints to action and choice that many around the world face, and that some of the global struggles that motivate many to pursue greater openness are not always win-win situations. Those other constraints and wider contexts might not be directly within the power of an open knowledge movement to address, or the core preserve of open knowledge, but they need to be recognised and taken into account in the theories of change developed.

In summary

I’ve tried to deal with the Motivation, Core Purpose and Tag-line statements with as carefully as limited free time allows – but inevitably there is much more to dig into – and there will be other ways of reading these statements. More optimistic readings are possible – and I certainly hope might turn out to be more realistic – but in the interest of dialogue I hope that a critical reading is a more useful contribution to the debate, and I would re-iterate my preliminary notes 1 – 5 above.

To recap the critique:

  • Developing a brand and statement of core purpose is an opportunity for dialogue and discussion, yet right now this opportunity appears to have be mostly missed;
  • The motivation, core purpose and tagline are more tech-centric and data-centric than the OKF community, risking sidelining other aspects of the open knowledge community;
  • There need to be a recognition of the distinction of data, information and knowledge, to develop a coherent theory of change and purpose;
  • There appears to be an implicit libertarian individualism in current theories of change, and it is not clear that this is compatible with working to address the shared global challenges that have brought many people into the open knowledge community.

Updates:

There is some discussion of these issues taking place on the OKFN-Discuss list, and the Wiki page has been updated from that I was initially writing about, to re-frame what was termed ‘core purpose’ as ‘brand core purpose’.

6 thoughts on “Data, information, knowledge and power – exploring Open Knowledge’s new core purpose

  1. Pingback: Data, information, knowledge and power – exploring Open Knowledge’s new core purpose – Tim’s Blog | Public Sector Blogs

  2. Laura James

    (crossposting from okfn-discuss list)

    1) Process and representativeness

    The community survey gave us lots more raw data than was shared on the blog summaries. We took all of this information, plus the outputs of interviews and discussions, to create the summaries of who we are and what we do.

    We then took all of that and created words which are simple and understandable, succinct, and appealing to a broader public audience. We are working on the brand, and other communications materials, to make sure we have a clear, exciting and engaging presentation of open knowledge for new audiences, because it is important that others can discover the power of open, to get more data opened up and make it used and useful.

    Because the tagline and so on are short, they can only represent part of the incredible diversity and range of the Open Knowledge network.

    Short is important. New people encountering a new thing (in this case, Open Knowledge and the ideas of the open movement in general) usually only give it a few moments before forming a judgement about whether it is interesting or appealing. We do not have long to excite them about the power of openness! Clear and understandable for non-specialists is also important. There’s just so much to explain, it can be overwhelming or confusing, and we know from feedback that we can seem very academic, or very technical, to people, who then get put off.

    More information on the wiki

    We’ve heard from many of the Chapters and Local Groups that communications are a big challenge and that simpler, clearer words are much needed. We hope that what we’re sharing here is helpful and we hope groups will want to adopt (and adapt) the words, and to use the graphics and logo – but this is a free choice. The Open Knowledge Network is very diverse, with many different groups working in different ways, in different countries and fields. We look forward to discussing how these words fit with the plans and ideas of Local Groups and Working Groups, and working out together how best to tackle our communications challenges. That might be with these words – or with others we can create.

    For Open Knowledge Central, the new brand will help us in our work, where communicating to a wider audience is vital, and we’re going to be moving to the new brand across our activities during 2014. For the network of local groups and working groups, the brand is available for use, we hope that it will be useful in communicating to new audiences, but it’s a choice for each group when and how they use the various brand elements.

    So yes – we expect to discuss with the community in the coming weeks and months :)

    2) Data and tech-centricity

    You’re right that the focus is on data. That is an area where openness has particular power which is understandable and interesting to folk outside the open movement and the tech scene today, and so it meets our needs for a short, clear message which is understandable and appealing to new audiences.

    3) data, information and knowledge

    I totally agree we clarity and distinction around these terms for our theory of change (and we could debate whether we have one, or several!). But the short phrases forming part of our brand aren’t our theory of change.

    We’ve been thinking a lot about impact and theory of change in recent months actually, and look forward to talking more about that.

    4) Power, individualism and collective action

    I think we are in agreement here – we know there’s lots of work to do in all kinds of areas to secure the future we want to see.

    The core purpose isn’t just about informed choice; it has two other bits that I feel are pretty important (and which appeal more to me, personally, than the line about ‘informed choice’):

    A world where knowledge creates power for the many, not the few.
    A world where information and insights are accessible – and apparent – to everyone.

    But this is about brand and communications, not what we might work on in the coming years. It’s about helping new people get open, and get into open. It’s about how I can persuade my neighbour to post his village history online with an open licence so others can benefit from his researches. It’s about how I’ll get my cousin to write to her MP to demand access to public procurement information. And so on :)

    Thanks for the thoughtful blogpost – it’s only with feedback like this that we can learn and do better! Look forward to continuing these discussions – around branding and more.

  3. Tim Post author

    Thanks Laura for the engagement around this. However, I’m not sure the responses really address the root of the issues here.

    **Brand, vision and values are related**

    A brand may not *be* the theory of change or strategy, but it needs to be coherent with it. If the way you are communicating about the broad Open Knowledge community does not represent the values held in that community, you make it hard for people to stay within that community – or you force people to distance themselves from the messages you are communicating whenever they talk about what they are doing.

    I see that you have updated the wiki to say “Our core *brand* purpose” but it does not read as a purpose statement for a brand – it still reads as an organisational core purpose – and any outside party is going to understand it as such.

    **The new brand doesn’t meet the goals you set out for it**

    I don’t see how a core data-centric brand and tag line on the main OK websites and presence meets the goal of making “it more appealing for many people to get involved (eg joining your group, forming new groups, creating new tools, sharing skills around lobbying, etc)” for those working groups and chapters who work within a broader notion of open knowledge. It actively harms this.

    If the good suggestions about a more flexible tagline made on this list are not factored into the *core* brand ideas (which they can – but which would require a pause for more discussion before rolling out a new core brand), then we don’t get greater clarity at all.

    I also do not see how you can claim “All of you have helped create the new brand through your activities in open knowledge” if the new brand does not represent the breadth of the knowledge community, and when the brand has been presented as a done deal, not as something for consultation. There is no problem with drawing on outside branding expertise – but it would be very possible to have a process of broad community consultation around draft brand ideas developed by those experts.

    If the brand and values are not something that can bring the community together – surely the ultimate consequence is more confusion rather than greater clarity in what OK(F) and the wider movement is about.

    Are you able to share in full the raw data of the consultation responses and details of interviews and other consultation carried out in development of the brand?

    **A pause for reflection?**
    Aaron Wolf’s point I think is really a vital one. I wasn’t sure when posting my reflections what wider feeling in the community might be around the direction of OK(F) leadership and style of leadership on this branding issue. I was hoping my concern was because I had simply missed prior open discussions about values, strategy etc.

    But I’m hearing quite a lot of concern across the community about how OK(F) and chapters, WGs and others are relating right now. Is it worth considering a pause-for-thought before rolling out the new brand, and planning for that wider conversation on values & strategy?

  4. Laura James

    A brand may not *be* the theory of change or strategy, but it needs to be coherent with it. If the way you are communicating about the broad Open Knowledge community does not represent the values held in that community, you make it hard for people to stay within that community – or you force people to distance themselves from the messages you are communicating whenever they talk about what they are doing.

    Sure. We’re a diverse network, as you know, and I think it’s fair to say each group communicates the way it wants, today – and will continue to do so. Our messages are all quite different already! The groups forming the network are pretty autonomous and that isn’t changing. The brand material we are discussing will help ‘central’ do our work, and we hope and believe it will assist the groups, too, even though of course we don’t know yet how the local groups and working groups might choose to work with the brand – that conversation is starting (which is why the single wiki page which we’re referring to exists). We don’t want groups to feel they need to distance themselves from our messages, and we want to help all the groups by building up the open movement with new people, ideas and energy, which is what we are working on with the brand.

    I’m sure many of the local and working groups have different strategies. That’s part of being a decentralised, autonomous network. It’s good for these to have some shared elements (I’d hope our values and vision are shared, roughly) but creating one single overall strategy may be difficult, or may not even help (I’d rather see a local group pursuing open knowledge in its country according to a strategy designed for that country’s needs, than according to one centralised strategy which may not apply well to them). Of course, these are two extremes; we could also have a set of template strategies which can be customised and repurposed for local needs which could make creating a local group strategy easier without forcing adoption of any one thing. So group strategies may differ, and similarly, messages will differ, I expect.

    I see that you have updated the wiki to say “Our core *brand* purpose” but it does not read as a purpose statement for a brand – it still reads as an organisational core purpose – and any outside party is going to understand it as such.

    That’s useful feedback. Perhaps we should just rephrase that section of the wiki page – “core purpose” is language from our brand experts to describe the words in that section – if it said “some words to describe for a broad public audience what we want to achieve” would that be better? That’s really more the intent :)

    I don’t see how a core data-centric brand and tag line on the main OK websites and presence meets the goal of making “it more appealing for many people to get involved (eg joining your group, forming new groups, creating new tools, sharing skills around lobbying, etc)” for those working groups and chapters who work within a broader notion of open knowledge. It actively harms this.

    If the good suggestions about a more flexible tagline made on this list are not factored into the *core* brand ideas (which they can – but which would require a pause for more discussion before rolling out a new core brand), then we don’t get greater clarity at all.

    As mentioned above, I think there will be some difference between the brand of “Open Knowledge” central (the UK-incorporated organisation), and the local groups and working groups. There is such a difference today – we each use different graphic variants, names and words and have quite different icons and websites in some cases. The website we are updating is the ‘central’ website, about what the ‘central’ organisation does – there is no change to what local and working groups do or how they present themselves. I am sure the groups will continue to present themselves as best they can to attract new folks to what they do – whether that’s Open Knowledge in Brazil or open science or whatever. At ‘central’ we have the very difficult task of balancing all these different aspects. I’m sure we won’t always get it perfectly right, but we do the best we can to work towards our shared vision whilst balancing the needs and interests of the all the various groups in the network, plus other stakeholders such as our own team, our funders and collaborators, and so on, within our resources. Inevitably there will be compromises because there’s so many different interests here.

    In the coming weeks and months I expect there will be lots of discussion about how the groups want to adopt and/or adapt the graphics and words, which is fine and as expected :) And the great ideas from Heath and others will definitely be part of that – and I personally will be delighted to see that happen.

    I also do not see how you can claim “All of you have helped create the new brand through your activities in open knowledge” if the new brand does not represent the breadth of the knowledge community, and when the brand has been presented as a done deal, not as something for consultation. There is no problem with drawing on outside branding expertise – but it would be very possible to have a process of broad community consultation around draft brand ideas developed by those experts.

    We followed the advice of the experts and did the broad consultation at the start of the process – through the community survey and other methods. Design, of both graphics and words, does not usually work well if done “by committee,” and we were advised to do the later stages in smaller group consultation, which is what happened. We had to balance quite a few factors in developing the brand process too. Pragmatism has always been an Open Knowledge value.

    In terms of representing the breadth of open knowledge, I don’t deny this is difficult. For instance, a tagline is just one very short phrase which needs to be clear and compelling, and so I think it’s inevitably going to represent something less than the full diversity of what everyone does. I really don’t think we could capture everything in one short phrase, using commonly-understood terms, but I feel the tagline does a reasonable job of representing the common essence of it all.

    Are you able to share in full the raw data of the consultation responses and details of interviews and other consultation carried out in development of the brand?

    Not all the community survey participants gave permission for their responses to be shared I’m afraid.

    But I’m hearing quite a lot of concern across the community about how OK(F) and chapters, WGs and others are relating right now. Is it worth considering a pause-for-thought before rolling out the new brand, and planning for that wider conversation on values & strategy?

    We are definitely going to be having a wider conversation on values and strategy for the network – and look forward to it. In terms of the brand roll-out, there is no planned roll-out for the local groups and working groups (but we have quite a few groups pressing for materials as soon as possible because they are eager to use the new brand). It’s something they can opt into as and when and if they wish. The ‘central’ website launch is definitely going ahead, though; as noted above, this is the website for ‘central’ and our current site receives quite a bit of criticism and confuses people. To enable us to do our work as coordinators of the network (and our other activities to further our shared vision of openness) we need to have a better website.

    If there are concerns about how the local groups and working groups are relating, we’d very much like to hear them so we can understand the issues and respond appropriately. Are there forums where these concerns are aired which we might not know about?

    On a related note we do know we can do better with community governance – and a survey will be going out to the International Council very soon to start to explore how we can improve this. I’ve personally been talking to the leaders of many of our chapters and local groups this year to hear their hopes and worries, and I’m happy to talk with any I’ve not spoken to yet, especially if there are concerns we might otherwise not have heard about.

  5. Tim Post author

    To respond for one more round on specific points, after which I’ll pause from the discussion for a while, as if these are in fact minority views not shared by others, and the new brand is a given, then better I suspect to let actions and experimenting with identity in the network, rather than these discussions, take the conversation on the next step.

    Sure. We’re a diverse network, as you know, and I think it’s fair to say each group communicates the way it wants, today – and will continue to do so. Our messages are all quite different already!

    And this has been possible under a description of the central organisation such as: “We are a global movement to open up knowledge around the world and see it used and useful.” – but if the description of what the central organisation is shifts to being data-centric and technology-centric in the way the brand suggests, then many of those more diverse messages of the network are not represented in Central – and that does make it harder for people in this diverse community to understand how they fit – or to feel that being in some way affiliated to OK(F) makes sense.

    We followed the advice of the experts and did the broad consultation at the start of the process – through the community survey and other methods. Design, of both graphics and words, does not usually work well if done “by committee,” and we were advised to do the later stages in smaller group consultation, which is what happened.

    Open processes do not have to result in design by committee: and describing things this way is a very disparaging way to see the potential of processes of open collaboration.

    Whilst external expertise has an important role to play in explaining and understanding how ideas might be perceived by key audiences you are trying to reach – surely there were processes open to you that involved drawing on expertise from inside the community (of which there would undoubtedly be much) and filling any blind-spots the community might have through selective use of outside consultancy.

    I really don’t think we could capture everything in one short phrase, using commonly-understood terms, but I feel the tagline does a reasonable job of representing the common essence of it all.

    On this then either you have not read and listened to the critique above – or we have a fundamental difference of opinion.

    The tag line absolutely does not represent the common essence of an open knowledge movement.

    Not one bit.

    I cannot think how to say more on this than I’ve already said.

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