Stuff worth reading about openness

Tim O'Reilly

I maintain another blog called Open Season which is all about openness and open source. I’ve been using it to share links to articles, along with a sample quote each time. Each post takes 25 seconds or so with Tumblr.

I wrote about it here in June 2009. Just mentioning it again as some of the recent articles I’ve read have been splendid.

I make no claims to comprehensiveness there, it’s just my own findings on themes related to openness. And conversely, closedness and proprietary systems.

I have a feeling these themes will come to define not only technology, but our wider culture and society in many ways.

If you want to follow a “proper blog” on this stuff, read Open by Glyn Moody.

And of course everything written by Tim O’Reilly and his colleagues is worth a read. (He’s pictured here, perhaps questioning a future web that isn’t small pieces loosely joined.)

Thoughts for Wales’ new Cross-Party Digital Group at the National Assembly

I went to a public meeting at the Assembly buildings in Cardiff last night, which was a chance to meet Wales’ new Cross-Party Digital Group and have a discussion to answer the question:

“How can we make better use of new media and digital technology to engage with the people of Wales?”.

The members of the group are the Assembly members Alun Cairns, Peter Black, Alun Davies and Bethan Jenkins. Not all of them could actually make it but as an intro conversation with q&a it was worth attending.

Foomandoonian has blogged last night’s line-up (with representatives from Google UK, Oxfam GB, MessageSpace and chaired by Rory Cellan-Jones). He’s also blogged some of his highlights of what the guests said.

Below are some of my thoughts. I did raise my hand and ask a question about monitoring blogs and other social media. I also filled in a feedback form (on good old paper). Maybe I can explain/expand on them here. I’m offering them from my perspective and as someone who works with the web and is interested in seeing Wales do well.

Getting attendees at the meetings. I get the impression there will be more of these meetings. “Engagement” is a popular word to drop in, how can we actually do this? Well, for what it’s worth I only heard about the meeting because a friend emailed the details to me. Otherwise I would have missed it. So next time please put a page on the Assembly site about this meeting. Then it can be found by Google and we can send it around by email, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and all the other various networks. Whatever existing publicity there was worked well because there were about 80 people in attendance, give or take. This was described as a good “turn-out”. It seemed that most of these people were middle-aged white men in suits. It’s just an observation, there were exceptions of course and it’s actually a good start. But not to have an open page (none that I could find anyway) on the web about a digital Wales meeting is missing a trick. Get a bigger room next time because we’ll be spreading the word!

The meeting itself needs to be more open. The meeting is already somewhat open because people are blogging about it and some people were using Twitter with the hashtag #digitalwales. Please record it next time. Just the audio will probably be fine, with a roving mic for questions. Document the whole thing. That is engagement because you can upload it somewhere and make the best use of public money. It’s a public meeting, so make it as public as possible! There’s no reason why time and space should prevent people from at least hearing meetings anymore. Someone in Pen Llŷn will thank you. I recently wrote about recording meetings on my Native blog.

Bill it as open. This is a public meeting. If people want a private discussion with the AMs involved, there are already lots of ways (email, phone, face-to-face). So just make it clear to attendees that things will be recorded and for the benefit of everyone in Wales.

Let’s have a discussion about open data in general. The USA house their open public data at and the UK are not too far behind with (not launched yet but currently on a developer preview). On the feedback form I suggested mySociety as guests for a future meeting because they’re probably the UK’s leading experts on making tools that use political and other data to benefit the public. Good to see that this is what they’re planning. There are almost definitely opportunities for Wales in open public data. By that I mean business opportunities that create employment and projects which help communities – as well as ways to understand the viewpoints, hold politicians to account and run a proper democracy.

But we would like Assembly data in standardised formats please. The online transcriptions of AM speeches are a bit disorganised at the moment. If the Assembly exists to serve Wales, then one way to achieve that is to make them machine-readable. Ideally this would be XML format, but it doesn’t actually matter as long as it’s consistent all the way and the original language and translation are clearly indicated (English and Cymraeg). Then all kinds of things become possible. A good example is the volunteer project They Work For You, which has a search engine for parliamentary discussions and related functions. It has UK parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly – but it’s missing the Welsh Assembly. I’ve written about the need for They Work For You to index Welsh Assembly discussions before. It’s been discussed on a mySociety mailing list and we welcome all coders! But the main point is NOT to raise the specific issue of They Work For You because it’s a volunteer project and only one of many possible applications. The point is making it as easy as possible for citizens to use the data.

Good broadband access. There was some discussion of this last night. I don’t know much about the situation elsewhere in Wales, other than that it’s important. Broadband is infrastructure, like railways. In the past, the railways moved coal and steel. Now we also move information, at much higher speeds. As with any infrastructure, it requires good usage – there is no magical transformation. But it does increase the possible ways people can communicate, learn and work.

Let us see the political process. So much of the discussion at the Assembly and the Assembly Government is private and it doesn’t need to be. I suspect it’s private because people tend to rely too much on email and waste opportunities to “engage”. The question for ministers and staff should always be: does this NEED to be private? If yes, then use a private method like email. If no (could even be the majority of cases) then quickly upload/publish it somehow (blog or wiki or some other tool). Now email the link to people. Thanks, you just opened up the political process! Don’t spin or polish the posts. We’ll vote for you if you’re honest and you communicate.

Some quick notes on tools. Posterous is a good tool because you blog by sending it an email. It’s not the only one with this feature but it’s quick, easy and free of charge. Facebook is OK here but be careful. By default your personal profile is not open – it’s halfway between private and public. My suggestion here would be upload/publish on an open platform (blog etc.) then post a link to Facebook for your friends and supporters.

I could have emailed my thoughts here to somebody. But I blogged them instead. Now anyone can email the link to anyone – or link from anywhere. It doesn’t mean they will but it allows it. People can also find it via search. I’d like to see this model in action.

Your blog posts don’t have to be as long as mine! Preferably they would have a name and a face next to them, not a logo.

Search is key. An AM should probably monitor (or have someone monitor) mentions of their name and issues they care about. Google Alerts are OK, but RSS is probably better. It’s not “ego searching” to look for your name. It’s… that engagement we keep talking about.

Thanks for reading, comments are open.

Open Season – selections on a theme of openness

I’m thinking about our obsession with “open”.

People work in “open plan” offices. If not then maybe their manager has an “open door policy” and offers an “open mind”. Maybe they conduct negotiations with “open palm”.

Then there’s open source software, now pretty familiar and widely used. Of which OpenOffice is an example (as well as Firefox). And there are examples of “open source” hardware and machines too. Check out Arduino.

Online we use web services that offer OpenSocial, as well as OpenID login. And OAuth – where the open is baked right in.

We’re familiar with Open University of course. They were well ahead of the current trend. Elsewhere, “open society” and “open government” are discussed. In the UK we have Open Rights Group, our counterpart to the EFF.

“Open” is becoming a byword for positive and good and progressive. “Open” is a hot word of now. Will it always be this way? Or will it be remembered as a passing enthusiasm – either superseded or perhaps absorbed everywhere to the extent that it becomes transparent?

I’m particularly interested in open source. I’ve benefitted a huge amount from open source software. Some great work has been done and some very successful companies of many kinds exist – all thanks to open source software.

How far can this approach be extended to non-software projects?

Creative Commons and approaches to copyright reform represent a form of openness, outside of software. Some (but not all) Creative Commons licences allow derivative works and adaptation.

Can you run a country using open source principles? (What’s going to happen when Tim Berners-Lee opens up government data in his new role? Will he enable us to spot and fix the bugs in Brown’s Britain?)

What about human relations? What about sharing? (And “over-sharing”?)

What about “proprietary” – the opposite of open, at least in a software context? At times, proprietary can be pretty good if you’re the proprietor. But you also miss opportunities.

I figured the best way to explore these questions would be to start documenting bits and snippets I find along the way. For this purpose I’ve started another blog called Open Season. I’ve just realised the term comes from hunting, that wasn’t deliberate. But it does capture some of the ambiguity of open. If you’re in the firing line, you’d prefer closed season. Open letters are similar – you don’t always want to receive them, especially if you’re a politician with responsibilities being identified.

Initially Open Season will resemble a scrapbook with the odd comment from me. I’ve chosen Tumblr as it’s ultra-quick blogging for anthologists and snippers and plagiarists. With the Firefox plugin, I can drag items to the bottom-right corner of my browser and they’re on. Then in the longterm I can turn them into properly thought-out posts here. Open Season is a pile of bits. Even more of a pile of bits I mean.

My aim is not to explore the benefits of open source in software. Those are pretty well documented and discussed. I’m looking at that, but I’m trying to grasp the wider issues of the open philosophy.

Usually computer software runs as object code – which is compiled from source code.

But any other creative work doesn’t have source code. This blog post doesn’t have source code. A car doesn’t have source code. A government doesn’t have source code. Your brain doesn’t have source code. Your body doesn’t have source code. (Don’t tell me DNA is source code! It isn’t.)

Any reference to “open source” outside of software is an analogy. Remember when we had to re-adapt everyday terms to describe what happened in and around computers? We would boot and store files, then at the advent of the graphical user interface came the window, paint, wallpaper, menu and the like. Now it’s the other way round – open source works for software, now we’re applying the term to other things.

All this has the potential for awesome results. But taking a software engineering methodology – that can clearly work – and thinking it could be applied to ANYTHING is possibly a bit rash. Let’s see.

Comment if you like. I’m “open sourcing” my thought processes on this one. Can’t get away from it.