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A century of opening up government gathers pace

Open government. The word is spreading. joebeone

The World Bank is to provide a $1.2 million grant to fund the Open Data Partnership for Development, a project with the Open Knowledge Foundation and the Open Data Institute. The aim is to help developing countries to run open data initiatives and to carry out research into how open data can benefit sustainable development.

The partnership was announced at the 2013 [OKCon](OKCon]( open knowledge conference in Geneva last week.

A post-war legacy

Rufus Pollock, co-founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation said this is “the century of open knowledge”. If that is the case then the roots of the movement are to be found in the 20th century, with the development of liberalism as it confronted the totalitarianism of Nazi fascism and Stalinist communism. The horrors of World War II and the paranoia of the Cold War led to intense reflection on the nature of freedom and democracy. In 1945, Karl Popper published his two-volume critique of totalitarianism, The Open Society and its Enemies, two-years after Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom, a foundational text for neoliberalism and open markets.

Elsewhere in the wartime academy, Norbert Wiener and others were developing the discipline of cybernetics, which analysed society as a system of communication and feedback – an information society. In 1948, Wiener published the landmark book, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine, which would influence the emerging disciplines of cognitive science, artificial intelligence, robotics and computer science.

The logic of openness

The groups to have so far built most actively on these ideals have been scientists and technologists. This has been neatly articulated by Christopher Kelty, who [wrote](]( about the “recursive public” of the internet, which turns freedom of information advocates into activists who find themselves necessarily campaigning for open standards, open infrastructure, open source and so on, in order to protect the freedoms they cherish.

We can see this in the open access movement, which has its roots in the free and open source software movement that emerged out of the artificial intelligence labs of the 1970s. Now more than a decade old, open access has initiated a recursive response within the academy whereby the “logic” of open access – free, public access to scholarly research papers enabled by the internet – increasingly demands that the underlying research data is also made openly accessible so that the research can be reproduced and verified.

But it does not stop there. The source code for the software used in the research, as well as the algorithms and lab notes, should be made open, too. At one workshop I attended on tools for open science, we were shown how some researchers are now writing “executable papers”, constructed in such a way that open source software can reproduce and verify the results they describe.

Open data by default

In recent years, the ideals of openness are returning to the domain of politics. The G8 Open Data Charter, agreed earlier this year, is a set of principles intended to improve the transparency and responsiveness of governments, increase innovation and improve government efficiency. The movement that brought the political values of openness to science and technology is now having an influence of its own at the highest levels of government.

Openness has always been a political project and has advocates from across the political spectrum. For some it is about power and accountability, for others it is about innovation and efficiency. If Kelty’s analysis is right – and in my experience it is – the recursive “logic” of openness will continue to extend itself to all aspects of public life while the definition of openness will be contested and stretched to ever greater degrees.

This year’s Open Knowledge Conference was hosted right next to the International Telecommunication Union and the World Intellectual Property Organisation. It was a logistical coincidence but neatly summed up the way the open movement is growing. We are challenging organisations like these, as well as the UN, to re-think the way in which the “information society” and the “knowledge economy” achieves some of the ideals of openness that were established in the post-war climate but have yet to be fulfilled.

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