In reply to Collective Creativity by Wouter Groeneveld

Interestingly this came up yesterday at the FOSS4G-NL conference I visited, where Amélie A Gagnon talked about scenius as communal genius, a scene that jams together and creates results no single genius could. She also mentioned Austin Kleon’s quote ‘don’t be a genius, create a scenius’ (see his post on scenius, and about mapping a scenius, something I’ve elsewhere seen done based on LinkedIn profiles to see what is missing in terms of capabilities, roles and skills, to make a scene somewhere ‘explode’)

…and call it collective creativity: without a collective, the creativity of each genius partaking in the above meetings would never have reached that far.

Wouter Groeneveld

Today left me wondering if conference backchannels are still a thing and whether organisers need to start organising/designing backchannels to make it useful (again).

I was at the FOSS4GNL conference today, the first large scale event I went to since the Dutch start of the Situation mid March 2020. Or largish event, because there were about 60% of the usual amount of people, with some staying away because they felt uncomfortable in groups, or because of not wanting to submit themselves to QR code scans to verify vaccination or testing status, and a presenter testing positive the day before.

In the run-up I added the conference # to my Tweetdeck columns and mobile Twitter app. Yesterday was a workshop day, and today a conference day, and the 101 participants posted all of 45 tweets during the event. That works out to about .4 tweets per participant and 2 to 3 tweets per tweeting participant. Back in the day ™, aka 2006, I remember how Twitter started replacing IRC as a conference backchannel of the more geeky conferences I went to. A decade later, when visiting the global conference of the Dutch local one I visited today, FOSS4G global in 2016, I was happily surprised to see IRC even used as backchannel.

This time around there’s wasn’t much of a backchannel, not publicly on Twitter, but also not in some other channel. The conference organisers had used a Telegram group for their preparatory work, and beforehand suggested participants to use that as well. That didn’t pan out I think. I don’t use Telegram and wouldn’t install it for a conference either. The organising membership organisations OSGEO.nl and the QGIS-NL user group themselves use a Matrix channel, which I think would have been a much better suggestion as at least community members are familiar with it, and it allows a variety of clients to tap into it.

To me backchannels, and I’m spoilt ’cause Reboot (again: back in the day ™), allow one to be in one track of the conference and follow along with the sessions in other tracks to get the salient bits or know when something out of the ordinary happens because one of the rooms ‘explodes’. This works very well, up to the point where I may well think I remember noteworthy conference sessions, while in reality I wasn’t in the room where myths originated but followed along from the next conference room on IRC.

I dislike conferences where members in the audience are just that, and don’t behave like participants. Backchannels allow you to build connections with others based on content or wit during sessions, not relegating it only to random encounters over coffee or lunch (which is also useful). In events like today where it is primarily a community meeting, that is even more true despite everyone being in a more known environment: I’m a lurker/boundary spanner in the Dutch FOSS4G community, have visited/spoken at their events, have organised related events, but am nowhere near the core of community members, yet I knew some 1 in 10 today and a similar number of ‘colleagues of’, including the international participants.

Twitter definitely isn’t the ‘great equalizer’ of backchannels as it has been for a decade or so any more. In the past few years I saw how the use of Twitter as backchannel diminished already, now at the first event I visit after All This it stands out once more. I don’t see something else naturally taking its place either.

In short I miss well-functioning backchannels. Do others miss them, or never knew to miss them?
If you (like I am at times) are an event organiser, is it necessary to plan ahead for a ‘back-channel experience‘ taking into account accessibility, avoiding silo’s and tracking, with which to add to what it is like to attend your event? Or will the idea of a back-channel be let go entirely, reducing all of us to more singular members of an audience?

Vandaag vond FOSS4G-NL plaats, de eerste grote bijeenkomst waar ik weer heen ging.

Ik gaf een presentatie over de aankomende EU wetgeving t.a.v. digitalisering en data, en de kansen die daarin liggen voor de free and open source software for geo community (FOSS4G). Drie jaar geleden sprak ik tijdens de opening van FOSS4G-NL over de geopolitieke rol van data, dat Europa daar een andere koers ging kiezen dan bijvoorbeeld de VS (maximale winst-extractie) en China (maximale staatscontrole), namelijk een waar maatschappelijke waarde in lijn wordt gebracht met het versterken en beschermen van burgerrechten, en dat iedere lokale geodata-adviseur een geopolitieke actor daarbinnen is.

Dit jaar kon ik daar concreet over verder praten omdat de Europese Commissie een reeks wetgeving heeft voorgesteld die invulling geeft aan die geopolitieke propositie t.a.v. data. In die praktische invulling, die vooral nog moet gaan gebeuren, liggen kansen voor de FOSS community en FOSS4G community omdat juist hun kennis t.a.v. federatie, standaarden, en het accomoderen van heel verschillende belangen en perspectieven de dagelijkse gang van zaken is.

Mijn slides vind je hieronder (gepubliceerd op mijn persoonlijke slideshare).

Dank aan de organisatoren om weer een FOSS4GNL te organiseren, en fijn om weer in Enschede en bij het ITC te zijn.

Yesterday I had a conversation with Andy Sylvester about the tools I use for my personal process for taking in information, learning and working. He posted our conversation today, as episode 8 in his ‘thinking about tools for thought‘ podcast series. In the ‘show notes’ he links to my series on how I use Obsidian that I wrote a year ago. This is still a good overview of how I use mark down files for pkm and work, even if some details have changed in the year since I wrote it. I also mentioned Respec, which is how I directly publish a client website on a series of EU laws from my notes through GitHub. And not in Andy’s show notes but definitely worth a mention is Eastgate’s Tinderbox.

Last year I spent a large amount of time participating in the study that provided advice on which government data sets to include in the mandatory list that is part of the Open Data Directive.

The Open Data Directive, which should have been transposed by EU Member States into national law by last July, but still mostly isn’t, provides a role to the EC to maintain a list of ‘high value data sets’ that all EU countries must make freely available for re-use through APIs and bulk download. This is the first time that it becomes mandatory to pro-actively publish certain data as open government data. Until now, there were mandatory ways to provide open data upon request, but the pro-active publication of such open data has always been voluntary (with various countries making a wide variety of voluntary efforts btw). Also the availability of government data builds on the national freedom of information framework, so the actual availability of a certain data set depends on different legal considerations in different places. The high value data list is the first pan-EU legal requirement that is equal in all EU Member States.

I was part of a team that provided a study into which data sets should appear on that high value data list. The first iteration of this list (to be extended and amended periodically) by the EC covers six thematic areas: geographic data, statistics, mobility data, company information, earth observation and environment, and meteorology. I was responsible for the sections on earth observation and environment, and meteorology, and I’m eager to see how it has been translated into the implementation act as for both those thematic areas it would mean a very significant jump in open data availability if the study results get adopted. We submitted our final report by September 2020, and in the year since then we’re all waiting to see how the implementation act for the high value data will turn out. Our study only is a part in that, as it is itself an input for the EC’s impact assessment for different choices and options, which in turn forms the basis for a negotiation process that includes all Member States.

Originally the implementation act was expected to be published together with other EC proposals, such as the Data Governance Act last December. This as the EU High Value Data list is part of a wider newly emerging EU legal framework on digitisation and data. But nothing much happened until now. First the expectation was Q1, then by the summer, then shortly after the summer, and now the latest I hear from within the EC is ‘hopefully by the end of the year’.

It all depends on poltical will at this stage it seems, to move the dossier forward. The obstacle to getting the implementing act done apparently is what to do with company data (and ultimate beneficial ownership data). Opening up company registers has clear socio-economic benefits, outweighing the costs of opening them up. There are privacy aspects to consider, which can be dealt with well enough I think, but were not part of our study as it only considered socio-economic impacts and expected transition costs, and the demarcation between the Open Data Directive and the GDPR was placed outside our scope.

There apparently is significant political pressure to limit the openness of such company registers. There must be similarly significant political pressure to move to more openness, or the discussion would already have been resolved. It sounds to me that the Netherlands is one of those politically blocking progress towards more openness. Even before our study commenced I heard rumours that certain wealthy families had the ear of the Dutch prime minister to prevent general free access to this data, and that the pm seemed to agree up to the point of being willing to risk infringement proceedings for not transposing the Open Data Directive completely. As it stands the transposition into national law of the Open Data Directive hasn’t happened mostly, and the implementing act for high value data hasn’t been proposed at all yet.

Access Info, the Madrid based European NGO promoting the right to access to information, has in June requested documents concerning the high value data list from the EC, including the study report. The report hasn’t been published by the EC themselves yet because it needs to be published together with the EC’s impact assessment for which the study is an input, and alongside the implementation act itself.
Access Info has received documents, and has published the 400+ page study report (PDF) that was submitted a year ago, alongside a critical take on the company register data issue.

I am pleased the study is now out there informally at least, so I can point people to sections of it in my current work discussions on how to accomodate the new EU legal framework w.r.t. data, of which the high value open data is a part. Previously there were only publicly available slides from the last workshop that was part of the study, which by neccessity held only general information about the study results. Next to company registers, which I am assuming is the roadblock, there is much in the study that also is of importance and now equally suffering under the delays. I hope the formal publication of the report will follow soon. The publication of the impementing act is a key step for European open data given its first ever EU-wide mandates.

Virk Data Dag
A 2014 workshop, Virk Data Dag, at the Danish Business Authority discussing use cases for the open Danish company register, where I presented and participated.

Finally, a declaration of interests is in order for this posting I think:

  • My company was part of the consortium that did the mentioned study. I led the efforts on earth observation and environmental data, and on meteorological data.
  • In current work for my company, the implementation act for high value data, and other recent EC legal proposals are of importance, as I am helping translate their impact and potential to Dutch national (open) data infrastructure and facilitating data re-use for public issues.
  • I am a voluntary board member of the NGO Open State Foundation. OSF advocates full openness of company registers, and co-signed the critical take Access Info published. The board has no influence on day to day actions, which are the responsibility of the NGO’s director and team.
  • I am personally in favor of opening up company registers as open data.
    • I think that privacy issues can be readily addressed (something that is directly relevant to me as a sole trader business, as co-owner of an incorporated business, and as a board member of an association for which my home address is currently visible in the company register)
    • I think that being visible as a business owner or decision maker is part of the social contract I entered into in exchange for being personally shielded from the business risks I am exposed to. Society is partially shielding me from those risks, as it allows social benefits to emerge (such as creating an income for our team), but in turn people need to be able to see who they’re dealing with.
    • I think there is never a business case where charging fees for access to a monopolistic government database such as company registries makes sense. Such fees merely limit access to those able to afford it, causing unequality of access, and power and information assymmetries. Data collection for public tasks is a sunk cost by definition, access fees are always less over time than the additional tax revenue and social value resulting from re-use of freely available data. The only relevant financial aspect to address is that provision costs accrue with the dataholder and benefits with the treasury, which general budget financing is the remedy for
    • I think that already open company registers in Europe and elsewhere provide ample evidence that many formulated fears w.r.t. such openness don’t become reality.

In a tweet Mike Haber mentioned Otter.ai, a spoken text transcription tool, in the context of making notes (in Obsidian.md). Taking a look at the Otter.ai website I tried to create an account, only to be told that the unique email address I entered was already tied to an existing account. Indeed, my 1Password contained a login that I created in March 2018, but never used. Despite, or maybe because of, the friction I feel using audio, I decided to try it out now.

I tried three things.
One, where I spoke to my laptop, while seeing the transcription written out live in front of me. This worked well, but creates odd feedback loops of self-consciousness when I read back my own words while speaking them. It’s like using a mirror to guide your hand movements, but then for speech.
Two, where I recorded myself talking using QuickTime and uploaded the resulting sound file. This removed the strange feedback loop of seeing the text emerge while talking, but had me sitting behind my laptop and manually uploading a file afterwards.
Three, where I used the service’s Android-app to dictate to my phone while walking around the house. This felt the most natural of the three.

Resulting transcripts can be manually exported in various formats from the browser interface, including flat text and to the laptop’s clipboard. An automatic export in txt would be nice to have. Otter.ai only does English (and does it well), which isn’t an issue when I’m in an English language context, but otherwise quickly feels artificial to my own ears.

From my brief tests three cases stood out for me that I can get comfortable with:

  • dictating short ideas or descriptions while on the move around the house
  • stream of consciousness talk, either while walking around the house or stationary
  • describing an object as I handle it, specifically physical books as I first go through them to see what it is about, in preparation for reading.

Otter.ai has a generous free tier of 10 hours per month and three free uploads (I assume the idea behind that it is they get more data to train their algorithms with), but the next tier up (‘pro’) gives you ten times that per month and unlimited uploads within those 100 hours for $100USD / yr. That is I think a pretty good deal, especially compared to other services.

Differences between Otter.ai and other services I found online concern 1) real time audio capture and transcription, where others mostly just provide for uploads of audio files, 2) costs, where others charge by the minute and/or generally charge much more, 3) available languages, where Otter.ai only provides English, and others cater to a wide range of languages.
All the services I looked at allow listening to audio while you go through a transcription, e.g. to add corrections.
Two European services I found are Amberscript (a Dutch company), which has a prepaid option of 15 Euro / hour (or 40 Euro per month subscription for 5 hours), and Happyscribe (a French company) which charges by the minute at 12 Euro / hour.

There is of course also the dictation built into Microsoft Word. Word supports Dutch well. Although I normally work in LibreOffice, I do have Word installed to prevent weird conversion issues working on documents with clients who run MS products. It does mean being tied to the laptop while dictating though, and of course like any other US company, including Otter.ai, all audio goes to US servers for speech recognition. Also, after the dictation there’s no audiofile left over, only the document remains. It means that odd transcriptions can remain a mystery, because you can’t go back to the original. You should do such corrections immediately in that case. After such a correction phase this is no longer an issue, then it’s just a difference with other services that are designed more towards transcription of e.g. interviews, where MS Word is geared towards dictation. In the web based Word version there’s a transcription feature separate from the dictation feature, that provides 300 minutes for free per month and does retain the audio file for you.

For now I will aim to experiment with voice dication some more. Probably for the first few days using MS Word on my laptop for dictation, and using Otter.ai’s mobile app for the same, in the three mentioned use cases. If I find it gets more useful than strange (as I’ve found it to be in previous years and attempts), I will likely use Amberscript, as it is EU based and has a mobile app. Their prepaid option of 15 Euro / hour is probably good for quite some time at first.