It’s already been a month (it’s been kind of hectic, amongst others with a death in the family) since I visited Reboot_D in Berlin, but finally here are some impressions.

Reboot_D (link in German) took its cue from Reboot Britain last July, an event looking into how to use the new affordances of the digital age to work on the challenges nations face.
In Germany the focus was specifically on political and government structures, and the public sphere, and it was a small scale workshop-like day, with about 40 participants. Organizers were amongst others Martin Lindner (blog) and Ulrike Reinhard.

I was invited by Martin Lindner to contribute around the theme of open government data, as that is what I have been working on with the Dutch government this year, together with James Burke.

Format of the event
There were six general themes (the links point to collective event notes in German):
Digital grass root organizing
Open government data / government as platform
Representation 2.0
Legislation 2.0
Open Documents

The day started with a general round of introductions where participants were invited to state some of the questions, positions or things they’d like to address.
Then we did 6 quick rounds of 8 minutes in which all participants rotated in small groups, getting introduced into the six themes by ‘hosts’. Each host shortly showed a few examples relevant to the theme, and first questions got explored. I liked that format.

After this ‘speed-dating’ each theme was more fully explored in two rounds of smaller group discussion/workshop. A plenary session at the end brought resulting actions and impressions together.
As I was the host for the ‘open government data’ theme I did not get much chance to hear what was discussed around the other themes

Open Government Data
From the group work on Open Gov Data three actions emerged.

1 Legal framework, flow-chart
First of all, participants feel a need to establish the exact current conditions around open government data. How exactly has the 2003 EU Directive on public service information been translated into German law? How does it connect/ work with other relevant laws around privacy, copyright and database gathering? Without knowledge of the general legal framework it’s hard to enter into discussions on what is or is not viable open government data. Knowledge of this legal framework can be made into a flow-chart like poster, helping others to navigate this topic.

2 Finding change agents
From the discussions it seems likely that the individual states in the German federation are a better starting point than the national level. (Also see my general observations on the discussion further down)
Finding people to talk to, and connecting them with existing open government data enthusiast/advocates elsewhere will help build momentum. Right after the event I was approached by Daniel Dietrich informing me there now is a German open government data association, called OpenData Network, which will actively work towards this.

3 Formulating new ethical questions
Before the digital age some questions about admissible or inadmissible data usage never needed to be discussed as it wasn’t technologically feasible anyway. Now that technology isn’t a barrier, we need to both formulate and answer the type of ethical questions that we could ignore before. Is it ok to connect certain data sources into something new, that even those that it concerns weren’t even aware of themselves? (Like being confronted with patterns in your own behavior you were unaware of but that can be constructed from data you are aware of, finding new mirrors as it were to look into) What if somebody uses data without knowledge what it actually means, and bases faulty decisions on it, and then complains back at the source? It’s these questions that I find most often are now used as a reason to not open data up. It also connects to Lawrence Lessig’s recent article on the ‘shadow’ side of transparency. We most certainly need to look into these questions: both formulating them, and providing lines of reasoning to answer them.

General impressions from the debate
Germany is less than 5 kilometers away from my home, but it’s always interesting to see how different some cultural aspects can be between neighbors.
I was surprised to hear how quickly a lot of discussions, even the more mundane ones, quickly turned to highly politicized highly abstracted debates, and whether it meant changing or even damaging the constitution. That way things quickly become too big to tackle I think. You can work change without top-down transforming the entire nation first. You can work change by creating a few practical steps and examples, that then serve as leverage to do more. Those practical entry points are most likely better found at lower levels of government than the national one.

Fitting democacry in a new frame (German parliament through a glass panel at Berlin Hauptbahnhof)

All in all it was a good an inspiring day, and I think it helped build some more ties for the European network of those working towards open government data and public service information.

Video impressions can be found on the Reboot_D Youtube channel
A short video interview with David Weinberger on how ‘transparency is the new objectivity’ was done before the event by Ulrike, one of the organizers.

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