Every year I write a list of things that gave me some sense of accomplishment. I started writing them in 2010. This year, in an end of year session with my team I said there isn’t much this year I’m proud of from the top of my head. That probably is a good reason to make the list anyway, even if I don’t particularly feel like it. I easily tend to forget things, and leafing through the calendar and my notes is always a useful exercise. So, in random order, here are the things for my 2023 Tadaa! list.

  • It was a busy year professionally but without stress. No hectic firefights, no curveballs.
  • With our entire team, my company took a training in Portugal with Bev and Etienne Wenger-Trayner. It was great to do a training with the entire team, on a topic that is very dear to me and highly relevant to our work, and having Bev and Etienne lead us through it. Bev I’ve known for decades, and Etienne’s work on learning and communities of practice has been central to my professional perspective for as long. Many different layers of meaning combined in that week for me, personally and professionally, and clarified how deeply I am emotionally tied to social learning, agency and change in my work. It was beautiful.
  • We added two people to our team, in February and October, and grew by almost a third in turnover. That we had a fun year together with good projects and providing us all with a stable income every month is something that gives me great satisfaction.
  • My role in supporting the interprovincial ethics committee, that started last January, I enjoy a lot, and there is plenty of potential there to do more. The advise by the committee on how/whether to use generative AI in public tasks was welcomed and the first in its kind. Something we’ll return to in the next year for an update.
  • Likewise I enjoy helping Dutch government entities implement the European open data law I helped write three years ago. Here too there is plenty of potential to build my role out, with the creation of the European common data space as general context.
  • I had a small role in our work on AI ethics for the national police, but it is I think important and rewarding work.
  • Have been blogging on this site for 21 years now, and it still feels like a place I can experiment, and just do whatever, and which still creates conversations with new people.
  • E and I used Y’s school holidays and weekends for many little trips and visits. Musea, movies, cities, the beach, flying a kite, theaters, a circus, kayaking, geo-caching, restaurants. E surprised both Y and me with a visit to Nuremberg and the Playmobil Funpark in late April as an early birthday gift, which was lots of fun and giving me closure for a very disappointing attempt to visit the Playmobil factory in the late seventies when I was Y’s age.
  • Got to be there for friends. Friends got to be there for me.
  • Did some travel for work, to nearby Brussels, Portugal and to Malta, which I had never been to before. Attending and speaking at conferences, which I enjoyed.
  • Enjoyed presenting about my ‘career’ after a stint studying philosophy of science and technology at my old university. Stressing and for myself rediscovering that following my interests always yielded work activities over time, that I always have worked in roles that didn’t exist beforehand and I never applied for jobs, that there is no linearity to a ‘career path’, that the twisting path is the point, that that’s where meaning resides. And that meaning is important and emotional to me (see the training in Portugal mentioned earlier)
  • Enjoyed tinkering with some home-cooked coding. Improved my own interactive feed reader, and imported my old calendar and Amazon purchases into my notes by writing small tools. It looks like GitHub Co-pilot might make it easier for me to do more of that.
  • Got more involved in the Dutch personal knowledge management (PKM) community, helping shape a PKM conference next year, and hosting a large Obsidian-users meet-up, but doing so staying away from PKM discussions for their own sake. PKM needs to be for something, a practice working towards a purpose outside of it.
  • Read plenty of books, though less than the 1 per week on average which has been the overall rhythm these past years. Partly because some were very long, partly for reasons I don’t know.
  • Inched closer to a more deliberate reading practice for non-fiction. This is something that I have wished for for years, never really getting around obstacles in my mind and in my actions, but it now finally feels like things are shifting. By this time next year, I hope I can see the results of that.

Usually we spend the last days of the year in Switzerland visiting dear friends, this year we met them in the Netherlands in the past days, and we will see in the new year at home.

Ever onwards!

Last Friday our 7yo daughter could bring some toys to school. This as it was the last day before a week off, and they would spend the last hour or so playing.
The evening before she thought about what toys she would take to school. And made a list after we brought her to bed…

This is how personal knowledge management starts.
The list also has a few icons (such as for playmobil 6 figurines and 3 animal figures). She wanted to also bring a book (in case it would get boring at some point), but added 0% and an image of a battery. Because the teacher had said anything with a screen or battery wasn’t allowed. So it had to be a paper book. The list also mentions earplugs, because ‘it will likely get noisy’.

Friday morning when she got up she showed me the list, as I was making my own notes, about ODRL.

I marvel at the level of detail in her list as she thought it through the evening before. In the morning she decided against the earplugs and book in the end. I was an active notes writer from early on in primary school. Not so much focused on the school work, that was usually a boring breeze, but I focused on what I saw happening around me, very often social connections I noticed between others too, things I found puzzling or stood out. I had this notion things and people would make sense more if I could suss out the connections between them.

Early September I spent most of a week in Portugal, to be exact in the home of Bev and Etienne Wenger-Trayner. I was there with our entire team at The Green Land, to participate in the 3-day Systems Convening workshop that Bev and Etienne host.

It was an intensive and special week to me. Special for multiple reasons.

  • The training was hosted at home by Bev and Etienne. This creates a special dynamic, as you are in someone’s private environment and in an informal setting, while taking a deep dive in professional topics. We shared meals together, took a swim, learned to operate the coffee machine ourselves. All this serves to create more and different connections between the participants, and creates a space for much more open interactions. It’s especially pleasing that this set-up is partly inspired by Bev having attended our first birthday unconference in 2008.
  • We participated with our whole team, and there also were other participants in the group. The first effect of this is that we all returned to work with the same experience, which makes actual adoption in our work by each of us easier. It created a shared language for something that me and others are experienced in but found hard to convey to our younger team members. The second effect was that because of the presenc of participants with very different backgrounds and activities, it wasn’t just about us, which allowed us to take a bit of distance to our own work, and get more varied feedback as well.
  • Systems convening, as a practice, is something that me and my colleague Frank do almost naturally. Exploring it more deeply and methodically in this course meant not just a boost for our individual work in client projects, but also a tremendous boost in our self-perception as a company. For my own perception of my current projects as well as where I think we can go as a company this was enormously valuable too. We spent three days deeply reflecting on our work and our practices.
  • Bev and Etienne’s approach towards learning and towards working change is something I too have deeply internalised over the years, also because my own journey and my own natural behaviour is very similar to their topics of interest. It felt like my team got the opportunity to look inside my own head for three days. The type of work I do and love to do, how it connects to my understanding of the world, the type of things that are dear to me in taking a stance professionally, it’s almost as if it was a course on ‘how Ton thinks about things’.

I’ve known Bev for a very long time, and Etienne’s work has been a key ingredient in my own work since the late nineties. It was such a pleasure to bring all my colleagues to their home, and do a deep dive on social learning theory and our own practices. The way that my personal network, deeply internalised practices, the value of our own current work, our team dynamics, how all those layers fully turned into a coherent meaningful single whole was spectacular and deeply touching to me.

During the course it became very clear to me (again? for the first time?) how deeply I am emotionally tied to and invested in social learning approaches and agency in the world.

This intense emotional connection to social learning and the change work I do, clarified for me how much of that is actually a core part of my internal personal identity. In the past months I had an intermittent conversation with my friend Peter about whether I am curious or lack curiosity, and how I tend to routinely distrust or dismiss my own motives behind how I operate in the world. The experience last month in Portugal makes me realise that there actually is not much reason to be that suspicious, and much more reason to actually embrace that about myself.

At work

All course participants with Bev and Etienne

Taking a swim, and drinking a glass of wine, in Bev and Etienne’s pool with sea view

This week it was 15 years ago that I became involved in open government data. In this post I look back on how my open data work evolved, and if it brought any lasting results.

I was at a BarCamp in Graz on political communication the last days of May 2008 and ended up in a conversation with Keith Andrews in a session about his wish for more government held data to use for his data visualisation research. I continued that conversation a week later with others at NL GovCamp on 7 June 2008 in Amsterdam, an event that I helped organise with James Burke and Peter Robinnet. There, on the rotting carpets of the derelict office building that had been the Volkskrant offices until 2007, several of us discussed how to bring about open data in the Netherlands:

My major take-away … was that a small group found itself around the task of making inventory of what datasets are actually held within Dutch government agencies. … I think this is an important thing to do, and am curious how it will develop and what I can contribute.
Me, 10 June 2008

Fifteen years on, what came of that ‘important thing to do’ and seeing ‘what I can contribute’?

At first it was mostly talk, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if ..’, but importantly part of that talk was with the Ministry responsible for government transparency who were present at NL GovCamp. Initially we weren’t allowed to meet at the Ministry itself, inviting ‘hackers’ in was seen as too sensitive, and over the course of 6 months several conversations with civil servants took place in a pub in Utrecht, before being formally invited to come talk. That however did result in a first assignment from January 2009, which I did with James and with Alper (who also had participated in NL GovCamp).

With some tangible results in hand from that project, I hosted a conversation at Reboot 11 in 2009 in Copenhagen about open data, leading to an extension of my European network on the topic. There I also encountered the Danish IT/open government team. Cathrine of that team invited me to host a panel at an event early 2010 where also the responsible official at the European Commission for open data was presenting. He invited me to Luxembourg to meet the PSI Group of national representatives in June 2010, and it landed me an invitation as a guest blogger that same month for an open data event hosted by the Spanish government and the ePSIplatform team, a European website on re-using government information.

There I also met Marc, a Dutch lawyer in open government. Having met various European data portal teams in Madrid, I then did some research for the Dutch government on the governance and costs of a Dutch open data portal in the summer of 2010, through which I met Paul who took on a role in further shaping the Dutch portal. Stimulated by the Commission with Marc I submitted a proposal to run the ePSIplatform, a public tender we won. The launching workshop of our work on the ePSIplatform in January 2011 in Berlin is where I met Frank. In the fall of 2011 I attended the Warsaw open government data camp, where Marc, Frank, Paul and I all had roles. I also met Oleg from the World Bank there. In November 2011 Frank, Paul, Marc and I founded The Green Land, and I have worked on over 40 open data projects since then under that label. Early 2012 I was invited to the World Bank in the US to provide some training, and later that year worked in Moldova for them. From 2014 I worked in Kazachstan, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia and Malaysia for the World Bank until 2019, before the pandemic ended it for now.

What stands out to me in this history of a decade and a half is:

  • How crucial chance encounters were/are and how those occurred around small tangible things to do. From those encounters the bigger things grew. Those chance encounters could happen because I helped organise small events, went to events by others, and even if they were nominally about something else, had conversations there about open data with likeminded people. Being in it for real, spending effort to strengthen the community of practitioners around this topic created track record quickly. This is something I recently mentioned when speaking about my work to students as well: making time for side interests is important, I’ve come to trust it as a source of new activities.
  • The small practical steps I took, a first exploratory project, creating a small collection of open data examples out of my own interest, writing the first version of an open data handbook with four others during a weekend in Berlin served as material for those conversations and were the scaffolding for bigger things.
  • I was at the right time, not too early, not late. There already was a certain general conversation on open data going on. In 2003 the EC had legislated for government data re-use, which had entered into force in May 2008, just 3 weeks before I picked the topic up. Thus, there was an implemented legal basis for open data in place in the EU, which however hadn’t been used by anyone as new instrument yet. By late 2008 Barack Obama was elected to the US presidency on a platform that included government transparency, which on the day after his inauguration in January 2009 resulted in a Memorandum to kick-start open government plans across the public sector. This meant there was global attention to the topic. So the circumstances were right, there was general momentum, just not very many people yet trying to do something practical.
  • Open data took several years to really materialise as professional activity for me. During those years most time was spent on explaining the topic, weaving the network of people involved across Europe and beyond. I have so many open data slide decks from 2009 and 2010 in my archive. In 2008, 2009 and 2010, I was active in the field but my main professional activities were still elsewhere. In 2009 after my first open data project I wondered out loud if this was a topic I could and wanted to continue in professionally. From early 2011 most of my income came from open data, while the need for building out the network of people involved was still strong. Later, from 2014 or so open data became more local, more regular, shifted to being part of data governance, and now data ethics. The pan-European network evaporated. Nevertheless helping improve European open data legislation has been a crucial element until now, to keep providing a fundament beneath the work.

From those 15 years, what stands out as meaningful results? What did it bring?
This is a hard and easy question at the same time. Hard because ‘meaningful’ can have many definitions. If we take achieving permanent or even institutionalised results as yard stick, two things stand-out. One at the beginning and one at the end of the 15 years.

  • My 2010 report for the Ministry for the Interior on the governance and financing of a national open data portal and facilitating a public consultation on what it would need to do, helped launch the Dutch open government data portal data.overheid.nl in 2011. A dozen years on, it is a key building block of the Dutch government’s public data infrastructure, and on the verge of taking on a bigger role with the implementation of the European data strategy.
  • At the other end of the timeline is the publication of the EU Implementing Regulation on High Value Data last December, for which I did preparatory research (PDF report), and which compels the entire public sector in Europe to publish a growing list of datasets through APIs for free re-use. Things I wrote about earth observation, environmental and meteorological data are in the law’s Annexes which every public body must comply with by next spring. What’s in that law about geographic data, company data and meteorological data ends more than three decades worth of discussion and court proceedings w.r.t. access to such data.

Talking about meaningful results is also an easy question, especially when not looking for institutional change:

  • Practically, it means my and my now 10 colleagues have an income, which is meaningful within the scope of our personal everyday lives. The director of a company I worked at 25 years ago once said to me when I remarked on the low profits of the company that year ‘well, over 40 families had an income meanwhile, so that’s something.’ I never forgot it. That’s certainly something.
  • There’s the NGO Open State Foundation that directly emerged from the event James, Peter and I organised in 2008. The next event in 2009 was named ‘Hack the Government’ and organised by James and several others who had attended in 2008. It was registered as a non-profit and from 2011 became the Open State Foundation, now a team of eight people still doing impactful work on making Dutch government more transparant. I’ve been the chair of their board for the last 5 years, which is a privilege.
  • Yet the most meaningful results concern people, changes they’ve made, and the shift in attitude they bring to public sector organisations. When you see a light go on in the eyes of someone during a presentation or conversation. Mostly you never learn what happens next. Sometimes you do. Handing out a few free beers (‘Data Drinks’) in Copenhagen making someone say ‘you’re doing more for Danish open data in a month by bringing everyone together than we did in the past years’. An Eastern European national expert seconded to the EC on open data telling me he ultimately came to this job because as a student he heard me speak once at his university and decided he wanted to be involved in the topic. An Irish civil servant who asked me in 2012 about examples I presented of collaboratively making public services with citizens, and at the end of 2019 messaged me it had led to the crowd sourced mapping of Lesotho in Open Street Map over five years to assist the Lesotho Land Registry and Planning Authority in getting good quality maps (embed of paywalled paper on LinkedIn). Someone picking up the phone in support, because I similarly picked up the phone 9 years earlier. None of that is directly a result of my work, it is fully the result of the work of those people themselves. Nothing is ever just one person, it’s always a network. One’s influence is in sustaining and sharing with that network. I happened to be there at some point, in a conversation, in a chance encounter, from which someone took some inspiration. Just as I took some inspiration from a chance encounter in 2008 myself. To me it’s the very best kind of impact when it comes to achieving change.

I’ve plotted the things mentioned above in this image for the most part. As part of trying to map the evolution of my work, inspired by another type of chance encounter with a mind map on the wall of museum.

The evolution of my open data (net)work. Click for larger version.

A lovely day today in Rotterdam. Meeting up with my niece A, coffee at her place, lunch in the beautiful Market Hall which is just steps away, and visiting the Blijdorp Zoo together. Train to and from Rotterdam, metro within Rotterdam, Y proudly using her own public transport pass. Back home the first dinner outside in the garden this season to top it off.

Rotterdam skyline with the cube houses in front, De Rotterdam and South Tower building in the background to the left, the Pencil on the right.

Starting in 2010 I have posted an annual ‘Tadaa’ list, a list of things that made me feel I had accomplished something that year. I started doing it in 2010 because I tend to forget things I did after completion. Like last year I didn’t feel much like writing this. It seemed a greyish year, passing in the shadow of the war that Russia wages on Ukraine. A year where Covid is still very much around us, yet things sort-of returned to normal. But for a different value of normal, a somewhat twisted normal, a parallel one. An appearance and pretense of normal perhaps more than an actual normal. An intransitive year almost, taking me from 2021 to 2023, but without object. Or maybe it’s because the last few months were extremely busy, pushing through more than being in the here and now, which sapped the colour from the months preceding it. Which is as good a reason as any to try and list the things that did bring a sense of accomplishment. I do have my day logs from the entire year, as well as kept up posting week notes here, so I can look back at what went on these past 12 months.

So here goes, in no particular order:

  • The European High Value Data list has become law in December. Two years ago I had a defining influence on the data it lists for earth observation, environment and meteorology. Even if the implementation period is 16 months and some datasets may get a temporary exemption for another two years, and even if it doesn’t go far enough (mostly on company information) to the taste of many, it is an important milestone. It draws the line under discussions about paywalls and exclusive access rights that were already old when I got involved in open data in 2009, in favor of mandatory pro-active publication for all to use freely. I’m glad I could translate my experience in this field into something now enshrined much more solidly in EU law.
  • We took regular breaks as a family. We started the year in Luzern, spent a week in Limburg in April, spent three weeks in Bourgogne doing most of nothing. Had weekend trips, to various musea for instance. One of the things E and I decided, while hanging out in front of our tent in the Bourgogne last summer, was to mark all school holidays in our own calendar in the coming year, to either take them off ourselves, or to keep them free of work appointments. I think it should be possible without impacting my output, but it will require careful planning.
  • I’ve kept an actualised guide about the incoming EU data legislation in Dutch for a client. It gets automatically generated directly from my own working notes in Obsidian which appeals to me in terms of nerdy workflow, and it is highly used by Dutch government data holders and regularly mentioned as a very useful resource which speaks to its utility.
  • I enjoyed homecooking a few software tools. Early in the year I adapted my OPML booklists so they are generated directly from my own book notes. (Although the negative side effect has been I did not blog about my reading at all, which I intend to change soon) I particularly enjoyed enabling myself to post through Micropub to my various websites. Through it I can post from various sources bypassing the WordPress back-end, inluding directly from my local notes in Obsidian, and from my feedreader. Every time feels like magic despite the fact I wrote the scripts myself. I think that sense of magic stems from the reduction of friction it affords.
  • I helped the foundation I chair through a inconvenient period of administrative issues. Nothing serious in itself, but right at a moment where it did have consequences for the team, which I was able to cushion. We also extended the number of board members, laying a better fundament for the coming years.
  • The influx of many new users into the Fediverse spurred my involvement in the use and governance of Mastodon. I helped plan a governance structure for the largest Dutch instance, and intend to help out in the coming year as well. We’re building a non-profit legal entity around it, and secured initial funding for that from a source in line with that non-profit status. I enjoyed also kicking off some discussion within the Dutch forum for standards that prescribes the mandatory standards for the Dutch public sector.
  • I keynoted at BeGeo, the Belgian annual conference of the geo-information sector, at the invitation of the Belgian national geographics institute. It was fun to create the story line for it, as well as enjoyed the sense of traveling and meeting with a professional community I’m normally not part of. It’s the type of thing I often did for years, and I miss it I noticed. Something to look out for in the coming months.
  • My company had a great year, apart from a hick-up after the summer, to the occasion of which the team rose fantastically. We grew despite that hick-up, adding two new team members in May and September, and signed an additional new hire in December. As of February we will be ten people. The work we’re doing is highly interesting, around digital ethics, data governance mostly, engaging new clients frequently. Our team is a great group of people, and I think we all take good care of eachother. We completed the 11th year of my company which I think is already an amazing run. For next year our portfolio is already mostly filled.
  • During the pandemic lock-downs in 2021 we hired cabins for all team members at a holiday park to work and hang out together for a week while maintaining social distancing advice. We realised we wanted to do that yearly regardless of pandemics, and did so in 2021 again. It’s an important thing for both the social and professional dimensions of our company.
  • I took my homecooked projects as the starting point for a presentation at WordCamp Netherlands to plead for more general adoption of IndieWeb principles, specifically webmention and microformats in WordPress which met with good responses and helped spur on at least one coder to finish and publish a plugin. I’m mostly a boundary spanner in these settings, at the edge of communities, in this case the WordPress community, and being able to bring a story and suggestions for change into a commmunity from another context and see it getting a response is something I enjoy.
  • Seeing Y grow and thrive, in school, socially, reading, swimming, skating.
  • Decided to join my old fraternity on their 30th anniversary trip to Montenegro, and am glad I did. Montenegro is a beautiful and rugged country.
  • I’ve been writing in this space continuously for twenty years now. Even if my writing here in the past few months has been less frequent, an expression of how busy it was in other aspects of my life, blogging has been a constant and a key to creating new conversations, connections, ideas and experiments.
  • I explored new tools to integrate in my personal workflow, like annotating with Hypothes.is, using machine translation (DeepL) and AI text and image generators. This as starting point for turning them into personal software tools in future months.

We spent some days around New Year in Switzerland, visiting dear friends. As years go by, such things become more important, never less. The simple fact of time passing means old friendships carry ever more context and meaning.

Ever onwards! (After having the first week of January off and spending it with the three of us that is.)

E and Y discussing artworks in the Rijksmuseum Twenthe. A great way to spend time together.