For the UNDP in Serbia, I made an overview of existing studies into the impact of open data. I’ve done something similar for the Flemish government a few years ago, so I had a good list of studies to start from. I updated that first list with more recent publications, resulting in a list of 45 studies from the past 10 years. The UNDP also asked me to suggest a measurement framework. Here’s a summary overview of some of the things I formulated in the report. I’ll start with 10 things that make measuring impact hard, and in a later post zoom in on what makes measuring impact doable.

While it is tempting to ask for a ‘killer app’ or ‘the next tech giant’ as proof of impact of open data, establishing the socio-economic impact of open data cannot depend on that. Both because answering such a question is only possible with long term hindsight which doesn’t help make decisions in the here and now, as well as because it would ignore the diversity of types of impacts of varying sizes known to be possible with open data. Judging by the available studies and cases there are several issues that make any easy answers to the question of open data impact impossible.

1 Dealing with variety and aggregating small increments

There are different varieties of impact, in all shapes and sizes. If an individual stakeholder, such as a citizen, does a very small thing based on open data, like making a different decision on some day, how do we express that value? Can it be expressed at all? E.g. in the Netherlands the open data based rain radar is used daily by most cyclists, to see if they can get to the rail way station dry, better wait ten minutes, or rather take the car. The impact of a decision to cycle can mean lower individual costs (no car usage), personal health benefits, economic benefits (lower traffic congestion) environmental benefits (lower emissions) etc., but is nearly impossible to quantify meaningfully in itself as a single act. Only where such decisions are stimulated, e.g. by providing open data that allows much smarter, multi-modal, route planning, aggregate effects may become visible, such as reduction of traffic congestion hours in a year, general health benefits of the population, reduction of traffic fatalities, which can be much better expressed in a monetary value to the economy.

2 Spotting new entrants, and tracking SME’s

The existing research shows that previously inactive stakeholders, and small to medium sized enterprises are better positioned to create benefits with open data. Smaller absolute improvements are of bigger value to them relatively, compared to e.g. larger corporations. Such large corporations usually overcome data access barriers with their size and capital. To them open data may even mean creating new competitive vulnerabilities at the lower end of their markets. (As a result larger corporations are more likely to say they have no problem with paying for data, as that protects market incumbents with the price of data as a barrier to entry.) This also means that establishing impacts requires simultaneously mapping new emerging stakeholders and aggregating that range of smaller impacts, which both can be hard to do (see point 1).

3 Network effects are costly to track

The research shows the presence of network effects, meaning that the impact of open data is not contained or even mostly specific to the first order of re-use of that data. Causal effects as well as second and higher order forms of re-use regularly occur and quickly become, certainly in aggregate, much higher than the value of the original form of re-use. For instance the European Space Agency (ESA) commissioned my company for a study into the impact of open satellite data for ice breakers in the Gulf of Bothnia. The direct impact for ice breakers is saving costs on helicopters and fuel, as the satellite data makes determining where the ice is thinnest much easier. But the aggregate value of the consequences of that is much higher: it creates a much higher predictability of ships and the (food)products they carry arriving in Finnish harbours, which means lower stocks are needed to ensure supply of these goods. This reverberates across the entire supply chain, saving costs in logistics and allowing lower retail prices across Finland. When 
mapping such higher order and network effects, every step further down the chain of causality shows that while the bandwidth of value created increases, at the same time the certainty that open data is the primary contributing factor decreases. Such studies also are time consuming and costly. It is often unlikely and unrealistic to expect data holders to go through such lengths to establish impact. The mentioned ESA example, is part of a series of over 20 such case studies ESA commissioned over the course of 5 years, at considerable cost for instance.

4 Comparison needs context

Without context, of a specific domain or a specific issue, it is hard to asses benefits, and compare their associated costs, which is often the underlying question concerning the impact of open data: does it weigh up against the costs of open data efforts? Even though in general open data efforts shouldn’t be costly, how does some type of open data benefit compare to the costs and benefits of other actions? Such comparisons can be made in a specific context (e.g. comparing the cost and benefit of open data for route planning with other measures to fight traffic congestion, such as increasing the number of lanes on a motor way, or increasing the availability of public transport).

5 Open data maturity determines impact and type of measurement possible

Because open data provisioning is a prerequisite for it having any impact, the availability of data and the maturity of open data efforts determine not only how much impact can be expected, but also determine what can be measured (mature impact might be measured as impact on e.g. traffic congestion hours in a year, but early impact might be measured in how the number of re-users of a data set is still steadily growing year over year)

6 Demand side maturity determines impact and type of measurement possible

Whether open data creates much impact is not only dependent on the availability of open data and the maturity of the supply-side, even if it is as mentioned a prerequisite. Impact, judging by the existing research, is certain to emerge, but the size and timing of such impact depends on a wide range of other factors on the demand-side as well, including things as the skills and capabilities of stakeholders, time to market, location and timing. An idea for open data re-use that may find no traction in France because the initiators can’t bring it to fruition, or because the potential French demand is too low, may well find its way to success in Bulgaria or Spain, because local circumstances and markets differ. In the Serbian national open data readiness assessment performed by me for the World Bank and the UNDP in 2015 this is reflected in the various dimensions assessed, that cover both supply and demand, as well as general aspects of Serbian infrastructure and society.

7 We don’t understand how infrastructure creates impact

The notion of broad open data provision as public infrastructure (such as the UK, Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium are already doing, and Switzerland is starting to do) further underlines the difficulty of establishing the general impact of open data on e.g. growth. The point that infrastructure (such as roads, telecoms, electricity) is important to growth is broadly acknowledged, with the corresponding acceptance of that within policy making. This acceptance of quantity and quality of infrastructure increasing human and physical capital however does not mean that it is clear how much what type of infrastructure contributes at what time to economic production and growth. Public capital is often used as a proxy to ascertain the impact of infrastructure on growth. Consensus is that there is a positive elasticity, meaning that an increase in public capital results in an increase in GDP, averaging at around 0.08, but varying across studies and types of infrastructure. Assuming such positive elasticity extends to open data provision as infrastructure (and we have very good reasons to do so), it will result in GDP growth, but without a clear view overall as to how much.

8 E pur si muove

Most measurements concerning open data impact need to be understood as proxies. They are not measuring how open data is creating impact directly, but from measuring a certain movement it can be surmised that something is doing the moving. Where opening data can be assumed to be doing the moving, and where opening data was a deliberate effort to create such movement, impact can then be assessed. We may not be able to easily see it, but still it moves.

9 Motives often shape measurements

Apart from the difficulty of measuring impact and the effort involved in doing so, there is also the question of why such impact assessments are needed. Is an impact assessment needed to create support for ongoing open data efforts, or to make existing efforts sustainable? Is an impact measurement needed for comparison with specific costs for a specific data holder? Is it to be used for evaluation of open data policies in general? In other words, in whose perception should an impact measurement be meaningful?
The purpose of impact assessments for open data further determines and/or limits the way such assessments can be shaped.

10 Measurements get gamed, become targets

Finally, with any type of measurement, there needs to be awareness that those with a stake of interest into a measurement are likely to try and game the system. Especially so where measurements determine funding for further projects, or the continuation of an effort. This must lead to caution when determining indicators. Measurements easily become a target in themselves. For instance in the early days of national open data portals being launched worldwide, a simple metric often reported was the number of datasets a portal contained. This is an example of a ‘point’ measurement that can be easily gamed for instance by subdividing a dataset into several subsets. The first version of the national portal of a major EU member did precisely that and boasted several hundred thousand data sets at launch, which were mostly small subsets of a bigger whole. It briefly made for good headlines, but did not make for impact.

In a second part I will take a closer look at what these 10 points mean for designing a measurement framework to track open data impact.

This week I am in Novi Sad for the plenary of the Assembly of European Regions. Novi Sad is the capitol of the Vojvodina, a member region, and the host for the plenary meetings of the AER.

I took part in a panel to discuss the opportunities of open data at regional level. The other panelists were my Serbian UNDP colleague Slobodan Markovic, Brigitte Lutz of the Vienna open data portal (whom I hadn’t met in years), Margreet Nieuwenhuis of the European open data portal, and Geert-Jan Waasdorp who uses open data about the European labour market commercially.

Below are the notes I used for my panel contributions:

Open data is a key building block for any policy plan. The Serbian government certainly treats it as such, judging by the PM’s message we just heard, and the same should be true for regional governments.

Open data from an organisational stand point is only sustainable if it is directly connected to primary policy processes, and not just an additional step or effort after the ‘real’ work has been done. It’s only sustainable if it means something for your own work as regional administration.

We know that open data allows people and organisations to take new actions. These by themselves or in aggregate have impact on policy domains. E.g. parents choosing schools for their children or finding housing, multimodal route planning, etc.

So if you know this effect exists, you can use it on purpose. Publish data to enable external stakeholders. You need to ask yourself: around which policy issues do you want to enable more activity? Which stakeholders do you want to enable or nudge? Which data will be helpful for that, if put into the hands of those stakeholders?

This makes open data a policy instrument. Next to funding and regulation, publishing open data for others to use is a way to influence stakeholder behaviour. By enabling them and partnering with them.
It is actually your cheapest policy instrument, as the cost of data collection is always a sunk cost as part of your public task

Positioning open data this way, as a policy instrument, requires building connections between your policy issues, external stakeholders and their issues, and the data relevant in that context.

This requires going outside and listen to stakeholders and understand the issues they want to solve, the things they care about. You need to avoid making any assumptions.

We worked with various regional governments in the Netherlands, including the two Dutch AER members Flevoland and Gelderland. With them we learned that having those outside conversations is maybe the hardest part. To create conversations between a policy domain expert, an internal data expert, and the external stakeholders. There’s often a certain apprehension to reach out like that and have an open ended conversation on equal footing. From those conversations you learn different things. That your counterparts are also professionals interested in achieving results and using the available data responsibly. That the ways in which others have shaped their routines and processes are usually invisible to you, and may be surprising to you.
In Flevoland there’s a program for large scale maintenance on bridges and water locks in the coming 4 years. One of the provincial aims was to reduce hindrance. But an open question was what constitutes hindrance to different stakeholders. Only by talking to e.g. farmers it became clear that the maintenance plans themselves were less relevant than changes in those plans: a farmer rents equipment a week before some work needs to be done on the fields. If within that week a bridge unexpectedly becomes blocked, it means he can’t reach his fields with the rented equipment and damage is done. Also relevant is exploring which channels are useful to stakeholders for data dissemination. Finding channels that are used already by stakeholders or channels that connect to those is key. You can’t assume people will use whatever special channel you may think of building.

Whether it is about bridge maintenance, archeology, nitrate deposition, better usage of Interreg subsidies, or flash flooding after rain fall, talking about open data in terms of innovation and job creation is hollow and meaningless if it is not connected to one of those real issues. Only real issues motivate action.

Complex issues rarely have simple solutions. That is true for mobility, energy transition, demographic pressure on public services, emission reduction, and everything else regional governments are dealing with. None of this can be fixed by an administration on its own. So you benefit from enabling others to do their part. This includes local governments as stakeholder group. Your own public sector data is one of the easiest available enables in your arsenal.

In the past few days I tried a second experiment to run my own Mastodon instance. Both to actually get a result, but also to learn how easy or hard it is to do. The first round I tried running something on a hosted domain. This second round I tried to get something running on a Raspberry Pi.

The Rapsberry Pi is a 35 Euro computer, making it very useful for stand-alone solutions or as a cheap hardware environment to learn things like programming.

20180923_144442Installing Debian Linux on the Rapsberry Pi

I found this guide by Wim Vanderbauwhede, which describes installing both Mastodon and Pleroma on a Raspberry Pi 3. I ordered a Raspberry Pi 3 and received it earlier this week. Wim’s guide points to another guide by on how to install Ruby on Rails and PostgresSQL on a Rapsberry Pi. The link however was dead, and that website offline. However archive.org had stored several snapshots, which I save to Evernote.

Installing Ruby on Rails went fine using the guide, as did installing PostgresSQL. Then I returned to Wim’s guide, now pointing to the Mastodon installation guide. This is where the process currently fails for me: I can’t extend the Ubuntu repositories mentioned, nor node.js.

So for now I’m stalled. I’ll try to get back to it later next week.

Last week the 2nd annual Techfestival took place in Copenhagen. As part of this there was a 48 hour think tank of 150 people (the ‘Copenhagen 150‘), looking to build the Copenhagen Catalogue, as a follow-up of last year’s Copenhagen Letter of which I am a signee. Thomas, initiator of the Techfestival had invited me to join the CPH150 but I had to decline the invitation, because of previous commitments I could not reschedule. I’d have loved to contribute however, as the event’s and even more the think tank’s concerns are right at the heart of my own. My concept of networked agency and the way I think about how we should shape technology to empower people in different ways runs in parallel to how Thomas described the purpose of the CPH150 48 hour think tank at its start last week.

For me the unit of agency is the individual and a group of meaningful relationships in a specific context, a networked agency. The power to act towards meaningful results and change lies in that group, not in the individual. The technology and methods that such a group deploys need to be chosen deliberately. And those tools need to be fully within scope of the group itself. To control, alter, extend, tinker, maintain, share etc. Such tools therefore need very low adoption thresholds. Tools also need to be useful on their own, but great when federated with other instances of those tools. So that knowledge and information, learning and experimentation can flow freely, yet still can take place locally in the (temporary) absence of such wider (global) connections. Our current internet silos such as Facebook and Twitter clearly do not match this description. But most other technologies aren’t shaped along those lines either.

As Heinz remarked earlier musing about our unconference, effective practices cannot be separated from the relationships in which you live. I added that the tools (both technology and methods) likewise cannot be meaningfully separated from the practices. Just like in the relationships you cannot fully separate between the hyperlocal, the local, regional and global, due to the many interdependencies and complexity involved: what you do has wider impact, what others do and global issues express themselves in your local context too.

So the CPH150 think tank effort to create a list of principles that takes a human and her relationships as the starting point to think about how to design tools, how to create structures, institutions, networks fits right with that.

Our friend Lee Bryant has a good description of how he perceived the CPH150 think tank, and what he shared there. Read the whole thing.

Meanwhile the results are up: 150 principles called the Copenhagen Catalogue, beautifully presented. You can become signatory to those principles you deem most valuable to stick to.

Heinz Wittenbrink, who teaches content strategy at the FH Joanneum in Graz, reflected extensively on his participation in our recent Smart Stuff That Matters unconference.
We go back since 2006 (although I think we read each others blog before), when we first met at a BarCamp in Vienna. Later Heinz kindly invited me to Graz at several occasions such as the 2008 Politcamp (a barcamp on web 2.0 and political communication), and the 2012 annual conference of the Austrian association for trainers in basic education for adults.

He writes in German, and his blogpost contains a lot to unpack (also as it weaves the history of our interaction into his observations), so I thought I’d highlight and translate some quotes here. This as I find it rather compelling to read how someone, who’s been involved in and thinking about online interaction for a long time, views the event we did in the context of his and my work. And that some of what I’m trying to convey as fundamental to thinking about tools and interaction is actually coming across to others. Even if I feel that I’ve not yet hit on the most compelling way to formulate my ideas.

Heinz starts with saying he sees my approach as a very practice oriented one.
“Ton engages on a very practical level with the possibilities of combining the personal and personal relationships with the wider contexts in which one lives, from the local community to global developments. He has a technical, pragmatic and practice oriented approach. Also he can explain to others who are not part of a digital avantgarde what he does.”

And then places the birthday unconferences we did in that context, as an extension of that practice oriented approach. Something I realise I didn’t fully do myself.

“The unconference of last week is an example of how one can do things from a highly personal motivation – like meeting friends, talking about topics you’re interested in, conversing about how you shape your new daily routines after a move – and make it easy for others to connect to that. What you find or develop you don’t keep for yourself, but is made useful for others, and in turn builds on what those others do. So it’s not about developing an overarching moral claim in a small context , but about shaping and networking one’s personal life in such a way that you collectively expand your capabilities to act. Ton speaks of networked agency. Digital networking is a component of these capabilities to act, but only embedded in networks that combine people, as well as locations and technical objects.”

Speaking about the unconference he says something that really jumps out at me.

To list the themes [….of the sessions I attended…] fails to express what was special about the unconference: that you meet people or meet them again, for whom these themes are personal themes, so that they are actually talking about their lives when they talk about them. At an unconference like this one does not try to create results that can be broadcast in abstracted formulations, but through learning about different practices and discussing them, extend your own living practice and view it from new perspectives. These practices or ways of living cannot be separated from the relationships in which and with which you live, and the relationships you create or change at such an event like this.

Seeing it worded like that, that the topics we discussed, theorised about, experimented around, are very much personal topics, and in the context of personal relationships, hits me as very true. I hadn’t worded it in quite that way myself yet. This is however exactly why to me digital networks and human networks are so similar and overlapping, and why I see your immediate context of an issue, you and your meaningful relationships as the key unit of agency. That’s why you can’t separate how you act from your relationships. And why the layeredness of household, neighbourhood, city, earth is interwoven by default, just often not taken into account, especially not in the design phase of technology and projects.

Heinz then talks about blogging, and our earlier silent assumptions that novel technology would as per default create the right results. Frank’s phrasing and Heinz’s mention of the ‘original inspiration’ to blog resonate with me.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the people I had the most intensive conversations with have been blogging for a long time. They all stuck with the original inspiration to blog. Frank in his presentation called it “to publish your own unedited voice”. The openness but also the individuality expressed in this formulation was clearly visible in the entire unconference.

For me blogging was a way of thinking out loud, making a life long habit of note taking more public. The result was a huge growth in my professional peer network, and I found that learning in this networked manner accelerated enormously. Even if my imagined audience when I write is just 4 or 5 of people, and I started blogging as a personal archive/reflection tool, I kept doing it because of the relationships it helped create.

Continuing on about the early techno-optimism Heinz says about the unconference

The atmosphere at the unconference was very different. Of the certainties of the years shortly after 2000 nothing much remains. The impulses behind the fascination of yesteryear do remain however. It’s not about, or even less about technology as it was then, it’s about smart actions in themselves, and life under current conditions. It’s about challenging what is presented as unavoidable more than producing unavoidability yourself.

Only slowly I understand that technologies are much deeper embedded in social practices and can’t be separated from them. Back then I took over Ton’s concept of ‘people centered navigation’. Through the event last week it became clearer to me what this concept means: not just a ‘right’ efficient way to use tools, but a practice that for specific needs deliberately selects tools and in doing so adapts them.

People centered navigation is not a component of better more efficient mass media, but navigating information in reference to needs and capabilities of people in localised networks. Where above all the production of media and content in dialogue with a limited number of others is relevant, not its reception by the masses. Network literacies are capabilities to productively contribute to these localised networks.

Just like practice is inseparable from our relationships, our tools are inseparable from our practices. In networked agency, the selection of tools (both technology and methods) is fully determined by the context of the issue at hand and the group of relationships doing it. As I tried to convey in 2010 in my Maker Households keynote at SHiFT and indeed at the earlier mentioned keynote I gave at Heinz’s university on basic literacy in adult learning, networked literacies are tied to your personal networks. And he’s right, the original fascination is as strong as before.

Heinz finishes with adding the work of Latour to my reading list, by his last remark.

The attempt to shape your local surroundings intelligently and to consider how you can connect them in various dimensions of networks, reminds me of the localised politics in fragile networks that Bruno Latour describes in his terrestrial manifest as an alternative to the utopies and dystopies of globalisation and closed national societies. Latour describes earth as a thin layer where one can live, because one creates the right connections and maintains them. The unconference was an experiment to discover and develop such connections.

Thank you Heinz for your reflection, I’m glad you participated in this edition.

At the Smart Stuff That Matters unconference we did an ‘anecdote circle lite’ as an introductory activity. Participants discussed in small groups about their latest move to a different house, in terms of the biggest disappointment and most pleasant surprise of living in a new house/neigbourhood/city.

While one participant talked, the others in the group would write down things that stood out for them. This served as raw input for putting together the program of the day. Below the photo of all the remarks that ended up on one of our living room windows, is the transcription of all 130+ post-its. It is unsorted and in random order. Some of the post-its read like they’d deserve their own blogpost to explore.

stm18

  • City is experienced more than the place, the place lived more than the city
  • Does smart stuff make us faster? Smart slow stuff: yoga, walk the dog, pillow, alone time, just be, mountain bike
  • Get in town by changing speed
  • Move (=1) integrating connected to social fabrics (=2)
  • turning old hous into a living space
  • material things vs digital: like e-book collection
  • segregation big city, hard to connect
  • big new build house, spoiled? comfort
  • old owners of the house had own way of doing things (and we have the implications)
  • de-smart, why needed? “Lekker zelf knoeien
  • Combination green city garden station, freedom + comfort
  • moving from big to small, small to big
  • different transitions together with moving houses
  • the fence that is permeable (privacy + see through and contact)
  • shed-own space, tinker space
  • get to know people on the street
  • there are kids in the neighbourhood, but we hardly see them
  • it is more stressful when you know more
  • physical limitations, short range, 500m
  • travel time vs family time
  • self reliance, responsibility, freedom critical
  • plants and music
  • where to find coffee
  • un-smarting, light
  • children help bring/make community
  • technology also ‘blinds’ local jewels
  • approach newcomers
  • learning from overhearing experts
  • takes meeting many potential friends to find one
  • moving to area with different culture is interesting
  • small community very comfortable
  • small talk = life blood of community
  • when do you live in a city or just use a house
  • connections matter
  • transition issues – how not to get crazy in the process
  • you don’t want to be sharks with sharks, you want to be a shark with a fish
  • expanding and contraction
  • tinkerspace
  • energy
  • interhuman connection
  • view of a green toolshed, lots of travel time for work
  • eyeglass 2016 meltdown travel
  • accessibility in the city
  • rediscovering the city when not able to walk far
  • home = your own stuff? (living together!)
  • never moved, ice damage, 2 yrs
  • segregated cultures
  • to the hague, busy, rules and fines, large differences
  • standing out from the crowd is hard
  • slow moving, gradually
  • to make friends you need to see them in new environments/situations for next level
  • big city, big street, no social cohesion
  • smalll town -> big city
  • groups stay separate
  • sharing with other people to connect -social media, -online communications, free online courses
  • smart stuff to feel home: old fashioned slow stuff
  • living in 2 places, moving without moving
  • having a group that makes you feel at home
  • yard work = meeting people
  • social fabric in neighbourhoods, how to reach eachother
  • smart vs responsibility
  • homeschooling techniques & stories
  • stm starts with people, human, after that technology
  • anti-squatting: live in a room that is not designed for it / community
  • you have to move, even when moving
  • liked a 30s-40s home, but appreciates the comfort of a brand new one.
  • house with a garden, everything around the corner. Feeling the need for less ‘smart’
  • The stuff you bring to a new home define feeling at home
  • the first move breaks you
  • MSTM14 – best travel experience
  • hired house vs bought house, changes vs stable
  • amsterdam -> borg. Wow I’m living here now, jazz musicians
  • not being at home after moving busy at work
  • staying out of algorithmic propaganda world
  • when you build a new house you have to imagine how it will turn out. You buy it ‘on paper’. Conformity=expectations of society
  • outside city -> center, old house requires a lot of work, what do you really need?
  • smart slow stuff, algoritmic propaganda world
  • house is where I am, flexible/portable housel
  • live in an ambulance
  • connecting to people in building.
  • welcoming neighbours
  • moving evolves the world (e.g. neanderthals) and your family (e.g. ancestors)
  • discovering other similar people
  • home for kids so different for parent. time/part in life
  • kids do better understanding systems
  • needs from social fabric depends on the situation
  • social needs interaction
  • rules for making friends: it’s work, you need to set out to make friends
  • being somewhere new for a month inspiration
  • home is a combination of green and the comfort of good facilities
  • freedom
  • silence
  • “central”
  • being there needs a decision
  • unpredictability is cool too
  • serendipity?!
  • bumping into people is important
  • home ~~~~~ discovery
  • erasing traces / tracks
  • understand the city depends on the way of transport
  • Airbnb is not about living only
  • how to find chemistry
  • small road to a small town with 70 people
  • childhood roots us
  • what could possibly go wrong while moving
  • transitions are key stress factors
  • 1st home physical co??? with the space
  • walk cycle go by boat
  • discovery needs slowness
  • building informal network
  • moving is losing
  • noise
  • heart vs wallet
  • right side of town
  • freedom from family
  • more development after my development
  • cats own the house
  • all the friends you haven’t made (yet)
  • via Facebook a small room in Amsterdam
  • when do you still bump into friends by accident
  • a simple light switch works better than any app
  • hack your kid: online games -no money -earn money by irl activities
  • kids: boat —> steer, morning ritual, egg timer, backlog
  • color coding, feedback, move board along
  • yes you can forbid things (hack your kid)
  • connecting with people in buiding + new intro of people living in same building
  • warmth vs energy bills
  • adapt to little negative things
  • back in the city
  • architecture influences interaction / community
  • having a house you can walk around
  • NL-Hungry->USA->Turkey->NL (neighbours) – kids running through
  • old church now serves as a community center

At our birthday unconference STM18 last week, Frank gave a presentation (PDF) on running your own website and social media tools separate from the commercial silos like Facebook, Twitter etc. Collected under the name IndieWeb (i.e. the independent web), this is basically what used to be the default before we welcomed the tech companies’ silos into town. The IndieWeb never went away of course, I’ve been blogging in this exact same space for 16 years now, and ran a personal website for just under a decade before that. For broader groups to take their data and their lives out of silos it requires however easy options out, and low-threshold replacement tools.

One of the silos to replace is Twitter. There are various other tools around, like Mastodon. What they have in common is that it’s not run by a single company, but anyone can run a server, and then they federate, i.e. all work together. So that if I am on server 128, and you are on server 512 our messages still arrive in the right spot.

I’ve been looking at running a Mastodon instance, or similar, myself for a while. Because yes, there are more Mastodon servers (I have accounts on mastodon.cloud and on mastodon.nl), but I know even less about who runs them and their tech skills, attitudes or values than I know about Twitter. I’ve just exchanged a big silo for a smaller one. The obvious logical endpoint of thinking about multiple instances or servers, is that instances should be individual, or based on existing groups that have some cohesion. More or less like e-mail, which also is a good analogy to think of when trying to understand Mastodon account names.

Ideally, running a Mastodon instance would be something you do yourself, and which at most has your household members in it. Or maybe you run one for a specific social context. So how easy is it, to run Mastodon myself.

Not easy.

I could deploy it on my own VPS. But maintaining a VPS is rather a lot of work. And I would need to find out if I run the right type of operating system and other packages to be able to do it. Not something for everyone, nor for me without setting aside some proper time.

Or I could spin up a Mastodon instance at Amazon’s server parks. That seems relatively easy to do, requiring a manageable list of mouse clicks. It doesn’t really fit my criteria though, even if it looks like a relatively quick way to at least have my own instance running. It would take me out of Twitter’s software silo, but not out of Amazon’s hardware silo. Everything would still be centralised on a US server, likely right next to the ones Twitter is using. Meaning I’d have more control over my own data, but not be bringing my stuff ‘home’.

Better already is something like Masto.host, run by a volunteer named Hugo Gameiro who’s based in Portugal. It provides ease of use in terms of running your own instance, which is good, but leaves open issues of control and flexibility.

So I’d like a solution that either can run on a package with my local hosting provider or figure out how to run it on cheap hardware like Raspberry Pi which can be connected to my home router. The latter one I’d prefer, but for now I am looking to learn how easy it is to do the former.

Mastodon and other similar tools like Pleroma require various system components my hosting provider isn’t providing, nor likely to be willing to provide. Like many other hosters they do have library of scripts you can automatically install with all the right dependencies and settings. In the section ‘social media’ it doesn’t mention Mastodon or any other ‘modern’ varity, but they do list GnuSocial and its predecessor StatusNet. GnuSocial is a script that uses the same protocols like Mastodon, OStatus and ActivityPub. So it should be able to communicate with Mastodon.

I installed it and created an account for myself (and myself as administrator). Then I tried to find ways to federate with Mastodon instances. The interface is rather dreadful, and none of the admin settings seemed to hint at anything that lies beyond the GnuSocial instance itself, no mention of anything like federation.

The interface of GnuSocial

However in my profile a button labelled “+remote” popped up. And through that I can connect to other people on other instances. Such as the people I am connected to on Mastodon already. I did that, and it nicely links to their profiles. But none of their messages show up in my stream. Even if it looks I can send messages to them from my GnuSocial instance as I can do things like @someotheruser, they don’t seem to arrive. So if I am indeed sending something, there’s no-one listening at the other end.

I did connect to others externally

And I can send messages to them, although they do not seem to arrive

So that leaves a number of things for next steps to explore. Also on Mastodon in conversation with Maarten I noticed that I need to express better what I’m after. Something for another posting. To be continued.

Last Friday we ended the Smart Stuff That Matters unconference by smashing an evil robot called Smarty. Elmine, this being her birthday party, officiated by using ‘The Unmaker’, a hammer my colleague Paul brought us. She proceeded to smash the evil robot that made angry buzzing sounds, as a representation of all the ‘wrong’ types of ‘smart’ automatisation. Smarty had been built during the afternoon workshop that Iskander Smit improvised.

As I said at the time, part of ‘smart’ is the social side of things, not just the tech side. And part of those social aspects is the frustration and rage that comes with devices and software not responding or working the way we expect them to. Elmine used the opportunity to take all that out on our evil robot Smarty with gusto.

Our event meant bringing together some 45 people. They all know at least one of us two, but mostly don’t know each other. Some type of introduction is therefore useful, but you don’t want to take much time out of the day itself for it, as often intro-rounds are dreary and meaningless exercises that sap energy and of which you don’t remember much immediately after. So we’ve aimed for our events to have a first activity that is also an intro-round, but serves a bigger purpose for the event.

Previously we’ve done 1-on-1 intro conversations that also produced a hand drawn map of connections or of skills and experiences in the group, to be re-used to find the right people for subsequent sessions. We’ve done groups of 5 to 6 to create Personas, as the first step of the design process to make something yourself. This time we settled on an idea of Elmine, to do what can best be described as Anecdote Circles Lite. Anecdote circles are a process to elicit experiences and stories from a group as they reveal implicit knowledge and insights about a certain topic (PDF). You group people together and prompt them with one or more questions that ask about specific occasions that have strong feelings attached to it. Others listen and can write down what stands out for them in the anecdote shared.

The starting point of the unconference theme ‘Smart Stuff That Matters’ was our move to Amersfoort last year. It means getting to know, find your way in, and relate to a new house, a different neighbourhood, a different city. And do that in the light of what you need to fulfill your needs to be at home and feel supported in the new environment. But in a broader light you can use the same questions to take a fresh look at your own environment, and make it ‘smarter’ in being at home and feeling supported. Our opening exercise was shaped to nudge the participants along the same path.

In my opening remarks, after singing a birthday song together for Elmine, I sketched our vision for the event much as in the previous paragraph. Then I asked all participants to find 3 or 4 others that you preferrably do not know, and find a spot in the house or garden (inviting them to explore the house/garden on their own that way too, giving them permission to do so as it were). The question to prompt conversation was “Think back to the last time you moved house, and arrived in a new environment. What was most disappointing to you about your new place/live? What was pleasantly surprising to you about your new place/live?” With those questions and pen & paper everybody was off to their first conversations.

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The thoughts and observations resulting from the intro-round

Judging by Peter’s description of it, it went well. It’s quoted here in full as it describes both the motivation for and the layeredness of the experience quite well. I take Peter’s words as proof the process worked as intended.

The second highlight is an event that preceded Oliver’s talk, the “icebreaker” part of the day that led things off. I have always dreaded the “everybody introduce yourself” part of meetings, especially meetings of diverse people whose lives inevitably seem much more interesting than my own; this, thankfully, was dispensed with, and instead we were prompted to gather with people we didn’t yet know and to talk about our best and worst moves in life.

What proceeded from this simple prompt was a rich discussion of what it’s like to live as an expat, how difficult it is to make friends as an adult, and the power of neighbourhood connections. Oliver and I were in a group with Heinz and Elja and Martyn, and we talked for almost an hour. I have no idea what any of the others in our group do for a living, but I know that Martyn mowed his lawn this week in preparation for a neighbourhood party, that Heinz lives in an apartment block where it’s hard to get to know his neighbours, and that Elja has lived in Hungary, the USA and Turkey, and has the most popular Dutch blog post on making friends.

During the event Elja shared her adagio that the best way to get to know people after moving to a new environment is to do something together (as opposed to just sitting down for coffee and conversation). It’s pleasantly recursive to see a statement like that as the result of a process designed to follow that adagio in the first place.

I will transscribe all the post-its and post (some of) it later.

Some images from previous activities-as-intro-rounds we used in previous editions:

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Persona creation / Using the hand drawn skills cards

Drawing the Sociogram

Drawing a map of connections, dubbed sociogram, between participants

In the discussions during Smart Stuff That Matters last Friday, I mentioned a longtime demand I have of social media. The ability to on my blog have different levels of access, of presenting content. But not in the shape of having accounts on my site and corresponding overhead, but more fluid like layers of an onion, corresponding to the social distance between me and a specific reader. Where I write an article, that looks different to a random reader, compared to what e.g. Peter or Frank sees. Maybe even mark-up the content in a way that controls how specific parts of a posting are visible or not. We mused if IndieAuth might be useful here as a first step, as it at least spares me from the maintenance of accounts.

Do You Have Any Diodes? ….. …. Is probably the most unlikely question I got ever asked out of the blue at a birthday party. However the answer turned out to be yes, I did have two diodes. I didn’t think I did, but taking a look in the one box I suspected might have some electronic components in them, proved me wrong.

The diodes were needed to increase the strength of the scary noises an evil robot was emitting. This evil robot was being created just outside our front door where the enormous Frysklab truck, containing a mobile FabLab, was completely filling the courtyard. Representing everything that is wrong and evil about some of the devices that are marketed as necessary for a ‘smart home’, the evil robot then got ritually smashed into pieces by Elmine, wielding a gigantic hammer, named ‘The Unmaker’ that a colleague brought with him. That was the official closing act of our unconference “Smart Stuff That Matters“.

Around all this our 40 or so guests, friends, family members, clients, colleagues, peers, were weaving a rich tapestry of conversations and deepening connections. Something that our friend Peter put into words extremely well. Elmine and I are in awe of the effort and time all who joined us have put into coming to our home and participate in our slightly peculiar way of celebrating birthdays. Birthday parties where evil robots, a hyperloop to send messages from the courtyard to the garden, mythical German bbq-sausages, friendship, philosophy, web technology, new encounters and yes diodes, are all key ingredients to help create a heady mix of fun, inspiration, connection, and lasting memories.

Thank you all so much for making it so.

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Next Friday our event takes place. With some 45 people registered to participate we have a group with diverse backgrounds again that promises lots of inspiring conversations.

It is time to explain our vision for the event, so that we all can better see how we might contribute to the program. This as we will build the program together on the day itself. This posting is to help you think of experience, stories and things you feel will be relevant for the event.

On the topic, on ‘smart’

The topic of ‘Smart Stuff That Matters’ refers to being smart in how you live in your home, are part of the social fabric of your neighbourhood, and contribute to the dynamic of your city, while aware of more global changes and issues. ‘Smart’ is both social (behaviour, routines, interaction) and technological (methods, tools, software, devices) These layers, home, neighbourhood, city, and the world, are not separate but intimately connected and fluid.

Smartness, I think, resides in the way each of us are able embrace the interdependencies between those layers, and weave their connections into a rich tapestry. Smart is using those interdependencies to fulfil individual and collective needs, and build communal benefits from individual pieces, in the full awareness of global issues. The home is embedded in both neighbourhood and city and world in turn, but at the same time the home is also a local expression point of the layers it is embedded in. Building on those interdependencies, ‘surfing’ them by continuously adapting constitutes ‘smart’, I think. In contrast early visions of ‘smart cities’ were almost only technology and security focused. It treated the people living in a city as if they were a pest to control, rather than the key to creating a smart city, and the primary beneficiaries of that smartness.

Smartness, and experiencing smartness, resides in us humans, aided by the devices and structures we create, and is inherently messy as it mixes, twists and turns, adapts and responds. It is only we who can create and sense meaning for ourselves, and the value that has to us. So it’s up to us to define what is ‘smart’ living.

On how ‘smart’ expresses itself

Many of you on the list of participants have found smart ways of dealing with things you care about. Found ways of addressing a need in your home, that creates a connection to your neighbourhood, your city or a global issue at the same time.

I wanted to measure temperature in my garden for instance, and did so as part of a city wide network that also monitors heat islands across the city, while providing at the same time infrastructure that others in the neighbourhood can use too. Peter did the same thing on PEI in Canada. Growing food in your garden can be a way to teach kids, next to providing some raw materials to your kitchen, while aiding in greening your garden allowing for better buffering of rainwater and prevent flash flooding in your city. Helping cleaning up a local park or water way like Gabriela is a good way to meet new people in your town, while reducing trash in the neighbourhood, as a small part of a global effort. Erik has experience in bringing neighbours together for a solar energy cooperative effort. Loulou created a clock that shows the time and the air quality around you, which can demonstrate. Elja lived in different countries and found ways to quickly grow some roots. Frank wants to get out of the closed silos of Facebook and Twitter, wants to own his own data, just like others present, and is finding his own route, from which we likely can learn. How is your house a meeting place, a production unit (of energy, goods, food, water, or data), how do you add to the diversity and strength of your neigbourhood, your city? How did you find out what to you could and wanted to contribute to? How did you find your way to solving your needs smartly?

On the program

To repeat myself: Smartness, and experiencing smartness, resides in us humans. It is only we who can create and sense meaning for ourselves, and the value that has to us.
That is true for the program of the unconference as well. All of us can bring experiences, stories and artefacts to discuss, compare, create and experiment.
At the start of the day we’ll take you through an exercise to both get to know the others better, as well as look deeper at ’smart’ living. This will bring out the ideas, questions and things you’d like to present something on, have a discussion about, or hear more about from others. From that we will build the program, in classic unconference format. There are several rooms (and a garden) available and multiple rounds in which we can all propose something to discuss, present, demo, make or design. We’ll plan the sessions for which there’s energy, and get going.

Three people of the Frysklab team are participating and bring their creativity, art design and programming skills to the mix. The Frysklab bus, with a mobile FabLab is available throughout Friday. This makes it possible to work with sensors and micro-electronics, and other machines when they’re useful.

How to prepare for the day

In the coming two days, before we start, maybe you will already have some ideas of what you’d like to share, discuss or do. Have look through the list of participants, to see where they come from, what they do, and what they share online about themselves. Friday when the door opens, we’ll make it a fun and inspiring day together.

Some of you asked what to bring, and how to chip in. There will be a donation box, for those who want to. We’ll probably ask you to assist with some of the food preparation. It’s Elmine’s birthday party so a hug is welcome too. Above all, bring your curiosity!

Logistics

If you come by car, please direct your navigation system to Darthuizerberg, Amersfoort. That’s a bigger parking lot, while our street is very short on parking space. From there you can walk to our house in a short time. We promised our neighbours not to take over the entire street.
Food will be served taking into account various diets (vegetarian, gluten free e.g.)

Find general info on the day, the program, the people, and how to get to, or stay in Amersfoort here. If you have any questions, do let us know.

Dutch Provinces publish open data, but it always looks like it is mostly geo-data, and hardly anything else. When talking to provinces I also get the feeling they struggle to think of data that isn’t of a geographic nature. That isn’t very surprising, a lot of the public tasks carried out by provinces have to do with spatial planning, nature and environment, and geographic data is a key tool for them. But now that we are aiding several provinces with extending their data provision, I wanted to find out in more detail.

My colleague Niene took the API of the Dutch national open data portal for a spin, and made a list of all datasets listed as stemming from a province.
I took that list and zoomed in on various aspects.

At first glance there are strong differences between the provinces: some publish a lot, others hardly anything. The Province of Utrecht publishes everything twice to the national data portal, once through the national geo-register, once through their own dataplatform. The graph below has been corrected for it.

What explains those differences? And what is the nature of the published datasets?

Geo-data is dominant
First I made a distinction between data that stems from the national geo-register to which all provinces publish, and data that stems from another source (either regional dataplatforms, or for instance direct publication through the national open data portal). The NGR is theoretically the place where all provinces share geo-data with other government entities, part of which is then marked as publicly available. In practice the numbers suggest Provinces roughly publish to the NGR in the same proportions as the graph above (meaning that of what they publish in the NGR they mark about the same percentage as open data)

  • Of the over 3000 datasets that are published by provinces as open data in the national open data portal, only 48 don’t come from the national geo-register. This is about 1.5%.
  • Of the 12 provinces, 4 do not publish anything outside the NGR: Noord-Brabant, Zeeland, Flevoland, Overijssel.

Drenthe stands out in terms of numbers of geo-data sets published, over 900. A closer look at their list shows that they publish more historic data, and that they seem to be more complete (more of what they share in the NGR is marked for open data apparantly.) The average is between 200-300, with provinces like Zuid-Holland, Noord-Holland, Gelderland, Utrecht, Groningen, and Fryslan in that range. Overijssel, like Drenthe publishes more, though less than Drenthe at about 500. This seems to be the result of a direct connection to the NGR from their regional geo-portal, and thus publishing by default. Overijssel deliberately does not publish historic data explaining some of the difference with Drenthe. (When something is updated in Overijssel the previous version is automatically removed. This clashes with open data good practice, but is currently hard to fix in their processes.)

If it isn’t geo, it hardly exists
Of the mere 48 data sets outside the NGR, just 22 (46%) are not geo-related. Overall this means that less than 1% of all open data provinces publish is not geo-data.
Of those 22, exactly half are published by Zuid-Holland alone. They for instance publish several photo-archives, a subsidy register, politician’s expenses, and formal decisions.
Fryslan is the only province publishing an inventory of their data holdings, which is 1 of their only 3 non geo-data sets.
Gelderland stands out as the single province that publishes all their geo data through the NGR, hinting at a neatly organised process. Their non-NGR open data is also all non-geo (as it should be). They publish 27% of all open non-geo data by provinces, together with Zuid-Holland account for 77% of it all.

Taking these numbers and comparing them to inventories like the one Fryslan publishes (which we made for them in 2016), and the one for Noord-Holland (which we did in 2013), the dominance of geo-data is not surprising in itself. Roughly 80% of data provinces hold is geo related. Just about a fifth to a quarter of this geo-data (15%-20% of the total) is on average published at the moment, yet it makes up over 99% of all provincial open data published. This lopsidedness means that hardly anything on the inner workings of a province, the effectivity of policy implementation etc. is available as open data.

Where the opportunities are
To improve both on the volume and on the breadth of scope of the data provinces publish, two courses of action stand open.
First, extending the availability of geo-data provinces hold. Most provinces will have a clear process for this, and it should therefore be relatively easy to do. It should therefore be possible for most provinces to get to where Drenthe currently is.
Second, take a much closer look at the in-house data that is not geo-related. About 20% of dataholdings fall in this category, and based on the inventories we did, some 90% of that should be publishable, maybe after some aggregation or other adaptations.
The lack of an inventory is an obstacle here, but existing inventories should at least be able to point the other provinces in the right direction.

Make the provision of provincial open geodata complete, embrace its dominance and automate it with proper data governance. Focus your energy on publishing ‘the rest’ where all the data on the inner workings of the province is. Provinces perpetually complain nobody is aware of what they are doing and their role in Dutch governance. Make it visible, publish your data. Stop making yourself invisible behind a stack of maps only.

(a Dutch version is available. Een Nederlandse versie van deze blogpost vind je bij The Green Land.)

We’re just over 3 weeks away from our 31 August event, the Smart Stuff That Matters unconference (#stm18).

With our summer hiatus nearing its end, I built a (still growing) list of currently registered participants. It’s a very nice mix of different backgrounds, ages, origins and interests. Some have been to our very first birthday unconference 10 years ago, others only recently became part of our personal or professional networks. Some live almost next door, some live half a world away. All have interesting stories to share, so if you haven’t registered yet but would like to come, do let me know, and bring your curiosity.

We’re now at some 30 people attending, from half a dozen countries or so. Likely we’ll end up closer to 50 participants for the unconference. Check out the list, and click some links to get a feeling for who’s coming.

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Some of the participants in the 2014 event. Photo: Paolo Valdemarin, CC-BY-NC-SA

August 31st Elmine and I host the 4th Birthday Unconference and BBQ-Party in our home in Amersfoort. The unconference is titled “Smart Stuff that Matters”.

So what is Smart, and what Matters?

A year ago we moved to Amersfoort. A different house, a different neighbourhood, a different city. The city where our daughter will grow up.

A new environment means lots of exploration. What makes a house a home? How can you smartly adapt your house to your needs? Who lives in the neighbourhood, how do you settle in it? What makes a city your city? Which existing initiatives appeal to you, and in what ways can you contribute to them?
Whether it’s a new habit, a new device in your home, your contacts and networks, or your approach: what are smart ways to act and contribute to your residence and environment so it supports you and the others in it? In the context of much wider developments and global issues, that is. Both social and technological, at home, in your neighbourhood, your city. It’s important to approach things in ways that create meaning, enable the important things, both for you and others. Smart Stuff That Matters therefore.

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Our house, in the middle of our street

A full day long we’ll explore ‘smart’ in all its facets.
Smart homes (and around the home), smart neighbourhoods, smart cities.
Socially, how do we learn, communicate, organise and share? How do we act, how do we contribute? How do we find the power of collaborative agency.
And also technologically, which technologies help us, which only pretend to do so, and are these technologies sufficiently ours?
We will have the Frysklab Team joining us again with their mobile FabLab, and have plenty of space to experiment with technology that way. Such as sensors, internet of things and programming. Or to build non-digital hacks for around the home.

Frysklab in da house!
Frysklab’s truck parked at our old home in Enschede during the previous unconference

Together we’ll explore what smart means to you and us.
Bring your small and big experiences and skills, but above all bring your curiosity, and let yourself be surprised with what the others bring.
Do you have ideas about what you’d like to show, discuss, present or do?
Have ideas about what you would like to hear from others about? Let us know! We’ll build the program together!

You’ll find all relevant information about the unconference on this site. You’re also welcome to join our Facebook group for the event.