Recently I have been named the new chairman of the board of the Open State Foundation. This is a new role I am tremendously looking forward to take up. The Open State Foundation is the leading Dutch NGO concerning government transparency, and over the past years they’ve both persistently and in a very principled way pursued open data and government transparency, as well as constructively worked with government bodies to help them do better. Stef van Grieken, the chairman stepping down, has led the Open State Foundation board since it came into existence. The Open State Foundation is the merger of two earlier NGO’s, The New Voting (Het Nieuwe Stemmen) foundation of which Stef was the founder, and the Hack the Government (Hack de Overheid) collective.

Hack de Overheid emerged from the very first Dutch open government barcamp James Burke, Peter Robinett and I organised in the spring of 2008. The second edition in 2009 was the first Hack de Overheid event. My first open data project that same spring was together with James Burke and Alper Çuğun, both part of Hack de Overheid then and providing the tech savvy, and me being the interlocutor with the Ministry for the Interior, to guide the process and interpret the civil servant speak to the tech guys and vice versa. At the time Elsevier (a conservative weekly) published an article naming me one of the founders of Hack de Overheid, which was true in spirit, if technically incorrect.

In the past year and a half I had more direct involvement with the Open State Foundation than in the years between. Last year I did an in-depth evaluation of the effectiveness and lasting impact of the Open State Foundation in the period 2013-2017 and facilitated a discussion about their future, at the request of their director and one of their major funders. That made me appreciate their work in much richer detail than before. My company The Green Land and Open State Foundation also encounter each other on various client projects, giving me a perspective on the quality of their work and their team.

When Stef, as he’s been working in the USA for the past years, indicated he thought it time to leave the board, it coincided with me having signalled to the Open State Foundation that, if there ever was a need, I’d be happy to volunteer for the board. That moment thus came sooner than I expected. A few weeks ago Stef and I met up to discuss it, and then the most recent board meeting made it official.

Day to day the Open State Foundation is run by a very capable team and director. The board is an all volunteer ‘hands-off’ board, that helps the Open State Foundation guard its mission and maintain its status as a recognised charity in the Netherlands. I’m happy that I can help the Open State Foundation to stay committed to their goals of increasing government transparency and as a consequence the agency of citizens. I’m grateful to Stef, and the others that in the past decade have helped Open State Foundation become what it is now, from its humble beginnings at that barcamp in the run-down pseudo-squat of the former Volkskrant offices, now the hipster Volkshotel. I’m also thankful that I now have the renewed opportunity to meaningfully contribute to something I in a tiny way helped start a decade ago.

Jonathan Gray has published an article on Data Worlds, as a way to better understand and experiment with the consequences of the datafication of our lives. The article appeared in Krisis, an open access journal for contemporary philisophy, in its latest edition dealing with Data Activism.

Jonathan Gray writes

The notion of data worlds is intended to make space for thinking about data as more than simply a representational resource, and the politics of data as more than a matter of liberation and protection. It is intended to encourage exploration of the performative capacities of data infrastructures: what they do and could do differently, and how they are done and could be done differently. This includes consideration of, as Geoffrey Bowker puts it, “the ways in which our social, cultural and political values are braided into the wires, coded into the applications and built into the databases which are so much a part of our daily lives”

He describes 3 ‘data worlds’, and positions them as an instrument intended for practical usage.

The three aspects of data worlds which I examine below are not intended to be comprehensive, but illustrative of what is involved in data infrastructures, what they do, and how they are put to work. As I shall return to in the conclusion, this outline is intended to open up space for not only thinking about data differently, but also doing things with data differently. The test of these three aspects is therefore not only their analytical purchase, but also their practical utility.

Those 3 worlds mentioned are

  1. Data Worlds as Horizons of Intelligibility, where data is plays a role in changing what is sayable, knowable, intelligible and experienceable , where data allows us to explore new perspectives, arrive at new insights or even new overall understanding. Hans Rosling’s work with Gapminder falls in this space, and datavisualisations that combine time and geography. To me this feels like approaching what John Thackara calls Macroscopes, where one finds a way to understand complete systems and one’s own place and role in it, and not just the position of oneself. (a posting on Macroscopes will be coming)
  2. Data Worlds as Collective Accomplishments, where consequences (political, social, economic) result from not just one or a limited number of actors, but from a wide variety of them. Open data ecosystems and the shifts in how civil society, citizens and governments interact, but also big data efforts by the tech industry are examples Gray cites. “Looking at data worlds as collective accomplishments includes recognising the role of actors whose contributions may otherwise be under-recognised.
  3. Data Worlds as Transnational Coordination, in terms of networks, international institutions and norm setting, which aim to “shape the world through coordination of data“. In this context one can think of things like IATI, a civic initiative bringing standardisation and transparency to international aid globally, but also the GDPR through which the EU sets a new de-facto global standard on data protection.

This seems at first reading like a useful thinking tool in exploring the consequences and potential of various values and ethics related design choices.

(Disclosure: Jonathan Gray and I wore both active in the early European open data community, and are co-authors of the first edition/iteration of the Open Data Handbook in 2010)

Playing politically on base emotions has consequences. Choice of words has consequences. It does not make the fear mongers and populists directly or criminally responsible, but it does come with moral responsibilities. If you consistently fan emotional flames you do bear moral responsibility for the resulting sparks and ‘singular unconnected’ fires. What British radio host James O’Brien says in the fragment embedded above about the UK, is as much true in Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, Poland, Austria etc. I share his deep frustration.

The arsonists walk among us pretending to bring common sense and empathy, because “one should be allowed to say this after all, and high-time too”. They don’t go by the names of Schmitz or Eisenring, but it doesn’t take Max Frisch to point them out. The arsonists walk among us pretending it is some mythical Other that will take “what is Ours” and who will burn our house and institutions down. The arsonists walk among us, luring us with reactionary nostalgia for a country and a time that has never existed. It will be those arsonists however that end up setting things alight, not any ‘Other’.

The question is how much of a Herr Biedermann I will be, you will be, we will be, before we learn to send the arsonists packing.

Do we even know anymore how to do that?

The Burning of the houses of Parliament, October 16, 1834 by Turner
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, Oct 16 1834, by J M W Turner. Image by Pete Jelliffe, CC-BY-SA