Last week I had the pleasure to attend and to speak at the annual FOSS4G conference. This gathering of the community around free and open source software in the geo-sector took place in Bonn, in what used to be the German parliament. I’ve posted the outline, slides and video of my keynote already at my company’s website, but am now also crossposting it here.

Speaking in the former German Parliament
Speaking in the former plenary room of the German Parliament. Photo by Bart van den Eijnden

In my talk I outlined that it is often hard to see the real impact of open data, and explored the reasons why. I ended with a call upon the FOSS4G community to be an active force in driving ethics by design in re-using data.

Impact is often hard to see, because measurement takes effort
Firstly, because it takes a lot of effort to map out all the network effects, for instance when doing micro-economic studies like we did for ESA or when you need to look for many small and varied impacts, both socially and economically. This is especially true if you take a ‘publish and it will happen’ approach. Spotting impact becomes much easier if you already know what type of impact you actually want to achieve and then publish data sets you think may enable other stakeholders to create such impact. Around real issues, in real contexts, it is much easier to spot real impact of publishing and re-using open data. It does require that the published data is serious, as serious as the issues. It also requires openness: that is what brings new stakeholders into play, and creates new perspectives towards agency so that impact results. Openness needs to be vigorously defended because of it. And the FOSS4G community is well suited to do that, as openness is part of their value set.

Impact is often hard to see, because of fragmentation in availability
Secondly, because impact often results from combinations of data sets, and the current reality is that data provision is mostly much too fragmented to allow interesting combinations. Some of the specific data sets, or the right timeframe or geographic scope might be missing, making interesting re-uses impossible.
Emerging national data infrastructures, such as the Danish and the Dutch have been creating, are a good fix for this. They combine several core government data sets into a system and open it up as much as possible. Think of cadastral records, maps, persons, companies, adresses and buildings.
Geo data is at the heart of all this (maps, addresses, buildings, plots, objects), and it turns it into the linking pin for many re-uses where otherwise diverse data sets are combined.

Geo is the linking pin, and its role is shifting: ethics by design needed
Because of geo-data being the linking pin, the role of geo-data is shifting. First of all it puts geo-data in the very heart of every privacy discussion around open data. Combinations of data sets quickly can become privacy issues, with geo-data being the combinator. Privacy and other ethical questions arise even more now that geo-data is no longer about relatively static maps, but where sensors are making many more objects as well as human beings objects on the map in real time.
At the same time geo-data is becoming less visible in these combinations. ‘The map’ is not neccessarily a significant part of the result of combining data sets, just a catalyst on the way to get there. Will geo-data be a neutral ingredient, or will it be an ingredient with a strong attitude? An attitude that aims to actively promulgate ethical choices, not just concerning privacy, but also concerning what are statistically responsible combinations, and what are and are not legal steps in getting to an in itself legal result again? As with defending openness itself, the FOSS4G community is in a good position to push the ethical questions forward in the geo community as well as find ways of incorporating them directly in the tools they build and use.

The video of the keynote has been published by the FOSS4G conference organisers.

Openness as bridge to societal impact from The Green Land / Ton Zijlstra

Last week I had the pleasure to do a little ‘German tour’ speaking in Stuttgart and in Bonn. In Stuttgart I told a similar story as I did earlier this year in Vienna on the European Distance and E-learning Network conference (EDEN), about how our SME was introduced to social software (by me in early 2004) and how slowly the tools as well as the design notions behind them found their way into our working routines and into our professional vision towards dealing with the collecting, processing and sharing of information in an increasingly networked world of complex knowledge work.

The presentation seemed to go over pretty well, even though in the beginning I raced through it at too high speed. After me Karsten Ehms of Siemens recounted, as he did at EDEN, his story of how internal blogging has become available to all 450.000 Siemens employees world wide. It is always good to meet Karsten, and for the second time it proved very interesting to contrast my story from an SME background with his story from a large international corporate background.

After Stuttgart I made a bit of a detour towards Bonn, staying over in Nürnberg at Sebastian Fiedler‘s place, before travelling up north together. During the pleasant train ride, through the hills of Franconia, and on the fall foliage covered banks of the Rhine we prepared the ProWalk workshop we were to host at the 2nd International Media Informatics Symposium. There I also met up with Marc Smith again, of Microsoft Research.

We dubbed our workshop ProWalk because we wanted to more or less use the BlogWalk format, but then in a more professional setting, and as part of the ProLearn EU-project. The subtitle of the conference was CowPaths: Agency in Social Software, and was a good choice I think. It emphasizes the bottom-up nature of the effects Social Software has, and how it builds on our actual behaviour in stead of our planning.

Even though the workshop attracted only a small number of people, it was a very interesting session. With almost as much nationalities as participants and diverse backgrounds, the discussion stayed rich in perspectives. It also was a good opportunity to notice that Sebastian and I work very well together in such a setting. I already knew that from our BlogWalk series, but this of course was a bit different in context. Something to try and do more often. Rumour has it there might be a chance to do a next installment of the ProWalk in Spain. If that happens we will reintroduce the walk-part, which we left out in Bonn due to time constraints. Impressions and transcriptions of the session can be found in the BlogWalk wiki-space under ProWalk Bonn. There you will also find a few links to the other participants and their reflection on the session.

Windows wiki by Sebastian

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