We’ve packed up the household for a month in Lucca, Tuscany this July with a week in Switzerland before it, and a short stay in Switzerland after it.

More relaxation and sabbatical than working in a different environment this time, so in that sense different from previous month long moves to Copenhagen and Cambridge or other extended working stays in Berlin, Helsinki and Switzerland.

A lot has happened, and is happening, to us and our close relatives on both sides of the family, making it a challenging year. So some extended time to be together with the two of us is something I was looking forward to a lot. At the same time I hope to be able to do some reflection, research and writing as well, in the hours where it’s too hot to venture out anyway. Before heading out to explore and enjoy Tuscany more, as I’ve never visited this area.

Half-way stop: Switzerland
The first week we spent halfway to Lucca, in Switzerland. Staying with dear friends in their home on Lake Zug, Elmine took it easy, while I spent most of my time working.

Walchwil breakfast view. Bbq in Walchwil
View on Lake Zug, and welcoming bbq

Swiss open data conference
Monday was spent on creating two presentations, one on open data as an instrument for policy implementation, one on the economic and organizational rationale for a national data infrastructure of ‘core registers’ such as the Netherlands and Denmark have, and others are currently exploring. Tuesday afternoon I took a train to the Swiss capital Bern for an early bird and speaker’s dinner with the organizers of the Opendata.CH conference. A lovely dinner at the bank of the river Aare. We were just underneath the Swiss parliament building perched on the edge of the higher lying old inner city, in a bend of the river. People were swimming in the river, letting the stream transport them before walking back upriver to jump in again.

Swimming in Aare river (Bern) Bern Opendata.ch
People swimming in the Aare, Opendata.ch banner

The Opendata.ch conference took place for the 4th time this year (I spoke there in 2012 as well), at the University of Bern. Over 200 people ignored the sweltering summer heat and sat in stuffy lecturing halls to discuss opening Swiss government data together. In the morning I gave a keynote where I asked how come we are still meeting like this, to encourage and convince? Why is the visibility of impact so fragmented? After which I proceeded with how starting from a (policy) goal, mobilizing stakeholders with open data leads to more easily visible impact. At the same time also creating intrinsic government motivation to keep publishing open data, as it becomes a valuable policy instrument. It seems the presentation went over well, getting a mention in the press.

The afternoon was given over to workshops. Together with my Swiss colleague André Golliez and with Alessia Neroni (Bern Univ for Applied Sciences) we hosted a workshop on building a national data infrastructure around core registers. I presented the experiences we made in Denmark (research done by colleague Marc) and Netherlands, as well as touching upon France (link to a opinion piece I wrote) and other countries. The Swiss current situation was very well described by Alain Buogo (Deputy director at Swisstopo) and Bertrand Loison (board member of the Swiss statistical office). This was the first such discussion in Switzerland and one I hope to continue.

After the conference I returned to Walchwil by train, joining three board members of the Swiss open data community until Zurich.

C360_2015-07-02-15-41-07-643_org Zürich Hardbrücke
Street art and shipping container shops in Hardbrücke

The next day I traveled to Zurich again to talk more with André Golliez, meeting at the Impact Hub, an international oriented co-working space in one of the spans of a railway viaduct, in the hipster dominated Hardbrücke area. We planned some next steps for our collaboration, which likely will see me return late next month for more meetings. Then we moved next door to pub and music podium Bogen F (viaduct span F), for the 60th birthday party of André, as well as the launch of his new open data consultancy. It was a good opportunity to meet some of his family, friends and professional peers. The relaxed bbq, and some wheat beers, made my German slip into a stronger Austrian accent (where I learned it as a kid), to the amusement of the Swiss.

Zürich Hardbrücke Zürich Hardbrücke
At Kultur Viadukt Bogen F

Open Data Barometer
Friday was spent mostly in conference calls while gazing out over Lake Zug. In the morning working with Aleksandar in Belgrade on the Serbian open data readiness assessment (see recent posting), and in the afternoon taking a deep dive into the methodology behind the W3C Open Data Barometer. The research for the 2015 edition is starting now, and me and my colleague Frank are doing the research for six countries (Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium and Netherlands). In the evening we had a leisurely dinner at the lakeside, in restaurant Engel.

Off to Lucca, but first…
We had originally planned to drive to Lucca on Saturday but traffic and weather predictions suggested to do otherwise. So instead we met up with our dear friends Hans and Mirjam, who moved to Switzerland 18 months ago, for a nice summer bbq. Much better to spend time in conversation than standing in a traffic jam in tropical temperatures. Sunday we then left relatively early at 8:30, cutting through the Gotthard Tunnel with ease and cruising along mostly empty Italian motorways (except for near Milano), to our destination Lucca, arriving early afternoon.

Here in Lucca, originally an Etruscan city, we were met by our kind host Enrico, who guided us to our apartment located right within the old city walls and gave us some useful tips to help us find our way around. In a renovated former nunnery we now enjoy a quiet home looking out over a garden towards the city wall, with the busiest shopping street Via Fillungo (dating from Roman times), with coffee, wine, shoes, and Italian food right in front of our doorstep. A nice basic meal at Gigi, after unpacking, finished up this first week.

Our gate in Lucca
The gate on Via Fillungo to the inner courtyard leading to our apartment

Last weekend the Cognitive Cities conference took place in Berlin. It was very well organized and a inspiring event. Over 300 participants looked at how our digital networked era and cities can co-evolve. One of the organizers, Igor Schwarzmann, approached me to speak there and we settled on Open Government as a theme: how open government might be of help for cities.
This posting is a write-up of my talk “Spice Up Your City: Just Add OpenGov“.

Spice Up Your City: Just Add OpenGov, by Ton Zijlstra

Cities are complex adaptive systems. That means there is no predictability as to how they evolve and take shape, but you can see how things, once they are there, came to be. We, as human beings, immediately recognize the patterns and structures that emerge in cities. So much so that if someone mimicks those structures and patterns, for instance with pots, pans and other kitchen utensils, we instantly associate it with city scapes.

We also intuitively know on a deep level what cities do for us, that they are serendipity hubs: a heady mix of ideas, people and resources that bounce into and off each other, making all kinds of new combinations possible. That intuition is what is worded in the REM quote. Cities, in short, are very exciting things.

Government on the other hand is mostly seen as much less exciting. And open government can be just as stale. Particularly so if you see open government as something you do for the sake of transparency. Either because you are a civil servant who thinks you need to do it for citizens. Or because you are an activist who thinks the concrete silos of government need to be cracked open so others can see what is going on inside. In both cases it is not for the sake of government or the people creating transparency itself, but for the imagined and assumed sake of unnamed ‘others’.

I however hold a different view of open government, one that comes with a lot more excitement.

First, for government itself, open government is a ‘change or die’ issue. This is, as Chris Taggart says, the wave of digital disruption hitting government that previously hit the music and publishing industries. Governments institutions and work flows are ‘business models’ from an era when the logistic costs of organizing and scaling were quite different. In the digital era trust in government, as well as its ability to act, will only survive if government opens up and enters into a much more networked way of interacting with the public. If they don’t we all will see there is no wizard behind the curtain and simply route our actions around it, like is the norm in a network where some nodes fail.

I see open government as consisting of two components: participation + open government data. Now participation in the ‘classic’ way of being consulted at the start of some policy initiative is not what will make open government exciting for citizens. However, participation is actually synonymous with life itself, being an active person in your own social environment. Urban farming is a great example of this. Inner city Detroit has no shops that sell fresh vegetables anymore, and those without cars cannot drive out to shops that do outside the city. So urban farming emerged. Now that is participation!

Open data at the same time is a rich untapped resource. Government holds enormous amounts of data about all aspects of society, to be able to execute its tasks. An EU legal framework is in place that, except when privacy and things like state security are concerned, allows citizens to get and re-use that data. Practice is not quite there yet, but ideally open data is data shared in open standards, machine readable, and comes with no legal strings attached.

Participation and open data need each other. Participation needs to be informed by data, and likewise the re-use of data lies in participation.
Together, forming open government, they make government as a platform possible, where government asks itself what type of data and information needs to be released so citizens and organizations can come up with the answers to the questions that politicians and policy makers ask. This in contrast to traditional government, where citizens and organizations ask, and politicians and civil servants are expected to come with solutions.

The place where this can be expressed best and most tangible is right in our own living environments, our cities and neighborhoods.

That is where all the things happen that matter to us directly. So you get services where you can check if a restaurant is safe and clean enough to go eat, and platforms where citizens can report issues, or discuss what is going on in there neighborhood. This way you can inform yourself and your decisions.

Using singular data sources can however lead to a pitfall, of making visualizations that are really meaningless, that do not inform at all.
Much more interesting is when multiple data sources are combined and lead to new insights. That is like us all becoming Dr Snow, who figured out the connection between cholera and water quality in London in the 19th century.

But why stop at simply informing ourselves, why not also use data to activate ourselves? Why not use data so we can undertake things again? Like the Danish findtoilet.dk which allows people with bladder problems to go out into the city again without having to fear they will not know where the nearest toilet is in case of need. Or alerts send to you when air quality predictions cross a threshold you have set yourself.

And why not go even one step further? You can start augmenting government data with your own data. Having your own sensors collect data and publish them, like the Dutch sound sensor net created by citizens, or people feeding data into Pachube.com. When government publishes data it turns out that people and organizations are willing to also release data. This is happening in international aid, as well as visible in for instance the food industry.

But you can go one more step further still. That is building your own sensors, as well as actuators. Create data, and feed data from other sources into smart devices you build. So that these devices can take actions, based on the received data. The means for building those devices are available to you in FabLabs.

In this stage, we are truly acting like we should in complex environments: data form probes, and measurement has become intervention. That way we can build much more resilient communities. Cities are the perfect platform for data in the context of action and participation. Open government is a key ingredient to spice up our cities.

It does assume one thing though: your knowledge of a problem is leading, and coding and data skills are the literacy you need and use. Not the other way around. You need intimate knowledge of the issue you are addressing.

So here’s my challenge and invitation to you, to bring open government into play in your city:

Find an issue that matters to you, that you own emotionally. Think about what data you need to address the issue. Then go to government and get that data. But realize that ‘the government’ does not exist. It consists of a multitude of organizations and bodies, and all of those are filled with people. So you just need to find one single civil servant that is willing to help you. I found my single civil servant in my city government, the guy in the blue shirt in the picture, who has been working with me and others to release data. You need to go out and find your guy in the blue shirt.

Make it real, make it matter to you, make it count. All it takes is just a little shove, to open things up.

(the conference organizers plan to make videos of the talks available soon)

At the open government data camp recently in London I gave the first of a series of lightning talks, together with Bill Roberts. I chose to address “socially open data”.
For the most part when we are discussing opening up data what open is, it is being defined in terms of technical aspects (formats etc.) and legal aspects (licensing mostly). Where social and organizational
aspects are concerned these are usually seen as part of the adoption process that comes after the release of data, and not as part of how we perceive what open data is. It is being treated as something that
is not connected to the characteristics of the data set itself.
I would like to advocate however that there are certain social aspects that need to be part of how we define ‘open data’. The reason that it is absent in current discussions is I guess because the social side of things is where it can get complex and messy. But we can make that human complexity more managable if we look at it in the scope of singular datasets. On that level it is all about adding context.
Socially open data is data that comes with contextual information, next to the right data formats and open license. Socially open data = just add context.
That context I think can be added in several ways.
Part of it is in what is part of the metadata coming with the dataset:

  • A contact person
  • An address for feedback
  • When was the data generated/collected, and when will it be updated?
  • What was the data used for within government?
  • How was the data used for its government task?
  • How was the data generated / collected?
    (those last three points will tell you a lot about the background / possibilities of a dataset)
    Other aspects have to do with making access to your data more likely:
  • Make data sets findable
  • Point to your data set often (whenever you e.g. cite/use that data yourself)
  • Do PR for your data set
  • Announce your data release in relevant community ‘hang-outs’ (on-line / off-line) of people you think might be interested
  • Add the data set to a data catalogue (like data.gov.uk)
    All these points basically say ‘if you do not make sure people know your data exists and is available, for all intent and purposes it doesn’t and it’s not.’
    And thirdly part of making data socially open is readying the environment for release:
  • Engage in dialogue with likely and emerging re-users. Make them visible if possible in the context of the data set. (this helps new re-users see the potential of the data, and turns the data set into a social object creating new connections)
  • Engage in dialogue with those that the data describes or affects. Make them visible if possible in the context of the data set. (if your data is about agriculture, talk to farmers described by the data about the way/form the data release may be helpful to themselves)
  • Make the release process of data transparent from its inception to its conclusion.
    All of these points help address all kinds of objections and obstacles that may come up when opening up data. All of those, in my experience, can not be dealt with at all on a generic level but only and straightforward in the context of specific data sets. This makes it part of what precedes data release and the data release itself, not the adoption process after release of data.
    By focusing, when defining what open data is, on just the technical and legal aspects we overlook that the needed change of mindset concerning opening government and its data up is only adressed by social aspects. If we leave that out of how we define open data, and relegate it only to what happens after the release of data that is already deemed ‘open’, and not as part of how we get to labeling data as ‘open’, we are simply not addressing the purpose of it all.
    Below are the slides I used at OGD Camp in London to convey my point.

In the presentation below, that Tim Berners Lee gave last February at the TED conference, the creator of the Web talks about what needs to come next: linked data. This is Berners-Lee’s explanation of the semantic web.

The internet used to only connect servers to eacher other. I remember how in the very late ’80s I logged onto a Unix machine at some US University to get some material from that machine using command line entries.
Berners-Lee thought it frustrating that you would find documents and files in all kinds of formats for which you might not have the right software to read it. Out of that frustration came the Web. It didn’t look all that great initially (see pic below), but it meant you could open a document from any machine, and have it link to other documents. The Web connects documents.

Early version of the CERN website.

Now he proposes to link data to eachother, much like we now link documents, and used to link servers to eachother. As the next step in the evolution of the internet.
How he imagines that you can see in the video. It needs loads of raw data however. Data that follows three rules: it is available in open formats, it has an URI, and it links to other data. Hence his call to arms: Raw Data Now!
Given the work I currently do on opening up public service information (PSI) in the Netherlands, I can only subscribe to that call. In his presentation Berners-Lee talks a bit more about what is important about opening up government data.

At the Communia Workshop (organized by the Open Knowledge Foundation) yesterday and today we talked about opening up government data sources for the wider public, so others can build their own mash-ups and applications with that data. Most of the existing examples shown were map-based one way or another. That led to some discussion, with some asking why (Google-)maps were so prominent in the examples, and why not focus on some of the other great data sources out there, and others saying that your geographic location is so central to most of what you do that maps are logically the center piece of most mash-ups, and therefore the starting point for opening up government data.

Example of a random Google-maps based representation of information: European Songfestival songs

Now of course, mobile applications are all over geo-data as well, under the collective name of location based services.
I would like to propose a slightly different approach to location based services, by looking at them as context based services (a term I also heard Felix Petersen of Nokia/Plazes use at Shift last fall). Now, your geographic location is always part of your context. But it might not be the most important part of your context in a given situation. Elements in a context are often more interesting because of their relative position to you or each other, not so much because of their absolute position. So let’s make a distinction between geographic location as an important part of my context, and maps.

For me as I write this, it is relevant to know where the nearest Tube-station is, and how far in which general direction I need to walk to get there. I don’t care where exactly on the map I am however. If I had a map, I could infer how far I need to walk etc, but if I can know directly, I do not need to know my location nor a map to see where to go.

Screenshot of Google Latitude, showing 2 contacts in Amsterdam

Also, if you look at e.g. Google’s Latitude, it is interesting to know where my friends and contacts are. But I really don’t care where exactly they are. I only really want to know when they are near me, especially when they are nearer than usual, and inversely when they are further away from me than usual. It is relevant for me to know if a friend from North America is currently in the Netherlands, as that is an opportunity to meet up, or if we happen to find ourselves in the same city or region somewhere (Dopplr is an excellent example of this, which really does not need maps). It is relevant for me, when I try to phone somebody, to know I will not be reaching them in their normal location or time zone but half a world away. It possibly leads to a different decision on how important and relevant it is to call them. But to make that revised decision I do not need to know an exact location and look them up on a map. Jaiku‘s status messages about location or availability e.g. are good enough for that. In the same way, I would be interested to know which of my LinkedIn contacts are in the same building as I am, but that does not imply I need to know where the building is, or where the other person was before (s)he entered the building.

So let’s look at context more than mapped location when it comes to building our apps and mash-ups. That will free us from our current heavy map-focus, while not ignoring the underlying importance of our geographic location to our current context. A promising example is Wikitude AR (see video), that gives you info on your immediate surroundings without resorting to maps (though it can show you a map as well)

Also it allows us to think of more context based services, moving beyond immediate geographic location.
What other factors in your context are worth considering, comparing, sharing, interacting with?