Trend towards openness

As we move into 2013 there are lots of year-in-reviews and predictions for the year to come. The latter tends to be a mix of straight-line projections, hopes for what should happen, or the same wine in a new bottle. There are exceptions of course, such as the 14 big trends in 2013 from O’Reilly Radar.

One of the things that the O’Reilly’s post implicitly recognises is that predictions are more useful about trends than events. Trends can provide a basis for thinking and actions. The challenge is to understand the trend at the right level. Too granular and it almost becomes an event. Too ‘big picture’ and it lies in the obvious camp.

For example, consider the “tiny gizmo” which “the engineers at Leap Motion have invented the 3D user interface of the future. You don’t use a keyboard and mouse; you don’t even use a touch screen. You just move your fingers in the air, and, as if by magic, with zero latency and pinpoint accuracy, stuff happens on your screen.” In itself, the gizmo  is wonderful and I’d buy one when possible. However, the useful way to look at it is a trend towards virtualisation– software, hardware, interfaces, etc. This connects the dots from previous events, such as Microsoft’s Kinect controller, to draw inferences about future virtual interfaces.

But the real insight is to recognise that the trend towards virtualisation is beyond just interfaces or computing. For example, the use of dashboards to represent and control everything from governance to economic performance. Or, social media and social networking to create macro and micro virtual communities. Thinking about a trend at that level allows us to think about the benefits of virtualisation- abstracting complexity and working with representations rather than the real thing.

What is “openness”?

Before being able to look at the trend towards openness, a definition is required. That’s not easy as even the dictionary meanings are so wide. For my purposes, I’ll define openness as zero or reasonably low barriers around:

  • Availability
  • Accessibility
  • Use and re-use
  • Price
  • Non-discriminatory
  • Non-proprietary

Trail blazers

Open source software and open standards have demonstrated the possibilities of openness. They have usefully demonstrated both the benefits of openness as well as dismissing some of the myths. For example, open source software has showed it can be mainstream and that viable (but new) commercial models are possible even with openness. Open standards emphasise the use and re-use perspective as well as laying out the case for the non-discriminatory and non-proprietary components.

Open government data has now well and truly taken off, though much remains to be done. Accessibility has been a key issue. Early examples of use and re-use of government data shows promise but, perhaps more importantly, is a first small step towards the larger goal of open government.

Add to this the open Internet. Besides “permissionless innovation”, an open Internet illustrates the freedom and availability dimensions of openness as well as the possibilities from re-use. An open Internet is increasingly a necessary (but not sufficient in itself) condition for new areas of openness.

New areas of openness

Just as virtualisation is spreading from computing to higher levels of economic, social and political applications, so is openness. The trail blazers of openness described above are at the level of enablers. The trend- and the opportunities- arise from the higher level applications using openness to deliver real benefits that would have otherwise not been possible. Here’s a look at some of them.

1. Open Education

Fueled by open educational resources like MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and grassroots movements like creative commons licencing of teaching and learning materials in schools, removing all barriers to education is part of the trend towards greater openness. The Khan Academy is a highly visible example as well as a great illustration of the potential benefits.

2. Open research and science

Closely allied with open data and open education is open research. As Wikipedia puts it, “the central theme of open research is to make clear accounts of the methodology freely available via the internet, along with any data or results extracted or derived from them. This permits a massively distributed collaboration, and one in which anyone may participate at any level of the project.”

Open science is a wider, encompassing term and includes the practices and culture to publish and communicate scientific knowledge. More collaboration, more peer review, and better results. The Open Science Foundation puts it well, “The purpose of Open Science is not different from that of science itself — open science is simply proper science — reproducible, extensible, accessible.” A useful stream of open science is open health data.

3. Open journalism

Open journalism takes the idea of everyone being a potential producer (and not just a consumer) and adds in participation, collaboration, and deeper engagement. The 10 Lessons for Open Journalism from the Guardian are an excellent starting point. They go some way to dispel the myth that quality journalism cannot come from openness and that there is a difference between opinions (as in freedom of speech) and journalism.

4. Open government

This is a term that is so misused and misunderstood that it needs a separate, in-depth post. All I’ll say here is that personally I’m beginning to favour the term open governance to try and better convey my understanding of the term.

5. Open justice

While somewhat still nascent, the intent is fundamentally grounded in democracies, perhaps best described in a 1924 judgement that “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.” Open justice is a principle of the common law that proceedings ought to be open to the public, including the contents of court files and public viewing of trials. It has been visible in New Zealand with law reforms aimed at furthering open justice.

6. Open culture

Essentially a social movement, open culture celebrates the freedom to create and distribute culture by everyone. It allows culture to survive, thrive and evolve. Watch the 4 part video series Everything is a Remix or follow the work of the Creative Freedom Foundation.

Not just a fad

There are more examples of openness all around us. Think about your own interests and see how openness applies.

Given the wide impact and how far the openness trend has already spread, it isn’t a fad. Openness will slowly seep into the way we think, the way we work, and the way we live. It will change society itself. The challenges are many and the forces against openness are strong but neither of these will ultimately block the unstoppable march of openness.


One thought on “Trend towards openness

  1. Hi Vikram,

    Interesting post collating things ‘open’ from around the place.

    I have sympathy will your inclination towards ‘open governance’ instead of open government, as I’m not sure it’s now possible to reclaim the latter term from the people for whom open government = open data.

    A good post on this topic was written by Nathaniel Heller of Global Integrity, which you can find (with comments from me) here:

    I look forward to reading your piece in due course.

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