Category Archives: Open Knowledge Foundation

Putting Open at the Heart of the Digital Age

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I’m Rufus Pollock.

In 2004 I founded a non-profit called Open Knowledge

The mission we set ourselves was to open up all public interest information – and see it used to create insight that drives change.

What sort of public interest information? In short, all of it. From big issues like how our government spends our taxes or how fast climate change is happening to simple, everyday, things like when the next bus is arriving or the exact address of that coffee shop down the street.

For the last decade, we have been pioneers and leaders in the open data and open knowledge movement. We wrote the original definition of open data in 2005, we’ve helped unlock thousands of datasets. And we’ve built tools like CKAN, that powers dozens of open data portals, like in the US and in the UK. We’ve created a network of individuals and organizations in more than 30 countries, who are all working to make information open, because they want to drive insight and change.

But today I’m not here to talk specifically about Open Knowledge or what we do.

Instead, I want to step back and talk about the bigger picture. I want to talk to you about digital age, where all that glitters is bits, and why we need to put openness at its heart.

Gutenberg and Tyndale

To do that I first want to tell you a story. Its a true story and it happened a while ago – nearly 500 years ago. It involves two people. The first one is Johannes Gutenberg. In 1450 Gutenberg invented this: the printing press. Like the Internet in our own time, it was revolutionary. It is estimated that before the printing press was invented, there were just 30,000 books in all of Europe. 50 years later, there were more than 10 million. Revolutionary, then, though it moved at the pace of the fifteenth century, a pace of decades not years. Over the next five hundred years, Gutenberg’s invention would transform our ability to share knowledge and help create the modern world.

The second is William Tyndale. He was born in England around 1494, so he grew up in world of Gutenberg’s invention.

Tyndale followed the classic path of a scholar at the time and was ordained as a priest. In the 1510s, when he was still a young man, the Reformation still hadn’t happened and the Pope was supreme ruler of a united church across Europe. The Church – and the papacy – guarded its power over knowledge, forbidding the translation of the bible from Latin so that only its official priests could understand and interpret it.

Tyndale had an independent mind. There’s a story that he got into an argument with a local priest. The priest told him:

“We are better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.”

Tyndale replied:

“If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the scriptures than you!”

What Tyndale meant was that he would open up the Bible to everyone.

Tyndale made good on his promise. Having fled abroad to avoid persecution, between 1524 and 1527 he produced the first printed English translation of the Bible which was secretly shipped back to England hidden in the barrels of merchant ships. Despite being banned and publicly burnt, his translation spread rapidly, giving ordinary people access to the Bible and sowing the seeds of the Reformation in England.

However, Tyndale did not live to see it. In hiding because of his efforts to liberate knowledge, he was betrayed and captured in 1534. Convicted of heresy for his work, on the 6th October 1536, he was strangled then burnt at the stake in a prison yard at Vilvoorden castle just north of modern day Brussels. He was just over 40 years old.


So let’s fast forward now back to today, or not quite today – the late 1990s.

I go to college and I discover the Internet.

It just hit me: wow! I remember days spent just surfing around. I’d always been an information junkie, and I felt like I’d found this incredible, never-ending information funfair.

And I got that I was going to grow up in a special moment, at the transition to an information age. We’d be living in this magical world, where the the main thing we create and use – information – could be instantaneously and freely shared with everyone on the whole planet.

But … why Openness

So, OK the Internet’s awesome …

Bet you haven’t heard that before!

BUT … – and this is the big but.

The Internet is NOT my religion.

The Internet – and digital technology – are not enough.

I’m not sure I have a religion at all, but if I believe in something in this digital age, I believe in openness.

This talk is not about technology. It’s about how putting openness at the heart of the digital age is essential if we really want to make a difference, really create change, really challenge inequity and injustice.

Which brings me back to Tyndale and Gutenberg.

Tyndale revisited

Because, you see, the person that inspired me wasn’t Gutenberg. It was Tyndale.

Gutenberg created the technology that laid the groundwork for change. But the printing press could very well have been used to pump out more Latin bibles, which would then only have made it easier for local priests to be in charge of telling their congregations the word of God every Sunday. More of the same, basically.

Tyndale did something different. Something so threatening to the powers that be that he was executed for it.

What did he do? He translated the Bible into English.

Of course, he needed the printing press. In a world of hand-copying by scribes or painstaking woodcut printing, it wouldn’t make much difference if the Bible was in English or not because so few people could get their hands on a copy.

But, the printing press was just the means: it was Tyndale’s work putting the Bible in everyday language that actually opened it up. And he did this with the express purpose of empowering and liberating ordinary people – giving them the opportunity to understand, think and decide for themselves. This was open knowledge as freedom, open knowledge as systematic change.

Now I’m not religious, but when I talk about opening up knowledge I am coming from a similar place: I want anyone and everyone to be able to access, build on and share that knowledge for themselves and for any purpose. I want everyone to have the power and freedom to use, create and share knowledge.

Knowledge power in the 16th century was controlling the Bible. Today, in our data driven world it’s much broader: it’s about everything from maps to medicines, sonnets to statistics. Its about opening up all the essential information and building insight and knowledge together.

This isn’t just dreaming – we have inspiring, concrete examples of what this means. Right now I’ll highlight just two: medicines and maps.

Example: Medicines

Everyday, millions of people around the world take billions of pills, of medicines.

Whether those drugs actually do you good – and what side effects they have – is obviously essential information for researchers, for doctors, for patients, for regulators – pretty much everyone.

We have a great way of assessing the effectiveness of drugs: randomized control trials in which a drug is compared to its next best alternative.

So all we need is all the data on all those trials (this would be non-personal information only – any information that could identify individuals would be removed). In an Internet age you’d imagine that that this would be a simple matter – we just need all the data openly available and maybe some way to search it.

You’d be wrong.

Many studies, especially negative ones, are never published – the vast majority of studies are funded by industry who use restrictive contracts to control what gets published. Even where pharmaceutical companies are required to report on the clinical trials they perform, the regulator often keeps the information secret or publishes it as 8,000 page PDFs each page hand-scanned and unreadable by a computer.

If you think I’m joking I’ll give just one very quick example which comes straight from Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma. In 2007 researchers in Europe wanted to review the evidence on a diet drug called rimonabant. They asked the European regulator for access to the original clinical trials information submitted when the drug was approved. For three years they were refused access on a variety of grounds. When they did get access this is what they got initially – that’s right 60 pages of blacked out PDF.

We might think this was funny if it weren’t so deadly serious: in 2009, just before the researchers finally got access to the data, rimonabant was removed from the market on the grounds that it increased the risk of serious psychiatric problems and suicide.

This situation needs to change.

And I’m happy to say something is happening. Working with Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Pharma, we’ve just started the OpenTrials project. This will bring together all the data, on all the trials and link it together and make it open so that everyone from researchers to regulators, doctors to patients can find it, access it and use it.

Example: Maps

Our second example is maps. If you were looking for the “scriptures” of this age of digital data, you might well pick maps, or, more specifically the geographic data on which they are built. Geodata is everywhere: from every online purchase to the response to the recent earthquakes in Nepal.

Though you may not realize it, most maps are closed and proprietary – you can’t get the raw data that underpins the map, you can’t alter it or adapt it yourself.

But since 2004 a project called OpenStreetMap has been creating a completely open map of the planet – raw geodata and all. Not only is it open for access and reuse use the database itself is collaboratively built by hundreds of thousands of contributors from all over the world.

What does this mean? Just one example. Because of its openness OpenStreetMap is perfect for rapid updating when disaster strikes – showing which bridges are out, which roads are still passable, what buildings are still standing. For example, when a disastrous earthquake struck Nepal in April this year, volunteers updated 13,199 miles of roads and 110,681 buildings in under 48 hours providing crucial support to relief efforts.

The Message not the Medium

To repeat then: technology is NOT teleology. The medium is NOT the message – and it’s the message that matters.

The printing press made possible an “open” bible but it was Tyndale who made it open – and it was the openness that mattered.

Digital technology gives us unprecedented potential for creativity, sharing, for freedom. But they are possible not inevitable. Technology alone does not make a choice for us.

Remember that we’ve been here before: the printing press was revolutionary but we still ended up with a print media that was often dominated by the few and the powerful.

Think of radio. If you read about how people talked about it in the 1910s and 1920s, it sounds like the way we used to talk about the Internet today. The radio was going to revolutionize human communications and society. It was going to enable a peer to peer world where everyone can broadcast, it was going to allow new forms of democracy and politics, etc. What happened? We got a one way medium, controlled by the state and a few huge corporations.

Look around you today.

The Internet’s costless transmission can – and is – just as easily creating information empires and information robber barons as it can creating digital democracy and information equality.

We already know that this technology offers unprecedented opportunities for surveillance, for monitoring, for tracking. It can just as easily exploit us as empower us.

We need to put openness at the heart of this information age, and at the heart of the Net, if we are really to realize its possibilities for freedom, empowerment, and connection.

The fight then is on the soul of this information age and we have a choice.

A choice of open versus closed.

Of collaboration versus control.

Of empowerment versus exploitation.

Its a long road ahead – longer perhaps than our lifetimes. But we can walk it together.

In this 21st century knowledge revolution, William Tyndale isn’t one person. It’s all of us, making small and big choices: from getting governments and private companies to release their data, to building open databases and infrastructures together, from choosing apps on your phone that are built on open to using social networks that give you control of your data rather than taking it from you.

Let’s choose openness, let’s choose freedom, let’s choose the infinite possibilities of this digital age by putting openness at its heart.

Thank you.

Open Knowledge appoints Pavel Richter as new CEO

I am delighted to announce we have found the newest member of the Open Knowledge team: Pavel Richter joins us as our new CEO!

Pavel Richter

Pavel’s appointment marks a new chapter in the development of Open Knowledge, which, over the last ten years, has grown into one of the leading global organisations working on open data and open knowledge in government, research, and culture.

Pavel has a rich and varied background including extensive time both in business and in the non-profit sector. In particular, Pavel brings his experience from over five years as the Executive Director of Wikimedia Deutschland: under his leadership, it grew to more than 70 staff, an annual budget of nearly 5 million Euros, and initiated major new projects such as Wikidata. Pavel’s engagement follows an extensive international search, led by a team including members of the Board of Directors as well as a Community Representative.

Personally, I am delighted and excited to welcome Pavel as CEO. This appointment represents an important step in the development of Open Knowledge as an organisation and community. Over the last decade, and especially in the last five years, we have achieved an immense amount.

Going forward one of our most important opportunities – and challenges – will be to forge and catalyse a truly global movement to put openness at the heart of the information age. Pavel’s experience, insight and passion make him more than equal to this task and I am thrilled to be able to work with him, and support him, as he takes on this role.

Thank You to Our Outgoing CEO

This is a joint blog post by Open Knowledge CEO Laura James and Open Knowledge Founder and President Rufus Pollock.

In September we announced that Laura James, our CEO, is moving on from Open Knowledge and we are hiring a new Executive Director.

From Rufus: I want to express my deep appreciation for everything that Laura has done. She has made an immense contribution to Open Knowledge over the last 3 years and has been central to all we have achieved. As a leader, she has helped take us through a period of incredible growth and change and I wish her every success on her future endeavours. I am delighted that Laura will be continuing to advise and support Open Knowledge, including joining our Advisory Council. I am deeply thankful for everything she has done to support both Open Knowledge and me personally during her time with us.

From Laura: It’s been an honour and a pleasure to work with and support Open Knowledge, and to have the opportunity to work with so many brilliant people and amazing projects around the world. It’s bittersweet to be moving on from such a wonderful organisation, but I know that I am leaving it in great hands, with a smart and dedicated management team and a new leader joining shortly. Open Knowledge will continue to develop and thrive as the catalyst at the heart of the global movement around freeing data and information, ensuring knowledge creates power for the many, not the few.

A Data Revolution that Works for All of Us

Many of today’s global challenges are not new. Economic inequality, the unfettered power of corporations and markets, the need to cooperate to address global problems and the unsatisfactory levels of accountability in democratic governance – these were as much problems a century ago as they remain today.

What has changed, however – and most markedly – is the role that new forms of information and information technology could potentially play in responding to these challenges.

What’s going on?

The incredible advances in digital technology mean we have an unprecedented ability to create, share and access information. Furthermore, these technologies are increasingly not just the preserve of the rich, but are available to everyone – including the world’s poorest. As a result, we are living in a (veritable) data revolution – never before has so much data – public and personal – been collected, analysed and shared.

However, the benefits of this revolution are far from being shared equally.

On the one hand, some governments and corporations are already using this data to greatly increase their ability to understand – and shape – the world around them. Others, however, including much of civil society, lack the necessary access and capabilities to truly take advantage of this opportunity. Faced with this information inequality, what can we do?

How can we enable people to hold governments and corporations to account for the decisions they make, the money they spend and the contracts they sign? How can we unleash the potential for this information to be used for good – from accelerating research to tackling climate change? And, finally, how can we make sure that personal data collected by governments and corporations is used to empower rather than exploit us?

So how should we respond?

Fundamentally, we need to make sure that the data revolution works for all of us. We believe that key to achieving this is to put “open” at the heart of the digital age. We need an open data revolution.

We must ensure that essential public-interest data is open, freely available to everyone. Conversely, we must ensure that data about me – whether collected by governments, corporations or others – is controlled by and accessible to me. And finally, we have to empower individuals and communities – especially the most disadvantaged – with the capabilities to turn data into the knowledge and insight that can drive the change they seek.

In this rapidly changing information age – where the rules of the game are still up for grabs – we must be active, seizing the opportunities we have, if we are to ensure that the knowledge society we create is an open knowledge society, benefiting the many not the few, built on principles of collaboration not control, sharing not monopoly, and empowerment not exploitation.

Announcing a Leadership Update at Open Knowledge

Today I would like to share some important organisational news. After 3 years with Open Knowledge, Laura James, our CEO, has decided to move on to new challenges. As a result of this change we will be seeking to recruit a new senior executive to lead Open Knowledge as it continues to evolve and grow.

As many of you know, Laura James joined us to support the organisation as we scaled up, and stepped up to the CEO role in 2013. It has always been her intention to return to her roots in engineering at an appropriate juncture, and we have been fortunate to have had Laura with us for so long – she will be sorely missed.

Laura has made an immense contribution and we have been privileged to have her on board – I’d like to extend my deep personal thanks to her for all she has done. Laura has played a central role in our evolution as we’ve grown from a team of half-a-dozen to more than forty. Thanks to her commitment and skill we’ve navigated many of the tough challenges that accompany “growing-up” as an organisation.

There will be no change in my role (as President and founder) and I will be here both to continue to help lead the organisation and to work closely with the new appointment going forward. Laura will remain in post, continuing to manage and lead the organisation, assisting with the recruitment and bringing the new senior executive on board.

For a decade, Open Knowledge has been a leader in its field, working at the forefront of efforts to open up information around the world and and see it used to empower citizens and organisations to drive change. Both the community and original non-profit have grown – and continue to grow – very rapidly, and the space in which we work continues to develop at an incredible pace with many exciting new opportunities and activities.

We have a fantastic future ahead of us and I’m very excited as we prepare Open Knowledge to make its next decade even more successful than its first.

We will keep everyone informed in the coming weeks as our plans develop, and there will also be opportunities for the Open Knowledge community to discuss. In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you have any questions.

Candy Crush, King Digital Entertainment, Offshoring and Tax

Sifting through the King Entertainment F-1 filing with the SEC for their IPO (Feb 18 2014) I noticed the following in their risk section:

The intended tax benefits of our corporate structure and intercompany arrangements may not be realized, which could result in an increase to our worldwide effective tax rate and cause us to change the way we operate our business. Our corporate structure and intercompany arrangements, including the manner in which we develop and use our intellectual property and the transfer pricing of our intercompany transactions, are intended to provide us worldwide tax efficiencies [ed: for this I read – significantly reduce our tax-rate by moving our profits to low-tax jurisdictions …]. The application of the tax laws of various jurisdictions to our international business activities is subject to interpretation and also depends on our ability to operate our business in a manner consistent with our corporate structure and intercompany arrangements. The taxing authorities of the jurisdictions in which we operate may challenge our methodologies for valuing developed technology or intercompany arrangements, including our transfer pricing, or determine that the manner in which we operate our business does not achieve the intended tax consequences, which could increase our worldwide effective tax rate and adversely affect our financial position and results of operations.

It is also interesting how they have set up their corporate structure going “offshore” first to Malta and then to Ireland (from the “Our Corporate Information and Structure” section):

We were originally incorporated as Limited in September 2002, a company organized under the laws of England and Wales. In December 2006, we established Midasplayer International Holding Company Limited, a limited liability company organized under the laws of Malta, which became the holding company of Limited and our other wholly-owned subsidiaries. The status of Midasplayer International Holding Company Limited changed to a public limited liability company in November 2013 and its name changed to Midasplayer International Holding Company p.l.c. Prior to completion of this offering, King Digital Entertainment plc, a company incorporated under the laws of Ireland and created for the purpose of facilitating the public offering contemplated hereby, will become our current holding company by way of a share-for-share exchange in which the existing shareholders of Midasplayer International Holding Company p.l.c. will exchange their shares in Midasplayer International Holding Company p.l.c. for shares having substantially the same rights in King Digital Entertainment plc. See “Corporate Structure.”

Here’s their corporate structure diagram from the “Corporate Structure” section (unfortunately barely readable in the original as well …). As I count it there are 19 different entities with a chain of length 6 or 7 from base entities to primary holding company.

Northern Mariana Islands Retirement Fund Bankruptcy

Back on April 17 2012 the Northern Mariana Islands Retirement Fund attempted to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 11. There was some pretty interesting reading in their petition for bankruptcy including this section (para 10) which suggests some pretty bad public financial management (emphasis added): “Debtor has had difficulty maintaining healthy funding levels due to […]

Open Data Maker Night London No 3 – Tuesday 16th July

The next Open Data Maker Night London will be on Tuesday 16th July 6-9pm (you can drop in any time during the evening). Like the last two it is kindly hosted by the wonderful Centre for Creative Collaboration, 16 Acton Street, London.

Look forward to seeing folks there!


Open Data Maker Nights are informal events focused on “making” with open data – whether that’s creating apps or insights. They aren’t a general meetup – if you come, expect to get pulled into actually building something, though we won’t force you!


The events usually have short introductory talks about specific projects and suggestions for things to work on – it’s absolutely fine to turn up knowing nothing about data or openness or tech as, there’ll an activity for you to help and someone to guide you in contributing!

Organize your own!

Not in London? Why not organize your own Open Data Maker night in your city? Anyone can and it’s easy to do – find out more » – update no. 1

This is the first of regular updates on Labs project and summarizes some of the changes and improvements over the last few weeks.

1. Refactor of site layout and focus.

We’ve done a refactor of the site to have stronger focus on the data. Front page tagline is now:

We’re providing key datasets in high quality, easy-to-use and open form

Tools and standards are there in a clear supporting role. Thanks to all the suggestions and feedback on this and welcome more - we’re still iterating.

2. Pull request data workflow

There was a nice example of the pull request data workflow being used (by a complete stranger!):

3. New datasets

For example:

Looking to contribute data check out the instructions and the outstanding requests:

4. Tooling

5. Feedback on standards

There’s been a lot of valuable feedback on the data package and json table schema standards including some quite major suggestions (e.g. substantial change to JSON Table Schema to align more closely with JSON Schema - thx to jpmckinney)

Next steps

There’s plenty more coming up soon in terms of data and the site and tools.

Get Involved

Anyone can contribute and its easy – if you can use a spreadsheet you can help!

Instructions for getting involved here:

Update on – a URL for every part of Government

This is an update on - a Labs project whose aim is to provide a “URL for every part of Government”: is a database and website of “Public Bodies” – that is Government-run or controlled organizations (which may or may not have distinct corporate existence). Examples would include government ministries or departments, state-run organizations such as libraries, police and fire departments and more.

We run into public bodies all the time in projects like OpenSpending (either as spenders or recipients). Back in 2011 as part of the “Organizations” data workshop at OGD Camp 2011, Labs member Friedrich Lindenberg scraped together a first database and site of “public bodies” from various sources (primarily FoI sites like WhatDoTheyKnow, FragDenStaat and AskTheEU).

We’ve recently redone the site converting the sqlite DB to simple flat CSV files:

The site itself is now super-simple flat-files hosted on s3 (build code here). Here’s an example of the output:

The simplicity of CSV for data plus simple templating to flat-files is very attractive. There are some drawbacks such as changes to primary template resulting in a full rebuild and upload of ~6k files so, especially as the data grows, we may want to look into something a bit nicer but for the time being this works well.

Next Steps

There’s plenty that could be improved e.g.

  • More data - other jurisdictions (we only cover EU, UK and Germany) + descriptions for the bodies (this could be a nice crowdcrafting app)
  • Search and Reconciliation (via nomenklatura)
  • Making it easier to submit corrections or additions

The full list of issues is on github here:

Help is most definitely wanted! Just grab one of the issues or get in touch