Dr. Laura James: The Open Sesame

Laura considers the value of ‘Open’ and what it means for entrepreneurs, society, privacy and for you.

A strong believer in the value of open working, Laura talks about how the maker movement, driven in Cambridge equally by software, hardware and wider communities has brought people together in a creative space. What happened when a bunch of people who know different things get together to build a creative community space that welcomes engineers, designers, software people, artists, hobbyists and anyone who likes to play with big machines. How has this community fueled entrepreneurial activity as a result? Laura tells all in this BoS EU 2014 talk.


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Knowledge is power and we are incredibly lucky that we live in an era where every single person on the planet has the potential to access every single piece of knowledge and information that our civilization has ever created essentially free through the internet. Isn’t that amazing?

Think of the empowerment. Every citizen able to access all the information about how their government governs them from elections and legislation through budgeting and spending. Every researcher able to access the latest scientific papers and data. Everyone able to access everything they need to solve local problems like how to get into the city centre on time or global problems, the big global problems we face today like climate change and feeding billions of people.

But it’s not happening. Information is not freely available for everyone yet. We think that should change. Governments lock up the key information that citizens need to hold them to account so they can’t be held to account and corruption is rife. Academic publishers put the latest scientific and medical papers and data behind pay walls so unless you happen to be an academic in a Western university with a shitload of money you don’t have access to that stuff. If you’re in the developing world just forget it. That’s a lot of research you can’t get.

At Open Knowledge we try to make information open to everybody. To be open it’s more than just publishing on the web. If it’s published on the web you don’t know necessarily that you can use it, legally and technically. To be fully open information must be free for anyone, anywhere to use for any purpose at all. That’s really important. It’s good to be legally free. I can find a lot of information on the internet today but I don’t want to have to call up a lawyer to check that I can use this in whatever I want to do with it. It needs to technically open. It’s a right pain trying to get data out of a PDF of a poorly scanned table that was originally a CSV or Excel file. It should be open in that format so it’s easy for everyone to use.

When information is fully open like that you can do a lot of things. Everyone gets to benefit.

Just to be clear, when I say open, free for anyone, anywhere to use for any purpose. That includes commercial use. Some of you are probably thinking ah, creative commons, CC buy, NC licenses. Non-commercial licenses are not open. They’re closed. They restrict what you can do with the information. It’s vital that we can have commercial use as part of what we do with information. Partly because you want your business or whatever it is that’s using that data to be sustainable and probably means some revenue flows but also because a lot of things turn out to be commercial.

For instance, a lot of academics say, “Hey, I’m teaching. That’s non-commercial. That’s fine. I can use non-commercial license materials.” You’re wrong. If you’re teaching in the UK your students are paying thousands of pounds for that education. Don’t try saying that’s not commercial. There’s recently been a legal case in Germany, which has ruled that non-commercially licensed materials are for purely personal use only. We need to make sure that things are fully open and that anyone can use them for whatever they need.

At Open Knowledge this is what we do. We make information open and use the data to empower people. We do that three ways. Tools, skills, and communities. First of all tools. All the tools we make are open source. For instance, we produce CKAN. CKAN is the world’s leading open source data management system. It’s a tool that helps you manage information, publish it so others can access it through APIs. You can find it. You can browse the information. All sorts of stuff. It even helps people report problems in data and get them fixed up. CKAN is used in lots of places now. It really is amazing to see how a small project we started, as a non-profit organization a few years ago, is now being used by UK government, paradata.gov.uk. By the U.S. government, paradata.gov It powers the European Commission’s open data portal and numerous other data portals in national governments and elsewhere all around the world.

We also produce OpenSpending. OpenSpending is an open source platform powering the world’s largest open financial database. It contains data about government budgets and spending and contracts and millions and millions of transactions. That’s vital so you can trace what happens to your tax money. You need to know where your money goes and government’s that budget saying how they’re going to spend it. Often they use outsourcing contracts, more places where your public money goes, and eventually things are spent and you want to see the impact. Having access to that information is vital so we can find out what’s going on with our money.

All of these tools, and we have other tools as well by the way. We love CSV files and things. We have lots of tools for helping people work with data of different kinds. All these tools are useless if you haven’t got the skills to use them. We also help people work with data. We have School of Data, which is specifically targeting groups who, today, may not have great data skills. Civil society organizations, activists, journalists. Giving them the ability to use data to uncover new insights and then to bring them to public light so the world can be changed for the better.

All of this is useless if you haven’t got the information to start with and so we’re also a global network of people and it always comes down to people. People who are lobbying, campaigning, and advocating to get information released, key public information that we all need to have access to. We’re a small organization. We are 42 people distributed across four continents but we work through our community and we have community, formal bits of community, now in 45 countries. We work in an open style and I’ll be talking more about that in a bit.

So many kinds of open knowledge I can’t even begin to give you a hint of them all. Just to, sort of give a flavour, there’s some things that you probably already know. Open source software for instance. You’ve heard of OpenStreetMap. You think of Wikipedia, which is a great way of collecting together open facts. There’s also open academic research, open data around development, around aid, around sustainability, weather, and climate, data about transport, data about hardware whether that’s electronics or pacers or architecture or furniture, all kinds of things. There’s open cultural data. Beautiful works of art and music, which is now out of copyright or in the public domain. Product information. I have a Prophone, which means that I can actually trace through the information of how my Prophone is manufactured. I can get all the information about this. It’s all openly available.

We support communities’ open knowledge, work in all these different areas. It’s not always big data. Often it’s small data, which is where the real insights are and it’s insights that give people power. Sometime you just need to join two bits of data together and you get a powerful new insight. It doesn’t always have to be a giant database. Why does open information matter? What’s the value in it? These slides are auto-advancing or I’m clicking on it. Anyway. It’s all good.

Essentially, the reason you need information to be open is to give access to everybody. They’re definitely auto-advancing. It’s exciting. To give access to everyone to whatever information you’ve got because someone will find value in that data. It’s probably not the person you’d expect. It’s very easy to assume that, I can choose. I’ve got some data. I’ll give it to you and you’re going to use it for some purpose, but the best thing that will be done with your data will be thought of by someone else. You don’t know how it’s going to be used. If you have the capacity to release it you should. It’s things that you won’t expect.

Information is just like software. It breaks down into components and then you can remix it in powerful new forms.

Just a really trivial example, I may well have a map of all the bus stops in my city. I may have separately a bus timetable. It’s only when I bring the two of those together that I know when I need to leave my house to get into town. That’s remixing information and you need openness to make that happen. You need to know you can freely mix it all together.

Another reason for opening information is to make it better. Open information and the quantity of open information actually improves the quality. If you open it up people will tell you what’s wrong with it. That’s why OpenStreetMap works so well. If your information is locked away you may have lots of errors in it and you’ll never know. If you share it other people will help find bugs, which is great. It also breaks down silos. The classic example here is an open government. One government department has some data, another doesn’t have it and it’s a real pain to get it out. Sharing across government departments is dreadful but if that department opens it then everyone else gets to access it so it’s terrific for breaking down silos, particularly in big institutions like that.

I also want to briefly touch on monetary value because there is real business value in open data as well. McKinsey have a report out that says open data will realize three trillion dollars a year of additional value quite soon. That’s an awful lot of zeroes and I find that quite difficult to sort of grasp so to bring that down a report came out last week from the Emigo Network, which says that open data in G20 countries in the next five years will be able to deliver over 1% growth. Just think about that. In G20 countries they have a five-year growth target of 2%. If they all implement open data policies that are recommended today that’s over half of that growth delivered purely through open data value.

That’s releasing all kinds of data. Data about international money flows that helps cut corruption and tax evasion. It’s data about public sector contracts, which means that different government departments in public sector can shop around and get the best value for money. It’s data about trade and employment and skills and jobs and energy data and building performance data and infrastructure data and company data. How many of you have wondered who it is you’re trading with? If information about companies and their governments is fully open you can always check out who it is you’re trading with and that’s really important. Trade is based on trust.

The U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, 30 years ago opened up its data and today the U.S. has incredible, booming industry. Load of innovation happened. Forecasts, mobile apps to do with weather, websites, research, and you’ve now got a multi-billion dollar weather industry built on that open data. Open data also, in Canada, saved over three billion Canadian dollars of money when they uncovered misuse of charitable tax codes. Finally, here just in the UK. Recent research, if you check out Prescribing Analytics it’s a terrific project. Over 200 million pounds a year could be saved by using open data about just one class of prescription drugs. Open data has real power.

I should say it’s not the new oil. Let’s not get carried away and think that it’s oil because it’s not. Data is non-rivalries. That’s the whole point. I can have some data and I can share it with you and we both have access to it, which is terrific. I should also say the kind of data I’m talking about. I’m talking about public data, commoners’ data, not personal data. Personal data is something different. If you’re thinking about opening up data, if it’s got personal information in it, stop and think really hard. Now there’s something like the Census, terrific the Census is open data. It is derived from personal information but a lot of statistical thought has gone into making sure that’s it’s anonymous and it’s safe to use. Anonymization, by the way, is very hard. If you’re even thinking about it you need to get some expert help.

Let’s touch on privacy. Are you worried about privacy, about your personal data today? Anyone? Hands up. Anyone? Hands up! Okay. You are. You’re probably right to be. Information is gathered as never before by companies whether that’s you opting in, you give some information to Facebook you know you’ve done it, and by others, by companies owned by government. Particularly these days, we all know what level of surveillance many people are under. Governments are gathering data on us too. Privacy, the right to a private life is a human right. We have to fight for that. Open can help here too. Not by opening up personal information but in two really powerful ways.

Firstly, open information about what data is gathered. You should be able to find out what data organizations are holding on you. You should be able to find out open information about the terms of use of how they’re using that information. Secondly, and more importantly, openness enables you to hold organization to account. Open data about powerful institutions will help you make sure that you can hold the governments and corporations that have data about you to account. That’s vital. All these companies and governments have far more information about us than we have about them. That is wrong too. We need to be able to hold them to account and we have to restore the balance of information and power.

So, tools, communities, and skills helping build a new economy based on open information and sharing but also people. The value comes from reuse and sharing and for that you have to know what else is out there. You have to know what information there is so you can reuse that, avoid reinventing the wheel, and build new value. Build on the shoulders of the giants that have gone before. Sometimes that’s global and online and connected through the internet. That’s a lot of the work that I do at Open Knowledge. Sometimes it’s face-to-face in a room like we are here today. I’m going to see if I can get by some more slides to get where I want.

Here. This is MakeSpace.

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How many of you here would say you were an engineer?

Okay. A reasonable amount. Engineering is a superpower. It is engineers who have the capacity to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges today. Things like working out sustainable energy sources, automating agriculture so we can actually feed everybody, medical advances, all sorts of things. It comes down to engineers. If you’re an engineer you have a duty to use your power for good. One of the reasons we set up MakeSpace was to make sure we get more engineers using their engineering skills to help out. MakeSpace is Cambridge’s community inventing shed. It’s just down the road and if anyone wants a tour I’d be happy to take you round some time tomorrow.

We set this up for three reasons. We wanted to make sure more people knew about engineering and manufacturing, that they could find out that it was a skill they acquire themselves; things can be made here, not just in China, and to get people making. Secondly, we wanted to support businesses. Start-ups, of course one of my reservations for starting MakeSpace was I’ve previously been part of a hardware internet of things business and I realized I couldn’t prototype new ideas with just a laptop that I had at home. I needed more equipment. I wanted it to be a space where I could go and get hold and do some prototyping. We also support existing businesses. A local consumer electronics company has managed to shorten its product development cycle, by using MakeSpace, from 18 months to 4 months. That’s an incredible change for them. That’s because they’ve got access to lots of equipment and skills and people.

That’s the second reason is supporting businesses. The third reason is just to have a cool place to hang out and hack with other people. It’s really nice to meet others and to share ideas. MakeSpace is community run. It’s very much developed by its members. We’ve been open just over a year. If you’re a member you get 24/7 access to all kinds of workshop equipment; electronics, metalwork, woodwork, glasswork, CNC milling, 3D printing, laser cutting, we’ve got lathes, all sorts of different things, vinyl cutting, so many things. You get access to all of that plus coffee and Wi-Fi and people. It’s really exciting.

We’ve had over 400 people trained in new engineering skills in the last year alone. We’ve had a partnership with the Springboard internet of things incubators. We’ve had lots of new products prototyped in MakeSpace. It’s open. It’s an open community and it’s very much run by the community. Community members decide what equipment we should get. I’m a Director of the non-profit company that makes sure that we’ve got the legal and financial infrastructure in place but that’s all. The community runs it. It’s great. You can work on anything you want here. A lot of folks do work on open things. We’ve got a huge Raspberry Pi community, lots of open source hardware and software happening at MakeSpace but if you want to develop something there and patent it that’s fine too.

It’s another example of open community and as part of the Maker Movement it’s part of a global community working together, sharing ideas globally, but locally instantiated. Each MakerSpace, I’m sure many of you who are not from Cambridge will have a MakerSpace or HackSpace near you. You should go to it because it’s incredible. It’s a place where you’re going to meet all the other people in your area who are interested in technology and making and software and trying to make things grow and trying to make new ideas and trying to scale them as products. It’s a terrific place to meet others and get together.

Software comes in absolutely everywhere. I can point out all the bits of hardware that we have in the Space but software is so key. It’s key, my reservation for this, was internet of things stuff, which has a lot of software in it as well as hardware. It’s great because at MakeSpace we’ve got a real crucible bringing together software skills and hardware skills.

Thinking about HackSpaces. Everyone says, “Have you got a 3D printer? I want to see your 3D printer. It’s so exciting.” We actually have several 3D printers at various times. They’re not at all popular compared to the laser cutter. The reason is the laser cutter is almost continuously in use. We’re about to get a second laser cutter. It’s a huge piece of equipment. It’s brilliant. 3D printing is really tough. If you want to download something from the internet and print it you can. There’s loads of sites on the internet like Thingiverse. You can go and download your design. You can print it out. It’s actually not much fun. You’re just replicating something that already exists. For fun, you want to customize it. You want to make your own thing. 3D design software is just not there yet. 3D design hat is still really hard even for trained engineers. What we find is the laser cutter, you can do 2D design and anyone can do that. You can come in and design something, cut it and take it home. It’s yours and you made it. It’s really awesome. There’s lot of software improvements. If any of you have hat technologies please keep making it better. Make it more usable.

There’s a lot of opportunities for finding value around openness. You might share open hardware ideas but you need to have a platform that enables that sharing to occur. You might have open hardware or open software but you find value in experts, services, and consultancy around that. There are going to be lots more business models built on open sharing.

Being part of a community adds a whole different dimension to your activity and this applies both to MakeSpace and open knowledge.

It’s costs and benefits. I’m going to do the costs first. You have to engage and invest in community. You have to really put time in. Not just hurry up community manage but really putting time from every single member of your staff or your team or your volunteers, whatever you’ve got. You have to think about community. It’s another stakeholder. It adds a lot of complexity when you’ve got a community to consider in what you do. You may think you’ve got a lot of stakeholders between employees and customers and suppliers and a Board, but add community in as well it’s a whole other world.

You can’t rely on a community either. They might like what you do or not like it. They might clean the MakeSpace or they might not. We have volunteer runs. You take your chances on these things. Working openly with a community is also terrifying. With your community you’re going to open up your ideas way before they’re finished. It’s going to be a nascent idea and when you share it with people and you know that they are going to critique it because your community are probably experts more than anyone you have in-house. It’s really scary to do that. People will expect a lot of you or they’ll expect very little of you. Whatever you will do, maybe with a community, it might seem like you’re going to do it wrong. Your community may include your competition. It’s really scary to think you’re opening up and engaging in a collaboration with folks who might actually be also competing with you. Communities are very diverse. They have different interests, different passions, different goals. It’s really spooky to try to bring all that together, to cater to the right people.

You have to design around your community. You design support structure. You define the common ground, the common goals everyone in your community has or most people have and make it easier to engage with you in the way you need rather than the way that they might need so you can all pull together. You need community members to have skin in the game. Community isn’t just free stuff. You don’t just get benefits for taking part in a community. You don’t just get to ask. You have to do as well. You have rights and responsibilities. MakeSpace, it looks great now, but the community built it. It started like this when we had nothing and absolutely everything we’ve done has been done because of the community. Painting it, fitting it, plumbing it, designing it, all sorts of stuff it’s down to the community. They’ve got skin in the game and they care and they believe.

That’s where you get the benefits of working with a community. You get new ideas and reuse and all that sort of stuff and openness as well but you also get sustainability. Even if all the founder of MakeSpace went under a bus tomorrow, MakeSpace would continue to exist because it has a community of people who love it and care and are invested in it and will really continue to sweat blood to make it happen and to make is sustain.

Community brings you collaboration and mutual support. It derisks everything you do because if you put stuff out to a community and get feedback early on it reduces the risk that you work on it for a long time and then put it out and find out that it was wrong. It’s amazing. Most of all, with community you get scale. At Open Knowledge we’re just 42 people and we’re trying to change the whole world, to revolutionize every country, all kinds of areas of information. Because we have a community we can scale. We have chapters setting up in different countries. They get to together and they say, “Open knowledge. We care about that,” and they start up. They start non-profit organizations. They start lobbying their governments. They raise funds. They write software. They do all kinds of things and they do that as part of our community and so we can, as a very small organization, have a global impact, which is incredible. It’s way more fun than scaling our business to thousands of people.

Also, people always surprise you. You know, at MakeSpace you can say, “We need a sign for the door. We don’t have a sign,” and you get something really beautiful. It’s amazing. With open information and open data we get new insights that are going to help us change the world for the better. We get solutions to big problems and small problems. You’re going to need lots of things. You need tools, including a lot of software. You need skills, people to be able to use things effectively, and you need community. You need people to come together and collaborate. You get social value and empowerment that really matters. There’s a potential for huge business value as well.

Some takeaway messages for you so this is the time to focus. If you’ve all been distracted and wishing you had coffee because we’ve gone past 5:00 p.m., this is the moment. Do you have any information that you could open up, any information that could benefit people outside your organization? Think about opening it up because you’ll get a lot of benefits for opening it too. Think about how your business can benefit from other open information. Maybe it’s open today. You may already be using something like OpenStreetMap but if it’s not open there are people out there who will help you get that information opened up. If you’re sitting there wondering who you’re trading with or whether or not the government is using the right private sector contractors for its work talk to us. We’re fighting a campaign at the moment to stop secret contracting, to get public sector contracting out into the open so that small and medium sized businesses stand a chance of competing against the big boys and to stop corruption and to make sure public money, your money, your tax money, is spent as efficiently and effectively as you’d like. Particularly if you’re an IT supplier to government, you probably know lots of ways in which government could already be spending money better.

Open your mind.

Find out if you’ve got a MakeSpace or a HackSpace in your city and go to it. You’re going to find people there who know how to connect software to the real world in all kinds of ways. You might find your next recruits there. You might find your next ideas there. It’s an amazing melting pot of people so go and hang out. It’s terrific. Although I’ve talked a lot about open, the need for open knowledge, open is not an end in itself. It’s a way to improve the world and that’s why we’re doing it. Locally solving small problems and globally solving big problems. It’s not just open source software. It’s not just technical. It’s all kinds of knowledge. It’s insight and it’s empowering people around the world. We want open knowledge for the many, not for the few. Thank you.


Laura James
Laura James

Laura James

Dr Laura James is CEO of Open Knowledge, and Co-Founder of Makespace, Cambridge’s community inventing shed.

Laura was the first employee and VP Engineering at AlertMe, building a pioneering internet of things connected home system, and was Head of Knowledge at Evi.com, an AI which answers natural language questions.

The full list of her interests would fill a big website but would include: engineering, technology, innovation, product management, open data, open access, leadership, team building, computer networking, embedded systems, sensors, internet, wireless, R&D, consumer electronics, public understanding of technology, IT in higher education, libraries, sustainability, usability and user-centric design, social enterprise and non-profit organisations, makerspaces & hackspaces

Previously Laura has worked at AT&T Labs in the US and UK, and the University of Cambridge. Laura is a Chartered Engineer, holds Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Cambridge, and is an alumnus of the Royal Academy of Engineering Leadership Award and NESTA Crucible fellowship programmes.

More from Laura.

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