Five big ideas from the Open Knowledge Festival

17 Jul 14

This week, Big Idea Project Manager Rach Litster and Policy and Practice Director Mark Nowottny are in Berlin for the 2014 Open Knowledge Festival. Here, they report from day one of the two-day programme.
You can follow the latest from Berlin on Twitter with the hashtag #OKFest, and the handles @RestlessBigIdea, @MarkNowottny, and @RachTLitster.

OKFestThis year’s Open Knowledge Festival got off to a flying start. Well, a World Cup winning team – Germany’s first since reunification - flew in to Berlin the day before, to be precise. Against a backdrop of several hundred thousand elated German fans, Berlin’s Kulturbrauerie is host this week to almost 1,000 open knowledge practitioners and supporters, all bound by a belief that open data, used well, can drive accountability.
We’re in town to talk about and get feedback on our own Big Idea project testing the theory that if you put data in the hands of young people, they’ll use it to drive accountability. But after Day One, we’ve heard five other big ideas coming out of the open knowledge movement.

  1. Context is key. In a session on the challenges of open data, we heard first-hand examples of how dynamic contexts need adaptive implementation. Change works differently around the world, and accountability projects will only succeed where they work with, rather than against, the grain of this context.
  2. Who switched off the power? Power and politics matter deeply. A session - facilitated by Ben Taylor (Twaweza) and Duncan Edwards (Making All Voices Count) – explored the interaction between data and power, and had participants recounting their own personal experiences of power and powerlessness.
  3. You learn, you earn. Secretive and powerful corporations work together and learn from each other, our keynote speaker told us. So the open knowledge movement badly needs to step up how it exchanges learning on what works well. A session on “transparent cities” explored how Jakarta, Amsterdam and Chennai are learning from each other about how to be successful at being “open”. We need more creative hubs for learning like this.
  4. The tent is getting bigger. Throughout the festival, people have been talking about the mushrooming of the open knowledge movement. There are lots of tech and data guys - and yes, it’s mainly guys - in the room, but also now impressive numbers from other worlds. But if we’re serious about inclusion and broadening the coalition beyond experts, the principles and ideas are going to need to be communicated well and resonate with what matters to rural young people living in the global South – the kind we work with.
  5. Courage, courage, courage. Sometimes you can achieve a healthy “critical friend” relationship between civil society and power holders. But it’s not always that easy. We heard about accountability activists who are putting their lives at risk for their work and staring down libel suits and pressure from powerful corporates as they champion transparency and anti-corruption. Patrick Alley from Global Witness, giving the keynote, encouraged participants not to be deterred: backed with the right evidence and the right approach, it’s important to be bold and not give up if the going gets tough.

So, lots of food for thought. On Thursday, there’s likely to be much more. But it also strikes us that these five learnings – context, understanding of power, putting learning at the centre, inclusivity, and courage to speak truth to power – are all principles which truly underpin what we’re trying to do with the Big Idea.
If you’re at the Open Knowledge Festival, we’ll be getting together during the UnFestival open space at 13:00 to talk about the Big Idea. We’d particularly love to get some help, input and technical expertise from those who are at the Festival and looking to share their skills.

You can also read Mark’s Flash Interview with the Engine Room, who are live blogging the event, here.

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