Monthly Archives: October 2011

Digital abundance, physical scarcity

This is my attempt to articulate what seems like a contradiction in our modern attitudes to the production and consumption of physical versus digital goods. It’s not new, but I often find it lurking the background of much of what I think and read about.

On the one hand, it is increasingly clear that we have begun to push the planet to its limits. We use more and more of the earth’s finite resources, plundering them faster than they can be replaced. Throughout the ages, we have been able to do this without facing negative consequences. Why replant the forest when you can go and chop down another tree? Why create new energy sources when we can continue drilling for oil? This way of thinking is deeply ingrained in our economic model. Growth relies on consumption, and the resulting environmental degradation is not easily factored in to calculation. But even as it becomes clear that the natural world can no longer be treated as abundant,, we continue to act as if it is.

On the other hand, intellectual goods – by which I mean knowledge, culture, art, music, literature – are now more abundant than ever. They have, for most of history, been bounded by the scarce physical matter which allowed their transmission from one mind to another. The production and dissemination of knowledge and literature was for a long while dependent on paper, printing presses and costly distribution chains. Music was limited first by proximity to musicians, and later, by the material format on which sound was stored. Now, with the advent of the web, the cost of a copy of a book, song or image approaches zero. Modern technology enables us to have more intellectual goods than we could ever consume in a lifetime.

And yet the prevailing economic model for the production of intellectual goods requires us to behave as if they are scarce. The ‘content’ industries – those whose products exist as particular strings of 1’s and 0’s – have to limit the supply of their product to maintain its value. If just anyone can access to the particular string of 1’s and 0’s which makes up an mp3 audio file, then the intellectual good loses its value in the marketplace. According to some, this ultimately leads to no new intellectual goods being produced in the first place, but that’s another story. In any case, this imposed scarcity is artificial in the sense that there is no technological reason why everybody cannot access those bits or run that piece of code.

In both cases, our beliefs about the value and availability of a given resource are grounded in the reality of the past. For centuries, the earth’s resources really were abundant, and the dominant attitude towards them was appropriate; it allowed human civilization to progress. Likewise, intellectual goods actually were scarce, so our consumption of them really did have to be limited. But now that the situation is reversed, our assumptions have failed to catch up. We treat our natural resources as if they are abundant, and intellectual goods as if they are scarce, when the environmental and technological realities suggest the exact opposite.

open government data camp

Open Government Data Camp 2011

open government data camp
photo by Herman Pachulke

This year’s Open Government Data Camp, hosted by the Open Knowledge Foundation, was held in Warsaw, in the incredible post-industrial Soho Factory. A gathering of open government data enthusiasts from around the world, it was a platform for sharing experiences, tracking progress and debating pressing issues for the future of the movement.

This being my first visit to an event of this kind, I was impressed by the number of attendees – apparently a significant increase on last year – as well as their diversity (although it was disappointing to see no female keynoters). I joined on the second day, which got off to a swift and serious start with keynote presentations.

Andrew Rasiej made a rousing case against ‘E-government’ and in favour of ‘WE-government’. The former implies governments delivering wasteful IT services to citizens, while the latter is about governments opening up their datasets and allowing anyone to build on top of them. Tom Steinberg’s presentation about MySociety was a perfect example of what can be achieved with this approach. Chris Taggart from OpenCorporates set a sober tone by outlining why he believes the open government data movement will probably fail. The majority of the world’s data is held by a relatively small number of companies which show no sign of opening it up, and there are too many open data projects and initiatives which are operating in silos. He concluded that with even with hard work, the odds are still stacked against the movement. Andrew Stott, (UK cabinet office’s Director of Digital Engagement) urged the audience to watch Yes, Minister, the classic British TV comedy set in the corridors of Whitehall, in order understand how ‘they’ think and the barriers to opening up data.

Nigel Shadboldt outlined a number of important developments in open data, and briefly mentioned another issue which is set to grow in importance over the next few years; that of individuals getting access to the data that companies are gathering on them. Personally I see this being manifested in two ways. The first is a government and business-led approach, along the lines of the UK government’s recently announced ‘MyData’ initiative (for which Nigel is an advisor). The idea is that companies will release their customer’s data to individuals, who then give it to third parties, who use it to create services to sell back to the customer – imagine, for instance, an app which tracks your calorie intake by analysing your supermarket purchases. The other is a bottom up, consumer-led approach, the beginnings of which we can already see in the fast-growing ‘Europe against Facebook‘ campaign, which aims to give Facebook users control over the data stored on the social networking site. It will be interesting to see whether and how these two approaches interact in the near future, and how they both relate to the open data movement.

Tom Steinberg explained how his latest project – FixMyTransport – was actually designed to ‘trick people into their first act of civic engagement’. The words ‘activism’ or ‘campaign’ don’t appear on the website, because that kind of language can often be alienating to the target audience, who just want to sort out a problem with their daily commute. The simple interface makes it very easy for a user to make a complaint. One complaint on its own have very little effect, but the site makes it very easy for individual complaints to aggregate publicly. With the support of five or more people, transport operators tend to take notice. The site is a few months old and some early successes suggest the approach could work on a large scale. I really liked the idea of enticing ordinary people with no interest in or knowledge of open data to take part by creating a really simple and attractive interface and purposefully leaving out any political language.

The enigmatically titled ‘Open… ‘ session turned out to be a somewhat philosophical discussion led by Andrew Rasiej and Nigel Shadbolt about the meaning of terms like ‘open’ and ‘public’ when applied to government data. Does data published as a PDF count as public, or does it need to be machine-readable? In a world where more and more of our information-processing is done by machines, ‘public access’ to data which can only be processed via feeble human eyes means very little. Data which has to be scraped from a website is not, Nigel suggested, good enough. Clearly, the ideal would be a presumption that ‘public’ entailed access to the data in formats which allow sophisticated manipulation rather than mere eyeball-scanning.

Generally, there seemed to be surprisingly little discussion of the Open Government Partnership (an intergovernmental initiative to secure commitments to open up government data). When it was mentioned it was often accompanied by scepticism. Although there may be problems with the approach, and it may yet turn out to be another opportunity for governments to enthuse about open data without actually doing much, I wonder if it deserves more optimistic engagement at this stage. That said, there were so many conversations going on in parallel sessions that I may have missed the more positive opinions floating around the camp.

All in all, it was a fascinating snapshot of the current state of the open government data movement. While many challenges lie ahead, the next year is sure to be interesting. I look forward to attending the next event.