The Open Knowledge Foundation Comes of Age

The Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) was launched just over seven years ago: May 24th 2004: The Open Knowledge Foundation was launched today with explicit objectives to promote the openness of all forms of knowledge where knowledge is taken to...


The Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) was launched just over seven years ago:

May 24th 2004: The Open Knowledge Foundation was launched today with explicit objectives to promote the openness of all forms of knowledge where knowledge is taken to include information, data and all other synonymous terms. In particular

To promote freedom of access, creation and dissemination of knowledge.

To develop, support and promote projects, communities and tools that foster and facilitate the creation, access to and dissemination of knowledge.

To campaign against restrictions both legal and non-legal on the creation, access to and dissemination of knowledge.

I've been following the Open Knowledge Foundation for some years: I'm on its Advisory Board, and talked at its conference last year. So it's not as if I haven't been watching its development, but even I was surprised when I attended this year's conference in Berlin as its guest to speak once more.

Two things seem to have happened. First, the Open Knowledge Foundation itself seems to have gone up a level. Where before it was a fairly, er, select band of UK open data enthusiasts working diligently behind the scenes, now it appears to have spread its wings across the world. There are OKF chapters opening up in several countries, and it was highly symbolic that this year's conference was held in Berlin, not London.

According to a post on the conference from my fellow OKF advisory board member Peter Murray-Rust, there were around 400 people attending, and I can believe it. During the two days that I was there, the whole conference building was a-buzz with people, conversations and ideas. Compared to the somewhat more sedate gatherings that I'd attended before, it seemed a different world – and that's great news.

It also had an extremely impressive and varied roster of speakers, including well-known names like Richard Stallman, Brewster Kahle (of WAIS, Alexa,, The Wayback Machine fame), and the artisit/activist Nina Paley (disclosure: she kindly gave me a signed copy of her cartoon book "Misinformation Wants to be Free".)

The other major change that became evident to me in Berlin was that open data has really arrived and entered the mainstream. That was reinforced by two presentations, one from Nigel Shadbolt, Information Advisor to the Prime Minister (along with Tim Berners-Lee), the other from Andrew Stott, until recently the UK government's Director for Digital Engagement.

Both their talks brought home just how far open data has come in the UK – not least thanks to the efforts of them and their hugely-professional teams. I really think this is one of the few areas where it can be said that the UK is leading, although it remains to be seen whether that can be maintained in the face of worldwide interest in learning from its experiences, and perhaps taking the ideas even further.

And if you think that open data is rather tame stuff, I invite you to take a look at OpenCorporates. Here's how its creator, Chris Taggart, who was also speaking in Berlin, describes it:

a new website and service that's launched today to build an open database of the corporate world, and that's why we've imported all 3.8m UK companies (including dissolved ones), and have a web page (with a URL made up of their company number) for every one. And that's why we're importing the companies from other countries too

And here are some of the things that lets you do:

once you start to add information the separate parts of government hold on companies, you can do all sorts of things, such as show:

the companies that supply the UK government and are now in administration

or those that have environmental statements and have had Health & Safety Executive Notices issued against them?

or how many Fishing & Fish Farming companies does the government buy services from? (answer: one, and it's the Duchy of Cornwall Oyster Farm Ltd)

Clearly, open data allows all kinds of important but non-obvious information to emerge in the corporate world, just as it does in the realm of government. Initiatives like OpenCorporates are typical of the kind of thing that the tireless work of the Open Knowledge Foundation has made possible, and show how the open data revolution has only just started. Indeed, in a way, open data for government is the easy part – after all, we've all paid for this stuff. Open data applied to corporates promises to be much more contentious – and likely to be resisted increasingly as more is put online.

And as you might expect, all kinds of resources from the Berlin conference are becoming available. There's already a page with the conference Proceedings online, although this certainly isn't complete (I haven't sent mine yet....). I think there are also plans to put up videos of all or most of the talks, since they were recorded throughout the conference.

In a post later this week I'll be saying a little about my own talk, which picked up on a number of ideas that I've been writing about on this blog for some time.

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