OKFestival 2014 Reflections

During our visit to Berlin to catch up with other Code for Europe fellows we decided to hang on for a few days and attend the Open Knowledge Festival.

Oh, if you’re not familiar with the organisation behind the event, the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN), is a non-profit organisation which advocates openness in all forms e.g. open-access, data, and content.

In attendance were government officials, academics, journalists, developers, activists, and people from non-profits just like OKFN itself. To give you an idea of what went on, I’ve written about a few of the sessions I attended below.

Open Government Data updates from around the word

This was the first session I went to. A person from each country (well- almost every country) had a few minutes to give updates. Unfortunately, the presentation space was on an open mezzanine level overseeing a large packed and buzzing hall. The result was that it was a bit of struggle to see or hear anything.

From what I could hear, it seems everyone has trouble justifying opening data but pretty much every speaker could talk about their government getting behind open data in one way or another. The vast majority talked about data portals but a few mentioned specific projects. I was quite impressed to hear about the French Open Food Facts Project, a project to help gather data and information about food products from around the world.

Tracking Supply Chains with Open Data

Crowdsourced supply chain data available on Sourcemap

This was a fascinating session. Jessi Baker, founder of the Provenance project, got us to embark on ‘data expeditions’ – dividing the audience into teams and looking out for what we could find on given products e.g. phones, shampoo, bottled water.

Jessi talked about the impressive work going on mapping and uncovering supply chains with resources like the Sourcemap project, Product Open Data, and the OKFN’s product data working group.

Despite these resources and the power of search engines, the data expeditions mainly came up short (aside from the local German tetra-packed water).  On the whole it seems product supply chain data remains painfully closed.

The UnFestival

A rather informal session, the ‘unfestival’ was a space open to anyone and everyone wanting to meet and chat about a topic of their choice. In 40 minutes I learnt about the Open Comics initiative, the Popolo Project, and the work of the Asia Foundation in opening politics in Indonesia.

As code fellows, we’re always  on the hunt for good ways to structure data and make it interoperable. The Popolo Project is exactly the sort of thing we’re after. Its goal is to author, through community consensus, international open government data specifications. That includes everything from who legislators are, their parties, motions, votes, and resolutions.


I got there a bit late, but managed to catch the Q&A with Neelie Kroes, EU commissioner for Digital Agenda. She seemed to win over an especially tough crowd – not easy when you’re being challenged to open up commissioners’ expenses!

The next keynote was from the Eric Hysen, Head of Civic Engagement at Google. Eric talked about the civic work Google have been doing. He went on to talk about the infrastructure that open data and civic applications need to really work. Not only does it need infrastructure to work in a technical sense (e.g. with accepted standards), but it needs human organisation too. You can find the slides and content of the talk on his blog post ‘Let’s build the road network of civic tech‘.

Some thoughts…

If you go to the about page of the OKFestival you’ll find the following vision and values:

Open Minds to Open Action

“This translation of Open Minds to Open Action requires going beyond conversation. It means building solid partnerships, tools and projects which last beyond the festival”

Through attending the festival I could see this was 100% on the mark. Although the vision here refers to the festival, it’s extremely relevant outside of it. We understand the technology, practice, and potential of open knowledge. Realising its full impact and potential requires shifting open knowledge out of the ‘early adopter’ space. It’s no easy task, it requires demonstrating impact and making ‘open’ meaningful.

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