In our trend analysis, produced as part of the DSI4EU project, we demonstrate how digital social innovations exhibit many overlaps and synergies with the open movement. For them, open represents one of the main drivers for participation and collaboration and innovative potential. Philosophically, both uses of digital technology are underpinned by advancing the common good above profit or other narrower interests. It readily follows from both positions that the more people who have access, the better. In practice there is strong evidence that opening up information and the innovation process to decentralised and “crowdsourced” development can lead to better results more quickly, since more people are able to contribute their expertise, and greater experimentation is possible.
DSI shows considerable potential to drive social transformation – by supporting citizens to hold their governments to account (such as decidim.org), by demonstrating the possibilities of open government data (such as abgeordnetenwatch.de, Madame Mayor I have an idea ), by developing and using open source technologies for social impact (such as Ushahidi), by facilitating collaboration (such as OpenStreetMap or Zooniverse) and by combining human intelligence with machine learning (such as Fold.it, MicroMappers or AIME). In our trend analysis, we give a broad survey of the landscape. Analysing the usage of different terms over time, we find that open knowledge and open source are the terms within the open movement with the highest traction and understand the key actors and trends in the field, along with the most promising DSI connected with it.
Throughout our analysis, it is clear that a thriving open movement is likely to have positive spillover effects on DSI. Unfortunately however, the principles of the former are increasingly coming under threat, with the rise of web censorship and internet shutdowns, government blocks on mobile apps and websites and monopolisation of data and Internet infrastructure by a handful of proprietary tech firms which, while free to use, are far from open. The dominance of big tech is like no type of monopoly ever seen before. And the open movement doesn’t seem to be able to counteract this. As a movement, composed of various sub-groups and factions, each with their own missions and values, it lacks coherence. This undermines the movement’s ability to explain to the broader population what it stands for, to advocate for policy change, and generally to gain traction in broader society beyond a committed group of experts.
A threat to the open movement means a threat to the innovative character of DSI which is why we call for effort, coordination and political and public will to fight for an open internet. We need new rules for the new digital world. We need to openly discuss the dangers of a closed digital world built on proprietary information and software and platform lock-in strategies. We need an open digital ecosystem, providing the necessary resources for DSI to exist alongside commercial services. Because only then we will likely to have the possibilities to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges in fields including education, climate change, health, and disaster relief.
DSI4EU aims to support the growth and scale of digital social innovation (DSI), tech for good and civic tech in Europe through a programme of policy, research and practical support. Find out more at digitalsocial.eu/about-the-project. DSI4EU, formally known as DSISCALE, is supported by the European Union and funded under the Horizon 2020 Programme, grant agreement no 780473.
The DSISCALE project aims to support policy makers, funders and, most importantly, practitioners to scale digital social innovation (DSI) in Europe.
In our trend research, we examine the digital trends that have the potential to strengthen DSI in the future. In the analysis “The future of the open movement for DSI”, however, we do not have to look too far into the future. Already today, open is a largely shared principle within different technological fields, such as software, data or knowledge provision. For DSI, open represents one of the main drivers for participation and collaboration and innovative potential - but the open movement is under threat. Internet censorship, concentration of data in the hands of a few companies and privacy issues are quickly rising up the agenda. Openness needs to be protected.
Given the overlaps and strong synergies between the open and DSI movements, this analysis looks at how they are supporting each other to generate social impact, and at the challenges and opportunities within this. Through this, we build a positive vision for the future, one in which a concerted effort towards more openness strengthens our overall ability to tackle complex social challenges.
We begin with a short definition of concepts within the open movement (Section 2). Following this, in order to better understand the current landscape, we look to the past and briefly cover the history of the open movement (Section 3). In Section 4, we undertake a data analysis of media content to identify the most significant current trends within the open movement. This analysis shows that open knowledge and open source are the terms within the open movement with by far the highest usage and traction, and we therefore use them to structure a more comprehensive overview and analysis of the open movement and its key actors today, along with the most promising DSI initiatives connected with it. They show considerable potential to drive social transformation – by supporting citizens to hold their governments to account, by demonstrating the possibilities of open government data, by developing and using open-source technologies for social impact, by facilitating collaboration, and by combining human intelligence with machine learning - to name just a few areas of interest.
What emerges is a compelling vision for the future of the open movement, but one which will only happen with concerted effort, coordination, and political and public will.
Climate change, social division, fallout from the digital revolution – we are facing considerable challenges that can only be tackled with new and innovative solutions. However, innovations do not arise in a vacuum, but build upon lessons from the past and the experiences, perspectives and expertise of many different groups. Innovations are never finished: they must continuously improve and benefit from the contribution of a wide range of stakeholders. That's what the open movement is all about.
“The open movement seeks to work towards solutions of many of the world’s most pressing problems in a spirit of transparency, collaboration, re-use and free access. It encompasses open data, open government, open development, open science and much more. Participatory processes, sharing of knowledge and outputs and open source software are among its key tools. The specific definition of “open” as applied to data, knowledge and content, is set out by the Open Definition.” (Open Data Handbook)
The internet is perhaps the best example of how technology and society can benefit from continuous innovation and collaboration across borders and sectors. In theory, its universal, open and distributed infrastructure should allow everyone to participate and thereby transform the Internet.
Digital Social Innovation (DSI) shows great potential for helping us think through the principles of an open Internet, from open government projects to open data labs, collaboration platforms, citizen science projects and collective intelligence (see section 5). As defined by the first DSI project, digital social innovations are “a type of social and collaborative innovation in which innovators, users and communities collaborate using digital technologies to co-create knowledge and solutions for a wide range of social needs and at a scale and speed that was unimaginable before the rise of the Internet.“
Philosophically and practically, there is much overlap and symbiosis between the open movement and the DSI movement. Philosophically, both uses of digital technology are underpinned by advancing the common good above profit or other narrower interests. It readily follows from both positions that the more people who have access, the better. Practically, there is strong evidence that opening up information and the innovation process to decentralised and “crowdsourced” development can lead to better results more quickly, since more people are able to contribute their expertise, and greater experimentation is possible. In his 2011 book Where Good Ideas Come From, writer Steven Johnson shows that breakthrough innovations do not come out of the blue, rather they typically build on and combine technologies that have already been developed and made broadly available (often within the public sector). The same logic applies to DSI: the more digital-social innovators are able to draw on what has already been developed – be it from other members of the DSI community, from the world of commercial IT, or beyond – the more able they will be to produce solutions with social impact.
In other words, a thriving open movement is likely to have positive spillover effects on DSI. Unfortunately however, the principles of the former are increasingly coming under threat, with the rise of web censorship and internet shutdowns, government blocks on mobile apps and websites and monopolisation of data and Internet infrastructure by a handful of proprietary tech firms which might be free to use, but are far from open. That’s a real threat, because only an open Internet can be a healthy Internet, as stated in the Mozilla Foundation’s Internet Health Report. In short, as the same report concludes: “The Internet is transformative because it is open: everyone can participate and innovate. But openness is not guaranteed – it’s always under attack.”
The open movement demonstrates the potential for a world where collaboration yields better, more just and more equally distributed results than competition. It shows how, by pushing for a more free and open digital society, we can cultivate a human heritage that is shared not just by a few, but jointly by many. People can join forces for bigger and smaller tasks and – just to name a few – develop new ideas, fund projects, gather and exchange knowledge, conduct joint research and help out in crisis. Technologies such as digital platforms grant us the possibility to bring people together and share knowledge like never before. The promise of extended intelligence - the combination of collaborative human intelligence and machine intelligence – is opening a new frontier for the open movement, which offers new possibilities for how we can tackle the world’s most pressing challenges in fields including education, climate change, health, and disaster relief.
The open movement encompasses a broad range of technologies, sub-movements and fields. Some of these are better established than others, and some extend far beyond the boundaries of technology. Within this analysis, we do not claim to be exhaustive; rather, we have selected a few concepts based on our data analysis and initial research findings. The table below offers definitions of each of the concepts addressed within this report. Almost all of these definitions were taken from Wikipedia, “a free online encyclopedia, created and edited by volunteers around the world and hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation” and itself probably the most successful, and definitely best-known, example of open knowledge.
Open knowledge is knowledge that is free to use, reuse, and redistribute without legal, social or technological restriction. Open knowledge is a set of principles and methodologies related to the production and distribution of how knowledge works in an open manner. Knowledge is interpreted broadly to include data, content and general information.
For further information, see Wikipedia.
The open data movement advocates for all data – not just numbers, but all information that can be digitised and analysed – to be made available to the public for free and reuse. To be able to use this data, three criteria must be met: it must be accessible (searchable), standardised (for example in the form of CSV, text or Excel document) and reusable (where it is protected by open licenses such as Creative Commons).
For further information, see the Open Data Handbook.
Open education is education without academic admission requirements. While this does not limit it to the technological world, the digital revolution has opened up new possibilities for open education online. Open education broadens access to the learning and training traditionally offered through formal education systems. The qualifier "open" refers to the elimination of barriers that can preclude both opportunities and recognition for participation in institution-based learning.
For further information see Wikipedia.
Open government is the governing doctrine which holds that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight. In its broadest construction it opposes reason of state and other considerations, which have tended to legitimise extensive state secrecy. As with open education, open government is not strictly limited to the digital world, but technology has multiplied its potential.
For further information see Wikipedia.
Open-source software is software developed through decentralised collaboration. A main principle of open-source software development is peer production, with products such as source code, blueprints, and documentation freely available to the public.
For further information see Wikipedia.
Extending beyond open-source software, open infrastructure is characterised by: configurations shared openly in a source code repository; open planning and decision making in the open; application of the open source model in how the infrastructure community is run; and application of the four freedoms to infrastructure development.
In Section 4 we will explore how these different trends compare in volume and growth over the past five years, before delving in more depth into them in Section 5. But, as mentioned at the beginning of this section, responsible, impactful and sustainable innovation will only arise if we build upon lessons from the past and the experiences of many different groups. For that reason, we must first understand the history of the open movement.
In order to understand the current state of the open movement, including how the different focus strands outlined above developed, it is worth revisiting its emergence beginning in the late-1980s. Led by Richard Stallman, the so-called “Pope of Free Software”, a community of programmers and scientists began to address the threat of more and more information becoming proprietary. They founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985 with the aim to support the free software movement and promote the universal freedom to study, distribute, create, and modify computer software. Over the years, similar groups and organisations were founded including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (1990) and the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (1999).
In the late 1990s, interest in the discussion increased markedly with recognition of Linux in mainstream publications and the release of the Netscape browser’s source code. But even though the idea was out, there was not enough support to rally against proprietary software introduced by market-dominating corporates like Microsoft. With the Netscape announcement, an opportunity arose to educate and advocate for the superiority of open development processes. At a strategy session held in February 1998, the term open source was created with the purpose of establishing an engaged community in which software users and developers could create and improve source code. The term itself was created to distinguish it from the more philosophically- and politically-charged term “free software”.
According to Mikael Rogers, a longstanding open source advocate and community manager at Node.js Foundation, the open-source community at that time was driven by a set of values (transparency, collaboration, re-use and free access of data) that people had to commit to before entering and contributing. It was also then that the term “openness” was defined, with regard to data and content:
“Open means anyone can freely access, use, modify, and share for any purpose (subject, at most, to requirements that preserve provenance and openness).”
More precisely, for information to be regarded as open, it must firstly, be accessible to everyone to use without payment. Secondly, people must be free, both technically and legally, to build upon it without restriction for their own purposes. And finally, everyone must be able to share the information, and anything built upon it, with everyone else.
This means that open source is not only restricted to free software, but also covers knowledge and information. Because of that, open source has led to the creation of many other open movements, such as open access, open content, open knowledge, open science and open data. Furthermore, with the creation of Creative Commons, a license family has been established for such free content (“free cultural works”). At a lecture at the Centre for Internet and Human Rights in 2018 Alek Tarkowski, co-founder and coordinator of Creative Commons Poland, points out that this was not only to make it easier to freely access, modify, use and share creative work made by others, but that it also was an attempt to change the outdated copyright law itself and influence legislation processes. These days, Creative Commons, together with other institutions such as Wikipedia and the Mozilla Foundation, still advocate for the values that once drove the open source community and its founding members.
So where does that leave the open movement today? As explored further below, the picture is mixed. On the one hand, the movement is bigger and more vibrant than ever before: more open code, a growing community, increasingly clear and increasingly acknowledged value. More open datasets, more open data innovation, more countries committing to open government, more open science.
But at the same time, all is not rosy. Huge amounts of data are being consolidated in the hands of very few companies. Privacy, security and safety on the internet are constant threats. The dominance of big tech is like no type of monopoly ever seen before. And, perhaps inevitably given the focus on access and participation, the open movement has no official, universal voice. As a movement, composed of various sub-groups and factions, each with their own missions and values, it lacks coherence. This undermines the movement’s ability to explain to the broader population what it stands for, to advocate for policy change, and generally to gain traction in broader society beyond a committed group of experts. As Rufus Pollock criticises: “Information politics is a term barely understood. The published manifestos of political parties scarcely mention it, and when they do it is usually only to reiterate dogmas about innovation and intellectual property rights.” This could prove to be a critical weakness, given the strength of countervailing trends towards proprietary software and a proprietary Internet.
These causes for optimism (due to great and innovative work being done) and caution (due to trends pushing us further from openness) are explored further in section 5 below. Looking back over the history of the open movement, it’s clear that its impact and value has already been immeasurably large – both directly in terms of what it has created, and indirectly by introducing and arguing for a certain set of values in the way people and society at large thinks about software. But there is a strong case that the movement will be better able to further its aims if it’s able to come together more and overcome the fragmentation which characterises it today.
With the help of data specialists TD Reply, we have analyses current trends within the open movement by looking at how often different terms have been used within the media, scientific publications, patents and expert blogs over the past five years. This analysis has shown that some trends are covered significantly more than others (open source and open knowledge); that some are growing in coverage (open source, open data and open education); and that others are decreasing in coverage (open knowledge and open government).
Within the resulting timeline (fig. 1), we can identify a number of one-off events which have resulted in peaks for particular trends. For example, open knowledge has received a lot of attention in 2016 in particular, when the EU announced plans for all publicly-funded research to be open access by 2020, and in 2017, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art gave unrestricted access to 375,000 images. Based on our analysis, open knowledge thrives on strong public advocacy and events such as the publication of large data sets, which help bring the open movement into the public discourse.
We can also see that specific events have led to an increased profile for open source technologies. In 2017, for example, GitHub released its Marketplace, while in 2018 Apple open-sourced its datastore FoundationDB. In general, there has been a growth in private companies publicly backing open source, including Microsoft since 2014 under CEO Satya Nadella.
While the open source and open knowledge trends have received great amounts of attention in recent years, the other trends rank significantly lower (see fig. 1). The low levels of coverage correspond to the levels of awareness of these trends and the engagement they receive, which in turn impacts on the ability of these trends, and open movement in general, to advance its agenda within those areas.
However, open source and open knowledge, being broader, umbrella terms, are able to convey the principles of openness in an all-encompassing way and engulf smaller, more issue-specific trends such as open education or open government.
Alongside the public coverage levels for different trends, our data analysis also illustrates how they are changing over time. Based on the SONAR trend analysis model (fig. 2), trends can be assigned to different trend stages, depending on their media coverage (volume and quality) as follows:
Overall, our data analysis shows high levels of awareness around the broad aims of the open movement, and despite a certain level of ‘churn’, with some trends spiking and then dropping repeatedly, it seems that the open movement as a whole is well established and stable. However, our analysis also revealed that we needs to push for a more nuanced understanding of the diversity of aims and scopes within the open movement and the vast array of opportunities and possible applications of its guiding principles.
This section explores the trends analysed in Section 4 in more depth, and asks: what does the landscape look like today? what are the challenges and opportunities? what is our vision for the future, and what potential does the open movement hold for tackling tomorrow’s social challenges?
Open knowledge and open source are not only the two most widely-used terms within the open movement (as shown by our analysis in Section 4), but are also umbrella terms that, to a large extent, encompass and influence the other sub-trends identified in this report. Therefore, in the following discussion, we have grouped the other trends within the open movement under these two umbrella terms.
In both areas, we see great successes and great challenges. However, we see the potential for a bright future in which openness becomes the default paradigm for the digital world. Getting there will take effort, coordination, and political and public will. In this section we hope to provide an overview of that that future might look like, and the pioneering initiatives which are helping us get there.
Open knowledge, open data and open government have gained significant traction in recent years among both established and new players. Global organisations such as the World Bank, the OECD and the UN, as well as long-established NGOs like Transparency International, have contributed to and shaped these trends alongside newer campaigning, research, advocacy and support organisations including the Web Foundation, Open Knowledge International (OKI), Open Data Institute (ODI), Open Government Partnership (OGP), Open Society Foundations (OSF), Sunlight Foundation, Open Data for Development (OD4D), GovLab, Creative Commons, International Open Data Charter and Open Contracting Partnership.
The principles behind these movements are not new: that governments should be transparent and accountable; that the results of publicly-funded work should also be public; that knowledge is a common good for humanity; that the power of several minds is better than the power of one; and that, above all, knowledge is power. With the right knowledge and the right tools to make sense of it, we are better placed to understand the world and solve our major challenges.
The advent of technology, however, has multiplied the potential of open knowledge, data and government many times over, bringing with it unimaginable steps forward in who can access, distribute, process and understand knowledge, and how this is done.
One of the most successful applications of open knowledge is crowdsourcing - using technology to amass the knowledge, wisdom and insights of the many. The most famous example of crowdsourced information is Wikipedia, but hundreds of other examples exist. Just some of these include:
Nevertheless, crowdsourcing initiatives still face challenges, including engagement and, even more so, engagement of a diverse range of people. According to the Wikimedia Foundation, for example, 80 per cent of Wikipedia contributions are made by well-educated white, English speaking men from North America and Europe, and only 10–15 per cent of Wikipedia's editors identify as women.
Elsewhere, open knowledge principles are increasingly being applied to science and research. Open science - defined by the OECD as the “unhindered access to scientific articles, access to data from public research, and collaborative research enabled by ICT tools and incentives [...] so that research outputs are at the hands of as many as possible and potential benefits are spread as widely as possible” - is now fully part of mainstream science, and has achieved significant victories. For example, the EU has named open science one of the three priority areas for research, created a dedicated Open Science Policy Platform, and mandated that from 2020 all publicly funded research must be open access.
However, as the Foster project points out, open science has become about much more than simply making research outputs openly available: it is about extending the principles of open knowledge to the whole research cycle by fostering sharing and collaboration in order to produce long-lasting and meaningful change to the way science and research is currently done; it implies opening up data, peer review processes, access, scientific social networks and education resources. In this way it often links closely to other open knowledge trends including crowdsourcing and citizen science.
The open data movement, now around a decade old, was originally conceived within scientific research, but more recently has been more closely associated with transparency, accountability and government. In this sense, it links very closely to open government. Both the open data and open government movements have seen significant successes in the past decade. To name just a few: governments at all levels now publish millions of datasets; over 70 countries and 15 subnational governments have made over made over 2,500 commitments through the Open Government Partnership; the EU has mandated member states to publish beneficial ownership registers; and open data innovation has added billions of euros and thousands of jobs to our economies, while also improving public services and tackling social challenges.
Nevertheless, significant challenges remain. Just because a government calls its data open, that doesn’t mean it really is open - searchable, standardised and reusable. It’s often hidden in PDFs on obscure government pages, or with no standard across or within sets. Citizens’ and organisations’ lack of digital capacity to make use of open data stifled innovation. We still lack good and agreed standards for data publishing. Governments have often been slow to take up the mantle, even when mandated: as of July 2018, 20 EU member states had still not implemented beneficial ownership registers. Some governments are also reluctant to open their data, preferring to sell it, and thereby excluding small players, DSI initiatives and civil society, as noted by Frag den Staat founder Arne Semsrott.
The sobering conclusions reached by two leading organisations show how far the movement still has to go. Open Knowledge’s Global Index finds that only 11 per cent of public datasets fit the open data definition, and cites “findability”, usability and licensing as major problems for open government data. The Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer, meanwhile, finds that, despite leading countries continuing to progress,
“governments are slowing and stalling in their commitment to open data. In some cases, progress has even been undone [...] Most governments are not meeting the basic Open Data Charter principles. In most cases, the right policies are not in place, nor is the breadth and quality of the datasets released sufficient. This means we cannot collectively use open data to truly change people’s lives for the better.”
All in all, the open knowledge, data and government movements should be praised for significant wins - but supported to go much further than they have gone thus far. The early successes, such as Citymapper or Frag den Staat, offer a window into how open knowledge and open data could add value to our economies and democracies, support public services and tackle social challenges. We can only imagine the potential were many times more data, of better quality and accuracy, to be made available. It is to this potential future which we now turn.
In all of the fields discussed above, innovators around and beyond Europe are making use of new technologies - and new applications of established technologies - to help shape a vision for the future where open knowledge, data and government are the norm, and help to tackle some of our biggest social challenges.
As mentioned above, one challenge for open data is skills among citizens and civil society. One example improving the accessibility and pluralism of open data is the EU-funded project Open4Citizens, which seeks to address the gap between the opportunities offered by the abundance of open data and citizens’ capabilities to imagine new ways of using such data. Open4Citizens is raising awareness and teaching new skills through hackathons, educational programmes and the establishment of “Open Data Labs”. Open Knowledge’s School of Data, meanwhile, offers online courses to civil society organisations, journalists and professionals covering (open) data analysis, management and publishing. Another organisation helping to make open data more accessible is Dyntra, which develops indices to measure public information from governments, public authorities, political parties and elected representatives.
If people are more aware of the potential of data for good, and also have the tools to take more control over their personal data, they are more likely to share their data. This is the central hypothesis behind the DECODE project, another EU-funded project. Soon to launch pilots in Barcelona and Amsterdam, DECODE is developing blockchain-enabled open-source technology which will provide tools for individuals to choose whether to keep their personal data private or share it for the public good. DECODE thereby seeks to create new data commons, which will enable new research and new digital approaches to understanding and tackling social challenges.
We cannot talk about data without also talking about artificial intelligence and machine learning. Algorithms now affect almost every part of our digital lives, and are subject to ever-increasing concerns about bias, transparency, accountability and accuracy. In the future, AI might also be driving our cars, drafting our wills and performing surgery, but the means by which these decisions are made and the ownership of the data are still legal and ethical minefields.
Given these very valid concerns, open algorithms and AI must be central to the future of the open movement. In just the past few years, many organisations have started to work on issues around artificial intelligence ethics and governance, including AI Now, Data & Society, the Berkman Klein Center, Nesta, DotEveryone, OPAL and the MIT Media Lab. Governments are also increasingly involved; the UK government, for example, has established a centre for data ethics and innovation while American cities have taken the lead in experimenting with approaches to algorithmic accountability.
This flurry of research has been accompanied by practical initiatives focusing on open AI and machine learning. One notable example is Mozilla’s Common Voice project, which is creating an open dataset of voice recordings to make voice recognition available to a much wider audience of innovators - and to make it more transparent. Meanwhile, with the rise of deep learning and neural networks, even the creators of algorithms are being left in the dark about how and why decisions are made. Fortunately, we have also seen innovation in this space: for example, tools have been developed for “working backwards” to understand how algorithmic decisions are made, while others have trained and compared parallel models with the same aim in mind.
This brings us to perhaps the most promising emerging area of open knowledge - that of machine-enhanced collective intelligence, as explored in recent books including Geoff Mulgan’s Big Mind and Thomas W. Malone’s Superminds. MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence has shown that predictions made by combining machine and human intelligence “were both more accurate and more robust than those made by groups of only people or only machines.
A growing number of organisations are demonstrating this in practice. One example is the online platform Fold.it, which has combined data from games with modelling software to better understand molecular structures and support long-term medical research in the long term. Extended collective intelligence also holds great promise in humanitarian relief; MicroMappers, for example, asks people to identify tweets with relevant information in the aftermath of natural disasters, which in turn trains algorithms to automate the process. In the field of disease prevention, AIME applies machine learning techniques to epidemiological data crowdsourced from public health officials to predict outbreaks of dengue fever, with an accuracy rate thus far of over 85 per cent. Machine intelligence and human intelligence also show promise when combined in collaborative decision-making, such as MIT’s Deliberatorium.
A related area of data innovation seeks to oppose the perceived dichotomy between open data and tech giants’ and governments’ closed data: data collaboratives. These are “a new form of collaboration, beyond the public-private partnership model, in which participants from different sectors - in particular companies - exchange their data to create public value.” The GovLab, which has pioneered research in this area, has profiled over 130 such projects. To give just two examples, Scotland’s Data Lab is working with UNICEF and public and private organisations to share data to tackle child obesity, while the Data for Refugees Turkey challenge has made various forms of mobile data available to researchers to encourage innovations improving the Syrian refugees’ living conditions. Approaching data collaboratives from another angle, the OPAL project seeks to unlock the potential of private data by applying open algorithms and ethical governance systems to that private data in support of the sustainable development goals.
In sum, it is clear that open knowledge, open data and open government have come a long way in the past decade - but that the future holds yet more exciting prospects. By harnessing the power of people and machines, by building ethical, transparent and accountable AI, and by continuing to press governments to open data and knowledge, a positive future for the open movement is clear - one which benefits all of society and allows us to tackle social challenges effectively, collaboratively and efficiently.
Open-source software, and the values, aims and beliefs of the open source movement, have been at the heart of the open movement since the beginning. Twenty years on, we find ourselves at a crossroads. On the one hand, open-source appears to be in a stronger position than ever before: as noted by Patrick Masson of the Open Source Initiative
“[Open source] has proven wildly successful, beyond the imagination of anyone involved at the time. Today open source software is literally everywhere. It is the foundation for the Internet and for the worldwide [sic] web. It powers the computers and mobile devices we all use, as well as the networks they connect to. Without it, cloud computing and the nascent Internet of Things would be impossible to scale and perhaps to create. It has allowed new ways of doing business to be tested and proven, allowing giant corporations like Google and Facebook to start from the top of a mountain others already climbed.”
The work of the movement’s key players continues. The OSI maintains the Open Source Definition and the Open Source Initiative Approved License trademark. The Linux Foundation, the largest open-source non-profit in the world, has more than 1000 corporate members, while the Free Software Foundation continues to support open-source infrastructure and campaigns. Other organisations have grown to encompass broader issues such as infrastructure, data ethics, privacy and free speech, including the Mozilla Foundation (promoting an open, accessible, secure and transparent internet), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (focusing on digital privacy, free speech and innovation), the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (consumer rights and education) and OpenForum Europe (policy for open source, open standards, open cloud and open internet).
On the other hand, the open-source movement faces significant threats. Financial sustainability continues to be a struggle, particularly for socially-oriented open-source projects whose funding tends to be project-based and reliant on volunteers. This is particularly difficult for collaborative DSI initiatives, as funding mechanisms often lack the patience needed for critical mass - and the consequent realisation of network effects - to be achieved. Moving forward, we must move towards a new model of finance; as Joana Breidenbach of betterplace lab said in our interview, the principles of the free market should not apply to DSI, just as they had never applied to environment protection or social justice. This is echoed by Rufus Pollock, who, in The Open Revolution, argues that open models should be financed by governmental or philanthropic funding. Furthermore, take-up of open-source alternatives to proprietary technologies remains low in professional, domestic and social contexts, often due to usability, knowledge and poor marketing.
Another challenge is maintaining the open-source infrastructure upon which all the technology we use today relies. Maintaining the value of this open infrastructure is imperative for the very functioning of our digital world, but is increasingly at risk of neglect. In the words of Nadia Eghbal, formerly at GitHub, in a report for the Ford Foundation: “Our modern society—everything from hospitals to stock markets to newspapers to social media—runs on software. But take a closer look, and you’ll find that the [open-source] tools we use to build software are buckling under demand.”
Here it makes sense to look broaden the discussion to the open internet itself, which finds itself also a crossroads. On the one hand, it penetrates ever more of our daily lives, and more people have access to it. But, as shown in the Mozilla Foundation’s 2018 Internet Health Report, there are several areas of concern. Three of the five areas identified by Mozilla are of particular interest for this report: privacy and security, openness and decentralisation.
These threats come from different quarters. As tech giants like Facebook and Google dominate more and more of our lives, warn Mozilla, and through monopolistic business practices, they are “undermin[ing] privacy, openness and competition on the Web.” At the same time, government actions across the world threaten openness with internet and platform shutdowns, and laws which either censor or encourage self-censorship. Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom on the Net report found an overall decline in internet freedom worldwide, with nearly half of the 65 countries surveyed experiencing declines in internet freedom. While it easy to see internet freedom as secure in Europe, Freedom House found that internet freedom has also declined in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Hungary. Also in Europe, the EU’s Copyright Directive has been widely criticised as potentially disastrous for the future of the open internet - and has even managed to unite tech giants and some of their biggest critics in opposition.
Finally, the internet increasingly seems to be becoming a set of internets - or a “splinternet”. China, Iran and Russia are all, to varying extents, building firewalls around their countries’ internets, while diverging regulation between the European Union and US (for example on net neutrality and data protection) may also lead to infrastructural divergence.
With this outlook in mind - an outlook of great opportunity and equally great challenges - it is useful to look at some of the pioneers in the field who are working to maintain and fortify the open foundations of our digital world.
Many promising initiatives using open-source, peer-to-peer and decentralised technologies have been developed in reaction to the the rapid ascent of proprietary platforms. In the field of social media, for example, Mastodon is a small but growing alternative to Twitter, which puts privacy first and lets people host their own instances of the service on their own servers. Diaspora is another open-source, federated social platform which allows users to register with any hosting “pod” around the world. It does not force its users to use their real identity (like Twitter does), and gives users ownership over their own data. Mozilla Firefox, Europe’s third-most widely used browser, is open-source, while other non-proprietary browser technologies are emerging such as the P2P-based Beaker Browser. More broadly, there are hundreds of open-source alternatives to proprietary software for everything from document editing to graphic design, with platforms such as osalt.com collating these in searchable databases.
Nevertheless, as noted above, these often suffer from problems like poor user-friendliness, high technical barriers to entry, lack of funding and poor marketing. Added to these established problems are newer ones particular to social and data-driven platforms: the inability to compete against “sticky” dominant platforms (why leave a platform if all your contacts are there?); the lack of interoperability and straightforward portability (why leave a platform if all your data is there?); and low concern and awareness about data and privacy risks (why leave a platform if you’re not worried about its practices?).
Elsewhere, increasing attention is also being paid to maintaining the open-source infrastructure of the internet. One example is libraries.io, which brings together information on open-source software from across over 3.5m open source packages with three main aims: to improve the discovery, maintainability and sustainability of all software by “raising the quality and frequency of contributions to free and open source software”. Elsewhere, the Linux Foundation’s Core Infrastructure Initiative provides funding and support for open-source software to improve cybersecurity, while Mozilla’s MOSS initiative also provides funding for the internet’s “foundational technology”.
Turning to the future of the internet itself, bottom-up initiatives have been complemented by governmental efforts, particularly at the EU level, to ensure the openness of the internet and to strengthen its original values. The best-known current example is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a huge step forward in protecting internet users’ rights, including better data protections, the right to interoperability and the “right to be forgotten”. Even though it has only recently come into force, it has already led to organisations - big and small - changing attitudes and practices towards data. However, its longer-term effects and enforcement (for example on the right to interoperability) are yet to be seen. Furthermore, following coordinated civil society action led by the savetheinternet.eu initiative, the EU has adopted strict net neutrality rules while BEREC, the EU telecommunications regulator, has also published welcome guidelines. Nevertheless, threats to an open internet and to net neutrality are constant; crowdsourcing website Respect My Net, for example, has confirmed over 130 cases of net neutrality violations in 21 EU countries. Finally, the EU has also been taking action against anti-competitive practices, best demonstrated by its record €4.34 billion fine to Google in 2018.
But regulation must be accompanied by a positive alternative. Building this alternative is the aim of the EU’s Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative: an internet which “provide[s] better services, more intelligence, greater involvement and participation” and “reflect[s] the European social and ethical values: free, open and more interoperable”. While the NGI initiative is in its early days, it looks set to have significant impact within Europe on what the future infrastructure of the internet should look like. Indeed, the NGI Engineroom project has already identified nine fields upon which the future internet should be based: A sustainable internet; Decentralising power, Internet and data sovereignty; Ethical artificial intelligence and machine learning; A safe, accessible and diverse internet; Trustworthy online media and information ecosystems; Online identities and trust; The right to opt out and self-govern; and Cyber-security and resilience.
These nine areas provide the vision for a human-centric, ethical and, most importantly, open internet for the future - an alternative vision which some of the initiatives mentioned in this section are beginning to put into reality. It is a vision where power on the internet is spread more equitably; where startups have the means necessary to take on incumbents and innovate; where people can own their data and move it freely between platforms; where algorithms are transparent, open, audited and unbiased; where people and organisations collaborate rather than compete; and where openness is restored as the guiding principle and value of the internet.
The open movement has seen great successes across different domains – from a booming world of open-source software that helps to power industry, government and DSI alike, to deepening reservoirs of open data that lay the foundation for exciting applications of machine-enhanced collective intelligence, and much more.
But the movement also faces grave challenges, to which it urgently needs to find answers if it is to provide a significant counterweight to dangerous trends such as government censorship, data centralisation, opaque algorithmic decision-making and monopolistic tendencies. As noted in Section 3, the global open movement has often tended toward fragmentation, which can stand in the way of advancing its agenda and gaining more widespread support among the public and policymakers.
We see the potential for a bright future in which openness becomes the default paradigm for the digital world. Getting there will take effort, coordination, and political and public will.
As highlighted throughout this report, our ability to create a future that is more equitable, innovative and prosperous for all is dependent on our ability to promote and embrace the principles, values and practices of the open movement. We want to see societies where citizens have access and control over data and knowledge and feel empowered to collaboratively use it to tackle social and environmental challenges. We want to see transparent and accountable government institutions. We want to see an internet that is open, people-centric and equitable. We want emerging and established technologies to be used as tools for empowerment, education, democracy, community cohesion, climate action and healthcare.
For this to happen, we need new rules for the new digital world.
Adopting the economic principles of competition, market monopolisation and profit-making to the ways we govern our digital world has so far yielded benefits for the few, not the many. We need to openly discuss the dangers of a closed digital world built on proprietary information and software and platform lock-in strategies. We need an open digital ecosystem, providing the necessary resources for DSI to exist alongside commercial services. We need a new, distributed model of data-ownership in Europe, that is not only in the hands of a few non-European for-profit driven companies. We need new forms of stewardship for data and open data - neither centralising data within big tech companies nor within the state, but bringing together governments and civil society to construct proper infrastructure, build skills, and hold the powerful to account.
We need a coherent, structured open movement - a broad church with a unifying goal but which can shelter the diverse interests and demands of different trends within the movement. Without a shared message, a unifying call to action and a collaborative vision for the future, we will not be able to create the digital world we want. Ultimately, it is only by our collective social and political action that we can effect the large-scale reforms we need to create a better, open, digital tomorrow.