Unpacking the Ideologies of Open

Unpacking the Ideologies of Open

There’s a lot of talk these days about how lessons from the open source community can be applied in other areas. As some people are just starting to grasp the potential and power of open source technology, others are looking to expand the model to all aspects of society. How can we open up curricula and provide education for all, on any topic imaginable? How can we open up government data for people to use as they see fit? 

The deeper question going on at OS//OS (Open Source Open Society) in Wellington this year, was whether “open” automatically is the best option? SHOULD we open up curricula and provide education for all, on any topic imaginable? SHOULD we open up government data for people to use as they see fit?

It’s refreshing to see these questions being asked. Even within one year since last OS//OS, the conversations seem to have matured, and there was a lot more focus this year on the ethics and morals of Open, a thread that wove its way into most of the talks. The conference covers a lot of themes to do with all things open - open source technology, open data, open business, open government, open education, open finance, open media, and so on.

In business, education, governance - in fact, in almost all areas of our society - there is a lot to gain from the notion of “open”. Efficiencies can be gained, iterations made, learnings shared, and better solutions created for complex problems. Yet in getting caught up in the ideology of opening everything, can ignore the reality that there are particular pieces of information, data and knowledge that should necessarily remain closed. [Side note: For a terrifyingly close to home read on what can happen when Open goes wrong, check out David Eggers' "The Circle"]

As we navigate an increasingly open world and become more transparent, there are a few things to keep in mind. 

Context is Everything

Joshua Vial, Founder of Enspiral, opened OS//OS with the notion that Open is amoral - it can be good or bad. The applications of data or source code, and the motivations behind the individuals using it have a huge amount of bearing on whether this information is used in a way that benefits humanity, or in a way that is damaging. (Of course, it also depends who’s defining “good” and “bad”, but that’s a subject for another blog post)

Joshua Vial, Enspiral. Photo: Mark Tantrum & OS//OS 2016

Joshua Vial, Enspiral. Photo: Mark Tantrum & OS//OS 2016

Joshua raised the question, “When does freedom of speech or freedom of information, clash with a moral obligation to keep citizens safe?”

He provided some examples where openness has been exploited, from teenage gamers trading personalised skins on their digital assault rifles, and gambling thousands at the expense of unwitting parent’s credit cards, to ISIS recruits learning how to make bombs through open platforms. Already, blueprints have been made available online for the first 3D printed guns.

Open source is deeply amoral - it can be good or bad
— Joshua Vial

What is Open? What is Closed?

A good starting point in any discussion of the ethics and morals surrounding Open, is to define exactly what it is, and what the benefits are.

Sam Rye of Enspiral and Mary O’Keeffe of Loomio ran a Polarities Café session, in which they ran everyone through a series of questions designed to drill down on people’s notions of exactly what the notions of Open and Closed meant to them, and what the positive and negatives were of each.

Our definitions of open and closed were spectacularly different
— Mary O'Keeffe, Loomio.

At the end of the conference (after a monumental effort to cluster and digitise hundreds of post-it notes over night), they reported that the most surprising thing was the diversity of opinions of what “Open” is, and what it isn’t. While there were some clusters, what emerged among the outlying ideas was somewhat of a paradox with some of the answers mirroring those on the other side.

Some of the things we thought only existed in Open, actually also exist in Closed
— Sam Rye, Enspiral
Open Closed definitions OSOS

Subjectivity is a Thing

Nat Dudley of Figure.NZ spoke about the subjectivity of open data - or rather the subjectivity of the application of open data. Data itself is of course neutral, objective. Yet there’s a whole lot of data out there, coming from multiple sources. The data from one source may contradict the data from another source, on a similar research question. The decisions we make around how to present or use data for whatever goal we are looking to achieve, are inherently subjective processes.

The overwhelming majority of the human population suffer from varying degrees of confirmation bias. We pick and choose data that match our predominant world view or set of beliefs, and often discount the rest. In these situations, it’s not the data that is faulty, or even that providing open data for people to use is a bad thing - rather I’m simply stressing that we need to be continually questioning our motivations behind using the data that we’re using, the pictures that it paints, and the subsequent action steps taken.

Data Stewardship

Liz McPherson of Statistics New Zealand spoke about her work with the Data Futures Partnership - an independent partnership set up to explore future of data stewardship. Using the analogy of an iceberg, Liz pointed out that for all the data that is open - above the waterline - there is a depth of corresponding data below the waterline that remains mostly closed for very good reasons.

Liz McPherson, Statistics New Zealand. Photo: Mark Tantrum & OS//OS 2016

Liz McPherson, Statistics New Zealand. Photo: Mark Tantrum & OS//OS 2016

Privacy and confidentiality are crucial in this age of easily transferrable (and exploitable) digital information. With sensitive public data comes a huge responsibility to the citizen or user. Much of the data held by Statistics New Zealand is anonymised, and held in secure datalabs where only authorised researchers may access it. Yet we still have no ISO standard for privacy.

In an open discussion the question came up of access data with a lower level of aggregation, so as to be of use in more specific situations. While balancing the goal of providing data to improve people’s lives, the point was raised that with as little as four location data points, you can triangulate to identify an anonymous individual reasonably accurately.

Even seemingly innocuous data sets can become very powerful when combined with others. Liz’s team is working to strike the right balance.

The Dangers of Ideology

One of the most widely discussed keynote talks at OS//OS came courtesy of entrepreneurs and Open Democracy proponent Audrey Tang of Taiwan’s g0v (pronounced Gov Zero). In March and April of 2014, Audrey participated in what would become known as the Sunflower Movement, where students occupied the Taiwan Parliament in Taipei in nonviolent protest against political corruption and the ratification of a trade treaty with China.

The students self-organised in the thousands using open source decision-making software built in Wellington by Loomio. The movement culminated with half a million people taking to the streets with sunflowers in hand, in a march which gave the movement it’s name.

Audrey Tang, g0v. Photo: Mark Tantrum & OS//OS 2016

Audrey Tang, g0v. Photo: Mark Tantrum & OS//OS 2016

Most protests come and go, with little impact in the grand scheme of history. But the Sunflower Movement has had a truly astounding lasting effect on Taiwan, with the government announcing that the trade deal would not be signed, and a corresponding sea-change effect on the political landscape of the country. Indeed, two years after the height of the movement, and two days after the close of OS//OS 2016, Audrey Tang was announced as a new Cabinet Minister in Taiwan to steer the nation’s Open Government Initiative.

My existence is not to become a minister for a certain group, nor to broadcast government propaganda. Instead, it is to become a “channel” to allow greater combinations of intelligence and strength to come together.
— Audrey Tang

Rather than advocating, Audrey invites. Yet even as she issued a strong invitation into the notion of Open, Audrey warned against the dangers of sticking to an ideology, which she claims is what contributed to Taiwan’s political corruption in the first place. Describing ideology as a virus of the mind, she described deliberation, debate and listening as the vaccine, and in a political setting, as the key to maintaining a fair, open democracy.

Indeed Audrey took her own active listening medicine, mentioning that Joshua Vial’s assertion about Open being amoral changed her talk. She stressed the need to continually question and analyse every decision about whether open is the right way to go or not, by looking at it through a deeply human lens.

She offered up a final “prayer for OS//OS” in her closing of the conference, an important reminder to us all:  

Audrey Tang Prayer OSOS Open Source Open Society
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