Archive for February, 2013

OA mandate, FLOSS contrast

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

The Obama administration:

has directed Federal agencies with more than $100M in R&D expenditures to develop plans to make the published results of federally funded research freely available to the public within one year of publication and requiring researchers to better account for and manage the digital data resulting from federally funded scientific research

A similar policy has been in place for NIH funded research for several years, and more are in the works around the world.

Peter Suber, as far as I can tell the preeminent chronicler of the Open Access (OA) movement, and one of its primary activists, seems to have the go-to summary post.

Congratulations and thanks to all OA activists. I want to take this particular milestone in order to make some exaggerated contrasts between OA and free/libre/open source software (FLOSS). I won’t bother with cultural, educational, and other variants, but assume they’re somewhere between and lagging overall.

  • OA is far more focused on end products (papers), FLOSS on modifiable forms (source)
  • OA is far more focused on gratis access (available on-line at no cost), FLOSS on removing legal restrictions (via public licenses)
  • OA has a fairly broad conception of info governance, FLOSS focused on class of public licenses, selection within that class
  • OA is far more focused on public and institutional policy (eg mandates like today’s), FLOSS on individual developer and user choices
  • OA is more focused on global ethics (eg access to knowledge in poor regions), FLOSS on individual developer and user ethics

If you’ve followed either movement you can think of exceptions. I suspect the above generalizations are correct as such, but tell me I’m wrong.

Career arrangements are an obvious motivator of some of these differences: science more institutional and tracked, less varied relative to programming. Thus where acting on individual ethics alone with regard to publishing is often characterized as suicidal for a scientist, it is welcome, but not extraordinary nor a cause for concern for a programmer. At the same time, FLOSS people might overestimate the effectiveness of individual choices, merely because they are relatively easy to make and expressive.

One can imagine a universe in which facts are different enough that the characteristics of movements for something like open research and software are reversed, eg no giant institutions and centralized funding, but radical individual ethics for science, dominance of amazing mainframes and push for software escrow for programming. Maybe our universe isn’t that bad, eh?

I do not claim one approach is superior to the other. Indeed I think there’s plenty each can learn from the other. Tip-of-the-iceberg examples: I appreciate those making FLOSS-like demands of OA, think those working on government and institutional policy in FLOSS should be appreciated much more, and the global ethical dimension of FLOSS, in particular with regard to A2K-like equality implications, badly needs to be articulated.

Beyond much needed learning and copying of strategies, some of those involved in OA and FLOSS (and that in between and lagging) might better appreciate each others’ objectives, their commonalities, and actively collaborate. All ignore computational dominance of everything at their peril, and software people self-limit, self-marginalize, even self-refute by limiting their ethics and action to software.

“Commoning the noosphere” sounds anachronistic, but is yet to be, and I suspect involves much more than a superset of OA and FLOSS strategy and critique.

Open Knowledge Foundation

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

I used to privately poke fun at the Open Knowledge Foundation for what seemed like a never-ending stream of half-baked projects (and domains, websites, lists, etc). I was wrong.

(I have also criticized OKF’s creation of a database-specific copyleft license, but recognize its existence is mostly Creative Commons’ fault, just as I criticize some of Creative Commons’ licenses but recognize that their existence is mostly due to a lack of vision on the part of free software activists.)

Some of those projects have become truly impressive (e.g. the Public Domain Review and CKAN, the latter being a “data portal” deployed by numerous governments in direct competition with proprietary “solutions”; hopefully my local government will eventually adopt the instance OpenOakland has set up). Some projects once deemed important seem relatively stagnant, but were way ahead of their time, if only because the non-software free/open universe painfully lags software (e.g. KnowledgeForge). I haven’t kept track of most OKF projects, but whichever ones haven’t succeeded wildly don’t seem to have caused overall problems.

Also, in the past couple years, OKF has sprouted local groups around the world.

Why has the OKF succeeded, despite what seemed to me for a time chaotic behavior?

  • It knows what it is doing. Not necessarily in terms of having a solid plan for every project it starts, but in the more fundamental sense of knowing what it is trying to accomplish, grounded by its own definition of what open knowledge is (unsurprisingly it is derived from the Open Source Definition). I’ve been on the advisory council for that definition for most of its existence, and this year I’m its chair. I wrote a post for the OKF blog today reiterating the foundational nature of the definition and its importance to the success of OKF and the many “open” movements in various fields.
  • It has been a lean organization, structured to be able to easily expand and contract in terms of paid workers, allowing it to pursue on-mission projects rather than be dominated by permanent institutional fundraising.
  • It seems to have mostly brought already committed open activists/doers into the organization and its projects.
  • The network (eg local groups) seems to have grown fairly organically, rather than from a top-down vision to create an umbrella that all would attach themselves toview with great skepticism.

OKF is far from perfect (in particular I think it is too detached from free/open source software, to the detriment of open data and reducing my confidence it will continue to say on a fully Open course — through action and recruitment — one of their more ironic practices at this moment is the Google map at the top of their local groups page [Update: already fixed, see comments]). But it is an excellent organization, at this point probably the single best connection to all things Open, irrespective of field or geography.

Check them out online, join or start a local group, and if you’re interested in the minutiae of of whether particular licenses for intended-to-be-open culture/data/education/government/research works are actually open, help me out with OKF’s project.