New job! Working at Open Society Foundations on Algorithmic Accountability

I’m excited to announce that as of last month I have started a new job with the Open Society Foundations. For the next two years, I will be working as a Program Officer for the Information Program there, leading a grant-making portfolio on algorithmic accountability, narrow AI, and discrimination in automated decision-making.

I’ll be looking to support journalism, research and civil society organisations engaging with policy and practitioners on the issues thrown up when machine learning gets to play with big data in black box systems. So if you’re thinking of ways to expose, challenge or prevent discrimination in our new algorithmic world, and especially if your work is outside of the US, please do get in touch.

Spotted: Me and Ken Worpole talking utopias at Stoke Newington Literary Festival

Thanks to my recent initiation into post-punk anarcho-folk outfit Pog, most of the festivals I’m going to this Summer are of the muddy field variety. The exception is this upcoming talk at Stoke Newington Literary Festival, where I’ll be attempting to match acclaimed writer on urban policy Ken Worpole‘s insights on the architecture of utopias in the built environment with my own observations from the virtual realm.

It’s five years since I published Barefoot into Cyberspace: Adventures in Search of techno-Utopia. Re-reading Thomas More’s 500 year-old Utopia for this talk, and particularly Book One (the one everyone forgets), I was reminded that being sceptical about people in power and their ability to act on the best information and advice is not a new thing. In his introduction to the Penguin Classic edition, Dominic Baker-Smith talks about More’s work being essentially an exploration of the “problematic relationship between imagined worlds and mundane reality”. Although reformers of all kinds will recognise this relationship immediately, I suspect it’s also something good software engineers think about too: after all, it’s actually their job to design perfect systems for non-perfect worlds.

Ken and I were introduced by the lovely Travis Elborough, who will chair the talk. He promises to help us “explore the concept of utopia, taking in Ebenezer Howard in Hackney, Garden Cities, Buckminster Fuller, Geodesic Domes, The Grateful Dead and the World Wide Web”. It’s on Saturday 4th June in Stoke Newington and you can buy tickets here.

Bang! Crash! Pow! My open data impact report launching today

This blog post comes to you from a train travelling through the morning fog towards London, where I’ll be attending the ODI Summit today. I’m there this afternoon to launch the work I’ve been doing on the state of open data, work that was commissioned by Omidyar Network earlier this year. You can access my report – “Open Data: Six stories about impact in the UK” – on the Omidyar website. And if you’re at the summit today, then come along to my talk at 15:50 in NFT2 to pick up a copy.

When Omidyar Network approached me to write this report, I was attracted to the project as a way to bookend the research work I started on open data with my study into its swift adoption as a policy in the UK and US. But I was aware that in the time I had spent away from the open data field much had changed. Here in the UK, the government’s commitment to open data had led to the establishment of the Open Data Institute – the hosts of today’s summit and a catalyst for mainstreaming ideas about open data that I had witnessed cradled by activist communities since the early 2000s. Internationally, the development of the Open Government Partnership had taken open data global. And grassroots networks like Open Knowledge, on whose board I served in its early years, were swelling at an almost frightening pace.

It’s not often you see ideas catch fire like that. But for all that the open data world had grown and changed, it became clear as I began my work for Omidyar that pinning down the effect that government open data and the intermediaries that transformed it were having on the wider world, on the lives of ordinary people or on the most serious issues that affect us today, was not an easy task. Through early conversations with generous thinkers like Rebecca Rumbul, Júlia Keserű and Tim Davies, I began to understand the various challenges inherent in studying the impact of open data with rigour. Impact comes in many forms, and at many different points along the open data value chain. Barriers to impact can be multiple and entrenched. The theory of change behind open data resists traditional impact measurement. And it may yet be too soon to see the policy’s true impact. At the International Open Data Conference, held this May in Ottawa, I presented these ideas and they were greeted with relieved recognition from many of the scholars and practitioners there.

My presentation at today’s ODI Summit is called “It takes a millions stories”. That’s because although we may be able to speak of open data’s potential in sweeping terms (and another major report Omidyar commissioned on open data, from Lateral Economics, did just that, predicting in 2014 that open data could achieve more than half of the G20’s 2% growth target over five years) the actual, tangible impact of open data may only ever be visible in a million tiny fragments. My report deals in six of those fragments – or five, depending on your point of view, since I’ve included one story about closed data and impact, as a nod to the counterfactual.

For fragments, they’re pretty awesome. TfL is saving itself (and the farepayer, and the taxpayer) millions of pounds outsourcing app development through releasing all its data openly. It turn, those apps are saving London’s transport users tens of millions of pounds in monetised time savings. The monetised time savings approach (not new to this report, but developed by Deloitte using data from TfL and the Department for Transport) can also be deployed to put a pounds and pence figure on how mySociety are lowering the cost for civil society groups and journalists to engage with the Parliamentary process. And, mySociety’s accessible version of the records of Parliamentary proceedings – itself practically the seed of the entire open data movement in the UK – may actually be contributing to a long term, positive change in the way Parliamentarians vote. You can read the full report on all six case studies here.

The theme of this year’s ODI Summit is Generation Open, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about the research ODI has been doing into the attitudes of the next generation to open data. My hunch is that it will be close to what Chris Taggart said to me when I was conducting research into the role OpenCorporates had in the campaign to purge the UK of anonymous shell companies, a campaign that succeeded in getting David Cameron to commit to a public register of the beneficial owners of companies in the UK. When I asked him the best way to talk about open data’s impact, he said:

“It’s a bit like [asking for] the evidence basis for a justice system. We need a justice system because that’s the society we want, one with a justice system, with the rule of law …. Let’s stop trying to argue for open data, and make [opponents] argue for closed data, right?

These are fighting words, and they are ones with which I have a lot of sympathy. Because for all Generation Open intuitively understands open as a default and not a challenge, there are those in power who do not share their views. Witness the selling-off of the PAF alongside Royal Mail. Or the threat of privatisation to the UK’s trading funds and current gatekeepers of our national information infrastructure: HM Land Registry, the Met Office, Ordnance Survey and Companies House. Or the fact that this government currently has the Freedom of Information Act under review.

In a piece I’ve written for openDemocracy today, I argue that the open data community now faces two challenges:

Firstly, and most urgently, it must win over those at HM Treasury who have yet to accept the economic arguments for putting public data in public hands, in time to rescue the nation’s information infrastructure from privatisation…But the open data community must also recognise the need to go further than the bottom line, to stop masking aspirations for a more transparent and accountable society driven by open government data in the language of economics, and to adopt a more rights-based agenda.

It’s a challenge I plan to put to my audience later today, and it’s one I use to close off my report. Open data is not just an economic policy, it is a democratic imperative. It’s time for the open data movement to stop playing nice.

Survey request: How does work for you?

As part of the work I’m doing tracking the impact of open data in the UK, I’m asking politicians, civil servants, journalists, activists, campaigners and community volunteers who use to complete a short survey. I’m trying to understand the value delivers to the people working inside Westminster, Holyrood and Stormont and to those on the outside seeking to report on or influence their activities.

The survey should take no more than ten minutes to complete. I’d like to be able to attribute your comments in my final (public) report, but there is also an option to contribute unattributed. If you want to help out, please access the survey here.

Please note that I am not affiliated with or mySociety, although I did do some copy-writing work for them about three years ago. You can find out more about me and the report I’m writing here.

Open Data impact is hard to measure – Ottawa presentation

This is an extended form of the short presentation I made at the 3rd International Open Data Conference today.

I’m working with Omidyar Network to document – through a selection of case studies mainly based in the UK – the impact so far of government open data policies. There are a lot of people thinking about open data impact right now, not least my companions on this panel, and I wanted to take this opportunity to briefly lay out my perspective on the issue, which as I mentioned already is grounded for the most part in the developed world.

When the UK and US governments adopted the open data policies that have led to them being leaders in this field, they did so on a prospectus of potential, and not proof. Open data policies promise to deliver economic efficiencies, governance gains, and social and environmental goods for what in government spending terms is a relatively low initial investment. They promise to keep bureaucracies one step ahead of the internet’s disintermediating power. Sold as such, it’s easy to see why governments in the midst of a global financial crisis and technological revolution bought into open data.

Great expectations

Our expectations have been set high, perhaps too high, in terms of what open data will deliver. Indeed, searching for tangible impacts at scale only three or four years after implementing a long-term policy change such as opening government data, we may yet be disappointed. And it would be a great shame if that disappointment led to disengagement with open data policy. Thankfully there are some front-runners, some stories we can tell about where open data is making a difference right now, and I hope these stories are enough to keep us on the right track, towards a world of open by default.

But we also need to be realistic about how much other factors, factors beyond the availability of information through open government data, affect the impacts we want to see. I want to show you this graph devised by Rufus Pollock of Open Knowledge:


Seeing this graph was a lightbulb moment for me. At a basic level, it illustrates the vast range of issues upon which we expect open data to have some effect. But it’s also a reminder that, as Rufus puts it, open data is a complement, not a substitute, for institutional change. We can’t expect unicorns and rainbows just by creating another CKAN instance. Most of what open data will achieve, it will achieve in partnership with some other kind of hard work.

Elusive evidence

Back to those good news stories. A study by Deloitte for the UK’s Department of Business estimated that by opening up their transport data, London’s transit authority netted efficiency savings of £58 million for London’s transport users in 2012. As the authors of that study observed, that is a considerable percentage of the projected annual savings that were used to justify the creation of an entirely new and very expensive high speed rail link in another part of the UK.

Playing around with numbers is one of the nicest ways to talk about impact, and in countries like the UK, where the civil service has actually created standard estimates for what an hour of my time is worth to me, it’s relatively easy to do. But talking about the wider social or political impacts that flow from the release of a particular data set is a lot trickier.

Even if you start trying to equate a country’s open data policy with shifts in its ranking on this or that social or political global performance indicator (and those sorts of indices bring their own issues with them), you’ll find causality hard to prove, not least because such indices are extremely high level, and the open data value chain is very long indeed. And you can add to this the problem that most studies designed to measure impact want their protagonists to have a set of goals they’re working towards, and that open data, by contrast, says “we’re releasing this to the world precisely because we believe we alone don’t know all the great things to do with it”.


Hard problems like this are of course great for academics. But I’m not an academic. My background is in journalism and activism. Essentially, I write stories. And right now, when it comes to open data impact, I don’t think that completely disqualifies me from the job at hand.

The best example we have so far of benchmarking open data impact is the Worldwide Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer. And the way they measure impact is – they see how often open data is mentioned in the press and online. This is, in my mind, pretty much equivalent to measuring how good a story it is.

My stories don’t need fairytale castles or knights in shining armour, but they do need to resonate with someone who is unlikely to ever attend a hack day, or know what a Hadoop cluster is. So if you think you are sitting on such a story, or you know someone else who might be, I’d urge you to come and find me over the next couple of days.

Thank you very much.

Open Data impact: more questions than answers

Last week, I posted about the work I’m doing this year to get to the bottom of the impact open data policies have had on people’s lives to date.

Well, I’m about a month into that work, and I’m already thinking about revising my goals. By which I mean, if I can’t get to the bottom of this, maybe I can get about halfway down…?

My first post sparked some fun debate on Twitter, notably between Global Integrity’s co-founder and former director Nathaniel Heller and Development Gateway’s Josh Powell, and with Friedrich Lindenberg from Code4Africa and Open Knowledge Germany.

So, given how open (ahem) people appear to be to helping me think through this stuff on air, I thought I’d throw out the template set of questions I’m reaching out with to various open data scholars and practitioners in the coming months.

I hope they’ll spark even more engagement from anyone out there who feels they’ve got a dog in this fight. And just in case 140 characters don’t quite accommodate your thoughts on this, trackbacks and comments are also welcome (you can also email me, if you’d prefer).

  1. Can you name your top three examples of where you think open data has had a positive impact?
  2. How conscious do we have to be of the potentially negative impacts and unforeseen consequences of releasing open data sets or of open data policies in general? Are there stories to tell here too?
  3. Are there any particular sectors or spheres where you think open data is more likely to have a positive impact?
  4. Is open data more likely to have positive economic impacts than it is political, social or environmental ones? Or are economic impacts simply easier to quantify? Or both?
  5. What approaches have you seen to thinking and talking about open data impact that you think are valuable?
  6. Is it too soon to get a good idea about impact? Has open data been given enough of a chance to prove its worth?
  7. Where around the world (and not just US/UK) do we see open data sets that pre-date the recent Open Government Partnership commitments, and where we might therefore expect to see measurable impact?
  8. Do you subscribe to the theory that open data growth will be subject to network effects, and that we might not see impact at scale until it’s travelled a bit further along the power law curve?
  9. What are your favourite examples of measuring social/political/environmental impacts from other fields? Can they be applied to open data?
  10. Given one of the cited advantages of open data is that it allows many possible benefits, including unanticipated benefits, and given that research designed to evidence impact generally needs to be specific to a target or goal, is it harder to evaluate the impact of open data policies than it might be for other types of policies?

New project alert: what has open data done for you lately?

Five years ago, I blogged about my Open Data Study, an interview-based report commissioned by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative to investigate what drove the rapid adoption of open data policies in the UK and US.

I’m now embarking on a new project, commissioned by Omidyar Network, to examine the impact open data has had to date.

Those close to me know I’ve been trying to avoid working for big non-profits in order to get back to more personal writing projects. But when Omidyar Network’s Laura Bacon approached me earlier this year about working with her on this, I found it hard to resist jumping back in.

The reason is that this new study will attempt to answer a question left hanging in my report of 2010. Does it matter that open data was sold to governments on a prospectus of potential and not proven impact? Five years ago, I wrote:

It was the utility of applications (in contrast to the resources expended to produce them) and not their broad user bases, which seem to have inspired officials further up the line to engage with the open data agenda.

Five years on, I’m hoping to investigate not just how many people are using applications and services built upon open government data, but what impact this is having on their lives and the lives of those around them, be that social, economic, political or environmental. I’m going to do this through a series of case studies, and I’m hoping to find stories of open data impact at scale from around the world, and from sectors as diverse as health, journalism, transport and policing.

I’m by no means alone in my search for stories about the impact of open data. Projects with similar aims are afoot at the Open Data Institute, Open Knowledge, Sunlight, NYU’s GovLab and probably a bunch of other places I don’t know about too. And the initial stages of my work have been guided by a bunch of clever folk who’ve been thinking about how to measure the impact of open data for a long while, including the Open Data Barometer’s Tim Davies (thanks, Tim!) and Rebecca Rumbul at mySociety (whose sold-out conference on the impact of civic tech, TICTeC 2015, I attended last week).

So, if you’re interested in open data impact, or if you have a story to share, please do get in touch.


Now on general sale – A Guide to the Internet for Human Rights Defenders

InternetDefendersMy new book, A Guide to the Internet for Human Rights Defenders is now available to buy on Amazon, or order in your local bookshop. Originally commissioned by Global Partners Digital in the run up to NETmundial, the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance held in Brazil last year, this new edition has been simplified and re-formatted for a more general audience.

A Guide to the Internet for Human Rights Defenders explains the history and workings of the internet, who governs it, and who has the power to affect our rights online. Written in a breezy, accessible style and with an extensive glossary of technical terms, this small volume will prove, I hope, to be an indispensable guide for students, business leaders and policymakers new to the world of internet governance and human rights.

Buy it here, or contact me if you’re interested in bulk orders direct from the publisher.

Caitlin Moran: How to Build a Girl

My review of Caitlin Moran’s book How to Build a Girl (out in the States this week) is up on BoingBoing:

Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl is the story of Johanna Morrigan, poor, fat teenager from the economic backwater of 1990s Wolverhampton, and her transformation into legendary music critic and Lady Sex Adventurer, Dolly Wilde.

Thanks to a lot of hard graft at Wolverhampton’s public library, where she can read the specialist press and order any album she likes for 20p, Morrigan/Wilde finds herself anointed into the pre-Internet indie music elite as star reviewer for the Disc & Music Echo. Once there, she learns that the best way to stay on top is to write like a critic, not a fan (like “some weird angry old man, puncturing the ball of every band who kicked it over my fence”), and to stand at the back of concerts, scowling with the other writers, instead of dancing at the front.

Read the rest here.

How To Build a Girl book cover

Mind’s Eye: Tour the solar system at home and in Brighton, courtesy of Little Atoms and Shrinking Space

Last weekend found me in my old home town, Brighton. It’s the Brighton Digital Festival this month, and as part of that, Shrinking Space, in collaboration with Little Atoms and the European Space Agency, have put on a fantastic audio installation called “Mind’s Eye” at the old fruit and veg market building on Circus Street. I went to check it out with my Mum last Saturday.

circus street market building

The building

Mind’s Eye is an attempt “to explore and understand the Solar System through the voices of those most familiar with it”. Though it is only five minutes’ walk from the seafront, most Brightonians will only know Circus Street through visits to the infamous all night “Market Diner” café opposite. Shrinking Space productions have transformed the vast and dilapidated market building into an audiosphere representing the entire solar system. When you enter, you are given headphones and a ready-tuned iPod radio. Then, as you drift around the building, you are pulled into the orbit of the various interviews being broadcast in different parts of it, each with a scientist or space explorer whose knowledge of the planet or star they are describing often represents a lifetime’s work. The effect is bewitching, like floating through space itself, with only the occasional transmission back to earth for company.

participant at mind's eye

One happy listener

Little Atoms’ Neil Denny, heir to Melvyn Bragg, conducted the interviews. The first of three Little Atoms shows dedicated to the project was broadcast last week on London’s Resonance 104.4FM, and is available here. It features interviews with Gerhard Schwehm, Mission Manager for the Rosetta comet chaser, Dr Caitriona Jackman on the Cassini mission to Saturn and Dr Peter Grindrod on Mars. There will be a second instalment this week (with Dr Katherine Joy on the Moon, and Sandra Cauffman of the MAVEN project, whose spacecraft successfully entered Mars’s orbit yesterday). The final instalment next week features an unforgettable interview with former Space Shuttle astronaut Gerhard Thiele, as well as my Mum’s favourite from the show, Dr Helen Mason on the Sun.

If you can make it down to the installation itself, I would recommend you do so. It runs this Friday 26th September, 3:30pm-6pm, and Saturday and Sunday 27th and 28th, 10am-6pm. More info here.

chair at shrinking space