July 10, 2020 by Annabel van Daalen
This article is a summary of an interview between Rufus Pollock and Richard Pietro for the podcast series Stories from the Open Gov. Rufus tells the story of the Open Knowledge Foundation’s journey, from its founding to its future. Click here to listen to the full podcast.
The Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) is a network of non-profits spread across dozens of countries worldwide. It has been credited with pioneering the Open Data movement and is responsible for the creation of the Global Open Data Index (the annual global benchmark for publication of open government data), OpenSpending (the largest open database of public financial data in the world) and CKAN (the world’s leading open-source data platform).
Rufus Pollock founded OKF in 2004 while completing a PhD in Economics at Cambridge University. As with many of Rufus’ ideas, OKF’s foundation took inspiration from history. He tells the story of the 16th-Century figure William Tyndale, whose translation of the Bible into English during the Protestant Reformation saw him executed for heresy. The Catholic Church, with their monopoly on the Bible, rightly feared that the dissemination of Tyndale’s translation would put an end to their supreme authority by giving the population license to question the Church’s interpretation of Christian teachings. Like Luther before him, Tyndale’s foresight that those who owned knowledge owned the world helped bring about a seismic shift of power in Europe.
Mirroring Tyndale, Rufus didn’t fit the stereotypical image of a freedom fighter: a self-professed “geek living on a farm”, he recounts pouring over PC Magazine and waxing lyrical to sceptical parents about the Next Big Thing, the internet. He didn’t set eyes on Google or start programming until he got to Cambridge in 1998.
Rufus remembers open-source software as coming into the mainstream around the late 90s. It was the heydey of open-source activists like Yochai Benkler and James Boyle. The ‘Battle for Seattle’, large-scale anti-globalization protests aimed at the WTO, consolidated many of Rufus’ ideas about intellectual property. As he saw it, the WTO was a great organization with a notable flaw: the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property agreement. It didn’t seem right that an organisation advocating for free trade should support an agreement that constrained the free flow of information. Around the same time, Rufus started working with Cory Doktrow, a Canadian activist in favor of liberalizing copyright laws and a proponent of the Creative Commons organization. Cambridge was fast becoming the centre of information activism and it felt like the world was on the brink of something big.
The early 2000s, however, were to be characterized by a haze of disillusionment. The idealism of the 1990s had faded; the large free wifi networks imagined by many had never materialised and the internet was already being partitioned and fenced off by closed, private companies like Facebook and YouTube. People were starting to realize that advancements in technology, in particular the arrival of costless copying, were causing some kind of shift in the way information was disseminated; exactly what this would mean for society and the distribution of power, though, was not yet entirely understood.
The wave finally hit around 2008/9, when OKF received its first funding. CKAN started to take off following the Open Gov Data Camp in 2010 and the invitations for Rufus to speak started trickling in. Much like surfing, says Rufus, you wait and wait for the right wave; just as it took time to convince people that environmentalism is a mainstream issue, bringing an issue to the forefront of public consciousness takes time. Rufus is still fighting this battle. He started working on Frictionless Data, a project he is still finetuning today, in 2007. His mission for the next 30 years is to make all non-personal information (software, drug formula, movies) open while rewarding innovators.
If we’re going to ride the wave, suggests Rufus, we need to reasses the motivations fuelling the open data movement. In his opinion, now is the time for OKF to reinvent itself. Open Data is not cool in the way AI is cool; it’s become institutionalized and with misplaced focus on civil rights, privacy and transparency. The real issue at stake in open data, in Rufus’ opinion, is information ownership, because power and wealth flow from those who own the information age.
“Open government is useful, but there’s a more innovative agenda. I’m more interested in using information for empowerment than for transparency.”
Pietro asks the question of Rufus whether it’s such a bad thing if people support open data in the name of open government. “Maybe privacy is something people can munch on”, suggests Pietro. Rufus, though, isn’t so content to let the agenda of consumer rights and innovation to sit inside the trojan horse of civil rights. The information revolution is the reason behind Trump’s election, says Rufus. Intel was founded in ’68, Microsoft in ’75, Apple in ’77. Rufus is resolute: the single biggest cause of inequality in the US is the digital economy running on the old rules of monopoly rights. The bottom 40-60% of US society were poorer in 2016 than they were in 1999. These are the people the robots are coming for, he quips.
“We should be going to trade unions and politicans and saying: ‘this isn’t about digital stuff. This is about Donald Trump. This is about Brexit. This is about opportunity for our children. This is about not being owned by a few tech companies in California’”.
The solution, in Rufus’ mind? We need a model called renumeration rights, whereby innovators are recognized and rewarded for their work based on the number of times it is used: everytime a book is read, a song played or a medical drug produced. It’s not that the huge, monopolizing tech companies are evil, it’s that this way of doing things does not create economic value or foster innovation. Renumeration rights are the lovechild of socialism and captialism – a chance to have a fairer system without sacrificing innovation and a freer market. We’re in the darkness before the dawn, says Rufus.
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