Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The revolution will not be in open data

By Duncan Edwards

I’ve had a lingering feeling of unease that things were not quite right in the world of open development and ICT4D (Information and communication technology for development), so at September’s Open Knowledge Conference in Geneva I took advantage of the presence of some of the world’s top practitioners in these two areas to explore the question:

How does “openness” really effect change within development? 

Inspiration for the session came from a number of conversations I’ve had over the last few years.

My co-conspirator/co-organiser of the OKCon side event “Reality check: Ethics and Risk in Open Development,” Linda Raftree, had also been feeling uncomfortable with the framing of many open development projects, assumptions being made about how “openness + ICTs = development outcomes,” and a concern that risks and privacy were not being adequately considered.

We had been wondering whether the claims made by Open Development enthusiasts were substantiated by any demonstrable impact. For some reason, as soon as you introduce the words “open data” and “ICT,” good practice in development gets thrown out the window in the excitement to reach “the solution”.

A common narrative in many “open” development projects goes along the lines of “provide access to data/information –> some magic occurs –> we see positive change.” In essence, because of the newness of this field, we only know what we think happens, we don’t know what really happens because there is a paucity of documentation and evidence.

It’s problematic that we often use the terms data, information, and knowledge interchangeably, because:
  • Data is NOT knowledge 
  • Data is NOT information 
  • Information is NOT knowledge. 
Knowledge is what you know.

It’s the result of information you’ve consumed, your education, your culture, beliefs, religion, experience – it’s intertwined with the society within which you live.

Understanding and thinking through how we get from the “openness” of data, to how this affects how and what people think, and consequently how they might act, is critical in whether “open” actually has any additional impact.

Can applying a Theory of Change help us answer this question?

At Wednesday’s session, panellist Matthew Smith from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) talked about the commonalities across various open initiatives. Matthew argued that a larger Theory of Change (ToC) around how ‘open’ leads to change on a number of levels could allow practitioners to draw out common points. The basic theory we see in open initiatives is “put information out, get a feedback loop going, see change happen.” But open development can be sliced in many ways, and we tend to work in silos when talking about openness. We have open educational resources, open data, open government, open science, etc. We apply ideas and theories of openness in a number of domains but we are not learning across these domains.

We explored the theories of change underpinning two active programmes that incorporate a certain amount of “openness” in their logic.

Simon Colmer from the Knowledge Services department at the Institute of Development Studies outlined their theory of change of how research evidence can help support decision-making in development policy-making and practice. While Erik Nijland from HIVOS presented elements of the theory of change that underpins the Making All Voices Count programme, which looks to increase the links between citizens and governments to improve public services and deepen democracy.

Both of these ToCs assume that because data/information is accessible, people will use it within their decision-making processes. They also both assume that intermediaries play a critical role in analysis, translation, interpretation, and contextualisation of data and information to ensure that decision makers (whether citizens, policy actors, or development practitioners) are able to make use of it. Although access is theoretically open, in practice even mediated access is not equal – so how might this play out in respect to marginalised communities and individuals?

What neither ToC really does is unpack who these intermediaries are. What are their politics? What are their drivers for mediating data and information? What is the effect of this? A common assumption is that intermediaries are somehow neutral and unbiased – does this assumption really hold true? 

What many open data initiatives do not consider is what happens after people are able to access and internalise open data and information. How do people act once they know something?

As Vanessa Herringshaw from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative said in the Raising the Bar for ambition and quality in OGP session, “We know what transparency should look like but things are a lot less clear on the accountability end of things”.

There are a lot of unanswered questions. Do citizens have the agency to take action? Who holds power? What kind of action is appropriate or desirable? Who is listening? And if they are listening, do they care?

Linda finished up the panel by raising some questions around the assumptions that people make decisions based on information rather than on emotion, and that there is a homogeneous “public” or “community” that is waiting for data/information upon which to base their opinions and actions.

So as a final thought, here’s my (perhaps clumsy) 2013 update on Gil Scott Heron’s 1970 song “The Revolution will not be televised”:

“The revolution will NOT be in Open data,
It will NOT be in hackathons, data dives, and mobile apps,
It will NOT be broadcast on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,
It will NOT be live-streamed, podcast, and available on catch-up
The revolution will not be televised”

Heron’s point, which holds true today, was that “the revolution” or change, starts in the head. We need to think carefully about how we get far beyond access to data.

This blog was originally published as an Open Knowledge Foundation blog. Duncan Edwards is ICT Innovations Manager at the Institute of Development Studies. Follow Duncan on Twitter. 

Other blogs by Duncan on Impact and Learning

Friday, 25 October 2013

Open Access futures?

by Rachel Playforth

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

I’ve heard this Gandhi quote applied to open access advocacy before, and the Open Access Futures conference I attended yesterday was an interesting indicator of where we are in that process.

Is it a good sign that the open access community feels able to argue endlessly about ‘Green’ or ‘Gold’ and the fine detail of Creative Commons licenses? Have we won the war and all that remains is to quibble over the spoils? Or have the commercial journal publishers turned out to be the real winners, yet again, while we fight each other over the correct pronunciation/transcription of ‘CC By’?

By making themselves major players in the open access market and (to be fair, often constructively) engaging in the debate, publishers have cleverly deflected attention from the unpalatable fact which accelerated the OA issue into public consciousness in the first place: their grossly inflated profit margins (close to 40% in some cases[1]) and the resulting ‘serials crisis’ that threatened the ability of libraries to perform their core function of providing information.

These profit margins have not decreased, as far as I can tell, but we seem to have tacitly agreed to stop mentioning them while publishers convince us that they care about open access.

In fact, so powerful is the publishing lobby that a huge part of the open access discussion now centres around protecting these very profits (embargo periods, a free APC market, etc). Should we accept this and work to find pragmatic solutions in what we’re told is a ‘transition’ period – or is it really just a transition from one source of income for publishers to another? Has the radical potential of open access been squandered? What would real disruptive change look like?

The conference did offer some hope that change on a grander scale is happening, mainly through the passion and energy of young academics who take the DIY approach - with a sensibility borrowed from hacker culture and open source technology. They are creating new platforms for scholarship that don’t just fill a gap for researchers priced out of the commercial OA market, but take disciplines in new directions and question the whole process of academic publishing. See eLife, Alluvium, the Open Library of Humanities.
Is grey literature the next frontier for Open Access?
Image is CC0 licensed

Other areas are also opening up outside academic institutions, with charities, independent institutes,
government agencies and NGOs not only benefiting from open access content, but creating their own. In most cases there is nothing to stop these organisations from making their publications freely available, and indeed many have been doing so through websites and self-publishing for years, but by adopting the norms and principles of open access we can share our content so much more effectively. Free from the stranglehold of commercial publishers, I believe that grey literature of all kinds is the next big unexplored area for open access.

A recent Thesis Whisperer blog post explored the frustrations of a researcher on the distance we still have to go, but by developing our institutional repository and working with international partners on exposing their own grey literature through open access, IDS is heading in the right direction.

[1] Of goats and headaches’, The Economist, 26 May 2011 

Other blogs by Rachel on Impact and Learning:

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Digital repositories – reaching the parts other websites cannot reach

By James Georgalakis

If you write a blog about what’s trending on Twitter or the latest website design fad you normally get some good engagement. If you write about Open Access to research you can normally get a debate going.

But when you start writing, or talking for that matter, about institutional repositories people’s eyes tend to glaze over. This is unfortunate because a key, perhaps essential, element of an innovative digital communications strategy that promotes Open Access to research is the use of a repository. Perhaps it is the name that puts people off or they simply assume this is the sole preserve of librarians.

Whatever the blockage is we need to get over it and fast.

Many research funders have long expected to see repositories host outputs they have funded. Universities have long been fully equipped in this area but many members of the development research community from think tanks to NGOs are simply publishing their outputs onto a traditional website.

This week, which is also Open Access Week 2013, IDS announced that it is in the process of digitising and publishing onto OpenDocs, its open access repository, its entire back catalogue of almost 2,000 research reports, working papers, practice papers, and other IDS Series Titles.

I will attempt to explain why I believe digital repositories are essential if you are serious about open access publishing and research uptake.

What is a digital repository, anyway?

Repositories are built on software that is international and interoperable, facilitating data exchange and re-use. In other words, they are highly compatible with other systems! The full text of each archived document is rapidly indexed by search engines and securely stored for the long term. In this way a repository like OpenDocs hugely increases the discoverability of IDS and our partners’ research through search engines such as Google scholar. This means more citations and hopefully more uptake and influence.

At IDS we have a good publications search area on our website which is one of our most popular pages. What you may not notice is that most of the documents you download are actually hosted on our repository. This is because OpenDocs adds value, securing additional hits from searches made from outside the IDS site as well as those done within the site. We also provide the links to all our partners’ and projects’ websites so that the research outputs they appear host all get downloaded directly from OpenDocs, which is crucial for our monitoring systems.

Many institutions use repositories to profile special collections or archives. This can result in large numbers of downloads where there are topical themes or big name academics involved. Perhaps not surprisingly, the very early days of IDS’ repository were marked with the launch of a Robert Chambers archive. Many repositories have built in analytics so that you can view downloads of specific publications or whole collections. Again, due to the wider reach of repositories, this gives you a far fuller picture of usage than the google analytics reports you may have been producing on your own website’s page views and downloads.

Of course repositories vary hugely and some can do quite different things to others. IDS uses a software package called DSpace which represents a different approach to digital collections management compared with other popular systems like Fedora.

IDS’ repository actually hosts two completely distinct collections:
  1. One is rather obviously the IDS Research Community  collection
  2. the other is the BLDS Digital Library of over 2,000 full-text publications from research organisations in Africa and Asia. 
Presently OpenDocs is mainly populated with text-only material but over time it may include datasets and multimedia content as well.

Warning: Digital repositories do not automatically meet all open access mandates

Open Access literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. Clearly repositories, with their ability to make research more widely available should form a crucial part of any open access strategy.

However, just because publications and other outputs are freely downloadable from repositories it does not mean they are free of all licensing restrictions. This means they may not meet the open access requirements of some funders. Every effort is now being made at IDS to ensure material in OpenDocs has a Creative Commons Attribution license.

So, if you are amongst those whose research and knowledge is not supported with a digital repository, you need to ask some hard questions. Does your institutional website offer the same benefits and if not what are you going to do about it? Failure to invest in this technology and promote its use across your networks may be undermining your potential reach.
Find out more about IDS' approach to open access publishing.
James Georgalakis is Head of Communications at the Institute of Development Studies. Follow James on Twitter

Previous blogs by James on Impact and Learning:

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Research to Action – A different slant on capabilities

by Elise Wach, Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning Advisor

At the Evidence and Power in Development Policy event at LSE a few weeks back, we were asked to write on index cards our unanswered questions related to the event (and to save our other non-event unanswered questions for another occasion).  I walked away with a few unanswered questions and issues to ponder, which I share here.

The event began, as to be expected, with an overview of the long-standing debates around the ‘linkages’ between ‘researchers’ and ‘policy makers’.  One of the main questions of the event was, ‘when researchers and policy makers are more closely linked, can researchers really challenge the normative ideas of policies?’  This idea of challenging normative ideas was thus resonating in the back of my head as Chris Whitty (Director of Research and Evidence Division at DFID) spoke about some of the realities of policy makers.  

Echoing the calls of many policy actors, he stated that research needs to be packaged for ‘instantaneous use’ and that researchers need to avoid trying to make their studies ‘seem more complicated than they are.’  ‘Policy makers’ (and I use quotes here to indicate that the term ‘policy maker’ can be quite misleading) want high level, tangible messages that they can use to make decisions about the way that something happens.

While I do agree that researchers could stand to improve their ability to communicate their ideas and research to others (which may require development of both social skills (!) and communications in some cases) I also think that there are a few larger systemic issues here that are normally assumed to be unchangeable.

We focus a lot on communication of research and on ensuring that policy makers have access to research and evidence, but should we also focus on the capabilities of policy makers to engage in research?  

To me, the capabilities of policy makers to meaningfully engage with research would include: the time that they have to do so, the ability to bridge the research and policy domains, and the capability to make sense of multiple sources of information and evidence (and here we are talking about evidence with a small ‘e’).

Time availability.  
With the reduction in staff numbers at donor agencies such as DFID, are these types of decision makers less able to engage with evidence in a meaningful way?   What information gets left out in a two page policy brief or in a 30 minute presentation?   Researchers don’t always make things ‘more complicated’ than they are.  Often times the issues are very complicated…or even complex!  For complex issues such as conflict mitigation or even food security, simple headlines are not enough. 

Bridging the divides.  
We talk a lot about how researchers need to be able to use less jargon and tailor their language and messaging to the needs and realities of policy makers.  Again, there is a lot that researchers could (and should) improve upon here.

Source: Ahamer et al 2010
But there are also other ways in which this gap may be bridged. 
People who have had experience in a variety of settings (research, policy, practice, different sectors, etc.) can play a key role in ‘translating’ information from researchers to policy actors and vice versa.  In network theory, such individuals are called ‘bridges’.

Encouraging diversity of career experiences, rather than promoting single track, ‘focused’ careers (even if it is just a short stint away from their long-term job) could help to improve the linkages between research, policy and practice.  Increased empathy may also help here (see this fun RSA animate on empathy and ‘outrospection’).

Perceiving and managing complexity.  
Many have argued that the type of thinking that has resulted in the types of problems that we have today (e.g. disparity, climate change, undernutrition, crime, etc.) is likely not well-suited to adequately solving them.

Dialectical thinking, identifying and examining our assumptions and perspectives and recognizing complexity might be able to help ensure that solutions to complex problems are valid in the long-term and beyond the scope of the specific problems which they seek to address.  

In some Adult Development theories, increasing skills or knowledge in a specific area is considered to be growing ‘horizontally’.    This is what we normally focus on when we talk about capacity development.  But we can also develop in our capabilities for ‘meaning making’ (vertical growth).  An article by Susanne Cook-Greuter explains this in more detail.

Catalysts of change.
Much work has been done on identifying and developing capabilities in leaders (see Snowden and Boone or Barrett Brown for accessible examples of this).  But it isn’t just the ‘top leaders’ that could benefit from increasing their capabilities in this area.   Civil servants, researchers, programme managers, etc. could also benefit from developing more ‘vertically’.  

One of the ILT’s latest papers is about ‘champions of change’.  In the paper, Sara Wolcott and I offer some musings about the capabilities and attributes of individuals who are able to make sense of and manage information in order to catalyse policy changes, based on a piece of research undertaken as part of the Transform Nutrition research initiative.  

There’s much more to say in this area, and I hope to share more on this topic in future posts.  In the meantime, we welcome your comments and feedback on this post and on the ‘champions’ paper.