Interview with Open Knowledge Foundation’s Jonathan Gray


Jonathan Gray (@jwyg) went to OKF Co-Founder Rufus Pollock about five years ago with a one page document which many moons later turned into WhereDoesMyMoneyGo.org. Since then he’s been working hard to make it easier to find and reuse all kinds of content and data – including but not limited to government data.

Here he answers a few questions…

1. What does the Open Knowledge Foundation do and what is your role?

The OKF is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting ‘open knowledge’ in all its forms. This includes open data, open content and material which is in the public domain. We work to make knowledge easier for anyone to reuse in lots of different domains – from government information to scientific research data to cultural works. For a while our informal motto has been ‘sonnets to statistics, genes to geodata’.

I’m the OKF’s Community Coordinator – which means I spend lots of time talking, writing, emailing and meeting people in order to ultimately build a stronger and better connected community around the Foundation. I try to close loops between those who have common interests and encourage them to collaborate with each other, and to engage in shared projects and initiatives at the OKF. If I had to depict my role in a game of Pictionary, I’d probably draw an address book with legs and a hat.

2. How can OKF be used as a tool for journalists?

We have lots of different projects and initiatives which might be relevant to journalists. For example you can request data you’re interested in on GetTheData.org. You can find open datasets from around the world using OpenDataSearch.org, or from around Europe at PublicData.eu. You can explore UK public spending on WhereDoesMyMoneyGo.org – and soon you will be able to explore spending data from around the world at OpenSpending.org. We also help to run numerous data catalogues – from the community driven CKAN.net (where anyone can add an open dataset) to official government data catalogues such as data.gov.uk, data.norge.no, or the official Dutch data catalogue.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the OKF serves as a decentralised network for people interested in reusing open data – from developers to designers to data journalists to data literate citizens. If you want to find someone to help you with something you can ping one of our many mailing lists, and there are lots of people who are very knowledgeable about all things related to finding, getting and reusing datasets. We also put on a mixture of events – from big events like the Open Government Data Camp last autumn to small hands-on workshops aimed at making things like the Eurostat Hackday.

3. As governments become more open (e.g. data.gov.uk), is the OKF made redundant?

Not really. In a way I love the idea of initiatives that are like a pair of bicycle stabilisers – used for initial support and then discarded when they are no longer needed. One can imagine a world in which the OKF and other organisations like it helped to open up the world’s data and then faded into the fog. I even used to joke about the built in obsolescence in my own role (i.e. building communities – then stepping quietly away).

But alas I don’t think this is going to be the case in relation to open government data for several reasons. First we need not only data but strong reuser communities around it. The recipe for a thriving open data initiative is not just raw data now, but data plus tools
plus communities. I think there will always be room for loose-knit network based organisations like the OKF to put on fun events, to keep people with shared interests in touch, and to act as a hub for people who want to work on shared projects (like CKAN or OpenSpending.org or the Open Data Manual).

Jonathan Gray, OKF Community Coordinator

4. Is data approachable to the non-programmer?

I believe so. Of course not all data is equally as approachable – just as not all pieces of text are equally approachable (compare Harry Potter to James Joyce’s Ulysses or a university physics textbook).

  1. There is a lot of very valuable data that is very easy to interpret with the naked eye.
  2. There is a lot of very valuable data that is pretty easy to interpret, with a little bit of effort, patience, research and possibly guidance.
  3. Then there is also (not unexpectedly) a lot of data which is a complete nightmare and very difficult to interpret – and that is why we have clever tools and clever geeks and lots of cunning experts who know things about the data because perhaps they have built or administered the database, or gathered the data themselves.

Either way – the non-approachability of data to some people is an exceptionally poor argument in itself for not opening datasets up. And in the long term while more data literacy is probably a Good Thing for society, broadly speaking – not everyone needs to be a data geek in order to benefit from more open data. Just in the same way that not everyone needs to be a plumber or an urban planner in order to benefit from pipes or roads.

5. What is the future for open data?

Frankly – I have no idea. Some people argue we’ll see ‘small pieces, loosely joined’. The OKF is very keen on seeing how the open data ‘movement’ can learn from methodologies and techniques from the world of open source software – where you see lots of quite sophisticated, distributed collaboration. My colleague Dr. Rufus Pollock and others at the Foundation are very keen on this and have a strong vision of an ‘ecosystem’ of open data, similar to the ecosystem of open source software.

I think generally we’d like to hope that open data will be both ubiquitous and routine – i.e. as its value is recognised we’ll hopefully go from saying an enthusiastic ‘wow’ to saying an impatient ‘yes of course’. A lot of this is about unlocking potential innovation – i.e. useful and interesting things which we can’t anticipate.

Ultimately I hope that open data will enable more evidence based policy-making, better reportage and richer, more informed conversation across society. More open data in and of itself will not improve the world – but having better ‘maps’ showing where we’ve come from, where we are and where we’re going might help us plot our path into the future more intelligently, and to have more inclusive discussions about the various possible routes that we might take.

6. How could Driven by Data’s involvement help with the OKF?

We’d be delighted to see if any of you are interested in spending data, in the UK, in Europe or internationally, to help put the numbers we now have into context. We’re also always very keen to understand more about what journalists (and aspiring journalists) want, and what would be useful for them. Hopefully if there’s particular datasets you need – you’ll consider posting requests on GetTheData.org so others can help dig around with you!

If you have any ideas for projects you’d like to undertake, you can post them on ideas.okfn.org and we can try and find people for you to collaborate with, or perhaps even funding. And do get in touch if there is anything you need. We’re here to be helpful.

By Michael Greenfield (@mgreenfield13)

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