Rufus Pollock

An exciting venture dedicated to the sharing of knowledge and information, the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) is creating a worldwide ecosystem of searchable data and the tools to interpret that data. Founded by Cambridge economist Rufus Pollock, OKF has big ambitions in fields that range from sonnets to statistics.

Embedded in OKF’s youthful and inclusive culture are the “Pantonprinciples”, guidelines drawn up in its local pub, the Panton Arms.

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The Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF), a venture co-founded by a Cambridge economist and committed to the sharing of knowledge from “sonnets to statistics, genes to geodata”, is playing a pioneering role in the movement to make more information available to the public and thus empower people to become involved in decision making, whether on a local, national or international level.

Last month OKF was awarded $750,000 to develop its activities over the next three years. The award, which comes from the Omidyar Network, will help the organisation to expand its financial transparency project, sustain and build working groups on open data, and establish offshoots in a growing number of countries round the world.

OKF was set up in 2004 by Rufus Pollock, with the mission of creating a worldwide ecosystem of good quality, reliable, searchable data, giving people the tools to be able to interpret that data and increasing data-literacy. Its overall aim is to empower people, both the average citizen and policy makers worldwide, to make better decisions based on the information which is available to them.

A shining example of a new kind of hybrid not-for-profit enterprise, with both a virtual and online presence, the organisation has mushroomed into a multi-stranded enterprise – from writing the software behind national data catalogues such as the UK’s data.gov.uk to educating scientists about the importance of publishing their work in open-access journals, from increasing understanding of rights to re-use Public Domain Works to developing a set of key principles which guide decision-makers in government about how to run an open-data policy.

Its core activities are building tools and communities around an ecosystem of open-data and the guiding principle and core theme in all OKF projects is the Open Definition. According to the Open Definition: “A piece of content or data is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike.”

OKF’s next major event takes place at the end of this month. The Open Government Data Camp in Warsaw is expected to attract members of government and civil society from all over the world. Activities will include: building consensus around core open data principles and values; building community  by expanding and strengthening the international open data community; sharing ideas on the future of open data and how we can do things better; and making things, from starting projects and making plans to writing code.

The camp is the second of its kind and is expected to be the largest Open Data Event in the world to date with participants from over 40 different countries. This year, a special focus will be given to drafting a set of Open Government Data principles to guide decision-makers all over the globe on how to effectively implement an open-data policy. Participants will share their experiences of implementing an open-data policy in their own countries and benefit from workshops, sessions and discussions on best-practices for governments wishing to publish their data.

With its headquarters in Cambridge, OKF has a growing number of offshoots internationally. ‘Chapters’ are already established in Germany and Austria and talks are in progress about setting up chapters or partnerships in Finland, Brazil and Kenya. The flexible structure as a largely volunteer-based organisation means that people can opt in and out of its activities according to their time-constraints.  Pollock remains at its helm as a director and the organisation maintains strong links with Cambridge. Pollock is affiliated to the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Law and Peter Murray-Rust of the Department Chemistry is a key proponent of the Open-Science movement. Many key players in OKF’s Cultural Heritage projects such as have come from Cambridge’s arts and humanities faculties.

OKF works by developing standards, tools and projects, all of which are breaking new ground in the way in which they give people access to information and the opportunity to participate in building tools and forming policies. Indeed, members of the community are encouraged to set up and run their own projects and are often given infrastructure and support to do so by the Foundation.

Its tools include AnnotateIt which allows users to annotate any web page simply by incorporating two lines of JavaScript into their site or by running OKF’s bookmarklet. While some projects are targeted at the general public, and offer ways of accessing information on government spending, for example, others focus on learning. Open Shakespeare, for example is designed as a tool to allow users to explore and discover Shakespeare’s works through discovering other peoples’ perspective and commentary with tools such as AnnotateIt.

Embedded in OKF’s youthful and inclusive culture are the Principles, guidelines drawn up by various members, including Peter Murray-Rust in a local pub, the Panton Arms.  These set out in robust terms OKF’s beliefs in the arena of open-science and include guidelines such as: “When publishing data make an explicit and robust statement of your wishes” [with regard to how you wish them to be used] and “If you want your data to be effectively used and added to by others it should be open as defined by the OpenKnowledge/ – in particular non-commercial and other restrictive clauses should not be used.”

Pollock is currently Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow, and an Associate of the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Law at Cambridge. He has worked extensively as a scholar and developer on the social, legal and technological issues related to the creation and sharing of knowledge. In a recent interview with the Guardian he described “vast silos of data that is not shared” and, while he acknowledged the role of technologies such as wikis, he emphasised that these were the exceptions not the rule and that a huge amount remained to be done in opening up of data.  In science, for example, most research is still published in non-open journals and access is restricted to those who can afford to pay a premium for it; this is despite the fact that much of the research behind the data was publicly funded, so most readers will already have ‘paid’ for it once through their taxes.

The work of OKF and others is vital in challenging our passive acceptance of the status quo, on one hand, and the obfuscation of institutions in their management of data sharing, on the other.  As countries such as the UK and Germany take a lead in transparency, so others will be under pressure to follow suit.  In this way OKF and similar organisations are making a valuable contribution to the sharing of data that empowers us to participate in decision-making processes, on both macro and micro levels and locally, nationally and internationally.

The Omidyar Network is a philanthropic investment firm dedicated to harnessing the power of markets to create opportunities for people to improve their lives. It was established in 2004 by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam. The network has since committed almost $450 million to for-profit and not-for-profit companies that foster economic advancement and individual participation.


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