Report From Open Knowledge Conference 2011

OKCon 2011 in Berlin was really a great conference and I’m really happy that I were there. Knowing what organizing conferences like this means I’d like to say a big thank you to the organizers.

I don’t have exact numbers but would think that about 200 people attended the conference.

The conference was rather big in terms of program. For two days there were five parallel tracks from 10:00-20:00. A regular slot for a presentation was only 30 minutes unfortunately so beyond some superficial questions there was no room to discuss the things presented. Also there were no time in the schedule between the sessions so it was always a hurry to change rooms. As a result everyone was in a constant hurry which made it difficult to talk to each other.

Well, critique aside. As I said the conference was really great. The program did not contain only OKFN core topics but for instance had many presentations about Open Hardware. I attended some of them and for me they were the most exciting ones.

Since this conference I’m convinced that the Open Hardware stuff will be the next big thing in peer production. I’m watching peer production since twelve years now and this branch of peer production is gaining more and more momentum during the last years. There seem to be really a lot of hackers out there who really want to hack that mechanical stuff.

When I compare the current state of what I see in Open Hardware movement with the history of Free Software then I’d say we are somewhere around 1987. I.e. the Linux kernel has not yet been invented and it’s still twelve years until the general breakthrough of this stuff. I’m really curious what will happen here.

What really strikes me is that very similar to Free Software the Open Hardware movement starts with building the basic tools from which more Open Hardware can be built. Remember that very early GNU software was Emacs (an editor – well at least it can also be used as an editor 😉 ) and the GCC (a C compiler – a very basic tool to compile C programs into machine language) with the accompanying toolset. These are both very complex programs which are needed to write software – proprietary and Free alike. For both tools it took time since they matured.

Another interesting parallel which I learned about is this. Remember GNU/Linux 15 years ago. It existed and you could install it but it still was better you understood what you are doing. This is no longer the case for many years now – nowadays every idiot can install say Ubuntu on a normal computer and ends up with a running system. I always argued that such a dynamic is possible because in software you can automate things and this way obsolete special user abilities. I think this type of dynamic is a very important feature to make a family of peer products successful. However, I thought that this is a special feature of software.

Today I learned that similar things are possible with mechanics. In his presentation Lieven Standaert briefly compared the RepRap with the MakerBot. Although it is possible to build a RepRap it takes weeks to build and to fine-tune it so it gets close to some precision without which the whole thing makes no sense. The parts of the MakerBot on the other hand are created by a laser cutter which has itself a very high precision. This high precision is „inherited“ to the parts so it’s easy to quickly build a pretty precise machine even for a laymen. This quite closely resembles the dynamic I described above for software: you can design things in a way that obsoletes special user abilities. Being not an engineer I wonder whether this type of dynamic is applicable more generally or whether this is possible only in rare instances like this.

I didn’t take notes during the presentations but the slides from most presentations were pretty good so you may check them out when they are online (which I guess will happen at some point).

Here are the presentation and talks I attended and I found remarkable with some short comments:

  • From Openness to Abundance by Glyn Moody
  • Implementing an Open Data programme within government by Andrew Stott. Andrew gave a very good idea of what it means to implement an Open Data policy in government.
  • Global open data: a threat or saviour for democracy? by Chris Taggart
  • Scholarly Publishing Reform: What Needs to Change? by Björn Brembs. Björn gave us an interesting insight in how the current scholary rating works – and how flawed it is. Björn also gave some idea of what needs to be changed. This may be of special interest for CSPP.
  • Structural changes of the information economy – Google Books as a Blueprint? by Jeanette Hofmann. Jeanette gave us some very good insights into Google Books and how it changes the way of using books. One only can hope that this will not be the blueprint of information economy.
  • The emergence of a free culture movement by Mayo Fuster Morell. Mayo interprets the things going on around free culture as a social movement. In her talk she highlighted similarities and differences between classical social movements and this social movement.I found it interesting to see things this way. As you may know my approach is to see this movement more as the new „class“ which is already part of the new society. Its main interest in this society is to support their own interests. This is similar to the early capitalists which supported their own interests in the feudal system. They were more part of the upcoming form of society than the feudal one. I guess it was just as difficult to classify these early capitalists in terms of feudal notions as it is today for the peer production „movement“. I talked to Mayo afterwards and I understood that basically she agrees with this perspective.
  • We are the Creators! by Till Kreutzer. Certainly Till’s presentation was one of the most entertaining ones because he gave us some funny videos of mixing culture. Beyond this Till gave interesting insights in how copyright and the need to license stuff prevents culture to flourish. He finished with some suggestions on what needs to be changed on copyright. The most basic measure would be to change the focus from the rights of the creators to the rights of the public.
  • Developing open & distributed tools for Fablab project documentation by Anu Määttä. One of the main ideas of Fablabs is that you can produce designs you find elsewhere. Anu gave us some insights in the difficulties on how to organize a proper documentation so this is actually possible. She also presented solutions to this problem.
  • Repairable machines: lessons learned developing open hardware by Lieven Standaert. That was the session I talked about above. Check out Lieven’s website (link is from my memory so might be wrong).
  • Open data as business model by John Sheridan. Instead of what the title suggests John gave us reasons why there is a need for a business model for high quality government data: Cuts in public budget which make it increasingly difficult to have high quality Open government Data. He argues that for this it is necessary to develop a business model to fund creation of high quality Open government Data.

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