Reaching Agreement On The Public Domain For Science


Photo outside the Panton Arms pub in Cambridge, UK, licensed to the public under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike by jwyg (Jonathan Gray).

Today marked the public announcement of a set of principles on how to treat data, from a legal context, in the sciences. Called the Panton Principles, they were negotiated over the summer between myself, Rufus Pollock, Cameron Neylon, and Peter Murray-Rust. If you’re too busy to read them directly, here’s the gist: publicly funded science data should be in the public domain, full stop.

If you know me and my work, this is nothing new. We have been saying this since late 2007. I’ve already gotten a dozen emails asking me why this is newsworthy, when it’s actually a less normative version of the Science Commons protocol for open access to data (we used words like “must” and “must not” instead of the “should” and “should not” of the principles).

It’s newsworthy to me because it represents a ratification of the ideals embodied in the protocol by two key groups of stakeholders. First, real scientists – Cameron and Peter are two of the most important working scientists in the open science movement. Getting real scientists into the fold, endorsing the importance of the public domain, is essential. They’re also working in the UK, which has some copyright issues around data that can complicate things in a way we forget about here in the post-colonial Americas.

Second, it’s newsworthy because Rufus and I both signed it. Rufus helped to start the Open Knowledge Foundation, and he’s an important scholar of the public domain. We’re in many ways in the same fraternity – we care about “open” deeply, and we want the commons to scale and grow, because we believe in its role in innovation and creation…indeed, in its role in humanity.

But we’re on different sides of a passionate debate about data and licenses. I’m not going to recapitulate it here, you can find it in the googles if you want. Suffice to say we have argued about the role of the public domain as a first principle in general for data, as opposed to the specifics of data in public funded science. But for both of us to sign onto something like this means that even in the midst of heated argument we can find common ground – public money should mean public science, no licenses, no controls on innovation and reuse, globally.

It’s important for the science part. It’s also a good lesson, I hope, that even those of us who find themselves on opposite sides of arguments inside open are usually fighting for the same overall goals. I’ll keep arguing for my points, and Rufus will keep arguing for his, but that should never keep us from remembering the truly common goals we share inside the movement. I’m proud to be a part of it.

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Tech4Society, Day 3

I’ll start my final post on the Tech4Society conference by giving thanks to the Ashoka folks for getting me here to be a part of this conference. Most of the time, even in the developing world, I’m surrounded by digital natives, or people who emigrated to the digital nation. It’s an enveloping culture, one that can skew the perception of the world to one where everyone worries about things like copyrights and licenses, and whether or not data should be licensed or in the public domain.

There’s a big world of entrepreneurs out there just hacking in the real world. First life, if you will. High touch, not high tech.

Being enveloped in their world for a few days gave me a lot of new perspectives on the open access and open educational resources movements. As always with this blog, my intention to write may exceed my delivery of text, but I’m going to try to chew through the perspectives. Getting off the road in a few weeks is going to help.

But I now get at a deep level the way that obsessive cultures of information control in the scholarly and educational literature represent a high tax, inbound and outbound, on the entrepreneur, whether social or regular. If you don’t know the canon, you’re doomed to repeat it. And we don’t have the time, the money, or the carbon to repeat experiments we know won’t work. We can’t afford to let good ideas go un-amplified, because we need tens of thousands of good ideas.

At my panel today on scale, we focused mainly on why scale is hard, the problems of scale. The CC experience – going from 2 people in a basement at Stanford to 50 countries in 6 years – is an example of what I called “catastrophic success”. It’s a nice way to think of what I also like to call the Jaws moment, after the scene in the 1970s action film where, having hoped to find a shark to catch, they find one muuuuuch bigger than they expected. The relevant quote is “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” – and that is what happens sometimes at internet scale. Entrepreneurs need to know why they want to scale, what scale means to them, and how to measure success, especially social entrepreneurs. Because if cash isn’t the only metric, the metrics you choose will wind up defining your success at scale.

There was a great question about scaling passion. I am going to try and address that in another post. I’m not quite in a mental state to get that post out yet, though.

It wasn’t just the social entrepreneurs, but also CC community experiences. Gautam John challenged me, eloquently and at length, about the way that Creative Commons engages with its community. I went into the argument convinced of my position, and left much less so. That’s as good as arguments get for me.

Ashoka and Lemelson foundations are doing great work, supporting inventors around the world (though I would have liked to have seen some Eastern bloc inventors – a curious lack of Slavic accents – wonder why). It was an honor to crash their party.

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Tech4Society, Day 2

Getting ready to head up to Tech4Society’s final day. I’m on a panel called the tipping point, about how to scale social entrepreneurial success beyond a local region or state. My instinct is to say “pack your suitcase and start traveling” but that’s not very helpful. Even if it’s how I have been approaching the problem.

Yesterday I wasn’t on a panel. It was a good moment to do some listening. I sat in on a few panels, but was most moved by the trends in Africa session. In other trends panels, the trends were things like “open source” – positive trends. In Africa it was all about how difficult the governance problems are, how an innovator or social entrepreneur is looked on with at best skepticism or out worst outright hostility, by both local society and by the government.

It was still amazing to hear the breadth of ingenuity at work. I heard about training rats to sniff out landmines, clay refrigerators that allow girls to go to school rather than hawking the harvest before it spoils…and in the same breath, about how it takes five hours to get one hour of work done, because of the difficulty of keeping a steady power supply.

At lunch I crashed the Indonesian table, where I was asked if I was part of the youth venture group. Nicest age-related compliment I’ve gotten in a while (the youth venture folks are like 16 years old). But it does strip away any pretense of gravitas I thought I might have had.

I also got to spend some quality time with Richard Jefferson of CAMBIA. Richard is a seasoned social entrepreneur who has been hacking away at the patent problem in “open” biotech for about 20 years now. I always learn a lot from him.

At the end of the day the heat and the jetlag caught me, and I fell asleep before the dinner, which is a bummer.

I’m looking forward to having some time off the road in a few weeks to try and integrate this experience with the other travel over the past four months. There’s a long way between the World Economic Forum at Davos and this. The entrepreneurs here are doing what they do against such long odds that it can make the whole “cult of the successful entrepreneur” in the US look kind of lame.

It doesn’t take a hero to make a social networking site, it just takes some Ruby code. We have layer upon layer upon layer of infrastructure that makes it easy to innovate in the US. We have stable power grids, for the most part, and communications lines. You can buy a computer for under $500, slap Linux on it, and you’re ready to start a software company. You don’t have to pay a registration fee that takes six months, or worry that the government is going to crack down on you (despite what some crackpots may think) if you protest or run a business that disagrees with the ruling elites.

That level of social, political, and technical infrastructure lifts us all up who benefit from it. It’s invisible to most of us most of the time, and it’s a good thing to be reminded that it’s not something to be taken for granted.

Off to day 3.

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On the Nature of Ideas

I did an interview recently where the author, clearly having done some homework, called out an old quote of mine arguing that ideas aren’t like widgets or screws, that they’re not industrial objets.

I’d said that a long time ago, inspired by John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. Here’s the money quote: “Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.”

The world that John Perry was talking about has not come to pass, completely. The governments have certainly moved to impose more and greater controls. But as Lessig noted just a few years later in Code: and Other Laws of Cyberspace, the aspects of cyberspace that promised liberation, a nation of the Mind…those aspects were the output of human-controlled systems, and humans could and would change the rules if they didn’t like the outcomes.

I was there for parts of these conversations. Gave JPB a ride around town, harassing him about the declaration and about Cassidy. I put together Lessig’s book party for Code when it came out. But the thing about ideas stuck with me more than the rest.

I’d studied epistemology, the theory of knowledge. You get a lot of examples of attempting to codify ideas (and brains, the storage tanks of ideas) into the machinery of the time (See the masterful book, “Memory Practices in the Sciences” for more). But in the end, ideas resist complete capture.

They’re ethereal. We’ve spent thousands of years trying to codify them, into Plato’s forms, into machines, now into code. The dominant industrial paradigm tends to be the stuff we use to try and understand them and their human substrates – pumps and machines to explain the brain in the industrial age, circuits and pathways in the digital. This ethereal nature makes it hard to get the ideas into the powerful information systems of the day, which are based on bits and bytes. It’s one of the reasons that the most powerful idea transmissions systems we have are humanist – text, sound, video. It’s why something as lousy as powerpoint can take over, because it’s a way for people to talk to people.

It’s hard to make ideas into widgets or screws because of this. It’s also hard because we all see the world differently, even those of us who agree. We use common words as proxies to help convey that this red ball is an apple and this green ball is also an apple. Making the word apple into an abstracted computation tool is hard, because you have to decide what it means, and convince others to use your meaning rather than their own. Cyc’s been pushing on this for 25 years and we still don’t have the Star Trek computer recognizing our voices.

But we’re starting to have to try to make ideas at least representable as widgets. The problem is that the information space is overwhelming us as people. We can, using robots in the lab, sensor networks in the ocean, miniature microphones in public spaces, genotype smears on red light signals, generate data at such a level that we simply cannot use our own brains to proces the data into an information state that lets us extract, test, and generate ideas.

There’s two things we can do, one easy and one hard. First, we can make the existing technologies for idea transmission (writing it down onto paper and publishing it) more democratic and network friendly. That starts with good formats: putting ideas into PDFs is a terrible idea. The format blocks the ability to take the text out, remix it, translate it, reformat it, text mine it, have it read to a blind person via text-to-speech, and on and on. It continues with open access (so we don’t create a digital divide first, and so we enable the entrepreneurs of the world, wherever they are).

I’m at a conference in Hyderabad called Tech4Society that is packed to the gills with inventors and social entrepreneurs, who for the most part have no access to the scientific and technical literature. It’s all in English – which many, but not all, speak here. It’s very expensive – nuclear physics journals can cost more – per year – than a new car. And this is a tax on the entrepreneurs of the world.

Inventors have to invent. It’s in their blood. And they have the capacity to rapidly combine information from multiple sources to assemble new projects. I heard today of systems that leverage sugar palms in Indonesia to power villages, of local decentralized power panels for wind and solar to give each house its own power, and more and more and more. But this is being done without the newest knowledge, knowledge that is on the web somewhere…but locked up by paywalls.

We as Americans send a lot of money. We’d be a damned sight better if we sent a lot of knowledge.

The Open Access movement is being driven mainly inside the developed world. US and EU librarians feel the pinch of the serials pricing crisis, and funders like the US National Institute of Health and the Wellcome Trust take policy directions that lead towards the availability of the biomedical research. And it’s wonderful that the solutions to these problems all lift the developing world along the way. It seems that the scholarly literature will, in fits and starts, and in some disciplines faster or slower, find its proper place on the net, free of commercial restrictions, one of these days.

But it’s not just ideas, it’s what to do with the ideas. Richard Jefferson today made the lovely point that the patent literature is a giant database of recipes to make inventions. And that if you can find the inventions that were patented in the US, but not in India, you’ve got a lot of good stuff to work on in India. This is true. And deeply important.

But I got a little melancholy thinking of the stuff that comes before an inventor becomes a social entrepreneur, ready to apply for funding or speak in front of 200 people at a conference. Maybe they can’t read the patents and understand the information. Maybe they just need to build some furniture for their house, or fix the stove. I had a sense-memory of long shelves of the books in Home Depot, the how-to guides, the recipes for doing simple stuff, unpatented stuff, but essential stuff, and I look at the amazing user-driven innovative spirit that rules the day in India, and I want to cry at the amount of knowledge that is deprived. Give these folks the books and get out of the way!

I wish we could come together as a culture and create an open source set of how-to books to parallel the scholarly literature. Those book are how I learned to rewire sockets, to fix plumbing. Where I learned what was dangerous and what was safe. They’re a place where those ideas, laid out in the papers that are becoming free, became methods that I could use. Where the ideas became actionable for me. Imagine if those books were movable from my server where I wrote them, to a server in Africa who translated them into Kiswahili, or Chichewa. If they could be formatted to be read on the mobile phones ubiquitous across the world. If they could lead to one more hour of light per night through the creation of lightweight photovoltaics.

Has anyone out there done this yet? Anyone interested in doing it? Anyone immediately get a rash and freak out? All of those reactions are interesting to me.

The second part of why ideas are hard will have to wait for the next post. Suffice to say the word “semantic” will feature prominently.

I’ll post more from day 2 tomorrow. Jetlag over and out.

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