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The #opendev debate: from OKCon and ODC13 to OKFest

on December 6th, 2013 at 1:08:19 PM

We are moving beyond the hype of “open development”. At OKCON and online, questions about what “open development” is, how it affects change and what ethical issues arise when talking about open in development have continued to come up. At the Open Development Camp (ODC13), the Open Knowledge Foundation and Open for Change Network organised a kick-off debate for a series of discussions on pressing issues facing the open development movement. The specific topics shall we identified in a collective process. We will close off with an offline debate or event at OKFestival in July 2014.

Take-aways from ODC13

Our main take-away from the debate at ODC13 on November 8th was that the “open development movement” should take a political position, become clearly values-driven, and take a role in raising awareness and accountability of these issues in the international development sector, as well as in connecting people across other “open” domains.

We reflected on the outcomes of the debate at ODC13 and would like to suggest five topics to explore each in an online debate (more details to follow soon, and not necessarily in this order):

  • Combining citizen-based and institutional forms of organising
  • A rights-based view on (online) equity, security, transparency, and justice
  • Ethics, privacy, ownership and inclusion
  • “Open development” as political position in other “open” domains
  • “Open4D”, how does “open development” relate to other “4D” movements (ICT4D, KM4Dev, M4D, OD4D)

The first conversation took place in a very diverse, yet limited circle of participants. Therefore, we want to suggest these topics as directions for the upcoming debates and explorations, and move back into the offline agora during OKFestival in June 2014.

We also wish this to be a truly inclusive conversation and therefore encourage you to share with us your suggestions on how we can enable a more global and inclusive form of upcoming debates. (We’ve included some links to other publications at the end; and there will be discussions on this at the ICT4D conference in Cape Town, see for instance

Looking back on the debate at ODC13

Reflecting on the kick-of debate at ODC13 debate, here are Kersti’s thoughts as OKFN ambassador in the Netherlands and Open for Change co-organiser of the ODC13 debate:

We were thrilled to gather a very diverse crowd of people, from activists, active members of transnational collectives as well as people from NGOs and international institutions. Expectantly diverse, partially controversial and consequently fruitful was the discussion evolving. We perceive this as a good thing.

Bringing together the grassroots activists community and the more institutionally bound community surfaced diverging perceptions of open development as well as apparently diverging senses of belonging on a global scale. Some people perceive open development mainly as a new tool set and feel maybe even threatened by arising power shifts which raise questions to the legitimacy of conventional aid work. Others within the open movement are closely intertwined on an increasingly dispersed global scale - ideologically and in their common strive for a more equitable global society. Whilst some of us seem to strongly identify themselves as being part of a global community of like-minded citizens, strongly driven by the believe in apparent changing power structures on a global scale, others are departing from the more traditional, dichotomic development thinking of ‘us’ and ‘them’. As clearly stated in the debate, the understanding of power dynamics is a recurring missing piece in the development sector over a long time.

The debate also witnessed a still remaining tech-drivenness, something we have witnessed widely over the last years of ICT4D and Mobile4D hypes.This leads to a certain need to tackle the question on how we can escape the same old narrative and be truly inclusive and people-driven. Moving away from a tech-dominant perspective and practice also strongly relates to the recognition of a global power shift and increasing citizen agency. During the debate the question arose how we are developing this sort of agency. Such thoughts confirm the partially traditional stance within a supposedly ‘radically’ shifting field and therefore reinforces the need to more prominently discuss the shifting power structures from within civil society and therefore the emphasis on the fact that the concept of agency we refer to is arising from with civil society. This still reflects a partially top-down way of thinking and seems to not fully acknowledge the more radical power shift currently happening, where transnational citizen agency evolves outside of traditional institutions. If comfortable or not, precisely such dynamics bring forward the question for a shifting role of institutional structures within the development sector and what their role should be. The expressed need for organisational cultural change gained attention. Concern arose towards the danger of institutional approaches swallowing grassroots approaches. 

The role of citizen agency addressed two layers in those regards. One is the global citizen-driven strive for agency and consequent reflection on the need for organisational cultural change. The other is the potential role of openness (open data, open tools, etc. ) to support citizen agency, meaning the consideration of ‘liberating technologies’ as backbone of the underlying power shift and political struggle. Stronger recognition is needed that open development is not an end it itself and we have to be very careful to not move down the same old roads of “technology X for development”. The concept and the potentials of openness may rather be seen as a means to a political end. In those regards suggestions arose to ‘look left and right’ in order to learn from much older movements which, even if with a different narrative, have been fighting the same struggles for decades. There is much to learn from e.g. the communication rights movement. Directly related,  discussion arose on the diversity of contexts and consequent challenges which have to be considered. Not a new debate in itself it already proofs under emphasised in the current well-praising of open development with specific regards to the data aspect (data is not available in most parts of the world, nor is data literacy, nor are coherent legal frameworks such as FOI laws as enabling environment).

Particularly emphasised during the debate were two aspects which need stronger attention and seriosity, namely security and privacy. It has been stressed that we, as journalists or activists, are often not sufficiently aware of threats to our privacy. At the same time many organisational driven projects need stronger focus on built-in security elements. Ethics and the balancing act between openness and privacy are recurring topics.

We need to recognise that the open movement is ideologically rooted in in the strive for equity, the freedom of expression and freedom to information. The open movement is not neutral. If we really want to take a consequent rights-based stance we need to realise the relevance of all open domains therein. As addressed during our debate, the open development movement, if consequently living up to those promises often undermined in other development streams (e.g. ICT4D) may be well positioned as mediator between the domains, as a gateway for cross-domain and trans-national collaboration and the institutional side of the ball game may recognise the citizen-driven emergence of agency and rethink their role within the movement.

Such recognitions finally gain increasing attention within the broader community. Below we are listing several related articles that arose over the last months.

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