UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

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What Does Openness Mean To Your Community?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 9 Apr 2008

Myself, Mike Ellis (Eduserv) and Ross Gardler (JISC OSS Watch) are the co-authors of a paper on “What Does Openness Mean To The Museum Community?” which has been accepted for the Museums and the Web 2008 conference. And I’m pleased that David Bearman (conference co-chair) response when he read the paper was that it should be discussed in a Professional Forum at the conference. Indeed David’s comment on the paper was “it sounds like it could be the most amazing session at MW this year” :-)

The paper suggests that openness can include open standards, open source, open APIs, open access and an open culture (i.e. a willingess to encourage user-generated content). But the paper also acknowledges that there is a downside to each of these aspects. Some of these concerns were raised by Nick Poole, Chief Executive of the MDA in a thread on “The speculative aspect of using Web 2” on the MCG JISCMail list. Nick commented:

… ‘how can you be so naïve’? Low cost of entry? We were promised that with Open Source Software and it turned out to be no cheaper. Reaching audiences while we sleep? They told us Z39.50 and interoperability would solve that and we’re still not there. Content Management will make everyone a publisher? You just try and get a username and password out of the Council IT Admin.

I’m pleased that Nick raised such concerns. He’s right when he suggests that the potential benefits of both open source and open standards have been over-hyped. And, similarly, the benefits of Web 2.0 can also be exaggerated. But my response to the concerns raised by Nick are to argue that we need to develop more sophisticated ways of engaging with these aspects of openness – and just because policy makers appear to feel that simply mandating use of open standards and open source software will be sufficient to deliver their benefits, doesn’t mean we are faced with the binary choice of accepting or rejecting such views. Rather we need to engage in discussions and debate on ways in which real benefits can be realised.

I’ve been involved in working collaboratively with others in developing models for exploiting the potential of open standards and open source software. At the Museums and the Web 2.007 conference I presented a paper on Addressing The Limitations Of Open Standards, co-authored with my colleague Marieke Guy and Alastair Dunning (then of AHDS). These ideas were further developed and extended to include open source and an open access in a paper on Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access co-authored by Scott Wilson (JISC CETIS) and Randy Metcalfe (then of JISC OSS Watch).

But there’s a need to build on these approaches and to develop approaches for exploiting other aspects of openness. And such approaches need to recognise the dangers and difficulties. But just because there are difficulties, doesn’t mean we should reject openness – rather it means we need to continue having the debate, whether it’s on mailing list such as the MCG list, on this blog or at the professional forum at the Museums and The Web 2008 conference. So I’ll ask here the questions w’ll be discussing in a few day’s time: what does openness mean to your community, what are the benefits it can provide, what are difficulties which are likely to be faced and, most importantly, how do you feel such difficulties should be overcome.

Your feedback is warmly welcomed.

3 Responses to “What Does Openness Mean To Your Community?”

  1. Iain said

    We’re still in the early days of openness and making it truly work so one would naturally expect to encounter difficulties. Big things were promised, but isn’t that true of most evangelism and hyped ideas?

    With my personal hat on, I’m involved with adapting the openShakespeare ( code to the works of Milton to allow, in time, groups of users to coalesce and share their ideas and mark up. I also have other projects that I’m working on in the same vein which I hope to submit to the Open Knowledge Foundation ( to encourage the remixing of work and sharing of ideas and open standards. I recognise that the model is not for all though.

    I’m doing this partially because I’m curious as to what would happen and how these standards can be utilised for communities.

    As you say, we need to engage in discussion and debate. We also need to build and experiment to discover pitfalls and talk to end users, find out what would be beneficial to them and their community. A case of build what we need to rather than what we want to and encourage / educate them to use open standards?

    I think we need to recognise that this debate is still in early stages and that, as thinkers and builders, we need to actually begin providing workable frameworks and perhaps accept that hyperbole has been spouted and admit that fact.

    Just my 0.02p

  2. […] What Does Openness Mean To Your Community? […]

  3. Really interesting stuff. Thanks so much for the post.

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