Almost exactly two years ago, I trekked up to Albany, NY for the International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance
or ICEGOV (seriously, how about that acronym?). The conference’s theme that year was “Open Innovation for Global Change.” It was my first real initiation into the ‘open’ movement, but with keynotes from the likes of Sir Nigel Shadbolt
, co-founder of the Open Data Institute
(ODI) and Beth Noveck
, the White House Open Government Initiative
’s former director, I quickly signed onto the “open” movement.
The ‘open movement’ seemed like a natural outflow of a core government value—being transparent and accountable to citizens. It also seemed like a natural way for the government to stimulate economic activity, as open data proponents argued that opening up data and governance could empower and enable entrepreneurs and the private sector to create more businesses and jobs. But when I attended a local government conference a few weeks later back home in North Carolina, there seemed to be a disconnect between the global leaders and researchers who embraced the ‘open movement’ and local government officials who would be responsible for opening up their organizations' data.
No one was talking about open governance, open data, open source or open anything. Not only was ‘open’ not a discussion topic, it seemed North Carolina cities were just then moving towards collecting and analyzing big data. I wondered how the ‘open’ movement could gain traction in North Carolina if local governments were struggling with even collecting and using data.
Fast forward to today, and it appears North Carolina, and the Triangle in particular, has made some headway in the ‘open’ movement since 2012. Raleigh is again hosting the “All things Open Conference
” next week (October 22-23, 2014). Raleigh passed an open government resolution
in Feb 2012, both Raleigh
and Wake County
have created open data portals where anyone can download government data and Durham and Cary are in the early stages of opening up their data for public use.
Outside of the Triangle, Asheville and Charlotte are the only NC cities dabbling in the ‘open movement.’ Charlotte’s dabbling take the form of an open mapping initiative or downloadable GIS data, and Asheville has created an app citizens can download and report problems they encounter to the city.
With little participation from the majority of the state, or the non-metro areas, open advocates have some more work to do to truly spread the movement throughout North Carolina.
But the All Things Open (ATO) conference is as good a place as any to start—or continue—talking about how to best propel the
movement beyond the Triangle and NC’s biggest cities. To learn more about the conference, the 'open movement' and how it
impacts startups, entrepreneurs and our economy in general, I recently caught up with Jason Hibbets (pictured right), a self-professed “civic-minded geek”, project manager at Red Hat and author of “The Foundation for an Open Source City,” and Todd Lewis, the conference chair of the ATO conference.
By now, you’ve probably at least heard of “open source” or “open data,” but for the sake of the uninitiated, here are a few definitions to remember as we dive into all things open:
Open Source— the Open Source Initiative says open source “doesn’t just mean access to the source code” but that the software itself must comply with 10 criteria, including free distribution, no discrimination against persons or groups, and the need for the license to be technology-neutral. To see the rest of the criteria, check out their site. Open Data— as defined in the Open Data Handbook
open data is “data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone—subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share alike.”
Open Government—As Hibbets mentions in his book, open government is defined differently by different people, but has three basic tenants: that government should be transparent, collaborative, and encourage participation from citizens.
The combination of all of these components, coupled with a “culture of openness”, is what Lewis calls the ‘open revolution,’ Hibbets calls the ‘open source way’ and what I’m calling the ‘open movement’ (because revolution seems too scary and open source seems to too technical for me).
What is the All Things Open Conference?
Last year was the All Things Open Conference’s inaugural year. Lewis (pictured below) says he and the conference organizers “firmly believe that ‘open’ is the future,” and are “huge on access and quality content” so they set out to create a “world-class conference affordable to the average person.” Hibbets also highlighted the conference’s affordability, noting that it is very important to organizers that anyone interested in the content can come.
Both Hibbets and Lewis say they have attracted a high caliber level of speakers, talent and thought leaders from companies such as GitHub, Facebook, IBM and Red Hat. Conference attendees will be learning from some of the best in the business about how to open up their data and better use open source code and software. But Lewis says ATO isn’t only focused on the user, but the “use of open technology within the enterprise,” a focus that distinguishes this conference from other ‘open’ conferences. And with a keynote from James Pearce, the Head of Open Source at Facebook, attendees will have the opportunity to learn how the social media giant uses open technology in their enterprise.
Lewis also said the organizers, “value diversity” and seek participants “who are not traditionally involved in the tech sector or the open source world.” And with four tracks for the breakout sessions attendees can choose from, the ATO’s commitment to diversity seems to be more than just lip-service. The four tracks will provide educational opportunities for developers, operation specialists, business and IT specialists, and anyone interested in open data and open government. There will even be a panel discussion, led by women, on the topic of how to level the playing field for women in open source and technology in general.
The Triangle's culture of openness
Raleigh was chosen as the conference’s location because Lewis and other organizers “strongly believe the area (the Triangle) is at the forefront of technology in general, as well as what we call the “open revolution.” The choice was an obvious one, Lewis says—we have a ‘cluster’ of open source companies like Red Hat and Lulu and “if we were betting people we’d be ‘long’ on Raleigh and the RTP,” he says. And with a slew of events and groups focused on open data, open government, and open source in the Triangle there's evidence the open movement is building in the Triangle. Last month, Raleigh hosted the second annual NC Datapalooza, where three startups, Stone Soup, HealthScout, and FreeWheeling NC used open health data to build their applications and competed for a cash prize. The winner, Stone Soup (who we profiled here
after their Triangle Startup Weekend win) uses open data to help solve food insecurity in North Carolina.
The Triangle is also home to Code for America brigades in Raleigh, Cary and Durham. Hibbets is a brigade captain for the Code for Raleigh team and says among other projects, they have helped the city clean and sanitize data to be uploaded to the Open Raleigh portal. Code for Durham, a relatively new chapter of the Code for America Brigade has already used open data to create one app, “NC Food Inspector.” Their second app, “School Inspector,” is currently under construction.
How the ‘Open Movement’ changes things
If you’re an entrepreneur or work for a startup, it is likely you use open source technologies frequently or at least occasionally. With companies like Tesla shunning patents and opening up their technologies for anyone to use (think, the API), the open source movement is increasing the pace at which innovation occurs. Entrepreneurs and technologists can build upon existing technology quicker and cheaper. As Lewis says, the movement has, “made great technology and content available to individuals and companies that otherwise would not have had access or been able to afford it.” Lewis goes on to say, that the ‘open movement’ positively impacts the economy because it enables more people to create companies and develop products or solutions, which can lead to the creation of jobs. He doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that companies are seeking to participate in the movement because they “realize what we've known for years–that 'open' pushes innovation and attracts the absolute brightest minds in technology.” At the very least, with keynotes from bright minds like the founder of Hadoop, Doug Cutting, DeLisa Alexander of Red Hat, and speakers like Pamela Vickers of Atlanta Rails Girls, and Brian Hyder of PencilBlue (this site’s platform) we bet ATO will attract bright minds even if the movement doesn’t.
At this point, you’re probably rolling your eyes thinking, “I get it. The ‘open movement’ is at least important enough I should be following it or partaking in it, but I already knew that.” And you’re right; I should probably stop preaching to the choir. But some questions I’ve been stuck on for a while are: How does the movement spread? Why is it important that it does? How much value can our economy gain from the movement if it’s confined to urban & tech heavy areas? What will happen to the rural areas if they don’t sign on to the movement? How do we define what is open and what is ‘too open’? And will "All Things Open" be an annual conference or a movement?
With all these questions, I’m eagerly anticipating the ATO conference next week and looking forward to learning about all things open (pun intended).