Digital public institutions for the information commons?

I’ve been thinking a bit about “the commons” recently. Specifically, the global information commons that is enabled and supported by Creative Commons (CC) licences. This covers an increasingly wide variety of content as you can see in their recent annual review.

The review unfortunately doesn’t mention data although there’s an increasing amount of that published using CC (or compatible) licences. Hopefully they’ll cover that in more detail next year.

I’ve also been following with interest Tom Steinberg’s exploration of Digital Public Institutions (Part 1, Part 2). As a result of my pondering about the information and data commons, think there’s a couple of other types of institution which we might add to Tom’s list.

My proposed examples of digital public services are deliberately broad. They’re intended to serve the citizens of the internet, not just any one country.

Commons curators

Everyone has seen interesting facts and figures about the rapidly growing volume of activity on the web. These are often used as examples of dizzying growth and as a jumping off point for imagining the next future shocks that are only just over the horizon. The world is changing at an ever increasing rate.

But it’s also an archival challenge. The majority of that material will never be listened to, read or watched. Data will remain unanalysed. And in all likelihood it may disappear before anyone has had any chance to unlock its potential. Sometimes media needs time to find its audience.

This is why projects like the Internet Archive are so important. I think the Internet Archive is one of the greatest achievements of the web. If you need convincing then watch this talk by Brewster Kahle. If, like me, you’re of a certain age then these two things alone should be enough to win you over.

I think we might see and arguably need more digital public institutions who are not just archiving great chunks of the web, but also the working with that material to help present it to a wider audience.

I see other signals that this might be a useful thing to do. Think about all of the classic film, radio and TV material that is never likely to ever see the light of day again. Not just for rights reasons, but also because its not HD quality or hasn’t been cut and edited to reflect modern tastes. I think this is at least partly the reason why we so many reboots and remakes.

Archival organisations often worry about how to preserve digital information. One tactic being to consider how to migrate between formats to ensure information remains accessible. What if we treated media the same? E.g. by re-editing or remastering it to make it engaging to a modern audience? Here’s an example of modernising classic scientific texts or and another that is remixing Victorian jokes as memes.

Maybe someone could spin a successful commercial venture out of this type of activity. But I’m wondering whether you could build a “public service broadcasting” organisation that presented refined, edited, curated views of the commons? I think there’s certainly enough raw materials.

Global data infrastructure projects

The ODI have spent some time this year trying to bring into focus the fact that data is now infrastructure. In my view the best exemplar of a truly open piece of global data infrastructure is OpenStreetMap (OSM). A collaboratively maintained map of our world. Anyone can contribute. Anyone can use it.

OSM was set up to try to solve the issue that the UK’s mapping and location infrastructure was, and largely still is, tied up with complex licensing and commercial models. Rather than knocking at the door of existing data holders to convince them to release their data, OSM shows what you can deliver with the participation of a crowd of motivated people using modern technology.

It’s a shining example of the networked age we live in.

There’s no reason to think that this couldn’t be done in for other types of data, creating more publicly owned infrastructure. There are now many more ways in which people could contribute data to such projects. Whether that information is about themselves or the world around us.

Getting coverage and depth to data could also potentially be achieved very quickly. Costs to host and serve data are also dropping, so sustainability also becomes more achievable.

And I also feel (hope?) there is a growing unease with so much data infrastructure being owned by commercial organisations. So perhaps there’s a movement towards wanting more of this type of collaboratively owned infrastructure.

Data infrastructure incubators

If you buy into the fact that we need more projects like OSM, then its natural to start thinking about the common features of such projects. Those that make them successful and sustainable. There are likely to be some common organisational patterns that can be used as a framework for designing these organisations. Currently, while focused on scholarly research, I think this is the best attempt at capturing those patterns that I’ve seen so far.

Given a common framework then it’s becomes possible to create incubators whose job it is to launch these projects and coach, guide and mentor them towards success.

So that is my third and final addition to Steinberg’s list: incubators that are focused not on the creation of the next start-up “unicorn” but on generating successful, global collaborative data infrastructure projects. Institutions whose goal is the creation of the next OpenStreetMap.

These type of projects have a huge potential impact as they’re not focused on a specific sector. OSM is relevant to many different types of application, its data is used in many different ways. I think there’s a lot more foundational data of this type which could and should be publicly owned.

I may be displaying my naivety, but I think this would be a nice thing to work towards.