The How of Open

by SF Team, 15 May 2014

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Open source, open access and open educational resources are a positively disruptive force on markets and have increased choice for citizens in many different ways. Be it the manner in which you access education or learn about the way your government spends your taxes, the result is that more people know about and embrace openness than ever before.

This success has also made the term fashionable and sometimes leads to overenthusiastic uses of the open label or, more worryingly, open-washing. It can result in uncertainty and confusion for those who plan to open up knowledge resources for strategic purposes. The detail of how open is open, matters.

Although governments and inter-governmental organisations are adopting the creation and use of open knowledge resources, there is a surprising lag by the majority of non-profit organisations, philanthropies and other social change makers in adopting policies and practises that make their own knowledge resources free. Perhaps one reason for this lag is an assumption that existing informal practises, such as making reports available and free to access on their websites, means that they are open. It does not.

We have found that co-creating communities are familiar with the details of legal permissions around knowledge resources and are distrustful of projects which are not completely clear on this issue, closed or open. Many are averse to the risk of intellectual property litigation and will avoid re-using knowledge resources when permissions are unclear, rendering the initial investments of those wishing to be truly open, neutralised.

We have the privilege of working with creative, imaginative people who implement fascinating projects by using open knowledge resources strategically to bring about social change. From our shared experience, here are some ideas that we found useful.

Find out what open really means: There are a number of very useful descriptions of what constitutes open. For open source software there is the Open Source Definition. Proponents of free software also use the Free Software Definition. The Budapest Open Access Initiative applies to academic research and writing. The Cape Town Declaration on Open Education calls for open educational resources to be freely shared. A more general description of open is the Open Definition: “A piece of data or content is open if anyone is free to use, reuse and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and/or share-alike”.

Create a policy on openness: There may be good reasons to keep particular resources closed. The best way to find out is to have a policy that all resources shall be open unless and until someone gives a compelling reason not to.

Change the default setting: Traditional copyright protection defaults to closed. Change the default by actively applying an open licence. It is necessary to take active steps to open a resource by using either a public domain dedication or open copyright licence. To be open, a knowledge resource must meet the minimum criterion of being legally open for copying, remixing and redistribution. The commonly used dedications and licences are created specifically so that you do not need to be a lawyer to use them effectively.

Start today: It may be hard to put all the resources which you’ve ever funded under an open licence. You don’t have to start at the beginning. Instead you can identify those resources which are easiest to open, for example ones you own the copyright to, and those with the likely highest pay-off. Focus on those first. Continue by using open licences or public domain dedications for resources which you fund or create from now on.

Keep an inventory: If you know what you have, you know what there is to open up and where it might be most useful. It also helps to track resources in order to actively apply open licences to them and make them available to others.

Encourage modularity: Design resources to be modular, so that others can customise them more easily. This takes advantage of the propensity of people to value what they’ve made themselves, even when it’s simple assembly of existing parts.

Use open formats: Open is not just about permission, but also about enabling action. The use of open formats and adherence to open standards render resources more open on the continuum between open and closed.

Track re-use: Demonstrate the effectiveness of open resources by tracking downloads, remixes, and attributions.

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