29 May 2012

Our baby's poo, disabling professions and open data

Eve woke this morning, crying in pain. She had passed one horribly large rock of poo, but more was still to come. And blood!

Our first port of call for every single issue we've had raising Eve has been the forums. My wife Sunshine would make a great case study in open and networked online learning.

This story illustrates how the professions have let us down, again, and how open data may bring unintended consequences if left unattended.

I searched, "baby poo stuck pain blood". Eve cried in the other room, and Sunshine called out "more blood!" In under 2 seconds I was reassured. To see that so many other people had been through this. If nothing else, that reassurance alone is the single most valuable thing about these forums, and the Internet. We're not alone, others have been through this, and their experiences are here to read. I clicked the result at a baby forum with the most activity and closest sounding description of the issue. While sunshine tried to reassure Eve, I called out sollutions as I read them. Vasaline. Cotton wool tip. Raise her knees to her chest. Push her perenium. Give water. Warm bath. Drink more water in future. It'll be ok.

Everything did work out OK. We played cartoons (downloaded from The Pirate Bay), and I read the forums some more, to share in the soothing words of other parents, all relieved they had helped each other through some drama, and that everything was ok - back in 2010 in their instance.

But I'm telling this story because I'm angry. It's that same anger that has driven me through the education sector these past 10 years. I'm angry at all those professionals who when asked about the Internet, like broken records of nothing substantial, they almost always mumbled some nonsense like, "you can't trust the Internet"... And if that useless display general ignorance wasn't enough, they usually plucked some extreme story they had no first hand knowledge of to supprt their general opinion. They almost always completely missed any of the sociological importace of the Internet, that we're alone together, and the purpose of their profession will come under question.

A frame from the LMS Comic

Ivan Illich wrote, Disabling Professions in 1987, and unless anyone out there thinks I'm wrong to generalise professional ignorance regarding the Internet these past 10 perhaps 20 years, then I think it can be cited as a specific example. Instead of investing in direct engagement with ICT projects expressly designed to enable people: free software, open standard formats, open hardware, free copyrights, free content initiatives, and an impressive array for communication channels that many lay people use to help each other, the professions chose to ignore all this, denounce popularism, and compete with these enablers. They spent millions of public money setting up their own, parochial websites, offering no cross over into socially relavent channels, restricting access with passwords, preventing reuse with copyright, and ultimately offering very little that was useful compared to what was happening through volunteerism in other channels. And then, time and time again, the professions would close down their useless websites due to a change in funding heart, leaving it up to another generally ignored space, The Way Back Machine at the Internet Archive, to pick up the pieces.

Almost all Australian government websites still, to this day, have no or useless RSS feeds.
Education.au, EDNA, LORN, the list is long for dead education projects. Most public schools in Australia block channels like Youtube, and do nothing to fix their networks so that Wikipedia can be edited. Most public servants have only a basic understanding, and no critical appreciation of free software and interoperable formats for the documents they pass around. It's endless!

Of course, there have been exceptions. Mostly in the last couple of years. In Australia, one of the first that I can remember was Picture Australia setting up a group on Flickr, to leverage the popularity of that channel and capture and retain images of Australian culture getting passed out to Yahoo! Trove is another noteworthy project, harvesting content through the PA Flickr channel, combining it with the National Library's own collections of digitised print-based archives, and making it all openly available online, complete with citation code to aid reuse in Wikipedia and related projects. Another Australian library project is the State Library of Queensland loading their historic and out or copyright pictures to Wikimedia Commons, to also aid reuse in Wikipedia and related projects.

But these are by far the exception to the rule. No Australian university or training college has significantly engaged in the development of open academic practices that I'm aware of. A few have symbolicaly joined the OERU, and we tollerate the ongoing ignorance from people in high places of Australian Research, but some don't let it pass. I'm not aware of any effort to make the Australian health and medical profession's knowledge more accessible and useful, although the Australian Cancer Council may be the first to try in some small way.

Many would attempt to cite the Gov2au campaign as trying to make the political and public service professions more enabling, and while on the surface it may appear to be so, I worry about what's beneath, and I worry about the apparent absence of critical discourse about the ideas.

Take "open data" for example. How is it that open data isn't integral to the scientific method anyway? How did it come to pass that access to scientific data would be allowed to become so exclusive, despite the technology rendering such practices obsolete? Why did a couple of Swine Flu Vaccine researchers get access to a large amount of unpublished data from the pharma developing a vaccine?

An even more obvious question might be around who stands to gain from open data, how they might gain, and what might be done to ensure open data initiatives remain enablers, remembering the technology cuts both ways...

For example, copyright and reuse of open data. While I'm a big advocate for zero to attibution only copyright generally, when it comes to software code and data, there's a good reason for applying the Share Alike restriction. If data producers suddenly make their content open (and  still no one questions the merit of scientific conclusions drawn from what must have been closed data btw) that producer might consider their new found openness as enough of an effort in making their work accessible and useful. They may stop at this open data stage, simply making their formats conform to open standards, licensing their data sets with Attribution only copyright licenses, and making it accessible online. As the Internet becomes even more flooded with all this wonderfully open data, who among us has the capacity to check and make sence of it all?

The professional agencies that released the data will believe that openness was enough from them, and think to do little more to help people get meaning from it all. The hopeful among us will turn eyes to the politically unaffiliated volunteers who make free software and content, and they'll produce the wonderful examples and feel-good stories that will become the stock stories for anyone and everyone who utters the words open-data.

But the stories we won't see will be the private entities drawing on the open data for private, maybe even disabling, interests. A company like Murdoch Press might cherry pick data, as they do, and spend money visualising those cherries to tell a story they think needs to be told, or untold. They'll publish that visualisation in a nonreusable format and copyright license, for a restricted influential audience. And that would be their right under the CC By license that the original data was made available under. Further, the Public Service Information agency that released that data in the first place, may just close down their own efforts to visualise and make useful all their data, happy for the company or corporate entity to do that work for them, all be it in a highly selective manor. They'll dub it "industry engagement" for "selling science", and win Linkage grants for it. And they'll end up paying eye-gouging royalties for the "partnership" too!

The wider public and their tax funded data will be right back where they started. Practically unusable information, save for the heroic unrewarded volunteers, who's stories fed the corporate lobby to make more data "open". Our deliberation will remain polarised and heated, and we'll continue to fall into economic traps because no one could make sense of all that open data. Share Alike, the capacity to police it, and rewards and recognition for enabling projects, may be the only way to ensure that all visualised derivatives of data come to us with reusable copyrights, and hopefully useful formats.

This ramble started in baby poo and ended in copyright for open data. What's it was really about is how we continue to enable our society, and guard against all that which would disable us. I hope it made at least some sense.

24 May 2012


A recording made on Seminyak Beach.

Here's another mixed to skiing footage

10 May 2012

Health research in Australia goes open access.. finally!

I learned today, that the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) will mandate research that is funded by them, to be open access within a year of publication. A good first step I think, but conservative as always.

Almost precisely the advice I was giving at UC that, I think in part, cost me the job there. The other part was my insistence I suppose. I tried to use the prediction that NHMRC would go open access, to convince a UC Research Committee that they should start developing pre-emptive research publication and storage practices, given the real time it takes to adequately resource and develop anything like adequate practices within a university.

NHMRC are moving faster than expected, by Australian standards.

Need to include this in the Open Data Wikibook: http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Open_Data