Cambridge Open Knowledge meetup at Emmanuel College

Published by Richard Hare on


I’ve often tried to share what I learn. I’ve never had a concrete reason for doing so, I merely imagine there is a vague possibility that somewhere out there, there is someone who might benefit from what I know – however dull or irrelevant it may seem to most people.

Back in the 90s, fuelled by the desire to learn about the web (and not a little ego), I created a website to document my collection of records by U2. It wasn’t the best designed U2 site, it didn’t have the most up-to-the-minute new, but attracted a fair amount of traffic and lots of people linked to it.

In the early part of this decade, I was trying to sort out some recordings I’d made of Ricky Gervais’s XFM radio show. This was immediately after the first series of “The Office”, before the Golden Globes win, the second series and the record-breaking podcast. The show had been running for several months and producer Karl Pilkington was becoming a bigger and bigger part of it as he shared his strange worldview, so I began taping the banter between the songs.

Several months later, I sat down with a pile of tapes and tried to work out which segments were broadcast on which date. Helped by other fans who swapped recordings with me, I eventually identified them all and posted the information on my webpage.

Neither of these efforts are particularly impressive – and both are certainly indicative of a certain mindset on my part – but what is interesting is what happened next.

Aaron Sams read my U2 site (and, no doubt, other similar ones) and finding it lacking – it didn’t include any release I didn’t own – decided to create U2Wanderer, a definitive U2 discography.

Nigel Webb read my Ricky Gervais Show pages and decided to improve on them by creating the Pilkipedia, where fans discuss everything related to Gervais, Merchant and Pilkington on the forum, download the show and document their work collaboratively on a wiki.

Obviously I am not an academic and the knowledge I shared had little application beyond its own niche. But it was enough for me to appreciate an important principle: “someone else will have a better idea of what to do with your data than you will”.

The Benefits of Open Knowledge
Last night I went along to the Cambridge Open Knowledge meetup to learn about some of the social, legal and technological challenges we will increasingly face over the next decade as we struggle to unlock value by convincing others of this idea.

While the open source movement has focused mainly on code, data has been left behind. Most data is either unavailable, or badly structured, meaning work has to be done to make it usable. Most people don’t do this because they can’t imagine anyone else using their data, but as one of the speakers put it, “someone else will have a better idea of what to do with your data than you will”.

Rufus Pollock gave a good overview of the problems, speaking about the need for standards when sharing data and highlighting the pioneering work of CKAN, the Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network.

Francis Irving then spoke about the challenges he’d faced using Government data in his work for PublicWhip.org, mySociety.org and TheyWorkForYou.com. His TimeTravel maps give a hint of what would be possible if this data were openly available in a usable format.

Finally, Jim Downing of the Unilever Cambridge Centre for Molecular Informatics spoke about Open Source and Open Access in Chemistry. Chemistry is traditionally more closed than other sciences, but people are working to open it up like the Blue Obelisk group (“open source, open standards, open data”) promoting interoperability using standards such as Chemical Markup Language (CML).

Despite their diverse fields, the speakers agreed while it’s still early, their successes provide fascinating vindication of the approach.

Learn more about Open Knowledge through Open Knowledge Foundation and their forthcoming conference at the London School of Economics.

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