A friend and I were having a drink at the hotel bar when a tipsy Finnish writer fragrant of spilt wine stumbled over from what we were later told was a publishing house party. Why were we in Helsinki, she wanted to know.

Her eyes lit up. “Oooh, open knowledge! Everything is so open these days. You guys must be very open minded.” Wild gesticulations every time she said open, as if she were miming a school teacher erasing a chalk board. She went on for a while as my generation does: flirtation couched in irony, an aversion toward sincerity or caring deeply about anything. Just words floating in the air, dancing with each other. Eventually I excused myself to head upstairs and call my girlfriend.

But the writer had a point. Open is one of those qualifiers that is so expected that it fails to elicit contemplation of what it actually means. Open source, open markets, open cities, open development, open government, open business models, open data, open systems, open minded. Open is the way of the day.

Open Cities

Last weekend, while touring around the medieval city center of Tallinn, Estonia, which is embedded in a fortified three-story stone wall, I was reminded of just how much openness does indeed walk hand in hand with modernity. I’m no expert on European history, but my understanding is that for most of Tallinn’s history the walled-off city center of opulent palaces and churches was closed to the common peasant. Openness in this case meant opening the gates, tearing down the walls, granting access, opening the city.

I came to the Open Knowledge Festival specifically to take part in the Open Cities series of talks and workshops. There is a metaphorical fog of information that is all around us, created by public services, and usually stuck inaccessibly on the computers and servers of government agencies. Open Cities is a movement to once again tear down the walls, open the gates, open up access; not to the city center, but to all the information that silently surrounds it.

Open Standards

We tend to take for granted both the extreme convenience generated by interoperable standards and the insane inconvenience caused by a lack of standards.

Just a couple examples of how our lives made so much easier thanks to interoperable standards:

  • The credit card in your pocket. Go anywhere in the world, walk into a convenient store, grab a drink and you can pay for it with the same thin piece of plastic in your wallet. That is amazing. (I am specifically referring to the EMV standard that makes this possible.)
  • Wi-Fi. You’re in a major public place in just about anywhere in the world and your phone automatically connects to the Internet via WiFi. Amazing. (There are in fact five WiFi standards, but they usually inter-operate so smoothly that you never notice.)

Nor do we appreciate what a pain in the ass it is when standards are not in place. Consider:

  • The ridiculously large bag of individual cables that I must bring with me when I travel to connect my cell phone, Kindle, camera, hard drive, recording microphone, external battery, electric razor. In any sane world there would be a single cable for all of this. (Those supremely rational Europeans have required all cell phone makers to use the micro-USB standard, even Apple.)
  • The ziplock bag of cell phone SIM cards, metro tickets, and bus tickets I have for around 25 different countries/cities. And, of course, the various electric adapters and voltage converters.

If the Open Cities movement gets it right, then we should expect to be able to use OpenTripPlanner and Google Maps to look up public transit directions between, say, two friends’ apartments in Copenhagen and Rome. In fact, thanks to transit data standards in Europe, this is possible to do today on Google Maps:

Screen Shot 2012 09 27 at 2 35 PM

Without such standards in place, we should expect to have to use a different application and website for every city. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations working in North America and Europe to ensure that such standards are put into place. Hopefully we’ll see similar initiatives emerge soon in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Among the initiatives that were present at OKFest:

It was encouraging to see that some of the most enthusiastic supporters for these initiatives were, in fact, representatives from the city governments that have joined the networks. There is a real sense of willingness from these city governments to organize their data so they can be used most effectively by developers of applications and civil society organizations.

Looking Ahead

Google Now is a glimpse of what’s to come, assuming that we win the fight to gain access to city-level open data:

Not just what’s the best subway line to take where, but also what’s the air quality when you consider going for a run? What’s the restaurant inspection history for the downtown greasy diner you’ve never had the courage to enter? What are the average health indicators of the patients at your nearest five hospitals? What is the relative performance of all the high schools in your neighborhood? When your child brings home his report card, how does that information compare with report cards across the city? How is your tax money being spent? Where are the nearest opportunities to volunteer when you have a free Sunday afternoon?

All of this information should be immediately available from our mobile phones no matter what city we are in. And it shouldn’t be a pain to search for; rather, it should find us at the most opportune times. We’re extremely far from that goal today, but the pieces are starting to come together so that we can start the journey.