#whyopen: What is ‘openness’ anyway?

Open data, open source, open educational resources, open knowledge, open university, Massive Open Online Courses (the famous MOOCs)…Openness has become pervasive in online jargon and even in many an offline conversation. But do we really know what ‘open’ means in the first place? What do all the initiatives claiming the ‘open’ label have in common – if anything ?

Perhaps the most striking feature of the world of openness is that there isn’t a single understanding of what being open entails. As part of this ongoing conversation, I am attempting to put into perspective my own views of openness to make sense of the concept.

Open can mean transparent.

This is precisely what the open data movement thrives towards: achieving greater transparency to enforce checks and balances. Although it seems like a good idea on the surface, transparency is not without its pitfalls. How open do we want governments to be? Some institutions may open up access to their databases but provide only marginally useful raw data which effectively precludes meaningful interpretation and may even have unintended harmful consequences. Releasing data for public scrutiny also implies that people possess the necessary skills to interpret it. According to Danah Boyd, “access alone will not empower people”.

Open can mean participatory.

In the wake of protests over the banking crisis, Iceland’s new Constitution was drafted by a council made up of 25 ordinary citizens who engaged with the general public through a process of online consultation. Iceland’s netizens were able to comment and debate on the proposed draft and interact with the members of the Constitutional council. Dubbing it a ‘crowdsourced’ constitution (like the New York Times and Wired did) would be jumping the gun, though it certainly was an instance of short-lived open governance.

Open can mean ongoing

A software is said to be open source if its source code is freely available for all to study, improve and distribute. Users can thus propose modifications, provide feedback and even participate in developing the software: this is truly a community-based process where the product is refined by incremental steps. One important aspect of open source software is that it can never be completed. Instead, the code is always potentially susceptible to give rise to new versions, thus making it a permanent work-in-progress.

I see openness as a cyclical process of granting access to information, sharing or spreading it, and modifying it. The the new content thus produced forms the basis of a new cycle of access, sharing and modification. This definition includes all three features mentioned above on various levels: repetition of the ‘cycle of openness’ ensures that the process is ongoing; access makes for transparency; sharing and modification are two modes of participation.


The first condition of openness is access, which means that anybody, whoever and wherever they may be, should be able to read, view or listen to the content, as the case may be.

Although it constitutes the first brick towards openness, access is not as simple a matter as it might seem. The following barriers may prevent access to content:

  • Lack of Internet connectivity or slow connectivity. Constraints for internet usage, e.g. if it is only available at an cybercafe.
  • Cost of access
  • Technical difficulties (format compatibility, technological literacy, …)
  • Language barrier: if the content is not in a language one understands, access is denied de facto (example here)
  • Disabilities
  • …?

It may be useful to keep these challenges in mind when considering the issue of access to content.


Sharing content is another key element enabled by the Internet. Once it is made accessible, the content will reach various users through a web of networks. Sharing one’s work is actually at the heart of the open content movement, with people willing to communicate their knowledge and skills, exchange ideas, build bridges across disciplines and countries.


In the spirit of openness, everybody is in turn both a consumer and a producer. As such, one is empowered to reuse content to fit one’s purpose : it is common practice to draw from creative commons licensed photos on Flickr to illustrate blog posts and articles for instance.

Some conditions might be imposed on the downstream users, such as linking back to the original producer (attribution). This appropriation of content may take the form of remix, mashup, reuse, etc. Copyright is of course a major restriction on the whole process of openness.

The free flow of content ensures the cross-fertilisation of ideas which is the very basis of innovation. To me, encouraging openness is the best way to harness the power of networks so as to advance and spread knowledge.

Answers other people gave...

Answers other people gave…

What is your own understanding of openness? I welcome your comments and suggestions.

* FLOSS: acronym for Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS)

This post is a response to this prompt for week 1 of the course “Why Open?” on P2PU:

What do you think “openness” is? Focusing on your own field or context (if you wish), describe what it means to do work openly, or to make one’s activity or artifacts open. Alternatively, you could talk about what you think “openness” means generally, what sort of definition might fit all open activities or works.

Photo credits: AttributionShare Alike John Britton


4 thoughts on “#whyopen: What is ‘openness’ anyway?

  1. Very nice post! I wasn’t aware of Iceland’s short-lived constitutional process before, and very helpful links to Danah Boyd’s arguments.

    I like the cyclical idea here–these things are all intertwined too, so access only happens because of sharing, and sharing thus leads to access, which then allows others to be able to get something and share in turn (if licensed to allow this) and change things and share again, providing access. So maybe sharing is the first step in the cycle! But really, it’s all intertwined.

    I’m curious, though, because you mention transparency and participation early in the blog post–are they part of the cycle of access, sharing, re-purposing? I guess sharing and re-purposing are participatory, though how something gets created in the first place can be participatory as well, before it’s more widely shared for others to re-purpose. And one can share just an end product rather than being transparent or participatory about the process; would doing sharing/access on process as well as product, thus allowing for more participation and transparency, be more open in your view than only doing it on the product?

  2. Yes, the 3 steps are definitely intertwined in several possible combinations. In fact, I had hesitations about calling this a cycle because sharing and access really cut across the whole process.

    Even in keeping with the metaphor of a cycle, the path between access, sharing and repurposing is hardly ever linear: supposing there are no hurdles at any stage to impede the flow of information, we could imagine several rounds of sharing and access before the production of a new outcome.

    I realise I might have oversimplified my explanation – despite the length of the post ! What would be the best way to illustrate the way I conceptualise this process? A diagram?

    So where do transparency and participation come in? I see them as values embedded in the open practice. I tried to show how they are integrated but it’s true that I missed out a few points.

    To answer your question, I think openness has to do with both process and outcome even though I may not have emphasised it in my post. For instance, when the founders of coworking spaces share the ‘source code’ of their model, it is a step towards openness (see here: http://movilab.org/index.php?title=Les_Tiers_Lieux).

    • Sure, maybe a diagram would be good. I think a cycle indicates steps between more or less distinct elements, moving from one to the other, rather than having them more intertwined. This isn’t a big deal, though–I got the main idea, I think! And your comment helped to clarify my original questions–thanks!

  3. Very nice post and discussion! Thanks!

    Regarding your access barriers, I have some points/projects to add:
    – Lack of Internet connectivity or slow connectivity: check some networks to share internet connections like Guifi.net and Fon
    – Cost of access, do you mean to internet itself or to data? Probably it applies to both.
    – Technical difficulties (format compatibility, technological literacy, …). I still don’t understand when I get a document from the government in “doc” format, or my sister is asked to do some homework for the school in such format. Neither the government nor the school gave us a copy of MS Word to do the work. There are few open format standards to avoid these problems.
    – Language barrier: if the content is not in a language one understands, access is denied de facto. That’s true! but there’s also projects like Amara which tries to change this by making easy the process of video subtitling into different languages. Also, creative commons derivative licenses allows translations of the work. Of course, this wouldn’t solve all… but there some work on that line.
    – Disabilities: This is the one I’m less familiar with, but I know there are a lot of projects (at least in Linux) to make more user-friendly for visual impaired people.

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