#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


Getting ready for #whyopen : my personal learning environment

There are only a few days left before the start of #whyopen on P2PU and I am starting to think about the way I want to design my personal learning environment to make the most of the course.

I decided to write this down partly as a note to myself and partly to invite other learners to comment and possibly compare with their own practice of online learning. I’m excited to find out how learning will emerge and what the outcomes will be.

On the personal front, it might be instructive to go back to this post at the end of the course to:

  • check whether I’ve actually used all the tools I intended to and to what extent,
  • list additional tools/networks I had not initially thought of but turned out to be useful,
  • determine how I can keep on sharing with the networks set in motion by this course.

I’m also curious to observe how others use the learning opportunities afforded by the web 2.0. I consider this to be  part of the learning experience : a form of metalearning, if you will!


This blog will be a central place for gathering thoughts on the discussions happening during the course. I hope I’ll manage to produce at least one post a week. Other people’s blogs curated on the bloghub should also be a great source to draw from and build upon.


I already use Twitter quite a lot as a source of links to interesting content as well as a platform to interact with people I know personally. I think the #whyopen Twitter feed will be a good place to chat and share resources.


As much as I like Twitter, information tends to disappear in the backlog after just a few days. Besides, links posted on Twitter are not very easily searchable: that’s why we have curation tools like Storify and Delicious.

I’ve just opened a Delicious account to save links I come across and might want to take up reading later. It’s meant to be an improvement on my current ‘semi-open’ system of organising learning resources.

I would normally find the content through a direct search or thanks to my peer networks, read/view it and then share it on Twitter with relevant hashtags. If it’s really valuable information or too complex to all take in at one go, I’d bookmark the page and/or download the content onto my laptop where I sort my documents in folders.

This system is found lacking in areas which might be improved by Delicious: I can place a document in several folders if it belongs to different topics but it’s certainly not as efficient a method as a tag cloud; There’s little room for systematic interest-based social interactions beyond the immediate discussions arising from the links posted on Twitter. More in-depth conversations happen organically on Facebook from time to time though.

Let’s see if I can include Delicious in my learning routine.

Google Hangout ? In person meet-ups?

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to join all the Google Hangout meet-ups but I’ll probably watch most of them once they are posted on YouTube.

There’s at least one other student here in Paris who’s taking the course. I’m tempted to contact her so we can meet up and chat about ‘Why Open’.

Challenges I hope to overcome

Although I appreciate the potential benefits of posting videos, I still feel a bit apprehensive about putting myself out there via this medium.

My barriers regarding this medium are of two kinds :

  • Technical issues : I know how to record a video on my laptop’s webcam and post it on YouTube or on my blog but editing is still a major challenge. It’s definitely something I consider within my reach, though I tend to relent from spending hours battling with a video editing software until I come up with a satisfactory result.
  • Perceived lack of legitimacy : who am I to speak my mind to the world ? This links back to feeling too shy to speak in front of a learned audience or even just a large gathering. It’s weird to observe how much more comfortable I feel expressing myself in writing.

Maybe I should make this one of my goals for the final project: to record, edit and post my story as a video!

What about you? How are you planning to engage with this course?

“Why Open?” course registration in progress

From August 5th, participants in the “Why Open” course by P2PU are going to explore questions around the meaning and practice of openness. Facilitated by Christina HendricksSimeon Oriko, Jeanette Lee, and Jane Park, this course will include discussions on various platforms and culminate in a final project : a story of openness.

I am happy to be on board for this 4-week intellectual adventure !

Who’s talking?

Online, I am frequently referred to as hardcorekancil (@hardcorekancil), a compound name for hardcore + kancil. This happens to be an oxymoron; if you’ve ever seen a kancil, you know what I’m talking about.

Yeah, I'm hardcore! Photo by B.C. Tørrissen under CC-BY-SA 3.0

Yeah, I’m hardcore! Photo by B.C. Tørrissen under CC-BY-SA 3.0

I have a bit of formal education (B.Sc. Physics, PGDE) but my insatiable curiosity has led me down numerous unexpected paths, usually along the lines of languages + linguistics, education, spirituality, social movements. A far cry from my initial mathematics-oriented university days!

The concept of openness came to my attention through the debates over creative commons vs. copyright which in turn had me discover open educational resources, open knowledge, open science. Now, I can’t stop reading about it! ‘Open’ has entered my realm.

Traces of my writing can be found here (in French) and infrequently here (in English). I also translate for Global Voices Online.

Survey: What does open mean to you?

Even if you’re not intending to take the course, it would be wonderful if you could fill out a short survey about what ‘open’ means to you. The results will be discussed by participants and thus serve to enrich the course material. Make sure you give your 2 cents before Monday 5th August!