By Peter Marten, September 2012
You might not expect to find self-declared computer hackers and the Finnish Ministry of Justice attending the same event. However, an anything-is-possible atmosphere reigned at the first Open Knowledge Festival, held in Helsinki in September 2012 with participants from about 100 different countries.
The four-day happening took place at Aalto University’s Media Factory in the Helsinki neighbourhood called Arabia. Organised chiefly by the Open Knowledge Foundation, Aalto University and the Finnish Institute in London, the festival dealt events into 13 different themes or “streams,” including Open Democracy and Citizen Movements; Open Cities; Open Geodata; Data Journalism and Data Visualisation; and Open Research and Education.
Teemu Ropponen from the Ministry of Justice showed up to speak about how Finland is preparing to join the Open Government Partnership, a global effort to make governments more transparent, effective and accountable. He is one of several people who manage the ministry’s e-democracy projects, an effort to help make government more accessible to citizen participation.
“We’re doing a number of e-participation tools,” says Ropponen. “The easiest to understand is the new system for citizens’ initiatives.” According to a Finnish law passed in March 2012, citizens can bring an initiative – a proposal for a possible law – before Parliament by collecting 50,000 signatures.
“E-participation” means that soon it will be possible to collect signatures online as well as on paper, streamlining the process. The Ministry of Justice is “mandated to build online collection systems, so I’m in charge of that,” Ropponen says. “There’s also an NGO, Open Ministry, building their own system – that’s fine. You can have many systems.” People signing an initiative online can authenticate their identity using internet banking codes.
Since the 50,000 signatures must be collected within a six-month period, “many are waiting until the online systems come into use,” says Ropponen. The strongest campaign at the moment is gathering behind an initiative to end fur farming. It looks set to become the first to receive enough support to force a discussion in Parliament.
Countries where systems for citizens’ initiatives exist include Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Germany and some Latin American countries. “They all have their unique little twists,” Ropponen notes. What’s the unique Finnish twist? “It’s the online collection and the strong authentication.”
The citizens’ initiatives process forms one of the most visible aspects of a shift in attitudes that could have far-reaching implications. “Most people are acknowledging the fact that we [authorities] should be able to listen better to the expertise of others – not just be transparent but also become collaborative,” says Ropponen.
The organisers of the four-day Open Knowledge Festival invited participants to “get energised” at the start of each day. Event categories included “meetings” and “plenaries,” but also “workshops,” “lightning talks,” “keynotes” and “coding jams.”
Speaking of coding, what about those hackers? They refer to themselves that way, but the term means benign programmers, not evil security breachers from some Hollywood movie.
Hackathons were held, where hackers and others including researchers, journalists and graphic designers could spend intensive hours or even days together working on challenges and creating new solutions. Governments, organisations and even the World Bank are making an increasing amount of data openly available, and hackathons form one way to hone this data, recognise patterns within it and help people visualise and utilise it productively.
The data goes from being simply available to being accessible. As one hackathon organiser put it, “We get the data to people who can make it fly, sing and all sorts of things.”
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