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Good afternoon. My name is John Rankin.

Digital evangelists

The brief I received for this talk was to “say something controversial and thought-provoking about New Zealand online communities”. We’ll start with the Yarn Harlot and the Winter Olympics. At the end of January, a blogger in Toronto named Stephanie Pearl-McPhee — the Yarn Harlot — posted an idea on her blog. She called it the Winter Knitting Olympics and suggested that her readers set themselves a knitting challenge during the Winter Olympics and post the results on the Web. Within 24 hours, 3000 people had signed up and by the start of the Winter Olympics there were over 4000 — over twice as many as were taking part in the real event. There were at least 4 New Zealand participants; from Kaitaia, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. We know this because someone had the idea of setting up a frappr map for the event. Frappr is a mapping service for global online communities. You go to the community’s frappr page — in this case the Winter Knitting Olympics — and stick a pin with your name on it into a map of the world.

This is one of many, many examples of how an idea can arise spontaneously and unpredictably on the Web, take root, spring into vibrant life and flourish. Closer to home, Figwit, sometimes known as Bret McKenzie, became a global Web phenomenon as a result of a 2 second pout at the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring.

I suggest that the rich and diverse online world we see today has evolved the way it has largely because of digital evangelists, rather than from the managed execution of any overarching digital strategies. By digital evangelist I mean an individual with a passion to bring one big and inspiring idea to life. The question I want to explore is how New Zealand Online can foster an environment in which our own digital evangelists can find their voices. We can’t manage our way to the Winter Knitting Olympics or Figwit; but we perhaps can create the conditions under which such ideas emerge blinking into the daylight and gather strength.

Voices from the digital infrastructure

To illustrate and perhaps illuminate this question, I want to talk about 3 voices from the digital infrastructure — the invisible, under-the-hood stuff that makes a networked culture possible. John Unsworth from the University of Illinois gave us the phrase Liberation Technology. He suggests that if the nineties were the e-decade (e-business, e-government, e-health), the aughties are the o-decade where “o” stands for “open” — open access, open standards, open source, open everything. Each of the 3 examples is a piece of liberation technology; each came to life because a small number of committed, articulate, and passionate individuals made them happen. Each engaged a growing global community of practitioners to pick up the ideas and pass them on to others.

Institutional research repositories

Governments world-wide spend billions of taxpayer dollars on research in universities and other institutions. The taxpayer pays for this twice: first we pay for the research, then we pay again to read about the research in an academic journal. The idea behind institutional research repositories is simple: the outputs of taxpayer-funded research should be freely available over the Web to everyone. Use of a common open standard to describe each research output means that information seekers can discover all relevant research on a particular subject, wherever it is held. Every research output gets its own unique and permanent web address. We get new measures of the impact of our research and hence the return on our taxpayer investment. How many people have read the abstract? How many people have downloaded the article? How many links are there to the article? All the software you need to set up and run such a repository is open source, or if you prefer, you can subscribe to a proprietary hosted service.

How have institutional repositories come about? Stevan Harnad from the University of Southampton in the UK created the first, and still most widely-used, repository software, called ePrints. He and US arch-evangelist Clifford Lynch have pretty much convinced most of the world that this is an idea whose time had come. So far, there are research repositories in over 40 countries. These use a diverse range of software, most of it open source, and they all follow the same open standard.

New Zealand currently has 4 such repositories, which is 4 more than 6 months ago. The first, at the University of Otago’s School of Business, reported over 18,000 downloads from 80 countries in the first 3 months. That’s the good news. The bad news is that these 4 repositories today hold only 308 records in total. The other countries with 4 repositories are South Africa, Hungary, Colombia, Chile and Finland, containing 371, 1962, 2540, 438 and 14,564 records respectively. In the last 6 months, the United States has added over 50 repositories and the United Kingdom added 14.

The inescapable conclusion is that New Zealand’s research repositories are a small voice in the global research community. As the online volume grows, small voices become harder and harder to hear. We carry out much research that is top class, yet in making that research accessible, we punch well below our weight. Why is this? Why are our universities choosing to invest seven figure sums on research management systems to gather data about the research process, clearly a good thing to be doing, yet are only now starting to invest perhaps one tenth of that amount — and that’s all it needs — on access to the actual research outputs.

Creative Commons Licence

One of the most interesting recent developments on the Web is mash-ups — sampling, remixing and republishing content from different online sources for new purposes. Combine, for example, Chicago’s crime statistics with a street map of the city to see where bad things happen. This of course runs straight into matters of copyright and what constitutes “fair use” of another’s work. So we see, for example, the idea of “pod-safe music discovery” — finding online music sources that it’s OK to embed into a podcast. This is a big problem and it’s getting bigger. When Brenda Dayne wanted to make a special podcast for St David’s Day, it involved sending emails to 4 Welsh bands asking if it would be OK to include songs from their Web sites.

Podcasts are moving rapidly into the mainstream; you will I’m sure be aware that our own and wonderful Liz Barry’s Homegrown New Zealand music show has come back to life as a podcast. Apple recently announced a scheme called iTunes U which lets participating universities upload video podcasts of lectures to a free iTunes server, making them available for students, or indeed the world, to download and play. Perhaps New Zealand will get its first iTunes U before it gets an iTunes Music Store.

We need an easy way for authors of online digital works to tell others what rights they have granted — what you are allowed to do with that work. Lawrence Lessig from Stanford Law School has given us the Creative Commons Licence to solve this problem in a simple, elegant and flexible way. An author answers 4 questions and Creative Commons uses the answers to determine the appropriate licence. For example, this talk is on the Web under an “Attribution Share-Alike” licence, meaning you can do whatever you want with the content, provided that you attribute the work to me and grant the same rights to others that I grant to you. We move from “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved”.

Much online work does not need the strict, some would say onerous and draconian, controls that the music and film industries wish to impose over their copyright material. It does not require any form of Digital Restrictions Management regime (a more accurate term than the benign-sounding Digital Rights Management preferred by those promoting control over, and potentially payment for, our every online action). But we do require a way to express digital rights. Some online file formats can now embed Creative Commons Licensing information in the content’s metadata. This means that I can (at least in principle) search the Web for pod-safe music or royalty-free photographs.

What does this mean for New Zealand Online? Well, when you assign a Creative Commons licence to an online work, you get to choose a “country licence”. So far, there are 27 countries listed, plus a generic licence. New Zealand is not on the list, so any New Zealand work licensed under Creative Commons must use the generic licence. This seems a pity. When government funds a community digitisation project to bring content online, it would make sense to let the community choose the terms under which the content becomes available. Some will choose to reserve all rights; some will choose non-commercial use only, so the material can, for example, be used in schools; and others will choose other options. I suggest we have a duty to preserve, protect and extend our digital commons from those who wish to fence them off and charge us for access.

Open Document Format

Every time we save a new document in a proprietary format with our word processor, we embed 2 mutant genes.

First we embed the Alzheimer’s gene. If the document is born digital in a proprietary format, one day we will be unable to read it and the content will be gone from our memory. The 3245 people who have signed Paul Findon’s Adobe FrameMaker for Mac OS X petition have been staring this problem in the face since Adobe dropped the Mac OS 9 version 2 years ago. If there is anybody from Adobe in the audience, please take a message to the mothership: “Adobe FrameMaker is one of the greatest pieces of software ever written; we would like to buy a Mac OS X version.”

Second we embed a Segregation gene; I can only read your document if I use the same software as you. Perhaps the biggest reason for the success of the Web is that HTML is an open, non-proprietary standard. The oldest Web page will open in the newest browser. Most pages will display in any browser, degrading more or sometimes less gracefully in older browsers. If we find a site that doesn’t work in our particular browser, we shrug and move on — their loss, not ours. On the other hand, if a firm wishes to apply for funding under the government’s GPSRD scheme, it must use Microsoft Word to fill in the application form.

The Open Document Format is an open standard designed for general office documents — the letters and reports, the spreadsheets, the presentations. If you send me a document in ODF, I don’t need to know what software you used to create it and you don’t need to know what software I will use to open it. Technically, this is trivial — the standard is published, ratified, open and royalty-free; it’s no different from Save As HTML. Commercially, it only requires a one line addition to any existing office software supply agreement: “When saving a new document, the default file format shall be ODF.”

After participating in all the meetings, Microsoft has come out against the ODF proposal and said that Office will not include ODF support. It proposes that everyone else standardise on its own proprietary format, which it will license them to use. Its publicly-stated position is that most customers don’t care about standards, it’s only a small but vocal minority of their unsuccessful competitors pushing for open standards, and business men and women are concerned about more important things. It says, for example, that bringing Internet Explorer into compliance with HTML and CSS standards is a low priority. As Mandy Rice-Davis noted in another context, “Well ’e would [say that], wouldn’t ’e?”

Those promoting ODF point to the flowering of innovation that has grown from the Web being based on open standards and contrast this with the stagnation of our office tools. And others, such as Google, wonder why we continue to use office software at all, and print-centric word processors in particular, when we can and should be doing everything on the Web. This speaker wrote his presentation with a Web browser as an HTML page and pointed it at an online typesetting server to create the print version. Whatever…

What might this mean for us in New Zealand? We know from our switch to the metric system that it’s entirely possible for a small country to switch from one set of standards to another. If the European Union can consider adopting ODF across all of Europe and National Archives of Australia can move to ODF, it’s not something that need daunt us. I suggest to you that New Zealand’s online future depends on open standards and it would be a shame if a great company like Microsoft, with so much to contribute, were to be left behind.

Summing up: innovation happens on the edges

Innovation today is no longer about solving problems in isolation with number 8 wire; it’s about seeing the patterns, joining the dots between previously unrelated ideas, and adding the last 10% that brings the ideas together into something useful. That’s why, as people say, “Innovation happens on the edges and migrates to the mainstream.” You have to be on the edge to see the patterns in the current. I sometimes wonder if we have become so keen to be in the mainstream — to be “a world leader” in things digital for example — that we have forgotten we are in many ways a quintessentially edge society and run the risk of just becoming insular.

It’s my perception that we are often cautious and risk-averse about picking up ideas from the edge; we wait until they have reached the overseas mainstream. Then, because of our small size, we adopt them quickly. I’m not sure I agree with the widely-stated belief that we are “early adopters”; we are more often “fast followers”. But perhaps New Zealand Online requires more than that; perhaps it requires a willingness to take the occasional leap into the unknown. As the t-shirt says, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.”

The network amplifies cultural signals

What do the 3 examples cited above have in common? They are all beautifully simple — it’s easy to get your head around them — yet they all change the way we see the world and what’s possible. This is not new: “Give me a long enough lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth.” Sun Microsystems used to say that “The Network is the Computer” and it took a long time for the rest of us to understand what they meant. In an online world, I suggest that “The Network is the Culture.” The network amplifies our every online action. If we do dumb things, we get amplified stupidity; if we have good ideas, we get amplified creativity.

And, in my view, they are examples where we have been slow off the mark. The network is amplifying the gap between us and those who have moved faster. New Zealand’s evangelists, such as the people behind Koha, appear to have more success overseas than they do at home.

In my spare time, I participate in an open source software project and the thing I find most interesting about the experience is what you might call “24–7 innovation”. Whatever problem there may be, someone will pick it up at any time, day or night; new ideas get raised, expanded, enhanced and implemented. People come and go from the project, but the community persists. I now understand that being able to inspect the code is only one facet of open source software, although it’s the one many people focus on. But it’s also a development process, a funding model, a licensing mechanism, and a distribution approach. In other words, it’s about creating a sustainable community around an idea.

So that’s my theme: the power of individuals with big ideas to create a community that changes a small part of the world for the better. Last year the Yarn Harlot wrote a blog entry about her brother-in-law Ben, who works for Medecins Sans Frontières in the Darfur Region. Because of the Tsunami, all other aid projects were seeing a drop in their funding. And she included information about how people could make a donation. She raised over CAD 100?,000.

My challenge to you is how might we nurture New Zealand’s digital evangelists. While we continue to fund useful and worthy online initiatives, let’s also make space to encourage those who challenge our thinking. How do we create opportunities for those who see new connections between different strands of digital thought? Do we, perhaps, need some New Zealand Digital Writers in Residence fellowships? I note that under this model, a piece of open source software becomes a literary work.

A New Zealand Online Wiki

OK; we are entering the last lap… I have touched on 3 big ideas from one small part of the digital spectrum. Wouldn’t it be useful to have 100 full length stories, written by experts in their fields, all in the same place and all inter-linked? Might not the rest of the world notice such a site? Wouldn’t that be something: New Zealand is known as the place to go to read well-informed stories about the digital future, watch information democracy in practice and, if you wish, take part in the story.

My modest proposal is to set up a New Zealand Online Wiki Web site, gathering together in one place the works of some digital evangelists of interest. For those new to the idea, a Wiki is a web site where anybody can edit the contents of any page, using any web browser. The best-known, some say most notorious, example is Wikipedia, which, by the way has 22,763 articles that refer to New Zealand; there are also 414 articles in the Māori language version.

As well as hosting the works of New Zealand’s own digital writers (and I’m looking in particular at today’s other speakers), invite Lawrence Lessig to contribute a page about Creative Commons; invite Bill Gates to contribute a page about OfficeML; invite Tim Berners-Lee to write about the Semantic Web. Let’s be bolder: invite Theresa Gattung and Annette Presley to write about broadband. And because it’s a Wiki, anyone will be able to edit, correct, comment on, improve, or add to any page. Sometimes it seems as if many blogs are just preaching to their own choirs. We really need a many-way exchange of ideas and a place where different strands of digital thinking might converge — an open, online extension of this forum. And I’d like to suggest a theme: “New Zealand’s Digital Content is Open.”

In other words, sow a diverse range of seeds, fertilise and water them, and see what grows. Let’s remember that the Web is about the same age as the cinema was in 1906. We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Thank you.

Presented to 2020 Thematic: New Zealand Online, 15 March 2006.

Creative Commons License
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Page last modified on 10 April 2006 at 05:28 PM