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The future of the open movement for Digital Social Innovation

14th December 2018

Climate change, social division, fallout from the digital revolution – we are facing considerable challenges that can only be tackled with new and innovative solutions. The open movement seeks to work towards solutions of many of the world’s most pressing problems in a spirit of transparency, collaboration, re-use and free access. The internetitself is perhaps the best example of how technology and society can benefit from continuous innovation and collaboration across borders and sectors. In theory, its universal, open and distributed infrastructure should allow everyone to participate and thereby improving eachothers’ lives and society.

In our trend analysis, produced as part of the DSI4EU project, we demonstrate how digital social innovationsexhibit many overlaps and synergies with the open movement. For them, open represents one of the main drivers for participation and collaboration and innovative potential. Philosophically, both uses of digital technology are underpinned by advancing the common good above profit or other narrower interests. It readily follows from both positions that the more people who have access, the better. In practice there is strong evidence that opening up information and the innovation process to decentralised and “crowdsourced” development can lead to better results more quickly, since more people are able to contribute their expertise, and greater experimentation is possible.

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DSI shows considerable potential to drive social transformation – by supporting citizens to hold their governments to account (such as decidim.org), by demonstrating the possibilities of open government data (such as abgeordnetenwatch.deMadame Mayor I have an idea ), by developing and using open source technologies for social impact (such as Ushahidi), by facilitating collaboration (such as OpenStreetMap or Zooniverse) and by combining human intelligence with machine learning (such as Fold.itMicroMappers or AIME). In our trend analysis, we give a broad survey of the landscape. Analysing the usage of different terms over time, we find that open knowledge and open source are the terms within the open movement with the highest traction and understand the key actors and trends in the field, along with the most promising DSI connected with it.

Throughout our analysis, it is clear that a thriving open movement is likely to have positive spillover effects on DSI. Unfortunately however, the principles of the former are increasingly coming under threat, with the rise of web censorship and internet shutdowns, government blocks on mobile apps and websites and monopolisation of data and Internet infrastructure by a handful of proprietary tech firms which, while free to use, are far from open. The dominance of big tech is like no type of monopoly ever seen before. And the open movement doesn’t seem to be able to counteract this. As a movement, composed of various sub-groups and factions, each with their own missions and values, it lacks coherence. This undermines the movement’s ability to explain to the broader population what it stands for, to advocate for policy change, and generally to gain traction in broader society beyond a committed group of experts.

A threat to the open movement means a threat to the innovative character of DSI which is why we call for effort, coordination and political and public will to fight for an open internet. We need new rules for the new digital world. We need to openly discuss the dangers of a closed digital world built on proprietary information and software and platform lock-in strategies. We need an open digital ecosystem, providing the necessary resources for DSI to exist alongside commercial services. Because only then we will likely to have the possibilities to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges in fields including education, climate change, health, and disaster relief.

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DSI4EU aims to support the growth and scale of digital social innovation (DSI), tech for good and civic tech in Europe through a programme of policy, research and practical support. Find out more at digitalsocial.eu/about-the-project. DSI4EU, formally known as DSISCALE, is supported by the European Union and funded under the Horizon 2020 Programme, grant agreement no 780473.

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