Rufus Pollock
Ashoka Fellow since 2013   |   United Kingdom

Rufus Pollock

Open Knowledge Foundation
Rufus Pollock is building a global movement to empower people to answer the questions that matter. Questions like where do my taxes get spent to what’s the best school for my child? What’s the latest…
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This description of Rufus Pollock's work was prepared when Rufus Pollock was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.


Rufus Pollock is building a global movement to empower people to answer the questions that matter. Questions like where do my taxes get spent to what’s the best school for my child? What’s the latest research on my medical condition? What’s in the drugs we take and are they safe? At present, we often don’t have access to the information we need to answer these kinds of questions because its locked away in governments and corporations. At the Open Knowledge Foundation we work to open up that information and empower people with the skills and tools to use that information both to understand and to drive change.

The New Idea

In this information age technology makes it possible—in theory—for everyone to have access to the essential information they need. Data on any number of topics--from government spending to cultural heritage to the results of scientific research—exists but is often held in silos with free and open access prevented by accident or design.

Rufus is working to change this. Open Data, which Rufus helped to define for the first time in a now globally-recognized idea and standard, embodies the idea of free and open sharing of information. It’s more than simply “public” information—its data that is 100 percent free to access and build on. Rufus has pioneered the ideas, policies and technology around open data and helped drive mass-adoption of open data by institutions around the world including many governments.

Through the Open Knowledge Foundation, created in 2004, Rufus is systematically removing the legal, technical, and social barriers to the provision and use of essential information. This is about more than just access to data—it means creating the tools, skills and communities that will truly enable people to answer the questions that matter. Selectively working where there are key gaps, Rufus and his colleagues have now produced several important tools such as CKAN and OpenSpending and have been actively working around the world to create data skills especially among citizen organizations (COs). Most significantly they have also been spearheading the development of a global “open” community with the Foundation itself having groups in more than 30 countries.

By democratizing access to data, the Open Knowledge Foundation is creating a global change in transparency, citizen empowerment and social justice, changing the way policymakers, companies, and those in positions of power can be held to account. Since founding, hundreds of institutions and 80 governments have put Open Data policies in place, voluntarily releasing a tidal wave of open data on everything from public spending to crime and health. As the Open movement grows, data is being transformed into a valuable new resource for society as a whole and Rufus’s work is enabling a burst of economic and creative productivity, similar to how the Internet paved the way for the digital economy.

The Problem

In our knowledge society, information is power. The Internet has the potential to enable unprecedented open access to essential content, but much of this information is restricted either by laws that prevent citizens from accessing or re-distributing and re-combining the information or technically provided in ways that make it extremely difficult to use (imagine, for example, receiving an entire country’s budget information as thousands of paper pages). Governments, institutions and businesses routinely collect large sets of data, but hold the information in silos and privately-owned databases. They waste valuable resources collecting data that may already be captured elsewhere and using the data for a one-off outcome—informing a specific institution on a strategic decision or publishing a trend in a PDF document—rather than contributing to and growing a central set of knowledge that would greatly multiply its value and allow it to be used again and again.

This closed data distribution system makes data artificially costly to obtain with adverse effects on society as a whole, from the scientific research, to everyday commerce, to citizens’ abilities to hold their governments to account. The European Commission has estimated that opening up data held by governments alone would increase business activity by 40 billion Euros (US$51B) in the EU. The system is at a historic tipping point: the continuing rapid evolution of digital technologies has created unprecedented abilities to store and process data. However, knowledge that might otherwise be public good risks being held in the hands of the few, with much of its social value lost.

At the same time, where creating and accessing information has been democratized, citizens have shown a powerful ability to make use of that information for changemaking. Wikipedia counts 100,000 active public contributors. The OpenSource movement has lowered the cost barriers to access and tailor software. OpenStreetMap, an entirely community-driven global project, has created a complete map of the planet that is often much better than commercial offerings and is already proving its value both commercially and in humanitarian situations--such as in Haiti. When the state of California opened up its government spending data, citizens reported unnecessary spending to the government that saved $20 million in just a few months.

These anecdotes provide a compelling glimpse into the value of moving from a system where data is closed by default, to one where the default for “public-interest” data is open. However, institutions—from governments to research bodies to corporations—are stuck in behavior patterns and mindsets focused on the short-term gains and ease of storing data in silos. They lack the tools, processes and legal frameworks to make opening up data as easy and low-cost as possible. At the same time, the benefits of opening up data are unlikely to be accepted in the mainstream until a tipping point is reached, where large amounts of data is already open and citizens have demonstrated their ability to use and add value to this data at scale.

The Strategy

Rufus’s vision is to create a system where data is open by default. His ultimate aim is to see a thriving, self-sustaining and effective open data ecosystem. To change the current system, Rufus has developed a three-fold strategy: (i) setting the goal posts and policies for a new movement, (ii) creating technical tools and services for institutions to open up data, and (iii) building communities that will transform data into social value to sustain the movement.

Rufus recognizes that the effectiveness of an open data movement depends crucially on the adoption of shared, clear standards. The first part of Rufus’ strategy therefore focuses on creating definitions, policies and legal frameworks that serve to set the goalposts for an open data movement, ensuring that the highest qualities of openness are maintained in the future and creating a standardized common language for data in the new system. Rufus helped define Open Data for the first time in 2005, clearly stating that knowledge is only “open” if it can be freely accessed, used, built upon and shared by anyone without restriction. This definition is now a globally accepted, key tenet of the open movement, which drives policy choices in many domains. Rufus then partnered with expert lawyers to pioneer a range of legal tools that address any intellectual property concerns institutions might have when they release datasets and databases at scale. These easy-to-use legal frameworks and licenses have already been adopted by institutions from state-run libraries to the community-created global map OpenStreetMap.

Rufus also works to embed this conception of open data into key institutions, which he believes must become champions of Open Data in order to change the system fundamentally. Therefore, rather than building an “us-versus-them” campaign for change, Rufus engages with institutions that meet two criteria. Firstly, they store what the Open Knowledge Foundation has identified as the most important data sets in terms of public empowerment and social impact, from finance to health and international aid. Secondly, they stand to benefit from open data either because transparency and public service is aligned with their institutional goals or because Open Data will lead to increased efficiency; examples of this include citizens identifying cost savings in their financial data or discovering new trends in their research data. Rufus then builds personal relationships with key intrapreneurs; creating internal champions who then create buy-in and appropriate new practices from the bottom up.

This approach has already proven effective for a number of key markets. Rufus worked closely with key members of the International Aid Transparency Initiative helping to embed Open Data at its heart and ensure that the huge amount of information now being provided by 100s of grant-makers from DfID to the World Bank is open. Working with the British Library he helped them become the first national library to make substantial amounts of bibliographic data open with the release in 2010 of the British National Bibliography. This was a key development, helping to change the conversation internationally so that cultural assets are increasingly considered public heritage that should be accessed freely, and spurred Europeana, one of the largest libraries in the world, to release Open Data on 20 million cultural items for public research. At the government level, Rufus has met with key government officials around the world and especially in the UK, Europe, US, and Brazil, putting open data on the political agenda. As a member of the UK Transparency Board he helped draft their Public Data Principles, and provided expert strategic and technological advice to launch The UK is now the only country worldwide to release transaction-level spending data for public scrutiny, and has the largest open government data portal in the world along with the US. Rufus sits on a similar board in Canada, and as a trained economist, is a leading global expert on the economic benefits of Open Data.

The second part of Rufus’s strategy is to build the tools and infrastructure that make opening up data as easy and low-cost as possible. Rufus created CKAN, the first and most widely used software to power open data portals; enabling governments and others to publish data quickly and easily. Open source and free to use CKAN makes data accessible by providing tools to streamline anonymizing, publishing, sharing, finding, and using data. It has now been used to publish hundreds of thousands of open datasets worldwide and many of the major online data sites use it, including the governments of the UK, US, Brazil, and EU. Because of the way Rufus structured CKAN, the software indirectly serves to embed the highest level of openness in newly released data and provides a standardized, common format that helps to maximize the benefits from easily combining different data sets in the open data ecosystem.

Recognizing there is little value and incentive in opening up data unless it is quickly and effectively put to use for social impact, Rufus has made the final part of his strategy to build strong infomediary communities. To catalyze these communities into action, when the UK government agreed to publish its spending data openly Rufus launched the OpenSpending project as a best practice example using open data techniques. The initiative aims to track every government financial transaction across the world and present it in useful and engaging forms for everyone from a school child to a data geek. The UK website is now used widely by journalists, the UK Treasury itself, and its associated sites have thousands of users per month. Rufus is partnering with local groups worldwide, from the grassroots to the World Bank, to replicate the model around the world, already with activity in dozens of countries.

Rufus has played a key role creating an active grassroots Open Data movement at the European level and beyond, both through the Open Knowledge Foundation’s direct work and by empowering independent changemakers—the power of grassroots collaboration is at the core of his approach. The Open Knowledge Foundation provides an open platform for collaboration through both online and offline events, with the participation of 100s of active volunteer members every week. Fifteen active Open Knowledge Foundation Working Groups focus on specific fields from science to transport to environmental sustainability. In the last two years, Rufus has launched an international network with local groups running in 28 countries spanning every continent, including a Brazil group that was started with leadership from Ashoka Fellow Daniela Silva. Rufus’s team has collaborated with 100s of government institutions, non-profits and businesses; an event he convened this year identified £200 million (US$322M) of savings per year in the UK health system; he hosts the largest annual global conferences on this theme with over 1,000 participants. Rufus works to both influence and grow the number of “infomediaries:” citizens, journalists, and institutions who turn raw data and facts into highly accessible knowledge for the public. As well as creating and freely providing the go-to handbooks on open data, Rufus recently launched the School of Data in collaboration with Ashoka Fellow Phillip Schmidt of Peer2Peer University, creating courses to skill-up a new generation of data scientists from every background.

The Person

In addition to founding the Open Knowledge Foundation in 2004, Rufus helped set up the Open Rights Group in 2005 to advocate for digital rights—consumer and civil rights in the digital environment, including topics like copyrights law and online privacy.

Rufus has also worked pro bono as UK Director for the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, a group committed to promoting competition and innovation in software development. He led FFII’s efforts at the UK and EU levels from 2004 to 2005 to prevent the passage of a “Software Patent Directive” and played a key role in getting the EU Parliament to reject the directive—an almost unprecedented achievement.

Despite being recognized for landmark victories, it became clear to Rufus that working just on government IP policies could only go so far to promote an open digital economy. Lobbying for the public interest would be a losing battle in the long-term unless he could create a system where institutions would voluntarily embrace openness. At the same time, Rufus knew through his ongoing research that there was large potential economic value in opening up data. Inspired by the mainstream success of the OpenSource movement in software, which started as a grassroots movement of coders, Rufus decided he would bring this pragmatic model into the field of data and knowledge and was able to devote himself full-time to his vision at the Open Knowledge Foundation in 2010.

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