Monthly Archives: July 2014

Some Reflections from the Open Knowledge Festival 2014

 

Antti Halonen, the Finnish Institute’s head of society programme, blogs about the recent Open Knowledge Festival and Institute’s future plans.
The Finnish Institute in London were privileged to organise the inaugural Open Knowledge Festival together with Open Knowledge Foundation (recently re-branded as Open Knowledge) and Aalto University in Helsinki two years ago. It was therefore both important and extremely interesting to attend this year’s edition in Berlin and witness how both the festival concept and the international open knowledge community had evolved in two years.
And evolved they have. In only a couple of years Open Knowledge network has expanded into 56 different countries, the Finnish chapter Open Knowledge Finland amongst them. In my mind the work of Open Knowledge has always been based on pragmatism, intellectual honesty and thrive for collective action, which is likely to be the key to this recent success: merely pointing at bad things and saying how bad they are is not a sustainable way of achieving any positive change.
The ethos of sharing was as prominent as ever throughout the festival programme. “The more you share ideas – the more others can build on them”, was the message given by Neelie Kroes, Vice-president of the European Commission, in her keynote speech. In this spirit, we will use this blog as a platform to share a couple of ideas we’ve been contemplating at late.

Firstly, the Finnish Institute is starting a project which looks into the visibility and impact of contemporary art in society in Finland, the UK and Ireland. More of this project can be read in this blog later. Presumably there would be plenty of possibilities of intertwining this project into the work we’ve done on open knowledge.

The Finnish Institute’s work on open knowledge dates back to 2011, when we compiled a report on the development of open data policies in the UK and subsequently started to promote the subject in the Finnish societal discussion. Recently our focus has gradually shifted towards the role of openness in cultural sector organisations, such as galleries, libraries, archives and museums. In the world of Open, they are collectively known by the acronym GLAM.

OpenGLAM offers intriguing opportunities for a cultural institute like the Finnish Institute. This is partly because our mission is to apply methods of social sciences and arts in order to identify emerging issues in contemporary societies and take thinking of social challenges and cultural practices in new, positive directions. We recognise the immense value of cultural data that may still lie behind barriers of accessibility and understandability and work to raise awareness on the importance of public domain. In this regard OpenGLAM offers a huge potential in both enrichening the arts and culture sector but also in the very key societal questions, such as education (museum pedagogy) and quality of decision-making (access to archival material).  

According to the festival session Maintaining a healthy and thriving public domain – exploring the notion of originality and copyright when digitising analogue works, there is an increasing need to encourage culture sector organisations to release those contents that should legally be in public domain under actual public domain licenses. This is not always the case: many organisations apply restricting licenses to contents that should be placed in the public domain which causes both confusion and also at some scale frustration for open knowledge practitioners.

One suggestion of how to encourage GLAMs included generating a rating system similar to five star open data model. However, it is worth asking whether a rating system would in fact discourage culture sector organisations of releasing their contents, as they would be afraid of getting bad results despite a genuine will to be open. Arguably it would be better for the organisation to have no mention of rating at all than to have ⅕ stars.

Therefore, it seems that there is a demand for creating new methodologies of evaluating the value of public domain for society at large and most importantly for GLAMs themselves. In this work we could potentially apply both the existing work of Open Knowledge and their OpenGLAM Benchmark Survey and methodologically, our own upcoming research on the significance of modern art. Having said that, we would also like to know if there already is a widely accepted method of evaluating the qualitative and quantitative value of public domain for culture sector organisations, or if such an evaluation is not considered necessary.

Secondly, after several discussions with the delightfully plentiful array of Finnish contacts at Open Knowledge Festival, it emerged that there would be a real demand for:

a) strengthening the international ties in the field of open data and open knowledge research

b) giving young Finnish open data researchers / practitioners an opportunity to work a short while in the UK, which is recognised as one of the leading European countries in the field of open data.

There is an intriguing opportunity to look into possibilities of creating an open data fellowship program that would possibly intertwine with our existing fellowship programme for museum and archives sector professionals. Mobius-fellowship offers Finnish, British and Irish museum and archives professionals an opportunity to spend a three-month period in an international partner organisation. For a young Finnish open data practitioner, for instance, it might be useful to be able to spend a couple of months in the UK and to work within the British open data community.

These are not finalised programme plans, but merely ideas what the Finnish Institute might do in the future regarding open knowledge. In the name of openness, if you have any comments, suggestions or ideas, we’d be happy to receive them. Similarly, we’d be delighted should you wish to start a project of your own based on these ideas.

Developing Places through Culture and History

Maija Bergström blogs about redevelopment of the King’s Cross area. This is the first part of a series of posts about King’s Cross, the new homebase of the Finnish Institute in London.

Architects, historians and geographers have produced a vast amount of different perspectives on places. As more and more people choose to live (or have to live) in cities (1), their size keeps growing. So there’s a great need to develop cities that are unique and interesting environments, support the wellbeing of their citizens, are sustainable and functional and make different people feel like home; to make cities a great place to live. I examined one central redevelopment that is happening in London, the King’s Cross area. King’s Cross exhibits contemporary ways of developing an area. It’s going to be home for many cultural and educational institutions, our Institute among them. So looking at what is going on in King’s Cross is likely to offer new ideas that could be applied elsewhere as well.
King’s Cross has a colourful history at the heart of the industrial revolution of London. It served as a transportation hub where the goods from countryside arrived by railway and were passed on through the Regent’s Canal. Today, it is one of the busiest stations in London and home for the Eurostar that commutes to the continental Europe from St Pancras International.
Previously King’s Cross was seen as a synonym for crime and prostitution and it was a home for many poor communities.  The area that is going through regeneration is located in between of older residential areas. It was used mainly for storage and didn’t have residential buildings, so no people had to be rehoused. The lack of existing communities is also a challenge, as the new development has to be connected to the surrounding areas that share it’s name and history.
History can be noted on the level of architecture and cityscape by preserving old buildings and making it visible by placates and signs that refer to old incidents or happenings, or people that used to contribute to the area in some way. This is a more educative approach that produces “official” and “important” knowledge for people to learn.
The next step is to provide a platform for people to tell themselves, what they see as important knowledge to share with others. The history of a place is always entwined with very personal histories. It consists of thousands of everyday narratives how people used to live and work in the area.
King’s Cross Voices -project (2) was an oral history project that collected interviews from a wide range of people; factory workers, sex trade workers, police officers, housewives…  It aims at improving citizen participation on information production, and offering a platform to strengthen the voices of the community that once existed there.
Cities  have an endless amount of layers which are constantly renewing. That calls for the question, what should be saved for the future and how? We are familiar with conservation and heritage, but that has to do with the physical side of the city. As cities change, we talk about that change with social terms as well, as is the case with gentrification.

 

Gentrification means broadly the shift to a wealthier neighbourhood that follows from an enhanced commercial interest. That begins with the entry of creative class and is followed then by the middle-class. It is often seen as a process that overruns the old culture, or the ethos of an area, as new inhabitants change the face of the area. As the communities change, the former local cultures might disappear.  The changes that make the area safer, cleaner and newer can also leave it without any references to history and concentrate only on boosting the commercial opportunities.

 

Quite often unique places that attract people can not be commercial. Amanda Burden gave a great Ted Talk about public spaces (3). She spoke about New York’s successful High Line and the constant need to protect it for the attempts to turn it into a commercial space: “Hey, why not take out those plantings and have shops all along the High Line? Wouldn’t that be terrific and won’t it mean a lot more money for the city? Well no, it would not be terrific. It would be a mall, and not a park.” High Line is a good example of a historical structure, that has been given a new use.

 

In the King’s Cross area, something similar has happened with the canal that has been turned from a transportation route into a public space. The Regent’s Canal runs through the area, reminding from it’s connectedness to neighbouring areas, Camden, Angel and Islington. It serves as an open space for people to spend time, and works as a platform for events and happenings.

 

This approach of creating unique, distinctive places with their own identity is called placemaking. At it’s lightest form it can mean just focusing on the visual side of the area, of branding a new area for commercial purposes, though placemaking should focus more deeply to the conditions that would help people use public spaces and contribute for developing the area (4). I see placemaking also as a tool for encouraging citizens to explore and observe their surrounding environment.
Camley Street Natural Park is a tiny urban nature reserve that offers a totally different experience for those who find it. The Finnish Institute’s architecture project Viewpoint is situated there, in the heart of King’s Cross, at a curve of the canal. Projects like Viewpoint work as landmarks and foster curiosity. When you arrive to King’s Cross walking by the canal from Camden, it emerges from the curve and makes you wonder if it’s a gigantic water lily, a lost pyramid or a wooden island. It’s open to interpretations.
The possibility for several different interpretations is what makes a place interesting. Some aspects of the variety of interpretations can be made visible by simply googling the images. King’s Cross. A beautiful but endless collection of the railway station from different angles and an occasional tourist heading to platform 9 ¾, familiar from Harry Potter. And that is probably what people start to think now when you talk about King’s Cross with them.

If we look at what King’s Cross history gives us, there’s a way more lively narrative that comes visible. When looking at the pictures, ask yourself: what is missing? What is emphasized in these pictures? What would make you want to go there? The new image that can be found online might be too clean, too flawless and lacking in depth. Still, I feel that on the construction site, lots of effort has been made to reveal the older layers as well, and I find this very positive.

Parts of this history have been made visible at the construction area. In a place where no former residents live, bringing history alive isn’t always an easy task, but it’s worth trying. The fences have been decorated with stories and interesting facts about the area. For the people who take time to read it, it gives a feeling of being connected to the past, and gives a context for the new buildings by reminding what used to be at the area.
A lot has been removed but bits and parts of old buildings have been saved as well, and they are quite nicely highlighted in the area. Granary Square by the canal is a very positive example of a place that attracts people to spend time. The Victorian granary and two transit sheds now offer a home for the famous art and design college of Central Saint Martins (5). Ancient buildings work as surroundings for the contemporary every-day fashion show by art students.
Granary Square, King’s Cross.
© Chris Allen, CC-BY SA 2.0
 
In Helsinki, new areas use 1% of their budget to public art. Finland’s country brand committee supported the idea of so called percentage principle, and suggested that also the inhabitants and users of an area should have a say when designing public art (6). The works should draw inspirations from the areas uniqueness, and also deal with difficult questions. King’s Cross runs their own ambitious art project as well (7). In her blog post in Project for Public Spaces, Cynthia Nikitin wrote: “More than ever before, public artworks are stimulating and inviting active dialogue rather than just passive observation, thereby fostering social interaction that can even lead to a sense of social cohesion among the viewers themselves.” (8) Public spaces and public art that invite people to interpret and use them in different ways offer a sustainable way of developing places.
As a cultural institution with a focus on information work, being surrounded with historical buildings, clever and inspiring artwork and a lively neighbourhood is something that we all enjoy. Working in a place that provides lots of possibilities from basketball games to healthy lunches in a range of cafes and street food stalls followed by strolls by the canal feels like a priviledge.  We believe that we do a better job in a good environment, and that we should try to make the most out of the area.

Seeing how the area is changing during the redevelopment hopefully gives us new ideas and opportunities to reflect our own work as well. It will be an experiment as well, to see how the environment really affects us.

(1) World bank, urban population. After 2007,  more than 50% of the worlds population have been living in cities.  http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS/countries?display=graph
(2) King’s Cross Voices
(3) Amanda Burden: How public spaces make cities work. http://www.ted.com/talks/amanda_burden_how_public_spaces_make_cities_work
(4) Project for Public Spaces: What is placemaking? http://www.pps.org/reference/what_is_placemaking/

(5) A good introduction by Dezeen: http://www.dezeen.com/2011/10/18/campus-for-central-saint-martins-by-stanton-williams/

(6) p.6, Taidetta arkeen – Ehdotus valtion keinoiksi edistää prosenttiperiaatetta osana julkista rakentamista. Täydentävät taustaselvitykset, artikkelit ja seminaarit.

(7) King’s Cross art project:
(8) Cynthia Nikitin: Collaborative, Creative Placemaking: Good Public Art Depends on Good Public Spaces.
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