Commentary Thread

The following is a listserv thread on the OPEN ICT4D document. The emails are placed in order of recency (scroll to the bottom for the first email).

Adel El Zaim wrote:

Dear all,

Indeed, Floro, languages are beautiful, and … words are poor vehicles for ideas and concepts. This is the reason words are
polysemic and cannot translate a concept in a single manner.

I was wondering also how to translate Openness in Arabic. The first word comes to my mind is "Infitah" انفتاح But, this word rings other bells in my mind. I remembered that the time Anouar El Sadate, former president of Egypt was called "era of infitah". I searched in Google for Arabic term Infitah and I found some text in arabic and in English. English terms used for to describe Sadate's time are: "Era of Openness". Did Obama copy Sadate?

I don’t want to add to the difficulty of translating a concept into a word, and then in other languages, but I have another problem with the Word Openness. I have a feeling of "déjà vu". We are strategising for 2011-2015. Open society, open source software, open content, etc. are all concepts already used and established. I would like to see a new word created (forged) in IDRC and popularised from IDRC to translate this concept of Openness, without saying the word Open and Openness. A new word, why not?

- Common world
- Common goods
- Communication/ collaboration/ commons
- Science and technologies for innovative world (looks like a new church)


Floro wrote:

Imperfect equivalence makes the beauty on different languages!

I think from the very beginning of the "Openess" conversation, we were aware of the polysemic nature of the concept, especially when applied to several fields all related with our activity/program (politics, technologies, research).

Probably "Openess" will have different matches according to the field. For instance, Popper´s book "The open society and its enemies", very influential in postwar western liberalism, was translated as "La sociedad abierta" or "La societe ouverte". Same applies for markets. On the other hand, OS will be associated with "Free" in French and someway too in spanish (although Codigo Abierto is also used)

We probably need to differentiate two levels: the "label" or catchie name to designate a bunch of reflection about the openess concept (in which case I think Apertura / Ouverture may work) or a more operational concept (the tagline) which will be hardly resumed by one single word (even Openess is not automatically associated with cooperation, networking, transparence, it can also be understood as free competence for instance).

Alternative B: try with a deutsch word meaning "Openess-approaches-in-collaboration-transparency-and-reticular-coordination-involving-ICT". I´m sure they have one for that!


From: Heloise Emdon

Wonderful how French (and Spanish) has forced us to think more deeply about the definition and the ambiguity of the English term.

Having said that what are the political implication of "transparence et coopération", ?


From: Laurent Elder

Très bonne question, pour laquelle j'ai bien peur que l'on n' ait pas de réponse facile :(

Nous savons que "Open source software" est généralement traduit comme étant logiciel "libre" (qui n'a pas le même problème de l'ambigüité du terme anglais "free"). Par contre, un ICT4D "libre" pourrait porter à confusion (sans parler d'un paradigme dont le fil conducteur est la "liberté")! Le livre "Enjeux de mots" (que nous avons financé…) traduit "open source intelligence" comme étant "intelligence coopérative" (inteligencia cooperativa en espagnol). La notion de coopération répond bien aux principes de réseautage et de collaboration qui différencient une société "open". Mais la notion de "transparence" semble mieux refleter certains principes sous-jacents de "openness", notamment en ce qui a trait aux notions de gouvernance ("open government").

SMHO (traduction de IMHO), nous devrions utiliser "transparence et coopération", qui finira par bien mieux refléter la définition de notre concept de "openness" que le concept Anglais lui-même!

Creo que es el mismo en espanol (transparencia et cooperacion) pero nuestro amigos espanols (o portunols?) en LACRO y Ottawa podrian ayudarme! (sorry for massacring that)


From: Adel El Zaim


Since we start talking about openness, I was wondering how to say it in french. Today, Mr Barack Obama announced a "new era of openness" in the White House. I looked for the translation of this speech in Le Monde (France) and in Cyberpresse (Montréal). Le Monde translated it by : une nouvelle ère de transparence. Cyberpresse translated it by: une nouvelle ère d'ouverture.

The first one is close to the concept of openness, but full of political meaning. The second one (ouverture) is an anglicisme, copy of the english term.

Any other idea about how to translate Openness in french, for our usage?


Hi Matthew,

Devil's advocate continued….

While I really like Open as a general umbrella for a number of issues that interest me, the downside I have experienced is that (like the word freedom) everyone has their own concept of what "open" is and before you have gone very far in an "open" discussion, you find yourself in argument because you are using the same word but with sometimes significantly different meanings. Open Access is a case in point. I am talking about the physical information infrastructure Open Access, not the academic publishing Open Access. Every planned undersea cable around Africa claims the mantle of Open Access yet their economic models range from closed to open.

So, I can't help but wonder whether it wouldn't short circuit some arguments to focus on the key elements of Open. You get at this in your paper but I am going to try to pick or rephrase slightly a few headlines. So what do we mean when we say open?

Equality of Opportunity to Participate (EOP)

I agree with Parminder's point about equity. The sense of capacity or agency is essential in talking about Open. Economic and social participation. This doesn't come across from the Open Source movement where access and capacity are often taken as given. ICTs are a powerful tool for increasing EOP.


Another issue that is not an intrinsic good. Privacy and security are important counterbalances in the transparency discussion. The goal here is to find the right balance. ICTs exacerbate the transparency issue by increasing the potential for transparency while simultaneously making the issues of privacy and security ever more challenging.

The Knowledge Commons

Open is probably most significantly associated with the commons and what can be achieved when we elect to share and manage resources in common.

In this case, Open may be an inappropriate name, implying a free-for-all, when what we have learned from the Tragedy of the Commons is that the commons needs management. In the realm of ICTs we are not just talking about all commons but the knowledge commons (which has some unique characteristics) and using the commons to leverage our 'cognitive surplus', as Clay Shirky calls it. And the potential of commons-based approaches to speed innovation. Not to mention the power of the commons to contribute to EOP and Transparency.

So what does the above mean? After many years of interesting but ultimately tangential debates on the nature of knowledge, I am now inclined to talk about "conversations" rather than "knowledge, information, and data" because I find it leads to the kinds of activities that I am interested in. By the same token, I think I might be tempted to talk about the above sub-themes rather than Open itself.

Perhaps it might decrease the chance of derailments. Still thinking out loud though… seeing if I am convincing myself. :-)

Thinking further…. I am reminded of Goodhart's Law and wonder whether there is any mileage there. Perhaps Open makes a good metric but not a goal, which makes it ideal from research perspective but less so from an activist's perspective.

Still reflecting… Steve

Matthew Smith wrote:

Hi All,

A quick comment on the concepts of the public good and the intrinsic worth of openness…. In particular, I'm going to push back on the idea that openness can't be an intrinsic good… at least some of the time.

It is crucial to differentiate between different types of open activities. As I was writing this email, I came up with three groups.

First, I think you can make the argument (as Sen does in his capability approach) that openness in some situations can be both a means and an ends of development. Consider democratic processes. The ability to participate and to have some say in the decisions that shape one's future is an _intrinsic good in and of itself_ even if we might not always agree with the outcomes. The same could be said for transparency of many public sector activities and information.

For yet other activities, we can argument that the open activity is a "public good" (such as clean air, access to educational resources and scientific research findings - non-excludable and non-rival). Key here, however, is that these will have positive spillover effects when they are freely available. Hence it then makes sense to think about interventions to promote those activities - especially since the activity is not something that generally is supported through market-based activities. They too are a type of 'intrinsic good'.

A more murky third type of openness activity is that set of activities where openness is a means to an ends, but the ends can be both positive and negative. For example, we could argue that having a more open society and access to information technologies provides a space for societal beneficial social innovations to occur. Indeed, I think this is true. However, this situation makes possible many activities that might not be so "positive". In this case, there is an argument for public support of the environment, although it should be enlightened public support in that it attempts to mitigate the downsides. In this case, openness doesn't appear to be an intrinsic good - and more open does not necessarily equal better.

Interestingly (to me - and I think for research and policy) depending upon the type of open activity the focus of openness falls on different areas. So, for example, for type 1 - open activities that are ends in and of themselves (like the functioning of some aspects of democratic governance) - then we have to be really concerned with the nature of the process itself and how open it is (i.e. how inclusive and participatory). The outcomes are secondary. If we are concerned with the second type - the state of openness (i.e. amt of access, participation, and collaboration) rather than the outcomes or the details of the process of opening up is more important. For example, consider the example of making international phone calls through skype. Here we are concerned with people having access to the communication tool - rather than the method that supplies the tool (market, state, or commons-based) - we just want maximal access. Finally, the third category requires a focus on process, state of openness, and outcomes, because we need to really understand the three components and how they interact to maximize the desired outcomes and mitigate the negative ones.

As a final note - for the first and second examples - arguably intrinsic goods — it is hard not to be unapologetically pro-openness, the more open the better! (of course, there are pragmatic limits - for example, at what point does a democratic process become too participatory?) For the third category, well, nuance, balance and a lot more knowledge is required.

Anyway, enough blah blah from me. Needless to say, the above is an oversimplification, but hopefully a useful one!



Hi Laurent,

All that openness as a public good stuff is my issue not Matthew's. I just figured he and perhaps all of you might have a perspective. :-)

I agree with your summing up of openness, at least from my perspective.
Equality of opportunity to participate and faster, more pervasive innovation.

There are some interesting tangents that fit in well here. Clay Shirky's concept of "cognitive surplus" needs openness to succeed. And the full impact of that I think has not yet been felt.

Another interesting angle is Malcolm Gladwell's notion of "human capitalisation" in Outliers. Poor people aren't stupid, they just have too many barriers in their way. We need to collapse the inconvenience (thank you Rich! :-) of access to education, resources, support, etc for them to succeed and open strategies are an obvious way to help that happen.

Regards… Steve

Laurent Elder wrote:

What a good discussion…I am far from the sage on the hill that Matthew would want to hear from (no puns on the "Elder" please), but I'll throw in my few cents. I'm especially interested in the issue of what we consider to be the public, or social value that we feel ICTs or openness can bring.

I do think the paper is quite clear that openness is not itself the public good we are looking for, but rather a process for possibly helping to develop public goods. However saying that what we are attempting to achieve is development might be too far a level of abstraction for us as well (knowing as we all do that the relationship between information/technology and development outcomes is immensely complex). Rather we should, in my view, be interested in the intermediary outcomes that we assume to be factors in achieving development and that openness has a direct influence on. This is actually where I'd go to the two things that Steve mentions, which for me are the most important factors we should be concerned with, as regards the tri-partite relationship between ICTs, openness and development: access to knowledge and fostering innovation.

The first factor is accessing or using "information" or "knowledge". We assume for example that an open access journal has a better chance to convey information to the people who need it than a closed journal. We also assume that open education resources will allow more people to access information or knowledge that will be useful to them, than through buying expensive university course books for example. Most of the factors that influence access to that information relate to copyright and the openness or closedness of the right that influences its use. There is, however, very little evidence at this stage that helps to prove or disprove the assumption, especially in the case of developing countries.

The second factor is innovation, which we also assume to have a direct role with regard to development (although always one that is hard to measure) but yet is often cited as a value in its own right. We would, for example, possibly assume that increased collaboration and participation in the development of goods can actually spur innovation and possibly make better goods. This is where some aspects of openness also come to play: through patents or other rights, people can either participate or not in the creation of a good. This is the area however where we have more trouble deciding whether something is a public good or not, as rights have so much to do with the incentives to produce goods and potentially have the good become sustainable (another development value that openness potentially conflicts with). The question for us becomes further complicated when we think of what public monies should be used for: should they support the creation of public (generally open) or private (potentially sustainable) goods? (I can't remember if the paper delves into that issue much, but we should touch on it).

Anyway, I'm running out of steam, but hopefully there is something useful in this…

Cheerio all


From: Heloise Emdon
Sent: January 6, 2009 4:19 PM
To: ICT4D-Futures Workspace
Subject: RE: Best of 2009

Hi Steve and all

The way I see the importance of the concept of openness is as it relates to Development. Opennes is the Outcome of many processes, whether they are closed or open in the beginning, probably the latter, but lead to more openness: more open mindsets when it comes to government, more opportunities for citizens to participate and benefit from the market, for more transparent government, more open materials for education, more information for making decisions around health care, more information about where to get jobs, where to find what one needs for ones household and community needs, more opportunities, period.

Is this openness intrinsically a good thing, well, no, not for the governments that do not want their information to be accessed more openly, or do not want to be challenged against their policy ideas when the information is more available? Most governments want certain information and particular information about their processes, their citizens to be closed. Openness is not always a good thing when it comes to individuals either. Is it a good thing for instance that a persons friends might blog or facebook their drunken expedition on facebook a good thing? It might spoil the chances of any future job opportunities.

I think we need to be clear about what processes that lead to more openness are indeed good for development? We think open source development does, but actually I am started to be persuaded that it also highlights asymmetry and lack of development.

The concept we are trying to tease out is partly the concept of symmetrical access for all, (as in the concept of open source development) and the free contribution of those empowered enough to have that access and are able to contribute back to this openness, but this does not necessarily lead to openness. That is why I think the paper clearly destinguishes the concept of openness that is being developed as relating to the public good?

That is what we are striving to do, is to increase the public good, to enlarge the public space that creates opportunities for all. Public good has intrinsic value which is what binds us together in a development ethos, not merely the concept of openness. So whether it is a process, input, tools or outcomes, the "unit of analysis" is whether the development process contributes to the public good. This is really only to classify what we do as contributing to that part of the domain of goods, not to say that private goods are evil, if anything private goods should be protected if the public good is well maintained, defended, well stocked and regulated. This is the openness that I feel passionate to defend.


From: Florencio Ceballos
Sent: 06 January 2009 03:02 PM
To: ICT4D-Futures Workspace
Subject: RE: Best of 2009

Hi all

Thanks Steve for triggering, once again, a very interesting debate. In some way I think Mathew did respond to this tension by recognizing openness as an hypothesis, where social / developmental benefits can be tested case by case. Rather than an assumption openness is a concept that should be submitted to the probe. I agree it's a theory with some evidence behind, but also some evidence that may be pointing in the opposite way depending how you frame it.

The question can be approached from very theoretical ways to very practical ones: Protection of cultural or intangible patrimony (couple of years ago, Chilean Mapuche community suited Microsoft for translating windows to Mapudungun language), commercial v/s non commercial CC licenses, paid v/s free access telecentre models, as well as the examples Steve provides regarding less openness with huge social added value.

I think there is a thin line we need to be careful about when we move ahead with the new "openness" process: our personal -and certainly valid-judgments (and the consequent temptation to do advocacy on those issues) , and treat "openness" as an overall concept driving to relevant research questions.

My 2 cents


From: Matthew Smith
Sent: January 6, 2009 9:47 AM
To: ICT4D-Futures Workspace
Subject: RE: Best of 2009

Hi Steve,

Thanks for your kind words and comments. Your email gets right to the heart of an important issue - and something that is still unresolved: if openness is a hypothesis, and sometimes more closed might be more effective, how can we frame it as a development approach?

There is a tension here, as you point out - on the one hand we are theorizing that there are a whole new range of beneficial social innovations and activities that are becoming possible due to increasingly open environments, enabled by ICTs… So, for now, we are implicitly arguing that more is better. On the other hand, we don't want to swing the pendulum to far to the "open" side, or ignore the potential downsides. Like you say - openness is not an intrinsic good. The goal is development, not openness. In a way, this sort of problem shows up in a lot of development theory (and probably every social science) - for example, very generally speaking - in the 70s development was to be state led, then in the 80s it was about reducing the state and letting the market work, and then in the late 90s suddenly the importance of institutions are stressed. Now the consensus, more or less, is that there needs to be a balance between the state and the market. So how can we avoid making the same sorts of mistakes? Furthermore- how do we communicate the importance of dealing with policy issues now that will determine the relative openness of the future - while taking a more nuanced position?

I don't have the answer. For me, as a researcher rather than communications expert, I see Open ICT4D is a theory, with some empirical support, that certain types of open information systems are conducive to social innovation and achieving development aims… My goal is to improving human lives, and I believe that there are new possibilities for doing so in a more open environment. People like Lessig argue for more open IP laws, but do so arguing for more balance - a balance of the incentives for innovation and the social benefits from building on others work. Likewise, Open ICT4D (not an appropriate moniker - right now I prefer Open Information Systems and Social Innovation…) is really about finding that balance. So perhaps thinking about it as a development approach is the wrong way to go about it. What the right way is… well I'm hoping smarter people than me will help me out here :) Perhaps we should just avoid the term openness altogether… ending up with something longer, but more nuanced, such as: social innovation through ICT enabled access, participation and collaboration… not really a development approach, but certainly communicates the main idea a bit better.

Anyway — sorry for the rambling there, but your email got me thinking. I too would love to hear anyone else's thoughts on this matter.

With regards to the wiki - I totally understand. I don't see it as terribly conducive to contribution… and I do like your idea of a serial blog post… Thanks for the ideas. When I get something else going I'll post it here.

Thanks again and all the best!


From: Steve Song
Sent: Tuesday, January 06, 2009 8:36 AM
To: ICT4D-Futures Workspace
Subject: Re: Best of 2009

Hi Matthew,

We haven't met but your colleagues say wonderful things about you. Congratulations on a truly impressive and thought provoking document.

I have a question on openness that has been bugging me for a while that perhaps you can comment on. My question is this. Is it possible to frame Openness as a development approach when Openness is not an
intrinsic good? As an advocate for openness myself, I struggle with the knowledge that openness is not in and of itself a virtue. If we were talking about Improved Healthcare through ICTs for Development, there would be no question of the development and human good being achieved. Open ICTs for Development is much less obvious. The more I think about it, it seems to me that we don't want everything to be completely open, we rather want things to be open enough. Put another way, we want some things to be open more than other things and we are prepared to compromise on what those are, recognising that tolerating some closed is a good way of getting more open.

Google is an obvious case, we tolerate Google's closed search algorithm and closed applications because we get mostly free search, email, and web hosting. We call Microsoft "evil" for having closed software but no one ever gives Intel a hard time about having closed chipsets. We campaign for open mobile platforms but no one ever takes Qualcomm to task for locking up CDMA. If the transaction cost is low enough, how much does open matter?

I suspect that in general we don't just tolerate a lot of closed, we inherently recognise that the closed is necessary too. Perhaps rather than openness, we should be campaigning for "open enoughness". Closed and open are an economic yin and yang that need each other.

In Eric Beinhocker's The Origin of Wealth, he describes a fascinating experiment modeling the prisoner's dilemma but not between two actors but rather in a multi-actor evolutionary landscape in which anyone can make a transaction with anyone. The software ( was used to seed open and closed transaction strategies into an evolutionary landscape. The interesting result is that "open" succeeds very well in a very closed ecology and "closed" succeeds very well in a very in a very open environment. In this perspective, the whole open movement might be seen as a rebalancing of a very closed economic ecosystem.

Or perhaps it is rather a case of choosing the right things to open.

When Richard Jefferson of CAMBIA was at IDRC a couple of years ago, he argued that the most important things to keep open are the tools that enable the creation of new knowledge. That was his dividing line for open and closed. He didn't mention access to those tools and the capacity to use them but those are obviously essential as well.

I like your distilling of openness:
* universal over restricted access
* universal over restricted participation, and
* collaborative over centralized production.
but I wonder whether very cheap closed technologies, Skype for example, might be more virtuous than a less functional open solution.

Partly I am playing devil's advocate here because I really do believe in the benefits of open but have recently begun to ask whether more open automatically equals more good.

Look forward to hearing your thoughts (and anyone else's for that matter).

Cheers… Steve

P.S. I am very pleased that the document is up on the web so that I can share the link with others. However, I am not tempted to edit it and I doubt that anyone else will. Nothing personal. It is just my experience with wikis is that people will not edit a work with a clear author or authors. I think one of the keys to Wikipedia's success is that it plays down authorship. I'm not suggesting that you should do the same but just that a wiki may not be the most successful way to get input.

Another option might be to serialize the paper and post chapters or even smaller segments as a serial blog post, giving readers smaller chunks of information to digest and the opportunity to comment as opposed to edit.
Comments can then be integrated in to the revised document. Just an idea. Fold, spindle, or mutilate as appropriate. :-)

Matthew Smith wrote:

Happy holiday wishes to all,

In the spirit of free and open information - attached is an article that recently came out in Science Magazine titled "Opening Education", which is part of a series on Education and Technology ( I attach this particular piece because I (most immodestly) wanted to point out reference #13 which refers to the Open ICT4D paper we have been working on ( This is also the paper that has been converted - for the most part - into the wiki that Michael mentioned in his email ( <>). Please feel free to contribute - I realize that it isn't in an easily modifiable modular format conducive to collaborative work - but if you are inspired, please just throw in your comments, thoughts, interesting citations, additions… whatever… as these can be integrated into related thinking, research and writing in the future. Any input is greatly appreciated!



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