Farewell, Open Knowledge International!

I wanted to share this news with you all in here as well: I am leaving Open Knowledge International (OKI) as its CEO. Until the end of the year, I will help with transition and support the Leadership Team in any way possible. I joined OKI in May 2015, to take over from the wonderful Rufus Pollock, who not only founded Open Knowledge in 2004, but who inspired it, who grew it and who established it as a key player in the evolving space for openness. Big shoes to fill, indeed. 

And the space has shifted considerable over the last years: Open Data, both as a concept and as a resource, is much more widely understood and available than it was only a few years back. So how does an organisation such as ours react to this change? While focusing on primarily opening up data was a worthwhile endeavour in its early years, opening alone was not enough for the future (and this was not my wisdom alone, but something the great people at OKI had already figured out, hence the search for a CEO that let to my hiring). So we shifted the focus of OKI towards the actual use of Open Data, with the clearly defined purpose to “empower Civil Society Organisations to use Open Data to improve people’s lives.“ This acknowledges the fact that our resources are limited, that we needed to increase our leverage, and thus we focused on organisations as partners, rather than individuals and broader communities. This approach (or, as I have called it: this purpose) opened up new partnerships, and also new funding opportunities: While the pool of foundations  that support Open Data as a concept is small (and shrinking, I think), with the approach to partner with CSOs in different domains, we are now able to tap into the funder pools for these domains as well. From human rights to the environment, from health to education, new domains (with new funding opportunities) are now available to OKI.

Another important aspect of my work was to transition OKI from an organisation that is dominated by its founder (and I mean this not in a negative way – I really admire Rufus for the incredible work he has done) to one managed by a team of people. Hiring Mark as the Chief Operating Officer gave us well-needed structure, in terms of our internal processes, our finances, our reporting, and our day-by-day operations. And elevating Paul to Leadership Team membership really did put the technical aspect of our work front and centre, acknowledging  the fact that this is not “only” about coding and development, but that Open Knowledge at its heart really is a tech organisation. Having this great team in place makes it easier for me to leave, knowing that everything is in good hands.

Open Knowledge is, and always has been, a non-profit organisation. Yet, there are significant business opportunities involved with Open Data. To make the best use of this, and to clearly separate the commercial from the non-commercial work, we spun out our commercial work into a separate company, called Viderum. Led by my good friend and colleague Sebastian Moleski, Viderum is developing nicely, contributing to the overall mission of OKI and on the path to contributing financially as well.

Speaking of finances, the funding model for OKI is significantly different from what I knew from my times at Wikimedia Deutschland. Over the last years, I worked with large foundations like The Hewlett Foundation, the Omidyar Network, the Arnold Foundation, Adessium and the Sigrid Rausing Trust. We not only raised millions of pounds for our work, we also build strong partnerships that will support Open Knowledge for the years to come. I learned from these foundations, about fundraising in general, but more specifically how important it is to clearly articulate your vision, your purpose, and your approach. And I also implemented fundraising trainings within OKI, so that many people within the organisation are empowered to build these relationships and raise the necessary funds.

Open Knowledge is a virtual organisation; we do not have offices anywhere. When I joined, I joked that we were not really set up as a distributed organisation, but that we just forgot to rent an office when we started. This has changed significantly over the last two and a half years, and now OKI is set up in a way that is more effective and also more fun to work at. Since I joined, we have been meeting at least three times a year for in-person meetings with all staff. The technical infrastructure has improved. And the day-by-day operations have changed significantly, allowing for better knowledge management and communications.

Now, I am leaving. I achieved what I set out to do, and I am confident that I am leaving behind a better organisation, well-positioned to move ahead and to enable data-driven social change. I do not think that I could add significant value any longer. And I personally struggle with the virtual character of the work. For OKI as an organisation, this model works well now. It has allowed us  to hire people from diverse backgrounds in many locations, and it is tribute to the tech-driven character of what we do.
But I learnt over the last months how important it is for me to work closely with a team, in a room, chewing on ideas together, tossing around solutions, exchanging constantly. Technology can go a long way here, and I did enjoy the freedoms and flexibilities that come with the virtual set-up. Yet in the end, and only for me personally, the negative sides outweighed the positive. And I think it is only fair to Open Knowledge International and to myself, to acknowledge this and to move on.

So I am making room for someone to lead Open Knowledge in the future as its next phase begins. This is not goodbye to the wonderful team of OKI, to the people I met along the road, to our partners and our funders. I will always remain connected to you and what makes the organisation special and important. I wish to thank the Board of Open Knowledge, and especially its chair, Karin, for giving me this great opportunity, for your guidance and your support.

I will now look around, see what lies ahead, which doors are opening up, where my talents are needed most. I want to continue to help make a difference in this world. I want to work with and lead people, and to build organisations that strife for excellence and, most importantly, for helping people improve their lives and the world we all live in.