Monday, 23 February 2015

On open data

The idea of "open data" is not new but it seems to be gaining popularity, recently, especially for data generated by using public or publicly funded means.
'Molecular energy at work'
by Let Ideas Compete
under a CC license

"Open data", as a term is subject to different definitions and, thus, is applied in different ways. The most basic, clear-cut definition available dictates that "Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose", although it is also possible to allow for mandatory attribution to the source.

At the legal level, things are a bit more complicated. The key problem of how to handle copyright in a way to reasonably achieve the intended objective of open data is not very hard to address. However, adding various restrictions to that, which in some cases is needed, makes it tricky. Taking into account that intellectual property legislation varies widely from country to country things become even trickier. To that end, the people at GNU and the Free Software Foundation have compiled a list of different free and non-free licenses commonly used for software and documentation projects. Further advice can be found, amongst others, on the World Bank.

Putting legal issues aside, open data, if used correctly, can help bring added value to societies. I understand that this is part of the typical pro-open data rhetoric but, for a moment, let's think of a couple of examples, besides transparency and accountability that seem to be well established already:

(a) A lot of money is invested, world-wide, on research and technological development activities. In cases where grants are provided on a competitive basis, applicants are commonly requested to demonstrate the relevance of their proposal to the current challenges and the scientific state-of-the-art. The latter normally takes a good literature review, while the former often relies on policy documents and some handful of studies that might be available on line. Even worse, during project implementation, project partners normally don't get access to additional data. Having relevant open data readily available would greatly help the research and innovation system in producing more relevant research proposals and better, closer-to-needs solutions.

(b) Competitiveness is considered to be a key for growth. But does this automatically translate to growth relevant to the needs of a society? Proving open data could stimulate growth-through-competitiveness around major needs. Further to that, it could facilitate adoption of best practices elsewhere, making it easier to compare cases and effects, hence, to identify solutions.

Is all data suitable for becoming open data? Clearly no. That wouldn't even apply to all data obtained through publicly funded means. Some data cannot not (and should not) become open because that would compromise national security or personal security, would limit or cancel a person's right to privacy, would possibly contradict court decisions and orders, etc. That means that it would be hard to apply a single approach to all kinds of data regarding their "openness".  It is still possible, though, to apply the open data policy on step at a time, or - better - a dataset at a time, keeping an eye of the effects, of course. In the future, it may be possible to define and implement a single, concise open data policy - at least for government data or data generated via public resources.

By the way, the open data call is finding top level support - at different intensities, perhaps - by entities such as the EU (, the US (, Japan (, etc. More importantly, the Open Government Partnership, launched in 2011, now has 65 member countries and publishes reports on those.

The video that follows has been made by the Open Government Partnership in promotion of Open Government.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Face-to-face meetings. Still much needed.

'Penguins have a meeting' by
Laura Taylor under a CC license
Businesses and people have grown past the local scale for quite some time now making communication an obvious priority. Despite the increasing number of communication means available, face-to-face meetings still persist. That happens in spite of their higher cost compared to other commonly available alternatives. Why is that? Are they truly irreplaceable?

In all the jobs I had so far, the king of communication means was e-mail. Formal or informal, long or short, pre-run by the management or not. Yes, I have had the experience of the occasional paper-printed letter and, unfortunately, a bit more often, the experience of its distant cousin, the fax message. And then it has been the phone. Plenty of my working hours have been spent there. Every once in while, though, I had to arrange for or participate in face-to-face meetings. So far, that has been with clients or potential clients, project partners, funding bodies, policy makers, working group members, colleagues and peers, top management executives, middle management, trainees, sector stakeholders, ..., you name it...

Have all those face-to-face meetings been worth the time and the cost, especially when international travel was involved? Yes. Even when the hard objectives of the meeting were not met.

You see, when you interact with others in the real word, you exchange much more information than that which words alone convey. This can be via body language, via facial expressions, via interactions with others that may be present but not part of the meeting, via comments that although irrelevant to the topic of the meeting convey information when perceived in context, etc. More importantly, this exchange of information goes both ways. At the end of most of my meetings I had a clear feeling on where things were going and that, in turn, helped me choose my follow-up actions accordingly.

Face-to-face meetings are engaging, too. Agreement (or disagreement) on actions feels firmer. Trust (or distrust) is established more easily and so are other things, such as tolerance, patience and understanding - all necessary from time-to-time in successful, durable collaborations - that we exhibit in our everyday life but are harder to do when using, say, written means of communication.

I admit that I haven't done any hard-fact cost-benefit analysis. But face-to-face meetings still get a lot of praise, having several valid reasons in their support. True, virtual meetings, including video conferences (conference calls never really appealed to me), have a lot of potential but they also come with their own disadvantages, as people in the meeting consultancy side say. Of course, when resources are running thin, one can always try to make the best out of virtual meetings. After all, face-to-face meetings do have their own peculiarities :-)

(as anything that involves people)


(but are still better than conference calls)

Sunday, 8 February 2015

One hundred posts

This is the 100th post I have prepared here.
'05 Birthday' by Marie Coleman
under a CC license

OK, I' m cheating a bit. Two of my texts have not been published yet, so, actually, it is 98 published post plus 2 on hold. Nonetheless, I consider it a personal milestone.

What started, at the end of 2009, mainly as the result of my curiosity to see what keeping a blog is all about, has survived until today. It has even managed to become (a tiny) part of my routine. Despite all the distractions I come across when drafting posts, some of which are inherent to the process. Flickr, for instance, where I normally scout for suitable photos (under a Creative Commons license, of course) to put at the top of each post, where I easily get carried away looking at people's photos.

Despite the years that have gone by, this is still a project under development. Altogether, the blog is still not fully mature in terms of content, with topics ranging from... well... the is no actual "range". Rather, whatever topic happens to cross my mind and bug me enough to look it up and write a few words on it. Understandably, it is still rather low on active readers. Not too encouraging but, at the end of the day, there are zillions of other blogs, of which many are backed up by talented people who take blogging much more seriously than me.

At any rate, though, having this blog has proven to be a great experience so far, educational, self-motivational and - above all - fun.

Many thanks to all of you, who stop by here!

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Antimicrobials use and antimicrobial resistance in humans and food-producing animals

EFSA, EMA and ECDC have published a joint report on the correlation of the consumption of antimicrobials by food-producing animals and humans and the occurrence of antimicrobial resistance. Not surprisingly, they found positive associations between antimicrobial consumption and antimicrobial resistance in humans and food-producing animals but also, in some cases, positive associations between antimicrobial consumption by food-producing animals and resistance to antimicrobial agents exhibited by bacteria in humans.
'Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria'
by NIAID under a CC license

Antimicrobial resistance is a topic that I re-visit from time-to-time. In brief, antimicrobial resistance is the phenomenon where a bacterium acquires resistance towards an antimicrobial agent. This may happen via a spontaneous mutation or via gene transfer. The emergence of antimicrobial resistance is a very important issue, regardless of whether the micro-organisms where resistance is developed are, themselves, pathogens or not. Bacteria have the ability for horizontal gene transfer. Thus, once the genes responsible for a specific antimicrobial resistance appear in a microbial population, the propagation of the genes to other microbial populations, including different bacteria, will take place at some point. Obviously, this becomes critical when pathogens acquire such genes, especially when taking into consideration that the antimicrobial agents (antibiotics) we have at hand to fight them are finite (and rather few).

The report of the three agencies highlights a problem that has been known for a while but sometimes still tends to be overlooked. There are vastly different practices across countries with regards to the way that antimicrobial agents are used by doctors and veterinarians to tread human and animal diseases, respectively. To make things worse, residues of veterinary medicines in food-producing animals may also remain in the meat at the time of consumption. As you may suspect, bad practices in either of those fields can give further rise to antimicrobial resistance and, in the longer run, can both accelerate the emergence of antimicrobial resistance of human pathogens.

Given the increasing globalisation of livestock production, as well as the increased mobility of people around the globe, it is necessary to boost efforts for better management of the use of antimicrobial agents, both against human and animal diseases.

This is no simple task, though.

Optimum management requires resources and infrastructure that differ a lot from place to place. Think, for instance, that keeping food-producing animals healthy without resorting to the use of antimicrobial agents needs hygiene, animal-housing and health monitoring practices that come at a cost. On top of that, such animals may be less productive in terms of meat. Such effects discourage the adoption of practices featuring responsible use of antimicrobial agents. There, education, as well as legal measures, have a strong role.

In any case, however, the fact that the task in question is difficult that doesn't mean that the effort should halt. At least not until we find other, reasonably effective ways to deal with pathogens.