Why open data is good for science.

I recently applied to the Open Knowledge Foundation for one of their  Panton Fellowships. They are giving a number of £8,000 Fellowships to researchers who are trying to promote open science and open data. I got through the initial screening and had to make a short video to support my application. But alas, I didn’t make the final interview stage. Nevertheless, in the spirit of openness, I thought you might like to see my application. Here’s the video. No laughing at the back.

And here’s my application letter:

Dear OKFN,

Panton Fellowship Application

I believe the need for openness in science goes beyond data. Software, methods, models, analyses, journals, peer review and even funding and grant-making would all benefit from greater openness. But, of course, this will not happen overnight. Scientists will only be persuaded to embrace openness if they can see a clear personal benefit. In that respect, I believe a focus on open data is an excellent starting point. We all see the value in access to other researchers’ data; the potential to for hypothesis testing, meta-analyses, direct comparison to our own research. Sadly we see too many impediments to releasing our own data, the effort needed to clean or curate it, the danger it will be ‘misinterpreted’, etc.

When abandoning established practices scientists require evidence. I believe the role of the Panton Fellows should be to lead by example and, in doing so, provide that evidence. We can make the case for openness by being open and by demonstrating the direct benefits to our own research. I believe I am in a position to do this effectively within my own research field and this leads me to apply for a Panton Fellowship.

I am an experimental psychologist working at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck, University of London. There are two streams to my research that fit in with aims of the OKFN and the Panton Fellowship programme:

1. I have been trying to get colleagues in cognitive modelling community to take openness seriously and make their models more accessible. To this end I built a web-based version of one of our own models  and have been trying to promote the idea of sharing models within the modelling community. The attached commentary was requested by the editor of the journal Topics in Cognitive Science and is currently under review there.

2. I have an existing open science project using smartphones to collect data on everyday alcohol & drug use. The idea is provide a free application that tracks consumption, mood and has some simple games which measure cognitive function (reaction time, coordination, etc.) The user’s data are sent securely to a webserver, anonymised and made available for research purposes. I believe that openness is central building trust with potential user base for such a project.

A drinks tracking version of this application is already available for free the Android App Store and the code is available on Github under an open source licence (http://github.com/YourBrain). I presented project this at the OKConference in Berlin in July 2011 and attached is a chapter from a forthcoming book that explains the project in more detail. A video of an early presentation on this project is available here

I have a full-time position at Birkbeck for the next two years and thus have no need of full financial costs. However, both these projects are outside the scope of my current research grant and so the Panton fellowship would help me make progress on both of them. In particular, the fellowship would be useful for covering open access fees on publications and in paying for equipment, development & web-hosting costs to widen the accessibility of our smartphone apps and of the data that they generate.

Moreover, I believe that the Panton Fellowship would benefit my research on a more intangible level. My drug and alcohol research project is motivated by a strong belief in the value of evidence based approach to recreational drug use. But in a hostile political climate, such ideas are controversial (and underfunded). I know the Open Society Foundation actively promotes these values and I believe that complete openness is a strong defence against critics. The prestige of a Panton Fellowship and the support of the OKFN in applying principles of openness at every level of my research project would greatly strengthen the overall endeavour.

I enclose my curriculum vitae and two papers describing my research. I look forward to hearing from you,

Dr. Caspar Addyman


And for the über-keen amongst you, here are the two papers. The first will appear in the journal Topics In Cognitive Science, the second is a chapter for the book of the Breaking Convention conference 2011


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About Caspar

Caspar Addyman has a BA in mathematics, a BSc in psychology and PhD in developmental psychology. He works at the CBCD at Birkbeck, University of London. Before becoming an infantologist he spent eight years writing trading systems in the City. He lives in Brixton, Berlin and Dijon. He never drinks the same drink twice in a night and dances without spilling a drop. Twitter: @BrainStraining
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