My Open Story: Part 2

Traveling Thousands of Miles to Meet You

Posted by Billy Meinke on October 7, 2015   •   6 min read

Every afternoon that wasn't blazing hot or drenched with rain, I rode my bicycle through the industrial park that is/was Google's main campus. More than one roommate of mine worked at the Goog, and my evenings included stories of nerf gun fights and eating at the extensive dining areas for free all day, every day. Amazon mail-order boxes stacked up at the front door, because ordering toothpaste on Amazon was easier than driving down to the corner store. I saw pre-release versions of gadgets and services, and attended a lakeside retreat weekend that convinced me that Googlers can hold their own against college fraternities.

I was 29 years old and living among young professionals in their mid-twenties, with freshly-minted 4-year degrees and near-six-figure salaries at technology companies. I had left UH and was unemployed, trying to figure out how to put myself in front of people that could give me a job - people of influence in the open community (in Silicon Valley). I was applying and interviewing for typical instructional design jobs every day, but compulsively checking the job listings of Mozilla, the Wikimedia Foundation, Creative Commons - and wherever else I could find leads on an "open" job. Silly as it seems now, I turned down a salaried position that would have made the Bay Area livable. But try as I did, I couldn't get past the idea of working at a for-profit nationally accredited private university.

"Keep looking," I decided. I'll just keep looking.

Enter The Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF), and Kat Braybrooke. I hadn't heard of the OKF before finding a website about their upcoming festival "OKfest", and seeing some buzz about it from people I knew in the Mozilla community. But frankly, being held in Helsinki was attractive on its own. A couple childhood friends of mine were in a similar professional-life-transition place like me, and were planning a tour through Europe at the end of summer. Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany...and wherever else we could fit into 3 weeks of travel time. And the more I read into the details of OKfest, the more I wanted to get to Finland, too.

Call it "an Open opportunity that I couldn't pass up."

I had been to Europe only once before, during an exchange program with a small town outside of Hamburg, Germany. Now, my travel friends were plannig to primarily use trains during the upcoming tour, keeping the costs down and seeing more of the European countryside as we went. I scraped together my pennies and dimes and figured out how to add a round trip flight to Helsinki into my already-established plans for Europe. I'd stay in Berlin for an extra couple of days after my friends departed, visit my exchange friends in Hamburg, and then head to Helsinki to volunteer at OKfest. That was that.

The sense of freedom I felt was only overwhelmed by the feeling of what-the-f*ck-am-I-gonna-do-now.

But when you're in Europe, you do what not all travelers truly enjoy: experience the local culture. From firework-blasting political parades in Barcelona, to tours of French chateaus on the southern Atlantic coast. And rail cars through the Alps, then repeatedly running into the same graffiti artists and hostel vagabonds (who were trying to take a boat to Africa). Those stories deserve their own place, so let's return to the final destination of Finland.

Photo by Richard Akerman (color-adjusted), CC BY

After a week of staying alone in Berlin (with a trip to Hamburg included), I boarded the plane to Helsinki. An hour later I was on a bus to the center of town and then on to find my rental flat acquired through the (then new) rent-your-place service, AirBnb. Helsinki was cold and wet, and the language seemed too far foreign of my American English to be comfortable.

Through the OKfest website I found out about a photo walk around historic Helsinki the day before the festival. I still hadn't met anyone from the festival in person, and I figured this would be an interesting opportunity to have the history explained by a local, Irmeli Aro. It's hard to explain the sense of welcome extended by Irmeli and the other folks on the photo walk. Coupled with the purpose of their being in Helsinki to attend OKfest, and you have a recipe for great things.

After introductions, we set out down the streets of Helsinki. Passing historic halls and courtyards, we all asked about what brought us to OKfest. When it was my turn to share, I mentioned my work on badges, CC-licensing my Prezi book, knowing a little about the history of free software, and generally just wanting to find work in the community there. I was still an Open noob (beginner), but telling my story became natural, and my aspirations seemed somewhat noble, if not just fairly interesting.

Peter Kittas was on the photo walk, and he was at OKfest to meet people and talk about GIS mapping and visualizations. Richard Akerman was there, too, and looking to meet folks and talk about open data and policy.

"What's open data?" I asked.

And in the next half-hour, I learned about the meta relationships between open content, open data, and open source software. Ya know that feeling you get when you have that dream where you're falling and (swoosh!) you wake up and your stomach feels light, excited? Imagine having that feeling constantly, as if a certain something you had traveled thousands of miles to find was right in front of you. And in the end it was just an idea: open data.

Header image by paullioja, licensed CC BY.