Catherine Stihler

CEO, The Open Knowledge Foundation

What is your background and journey to your current role?

I was born and grew up in North Lanarkshire and studied Geography and International Relations at the University of St Andrews and then did a Masters in International Security Studies. I was the president of the Students’ Union at St Andrews and then went on to be a 20-year elected Member European Parliament for the Labour Party and Scotland until January 2019. I was the youngest candidate to be elected in the 1999 elections. During this time as an MEP, I was particularly involved in the single market, the digital single market, GDPR and privacy debates and I led policy reform on copyright law, which got me thinking about open data, big data and how we can have a more open society in a time of stagnant productivity, political disengagement and inequality.

When the role came along at Open Knowledge, I decided to go for it. I am so privileged to be part of this world and part of the crucial conversations about balancing concerns about privacy and solving modern problems – how do we find the cure to cancer whilst ensuring people’s data isn’t used for purposes they didn’t realise?


What an incredible journey – what would you say was your biggest achievements as an MEP?

Probably getting graphic warnings on cigarette packets when we were fighting against the tobacco industry! I managed to get that through – it was radical in the early 2000s.

Although I didn’t win, I’ve also stood up for copyright reform to make sure freedom of expression was heard and I formed the all-party group for libraries.

It’s now week 9 of my current role as CEO and I feel there are huge challenges, but ones that we can solve together. My energy has been renewed since leaving the European Parliament and I’m so excited to help confront some of society’s biggest challenges in another sphere and setting.


So what does Open Knowledge do?

It was founded in 2004 by Dr Rufus Pollock. He created the Open Definition which provided the first legal definition of open data and also created CKAN, which is used worldwide by governments for open data. Fundamentally, his vision was that open data could change the world. Currently, we have a data literacy programme, which has fellows across the world, and we do a lot of technical work, particularly around ‘frictionless data’, which relates to the transportation of data and making datasets talk to each other. We also do service products, which helps companies to manage their internal data, and we do campaigning work on big data and the knowledge economy.

The data debate is quite exclusive but there’s a lot of fearfulness and a lack of trust. The open route is where we can maximise open data for public good and has social worth, evidence its worth, and conversations about open data is mainstream.


What projects is Open Knowledge working on?

Historically, our legacy projects have included transparency issues and medical trials. Currently, we’re focused on frictionless data, which is about empowering researchers. We used to be domain-driven – we are now more literacy focused in relation to frictionless data and internal data.


What does a typical day look like for you?

Just like being an MEP, there is no typical day. We all work remotely so I manage a team of about 15 remotely, from my home study in Dunfermline! I have staff in Mexico City, Singapore, Berlin, Portugal, Moscow, Portland, USA – about to move to Texas. When I’m in London, I have a desk at the Open Data Institute and when I’m in Edinburgh, I tend to meet different people including at Codebase and the Bayes Centre. Yesterday I was meeting the Scottish Government about their internet of things work.

It is really wonderful being part of a community trying to do public good with the world of data, I feel inspired everyday with the people I meet. We need to make sure we don’t leave people behind, we need an inclusive economy, whether you’re 8 years old or 80 years old, you should be part of the conversation on data literacy. Sometimes people don’t even realise they’re participating! We have to find ways to engage different communities – we aren’t quite there yet.


What are the biggest challenges to the work you’re doing?

There are huge trust issues when it comes to data. There is also a fearfulness for the future. At the moment, we have the challenges around monopolies of big tech that set the rules of consumption and big data.

One of the key things is equipping people with the skills for tomorrow. How do we do that in ways that it inclusive and bottom-up, not top-down? It can be an effective way to empower people.

Following the copyright debates at European level, there are also the questions around ownership of data.


Do you work with many women?

Yes – not just at Open Knowledge but also in the tech and data CEO networks I am a part of. Jeni Tennison at the Open Data Institute is an amazingly inspiring woman, from the field of data transparency. Vicky Brock is a Scottish entrepreneur on my board. I have incredible women I work with that I learn so much from.


Why do you think data science is worth going in to?

Because it’s what drives our world – it’s essential for an inclusive world and hopeful future. Working within it, having those skills sets and making data in to knowledge for public good, is honourable, worthy and deeply important for a better world.


Where does gender equality fit in to this?

It is a deeply exciting space and women have to be part of that. I’ve been struck, for example at software developer events, at the amount of women there showing off their projects was. You need effective role models and education to show women why it is a great career path. The inclusion of women to the emerging digital skills economy is just pivotal.

I didn’t come from a computer science background – my IT involved a BBC basic computer programme! Now, 20 years on, I’ve had a career in politics, and I have an MBA from Open University and an honorary doctorate from my time as rector of St Andrews, so you can come in to data in different ways. These different journeys add value to the work, especially in terms of social impact. It is a people-centred debate.


What was the best opportunity you had in your career?

Becoming Rector at the University of St Andrews and working with an incredible student community. Also, moving from a political world to sector so important for society’s needs – so there’s two there!


Who and what helps you achieve your targets?

Gosh – I’ve had some wonderful women who have inspired me during my career. My granny, my friends, my family, people around me who have supported me to fulfil my dreams. Dame Glenis Willmott, who ran the European Labour party, and Dame Anne Begg, who gave me my first job out of university – there are so many people to think of. Professor Sally Mapstone is the Principal and Vice-Chancellor [St Andrews University] is very inspiring to me. So are the women I am working with on an everyday basis. I am deeply privileged, hugely inspired and I am so excited to be in an organisation that wants to change the world through open data.


Feeling like you can change the world!


As you know, I’ve just come out of the Brexit debate… it’s so sad to see your country destroy itself. Now, having the opportunity to tangibly change things and make the world a better place on a day-to-day basis is a refreshing change. As a British MEP, it’s been difficult.

You’ve got to challenge things and that’s what I love about where I work – don’t take no for an answer when it comes to demanding a better world, and the collaboration that brings. What you’re doing in terms of data-driven innovation, it’s absolutely crucial for the world we want to see. For me, I think it’s so important to go out and say, regardless of what your background, “the world is open to you”, come to it, be a part of it and talk to people. If we have more women involved in data-driven innovation, it will be an even better world.


Is there anything you’re excited about in the future?

I’m currently working on steering the strategic direction of Open Knowledge. This will be characterised by positioning us, building a case and a brand, as the right people to confront the big challenges around inequality and political disenfranchisement. I share that vision with an incredible team at Open Knowledge.


What do you do when the working day is over?

I have two boys – a 13 year old and a 7 year old so I have all the fun of balancing my career and family life!

My husband chairs the local tennis club and so I try and get away from my desk and play tennis with him.

I do really try and run – I’ve signed up for a marathon in October. I actually ran three before I had my kids so that is my goal this Autumn, to see if I can do it again.


Do you have a fun fact about yourself? The marathons are – what an achievement!

Well, I will have to do it now because I’ve said it in this interview! (laughs)


Thank you for sharing your journey with us – what a career move from politics to Open Knowledge!

Thank you for inviting me! Even though we face challenges as an organisation, it actually feels like you can make a difference on a daily basis at Open Knowledge.


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