An interview on Vivir Bien, solidarity economy in Europe and informal ontologies June 2011

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Mariana Malta of Universidade do Minho on the topic of Vivir Bien, a platform for solidarity economy I am involved with. While the interview was initially done for research in the context of the RIPESS-EU process of linking solidarity economy networks across Europe, I found it may be interesting for a wider audience, so I edited the transcript she sent me to publish it here.

I kept the editing to correcting grammar, shortening redundant passages and re-arranging some of the questions for better text flow. Where I added content for clarification, this is indicated [by square brackets].

So, you are part of Vivir Bien in Austria?

Yes. I am part of the network [and the main developer], the very specific thing about Vivir Bien is that we are not actually an organisation in a formal sense, we don’t have any corporation or association behind it, it is really an informal thing so Vivir Bien itself it is just a project among some people really. And then there is the KriSU, the Critical and Solidary University which is also not a formal institution but is like a larger context in which the Vivir Bien project started. All this kind of started with the student protests in Vienna so it is all on a self organised basis. My personal background is at the Vienna University of Technology, which is the “real” Institution where I come from, so I see my self as a researcher as well—more technology oriented maybe, more in research about spatial and geographical information systems so that is why I do the mapping, that’s my background.

Vivir Bien is on the one hand quite informal and therefore not, also in the RIPESS process not really compatible, because there you have huge institutions like in Italy and France, and with Vivir Bien we are really just, you know, very informal, and we want to stay this way and we don’t want to institutionalize… This is the background of the Vivir Bien project and so it’s a bit more complicated than in other countries, I would say.

Or not…

Or not, maybe.

Well in France is really incredible big and complicated they have so many organisations.

Yeah, we want to avoid this. There has been this congress on Solidarity Economy in Austria two years ago and some of the people who organised this congress, some of them are active in Vivir Bien as well, are planning to organise another congress next year, so this is the Solidarity Economy scene in Austria and it’s very, very informal, nobody really wants to create an association or anything formal that takes too much time, so I would say this scene is much different than I had the impression it was in Italy and France, it is much more established and there is also much more money involved.

But at Vivir Bien, you have a server, you have technology and people there, so you have to have money for that, no?

No, we have 0 euro in the project. It is my own server, I have kind of a business doing web things, so it runs on my server, I have written the software just out of interest of playing with this concept of having this tag based vs. ontology based knowledge management approach, and that’s it. And there are the people doing the mapping, contributing, it is not so big you see I mean there is not so much mapped. We would like to have more resources in there but it is kind of difficult to organise on a wide basis. But it has its advantages, you can send an email to people and people are really enthusiastic, I have the impression that in the RIPESS process, for example, things take much longer to make any decisions, to get people together, than in Vivir Bien; If we have an idea, we just try it out…

Because you are small you don’t have to respect the will of every organisation that much, and then if they are from different countries, different cultures, so finding a compromise it is much more difficult…

Yeah, and that is a role that I could see for Vivir Bien in the overall process, having this flexibility, trying out stuff, doing research and being very quick in trying out different things. But I have the impression that some people [in RIPESS] are quite sceptical about this, they don’t want to be very experimental, they are rather conservative of course because they have thousands of people who have their business and stuff.

So who can login to your platform?

We have discussed this a lot, because, eventually we want to open it completely but we didn’t really come to a final conclusion about it. I think that basically we need a system like Wikipedia, where eventually everybody can register but then you have people checking to see if there is vandalism or people posting wrong information or stuff like this. We haven’t come up with something like this, so right now the way it works is that people who have a login to the platform can send out invitations to other people, and we just trust the people that they will invite only other people who kind of share this interest or direction of Solidarity Economy. What you get with this invitation system is quite interesting because for every user in the system you get somebody responsible for inviting him or her. We wouldn’t blame this person but we can always send an email and come back to the person and say: Ah, you know this other person you invited s/he posted some irrelevant information so can you please tell him/her. So it is all about a social process, it is more like not wanting to define, in a committee, some criteria, like “these people are in” and “these people are out”, but it has to come out of a social process that we want to establish, all about this idea of designing a social process and not defining criteria, if you want.

Yeah I understand. So what can a normal user do in the platform?

What you can do is you can add resources, everything in Vivir Bien is called resource, and resources have tags, which are key/value pairs Users can create new resources, or can add new tags to existing ones, they cannot delete at the moment because we don’t have a way yet to undelete things.

So you can define a resource being an organisation, those who sell bread, what else, what kind of resources?

Well, it is very flexible. We started collecting books just recently, we have a view “Texts and Books“, so it is not only institutions, a resource can be anything, it is described only by the information you add to it.

The other thing that you can define as a user is a view, and a view is a kind of predefined filter on certain tags, this is what you have on the start page, in the upper area, you have these views there, “Food and Drinks” or “Feminism” or whatever, so if you go on a view…

I am on Feminism now, I have flowers in Vienna…

Yes, the flowers is the default icon for a resource, so if you go into feminism you see this view of resources with the tags: “motivation” equals “feminism“, so a view is just a definition. This view is showing this tag, so everything that has this tag it will be shown here, it is very simple, actually. There is only one thing that normal users cannot do, and this is to “feature” a view, to put it on the frontpage, so this is the only kind of editorial process that we have. But you can define your view and you can put a link to your view on your website, you can invent your own tag and define your own view based on that just to yourself, or share with a group of people.

So you have the information, for instance if you put on “selling bread”, you don’t really have the definition of what bread they sell?

If you go to the tags page, we have for example the tag “product type”, and there is “bread” as a tag there, but the thing is that you can always invent new ones [on demand]. When you sell black bread, then you can say ok my “product type” is “bread“, and “black bread”, or you say my “bread type” is “black bread”, or whatever, so it is not there at the moment because nobody found the need to make that distinction. You see this a priori approach, to first define all the products, that is not our approach, our approach is if somebody is there [making] a specific type of bread s/he will be the expert to say what the tag should be so s/he will put it in[, if needed].

And I can change this?

Yes, anyone can do it.

You were saying that you use tags in your site, do you want to add something about it here?

I can say some more about the tags, I continued the discussion with Dominique and I realised that the difference to semantic web technology is not as big as you think, because really the tags, we use them as statements like RDF triples, you know, you have the resource and you have the predicate (key) and you have an object (value), it is really the same. So really tags, in my opinion, is maybe a misleading word, because it is used in different meanings. Like for example in Flickr, or delicious, or whatever, you only have simple keywords, our tags are more sophisticated, they have a key and a value part, they are really statements. We took the whole process from OpenStreetMap, and they call it tags so we call it tags because we are in contact with them and we share some of the same vocabulary, but it is not the same as other people call tags.

Do you have any interactions with other platforms?

Yes and no. I did a prototype implementation to import data from another project, the Solidarische Betriebe Nordhessen. It is a research project and they came up with this map. This has been done by Kassel University several years ago, they went out and looked for Solidarity Economy companies and mapped them. And I have written an importer to get this data from the map and put it into Vivir Bien. Technologically it was not a problem at all, just read the data in, map somehow what they are using to our tags—I mean the tag model is really flexible, I can just put anything in there.

But you had access to their database?

No, actually I kind of hacked it because the project is not active any more, so I just went in the source code and looked how they load the data and I just did it myself. But then the problem was, and this is very interesting I think, because it was not a technical problem, but the problem was then they started discussions, they didn’t think that all they have mapped is really Solidarity Economy and [for that reason] they didn’t want us to use the data. These things are social, that actually once you force people to define what something is really about in an external context they get quite uncomfortable, so this didn’t lead anywhere. It is finished, in the implementation we could just press on a button and import all the data… But it has failed for social reasons, so far.

They wanted to discuss again if this was all Solidarity Economy or not. For me I don’t really think we have to do this distinction à priori, the users can decide what is [interesting] for them. I mean if I want to buy bread now it is more important for me to find someone who delivers bread than to actually have only companies who meet very specific criteria [in advance]. If the only one who meets this criteria is 200km away, I can’t buy my bread.

But if the idea is to have a website of Solidarity Economy, you can’t put traditional economy organisations in there.

I understand, but were do you draw the border? There will be always be people who will draw the border in a more radical way or draw the border in a more open way, and this is always the discussion and we are not [particularly] interested in these discussions. Everybody can put something in, the radical people can define their tags, and they say, ok only things that meet this and this certificate get this tag, but drawing this border in advance, what is in and what is out, I want to avoid this and it is not really an interesting discussion actually because it does not give any answer…

And it is not for you I suppose, you should not be the one to be deciding that?

Yeah, exactly.

I think that is also a problem if you don’t really have an organisation but are kind of informal, who is going to decide that?

Yeah but that is the advantage that nobody can decide, but only the users who view the data, they have to decide for themselves if this is now what they are looking for. Ok, there must be some [minimum] criteria, I can’t put the whole world into an information system because then I don’t gain anything, but my point of view is to have it as wide as possible, and then have a very flexible system that allows the user to apply his/her criteria. If I only want to buy fair trade products I have to have a very quick, very flexible way of filtering out only the fair trade products, for example.

And would it be interesting for you to have information from other platforms?

Definitely! And I imagine it is quite easy, whatever technology they use I don’t really care, if they use XML, JSON or RDF, it is not really an issue, you have tools for everything. We can always write an importer that maps everything to tags, and then I have a small script for every data source, that converts the tags, just exchanges words basically. I mean it is a very poor man’s version of a proper ontology that defines equality and stuff like this but is very much more informal but would work anyway I think.

Some organizations for instance have the same names for different things, and then we have to have definitions of organisations and the things they actually do…

You can always have different tags for slightly different things and then see if you can find concepts that are common to these tags, I don’t see that really as a [huge] problem. You brought the example of feminism, ok some people say it is feminism, other people say they are from a different school etc., but you can always differentiate, always have another tag saying “school of feminism is this and that and the other”, if you can define it—If you can’t define, you can’t resolve it anyway in an information system. This is maybe important, in every resource in Vivir Bien you can add comments, because I am convinced you can’t do everything with tags, you have to have human communication sometimes and in some resources we say “is this really this and that” and some other person answers, and we just have a discussion about it. This is something that is very hard if you export, that gets lost, because usually you don’t export this on metadata. Yeah, I am not sure [how to deal with that].

Have you ever though in interactions with other type of organisations out of the Solidarity Economy, like for instance Government?

I have to say the community in Austria under the term “Solidarity Economy” is I think quite radical actually, we have not really a lot of things that would qualify as a company or something like this at all, there is a lot of things like giving things away for free, demonetization, political initiatives and stuff like that, so the whole interest by the community to kind of really… I mean I would be interested because you get more interesting questions in terms of data modelling when you really have [larger scale] economic processes. But coming from the users it is very much about self organisation and being able to exchange things more directly, and building an alternative economy where people can more and more just move within this alternative economy without ever going out to the money based economy, and nobody seems to be interested in going into a more established institution or something like this.

In France, for instance, they need statistics to show to governments, look we are many, we are 2 million, we are 10% of the economy in France so we need more legislation, we need more money…

I don’t know, in the end they want money, but we don’t have money and we don’t need money, which is an advantage really, because [laughs]… yeah this is a potential conflict within RIPESS because there was the promise that national platforms would get some money to work on interoperability and once the money was there, they decided to split it between France and Italy, and not give any of it away [to other initiatives], of course, that’s how it goes. And Vivir Bien it is not part of this kind of “Solidarity” Economy, because a lot of it is just again selling some concept and getting some money for some projects. I know everybody has to live from something and I am writing a research project proposal to be able to do some research to live from it, too, but it is not something really in that we are deeply interested in, you know, just not our level of activity… I see this really as a gap between us and the rest of RIPESS, we are not so sure what to do with the the whole process. We are very interested in the exchange, you know, and international cooperation, of course. But Solidarity Economy can’t end at the border, it is logical to go beyond the border, to abolish the border, and in this respect we [seem to be] the only ones. All the others are organised in national institutions, obviously they mainly have this national interest.

In Austria, the Solidarity Economy organisations, do you know if they have a common platform, a place where they meet, do they have any kind of formal network, an organisation that is the umbrella of these little organisations in Austria?

Well the things in Austria, I am not an expert of the political situation, but I would say in Austria the tradition is that the state is much more involved, because we have a strong social democrat tradition so the state itself is much more involved actually in these things and we don’t really have this tradition of social economy as really independently embebed in the economy but it is really much more, you know, in the unions or in things much more connected to the state themselves, so this would then also be things that would be much more closely connected to politics anyway and they have their own platforms and contents there. But I am not really an expert [on that]…you should talk with other people about these aspects.

Yeah, you see in Brazil it is crazy, all the information they have there, they have already defined things, and now if you want to intercommunicate you have to compromise… We discussed a lot for instance how we are going to define the codes for the organisations or the business if they are from agriculture or for food…

mhm mhm mhm…

…some said: We use the NACE codes and others said we you use special codes, other said, oh we don’t use any codes, we don’t need it, you see!

This is really the problem that I see we this whole semantic web approach, because I have been there, I have doing research with RDF and I was really fascinated years ago but somehow it didn’t work out for me. And then I see this mail from Dominique [Dominique Guardiola of] on the interoperability list, and all this discussions in Paris—ok I haven’t been there—but the mails about all this; And then, what is the result, the actual result is that the vocabulary, what does it define, just some basic stuff that you really… I mean, pffff… I don’t know if this is really necessary to just define basic stuff [like product types all over again]. I understand the issue of interoperability, but I am not sure if it is really solved in this way. But… anyway there are different opinions, it is important to have different opinions and to try it out.

Dominique wants to go to Good Relations but I think he will not find all the answers there.

Yeah, but can you find the answers in theory in advance at all? That is my question! I think the answers and the concepts have to come out of the practice. So if you are the person who looks at the practice and then says, “OK I can identify this concept”, that is very worthwhile, that is very good to have such a person but just some people sitting together discussion about abstract concepts that is not going to do it. You have to look at the practice!