Update: MaÃ«l Brunet has pointed out that the press release I linked to below is from 2011; what was actually announced yesterday was that the EU Council's ‘Coreper' committee (EU Committee of Member States' Permanent Representatives) has now endorsed the measures announced there. So, nothing has changed from what I wrote below, but another hurdle has been cleared in making the open data initiative happen. All that remains is for the European Parliament to agree, and the rules will come into force. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that any amendments will be included at this stage, so it looks like we only get "almost" open data....
As expected, the European Commission has announced a major open data initiative:
The Commission has launched an Open Data Strategy for Europe, which is expected to deliver a ‚¬40 billion boost to the EU's economy each year. Europe's public administrations are sitting on a goldmine of unrealised economic potential: the large volumes of information collected by numerous public authorities and services. Member States such as the United Kingdom and France are already demonstrating this value. The strategy to lift performance EU-wide is three-fold: firstly the Commission will lead by example, opening its vaults of information to the public for free through a new data portal. Secondly, a level playing field for open data across the EU will be established. Finally, these new measures are backed by the ‚¬100 million which will be granted in 2011-2013 to fund research into improved data-handling technologies.
All good stuff. Here are some details:
The Commission proposes to update the 2003 Directive on the re-use of public sector information by:
Making it a general rule that all documents made accessible by public sector bodies can be re-used for any purpose, commercial or non-commercial, unless protected by third party copyright;
Establishing the principle that public bodies should not be allowed to charge more than costs triggered by the individual request for data (marginal costs); in practice this means most data will be offered for free or virtually for free, unless duly justified.
Making it compulsory to provide data in commonly-used, machine-readable formats, to ensure data can be effectively re-used.
Introducing regulatory oversight to enforce these principles;
Massively expanding the reach of the Directive to include libraries, museums and archives for the first time; the existing 2003 rules will apply to data from such institutions.
In addition, the Commission will make its own data public through a new "data portal", for which the Commission has already agreed the contract. This portal is currently in ‘beta version' (development and testing phase) with an expected launch in spring 2012. In time this will serve as a single-access point for re-usable data from all EU institutions, bodies and agencies and national authorities.
It's good news that commercial use is included: that will allow new kinds of business models based around open data to be explored. The "marginal costs" might be a problem for open source projects, say, but we shall have to wait to see what it means in practice.
Unfortunately, the big no-no here is "commonly-used, machine-readable formats", since that includes proprietary, non-open ones. As a result, some EU bodies will probably be tempted to dump a load of stuff in Microsoft Word formats or worse, when they could and should release it in open formats.
Fortunately, this is still at the proposal stage, so we can try to get across the key message here: that unless in formats that follow open standards, it's not truly open data, and the full benefit of the latter will be lost. The rules need to specify that data must be released in open formats unless there are compelling and fully-justified reasons why not.