Open Data: Europe Starts to Get It

As readers of this blog will have noticed, open data is particularly hot at the moment. Whether that will endure is another matter, but for the moment we should be grateful for all the politicians jumping on this particular bandwagon, and we...


As readers of this blog will have noticed, open data is particularly hot at the moment. Whether that will endure is another matter, but for the moment we should be grateful for all the politicians jumping on this particular bandwagon, and we should grab the open data they are releasing with both hands while we can. Here's the latest convert, the European Commission itself:

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.

The main details, such as they are, are contained in a questions and answers document. Here are the highlights:

Public data is all the information that public bodies in the European Union produce, collect or pay for. This could include geographical data, statistics, meteorological data, data from publicly funded research projects, and digitised books from libraries.

There's a couple of very interesting categories in there. The first is "data from publicly funded research projects". This is an important category of open data that is currently rather overlooked in the (welcome) rush to open up government data. And it has some interesting implications – for example for Horizon2020. As I wrote last week, the public has a right to access and use the data that research funded by Horizon2020 produces, and this latest initiative seems to back that up. It will be interesting to see whether the Horizon2020 framework takes notice in its final form.

The other noteworthy mention is for "digitised books from libraries." That's not normally an area included in open data initiatives, but it's good to see it mentioned. It reminds people that these too are data, and if funded by the public, should be publicly available.

Here are some interesting stats from the document:

The market size and growth of the geographic information sector shows the potential of public data as an engine for job creation. The German market for geo-information in 2007 was estimated at ‚¬1.4 billion, a 50 % increase since 2000. In the Netherlands, the geo-sector accounted for 15000 full time employees in 2008. Other areas such as meteorological data, legal information and business information also form the basis of steadily growing markets.

A recent study estimates the total market for public sector information in 2008 at ‚¬ 28 billion across the EU. The same study indicates that the overall economic gains from further opening up public sector information by allowing easy access are in the order of ‚¬ 40 billion a year for the EU27. However, the total direct and indirect economic gains from easier PSI re-use across the whole EU27 economy would be in the order of ‚¬ 140 billion annually.

The Questions and Answers page also has some more details of what the open data move means in practice:

The Commission's updated Directive will broaden the scope of applicability of the provisions of the Directive by bringing in sectors previously not covered, and move to a presumption of openness for those bodies where the Directive already applies.

That "presumption of openness" is hugely important, because it effectively reverses the long-standing presumption of secrecy. That clearly has big implications for open government and transparency too.

There is some explanation of how the proposed new Directive will change things compared to the previous one:

For those public bodies to which the 2003 Directive has already been applied, the proposal for the Directive introduces new features

All public data that is not covered by one of the exceptions will become re-usable. Thus, the Directive creates a genuine right to re-use public information, absent from the original Directive;

The general rule for charging will be that public sector bodies can charge at maximum the marginal cost for disseminating the information. In exceptional cases only, full cost recovery (plus a reasonable return on investment) will remain possible.

Data should be made available in machine-readable formats where possible;

There will be independent supervision of the implementation of the rules in all the Member States.

Elsewhere in the document, more details of that reusability are give:

Public bodies should make their data available for re-use as freely as possible. However, there can be conditions on re-use, such as the requirement to indicate a source reference, but they should not unnecessarily restrict the way in which the information can be reused or restrict competition.

On the other hand, all type of re-use is allowed irrespective of its purpose – commercial or non-commercial (the rule is "purpose blind").

That's hugely important if the Commission wants to kickstart an open data ecosystem of the kind I discussed a few weeks ago.

Finally, there's this:

In 2012, the Commission will set up an Internet portal for its own data. It proposes that other EU institutions, bodies and agencies make their information accessible through this portal, making it the single access point to EU information.

In 2013, the Commission will establish a pan-European portal, bringing together data from different Member States as well as from the European institutions.

The question here is whether this pan-European portal is meant to replace national and more local open data sites, duplicate their holdings or function as a kind of central address book for them. Although synchronisation would be a bit of a nightmare, duplicating them would provide a valuable kind of backup – something that is often overlooked amidst the excitement of setting these things up.

The details are still rather lacking, but what we know so far about the Commission's plans to open up data holdings across Europe looks pretty good, especially the statement that full commercial use is permitted (often the tricky bit.) I'm sure this will add impetus to other open data movements across Europe and around the world. Indeed, that's one of the great things in this area: the more people start opening up, the more others are encouraged to do the same.

It's hard to tell who exactly deserves the kudos for these moves – I'm sure that many people were involved, and deserve our thanks. But judging by some of her recent speeches – notably the one that dared to suggest that copyright isn't working, I get the feeling that Neelie Kroes has played a big part.

So it seems appropriate to conclude with this handy summary of today's announcements from her:

"We are sending a strong signal to administrations today. Your data is worth more if you give it away. So start releasing it now: use this framework to join the other smart leaders who are already gaining from embracing open data. Taxpayers have already paid for this information, the least we can do is give it back to those who want to use it in new ways that help people and create jobs and growth."

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