Openness: An Open Question

Last week I went along to OpenForum Europe, where I had been invited to give a short talk as part of a panel on “Tackling “Societal Challenges” through Openness”. Despite my attendance, the conference had some impressive...

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Last week I went along to OpenForum Europe, where I had been invited to give a short talk as part of a panel on "Tackling "Societal Challenges" through Openness". Despite my attendance, the conference had some impressive speakers, including the European Commission's Neelie Kroes and Google's Hal Varian.

Unfortunately, I missed both of these because I was still travelling then, but fortunately, the ever-efficient European Commission machine has put Kroes' speech online.

This began with some comments about standards:

In all sectors, standards and standardisation drive competitiveness, promote innovation, and benefit consumers through competition. Standards are indispensable for openness, freedom and choice.

Likewise in the ICT sector, having the right standard-setting procedures and interoperability rules creates the level playing field needed for all parts of the machine to fit together: devices, applications, data repositories, services and networks.

Remember that the ICT revolution would not be what it is without the standards and protocols which underpin the Internet. In principle every node on the Internet can communicate with every other, using the same language; and without that, the Internet wouldn't much resemble the phenomenal engine of innovation that it is. We need to bear that in mind when thinking about the many new possibilities out there – public services from e-government to e-identification, applications from health to transport, innovations from the Internet of Things to cloud computing. Because if we are to unlock the power of any of these new developments, then we need to ensure that these technologies too are built on the philosophy of shared standards, so that within these new systems there is co-operation and interaction, just as there is between nodes on the Internet.

At first sight, that sounds like good stuff: "Standards are indispensable for openness, freedom and choice","level playing field" etc. But, of course, this begs the question of what is meant by "standards". Unfortunately, the European Commission answered that question with the atrocious European Interoperability Framework 2.0, which I've written about in detail before. Even more unfortunately, Kroes trivialises what was at stake there:

Moving from standardisation to interoperability policies, it is worth recalling that we have also managed, at the end of last year, to put behind us a controversy that took more than two years to resolve. The result is a document with the unassuming title of the "European Interoperability Framework 2.0". What was all that fuss about, in the end, you'd be forgiven for asking. I am not sure I can fully answer it myself. But I know that – amid huge controversy mainly about one small section – we have created a pretty decent overall result and certainly the best solution for now.

This is wonderfully patronising: "what was all the fuss about", "huge controversy mainly about one small section" - as if the size of the section, rather than the importance of what it defined, was what counted.

That "one small section" was almost certainly the one that undid all the good work of the EIF v1, replacing the requirement for Restriction-Free (RF) open standards with those that were either RF or Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND). And since FRAND is, in general, incompatible with free software, that means that the European Commission has blessed so-called standards that can lock out open source. So much for that level playing field; so much for "openness, freedom and choice".

After that really disappointing start, Kroes did make an announcement that was somewhat more positive – that the European Commission wants to jump on the open data bandwagon:

We are going to take action: we are going to open up Europe's public sector.

I am convinced that the potential to re-use public data is significantly untapped. Such data is a resource, a new and valuable raw material. If we became able to mine it, that would be an investment which would pay off with benefits for all of us.

Benefits for the citizen and for society, because making good use of public data can make your life better. Whether it's route planning using public geo-information or public transport data; a local community crowd-sourcing its maintenance priorities; decision-making built on statistics of all shapes and sizes; or data journalism that helps explain our world.

Second, benefits for the economy, as business opportunities to use such data increase. Especially if we spread data as wide as possible to give every idea a chance rather than locking it up in exclusive licensing arrangements. I want to see many companies turning their ideas into revenues and many citizens benefitting.

Third, benefits for science. Because research in genomics, pharmacology or the fight against cancer increasingly depends on the availability and sophisticated analysis of large data sets. Sharing such data means researchers can collaborate, compare, and creatively explore whole new realms. We cannot afford for access to scientific knowledge to become a luxury, and the results of publicly funded research in particular should be spread as widely as possible.

Fourth, of course there is some self-interest in this as well: there are benefits for the public sector itself. Think of the potential efficiency gains. Many that thought they knew it all will be inspired – and humbled – by what others will make of "their" data. Others will simply be learning by example how to better analyse and use it.

And, perhaps most importantly, benefits for democracy because it enhances transparency, accessibility and accountability. After all, what could be more natural than public authorities who have collected information on behalf of citizens using their tax money giving it back to those same citizens. New professionals such as data journalists are our allies in explaining what we do.

More concretely:

at the end of November, I will be proposing to my fellow Commissioners that we adopt our next steps on the re-use of public sector information, and a proposal for an improved Directive. I want requirements to be more encompassing, and specifications improved. In particular, we'll be looking at the way data is disclosed -the formats and the way data licenses operate to make re-use straightforward in practice. We'll also be looking at charging regimes because expensive data isn't "open data". In short, getting out the data under reasonable conditions should be a routine part of the business of public administrations.

Before you ask me, let me confirm: of course the Commission should practice what it preaches. So we will also be updating the rules for the re-use of our own data and I hope these rules will find champions in other European Institutions too.

We are planning two data portals to give simple and systematic access to public data at European level. First we should have, by next spring, a portal to the Commission's own data resources. And second, for 2013, I am working on a wider, pan-European data portal, eventually giving access to re-usable public sector information from across the EU, federating and developing existing national and regional data portals.

That's obviously good news, and will add to the already considerable momentum behind the release of non-personal government data in an open form. It's just a pity it had to come after the stunning slapdown of open source's presumption in the speech's first half.

As for my own contribution to this celebration of openness, I decided to be contrarian. My title was "Open Question", since I still see a question mark hanging over the long-term success of openness because of the wide range of threats ranged against it: the loss of Net neutrality, software patents – and that wretched European Interoperability Framework 2.0. Sadly, Mrs Kroes wasn't there to hear me say that, but for her – and your – delectation, I've embedded my slides below, and put them online for viewing and download.

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