Reuse of public data to get easier under new EU rules

Most public bodies will be compelled to make almost all their data available for reuse under new proposals from the European Commission, which says resulting apps and services could lead to a £34bn boost for the EU's economy
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Public bodies in the European Union will have to make most of their publicly accessible documents available for commercial or non-commercial reuse, under an Open Data Strategy proposed by the European Commission on Monday.

Neelie Kroes

European commissioner Neelie Kroes has introduced moves to open up data from public bodies for reuse. Photo credit: Neelie Kroes/Flickr

The move is meant to spur the creation of businesses selling smartphone apps and other services based on that data, which could generate €40bn (£34bn) a year for the economy, the Commission said. At the moment, it added, public authorities do not provide enough information about what data is available, who has the data and on what terms it can be reused.

The Commission is also trying to overcome the current systems of complex licensing procedures and what it sees as the prohibitive fees for the reuse of data held by governments, councils, health authorities and similar bodies. However, it will not force bodies to release public-sector data that is protected by third-party copyright. Cultural institutions and public transport authorities will also be exempt from the new rules, which would see the data provided for free or as near as possible.

"We are sending a strong signal to administrations today. Your data is worth more if you give it away," digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes said in a statement. "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," Kroes added.

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.
– Neelie Kroes

A success story noted by the Commission involves geolocation company NAVX. When French regulators introduced a reuse model for fuel price data in 2009, NAVX acquired a licence for its commercial reuse and used it in GPS and smartphone apps.

The company also "enriches" that public data, the Commission said, by mixing it with information about fuel stations that are exempt from public reporting obligations, filtering out double entries and out-of-date information, and improving the precision of the geo-localisation.

The Commission expects that once the proposals have cleared the various levels of EU authorisation sometime in 2013, it will take another 18 months for member states to transpose the new regulations into national law.

In the meantime, the Commission will itself open an online portal for all its own available data in spring 2012. "In time this will serve as a single access point for reusable data from all EU institutions, bodies and agencies and national authorities," the EU's executive body said, adding that it was investing €100m over 2011-2013 to fund research into improved data-handling technologies.

Open data in the UK 

Thibaut Kleiner, a member of Kroes's cabinet, said in a technical briefing that Europe was not as far ahead on the reuse of public data as it should be. For example, the UK provides more open public data than the US does, but US regulations mean there are many more applications there based on such data, he noted.

Nonetheless, Kleiner said Kroes consulted with UK culture minister Ed Vaizey and cabinet office minister Francis Maude when formulating the Open Data Strategy. He said the UK, led by the Cabinet Office, is mostly taking the right approach on open data, but the country still has problems implementing such policies.

"The UK, being based on common law, sometimes has difficulty imposing certain things. They have to sometimes negotiate with some of their internal bodies so they do the right thing," Kleiner said. "This data had to be produced anyway. Downing Street sees it as a way to massively increase the efficiency of public administration."

Simplified approach

The complicated task of getting to reuse public data in the UK would be simplified somewhat by the new EU strategy.

It would become a general rule that, if a public-sector body can make a document public, that document must be made available for any kind of reuse, whether commercial or non-commercial. The public body would not be able to charge any more than marginal costs for releasing the data. The Commission expects this would lead to most data being made available for free or almost for free.

The data would have to be made available in "commonly-used, machine-readable formats, to ensure data can be effectively reused", the Commission said. Kleiner explained that formats such as XLS and RTF would qualify.

Crucially, there would also be a presumption of openness for the data provided by the public sector. It would become a right to reuse public information, as long as it is not exempt.

2003 directive

The Commission intends to revise the 2003 directive on the reuse of public-sector information to include the new rules. At the moment, the directive already forces public bodies to be transparent on reuse conditions, avoid discrimination between potential reusers, deal with reuse applications within a set timescale, and avoid exclusive reuse arrangements in all but exceptional circumstances.

Under the strategy, all the bodies covered by the 2003 directive will have to adopt the proposed new rules. At the same time, the relatively minimal rules that are already in the 2003 directive will be extended to cultural heritage institutions such as libraries — including university libraries — museums and archives, which are currently not covered.

However, those cultural institutions will not have to adopt the rules in the new Open Data Strategy. According to Kleiner, the Commission originally wanted such institutions to also be covered, but ended up agreeing that museums, for example, should not be forced to forego postcard revenues by giving away high-resolution imagery of cultural artefacts.

There are some types of public bodies that were not covered in the 2003 directive and will remain exempt. These include industrial or commercial bodies, such as public transport authorities, and educational and research establishments. Performing cultural institutions, such as ballets, and public service broadcasters will also remain exempt, due to potential problems with intellectual property rights.

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