Europe and the unstoppable opendata revolution

Today I spend a very pleasant day in Brussels attending the annual conference of the European PSI Alliance, of which I am a member. In an intimate environment, amongst the towering buildings of the EC, we had a good representation of speakers and delegates from Austria to Spain, from Google to city councils, from GIS officers to competition lawyers. It was a packed day.

Cycling & Skateboarding, the main security threats facing the EC (photo by author)

Here are a few snippets from the day:

  • The opendata revolution is clearly underway. In France, it has even entered the run-up to the presidential race in 2012, with Sarkozy and the left-wing candidates likely to come up with storylines such as “my opendata will be better than your opendata”.
  • In Europe, the leading opendata governments can be found in Austria, Spain & the Basque country,France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, the UK and Slovenia. On the day, Austria and Spain won prizes for PSI excellence, and Slovenia was highlighted as having a very efficient Information Officer with a great track record of taking non-compliant authorities to court! (I look forward to visiting Ljubljana next month)
  • Data privacy is “the right to be forgotten”.
  • The EC directive on the re-use of public sector information (2003) is being revised to amend the charging principles, to reverse the burden of proof onto the authorities rather than the users, to enshrine machine readable formats, and to include the need for independent regulators. The time frame for finalisation and implementation will take a number of years but – many of the rules required already exist under competition law, so you can gain access to the data you need even if the authority doesn’t play ball. There is only a slight snag – the legal fees. For example, it would cost about £1m to take the UK Government to court over an data access rights issue.
  • Holland has finally made its base registers a reality. After 15 years of agonising progress every house, every address, every street is now stored, maintained and accessible centrally in one place, for the whole country!
  • Many people think that the definition of public task and personal data are slippery slopes that are best avoided, as it is impossible to say where the boundaries lie.  I’m not entirely convinced by this argument but I’m quite happy to leave it to the regulators, whoever they turn out to be, as whoever enters this territory will indeed find themselves in a morass.
  • From Google’s presentation, delivered by the ever-present Ed Parsons, I noted down the following data concepts worth looking up in more detail – this is really happening now:
    • Ambient information
    • The Internet of Things
    • Canonical data
  • The internet grows by 5 exabytes every 2 days. That is the same amount of data as all of humanity has ever produced in 5000 years, up to the year 2003.
  • Ed is also of the opinion that, on the internet, data accessibility trumps data quality every time (citing iTunes vs CDs as an example). Not everybody agreed but I can see both sides of the argument. This is not a cop-out on my part but I think we need both access and quality, depending on the use case. It is impossible to generalise.

I came away feeling that, 10 years from now, governments may well be reduced to being data regulators rather than data creators, except for a few core reference datasets which no-one else could ever hope to produce legitimately or economically. I find it difficult to see how governments will keep up with the Internet of Things, the sensor web, and the speed of new data concepts and technologies. But they are key enablers in creating a whole information ecosystem that will do many of the data jobs for them, and much more.

Someone will probably call this Web 3.0 or whatever. If I was the right person in the right place I would coin a new name for it and make a fortune on the lecture circuit but hey, I’ve got different surfboards to wax. So, goodbye for for now.


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