Open Data: the infrastructure that can make innovation happen!

24 January 2012 Author: EIFonline

Public sector information (PSI) is the single largest source of information in Europe. It is produced and collected by public bodies and includes digital maps, meteorological, legal, traffic, financial, economic and cultural data. In a very short timeframe, the re-use of Public Sector Information (PSI) - also known as “open data” - has become a high priority policy and economic issue in EU.

It has become essential to the information economy. The number of applications based on the use of PSI is growing rapidly and the market could reach 140 Billion Euros per year. On the other hand, the re-use of PSI does raise a series of complex issues in terms of business models, legal framework, technical roadmap (interoperability) and consumer protection. On 24 January the EIF dinner debate shed light on the current state of affairs.

The European Commission is currently revising the original directive on PSI. Through public consultation it became clear that there is a need for stronger rules regarding fair use of the (open) data. A number of governments in Europe have already taken significant steps in improving the availability of data for citizens. These public bodies often are the only source of this information and as such this data can be re-used by other organizations (both companies and not for profits) with economic and other benefits for society. In support of the open data movement in Europe, the Commission is creating its own portal to share open data by mid-2012. At the same time the EC is discussing a pan-European portal with the Member States to create a single point of access. And finally, the scope of the directive is extended to include cultural heritage that is in the possession of archives, museums and libraries.

With the incredible potential of open data projects for improving education, the economy and ‘democracy’ one interesting question is to look at the success factors of open data projects. One of the important lessons learned in Germany with open data projects is to involve the community at a very early stage because it is not only companies using the data but also non-commercial entities. One needs the community for for crowd-sourcing purposes (the community may help moderate a discussion or program an application).  However, it is a challenge to interface with these communities because they are an anonymous group of people. As such it has proven hard to pay them even small amounts of money because of the way public bodies are organized. One of the speakers called for a public community partnership model like there is the public-private partnership. A public sector body can only do community building and management (a crucial success factor for any kind of open data project) if it has flexible rates to give back to the community. And thirdly, there a common challenge for all engaging in open data and that is to measure the impact of opening data. There is a clear need for an impact measurement tool and maybe inspiration can be found in the recent trends of measuring the social return of investment (SROI). We need instruments to measure this. Or we cannot explain what is beneficial about this.

The Commission proposal does not mention education. There is however an enormous amount of data in the educational sector that is often closed but that could have an incredible impact if opened up. In universities publishers often pay 2% of the cost of the research and the remainder is funded with public funds. At the same time the publishers often take complete copyright on that content. That seems like a strange model. If one would open up such courses it will become possible to share it with many more people. For instance, Stanford University is making available a course on Artificial Intelligence as an open educational resource and is reaching 160.000 students (instead of 2000!) with that. Opening up such educational resources further could be facilitated by sharing it under a Creative Commons License. That way the information can be shared without ‘giving it away’. In 2012, content 'is much like an infrastructure': if you make it available to people it can make innovation happen. The open courseware consortium for instance has 20.000 courses available online for free. These courses are not only used in Europe but also in Africa and the developing countries. In the US, online communities start to appear around such courses, answering people’s questions often within 5 minutes. The potential is enormous but Europe must move to ensure we do not fail behind America and Asia in this respect.

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