Open Data - a complex policy landscape

As part of Melodies’ Sustainability work package, Terranea published a report on Open Data policies, progress and outlook. This blog post provides a short summary of that report on the complex Open Data policy landscape.

Open data is high on Europe’s agenda.

Data and public sector information are seen as important resources for supporting sustainable growth and the development of a knowledge and innovation-based economy. The potential of Open Data as resource for innovative products and services is well recognised in Europe and internationally. For example, the G8 Open Data Charter was adopted in 2013 when it was signed by leaders from the USA, the UK, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy and Russia. This Charter sets out five strategic principles that all G8 members will act on, including:

  • an expectation that all government data will be published openly by default,
  • principles to increase the quality, quantity and re-use of the data that is released.

Other Melodies blog posts have pointed out the technical challenges of working with Open Data. However, trying to use Open Data commercially raises more than technical issues, developing a commercial service based on Open Data is a complex task that requiring the understanding of the applicable legislation and terms of data re-use. Different regulations and conventions have been adopted in the past on national and intergovernmental levels providing the legal frameworks to be followed and defining the conditions for re-use of the data. Many individual institutions have their own individual voluntary Open Data policies and numerous lisences exist for individual datasets or groups of datasets.

Europe began establishing a legal framework more than ten years ago. In 2001 the European Commission passed  Regulation (EC) 1049/2001 on public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents. The main objective of this regulation was to increase transparency and to allow citizens to participate more closely in the decision-making processes, ultimately creating greater legitimacy for the decision-making processes and strengthening the principles of democracy. Two years later Directive 2003/98/EC, commonly known as PSI Directive, set the rules for the re-use of public sector information throughout the European Union.

In the US the sister to Regulation (EC) 1049/2001 is the US Freedom of Information Act, which went into effect in 1967. This is a federal law that has also been implemented by many American States. The act allows the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the United States government. Its intention is to promote openness in government and it is taken seriously - disciplinary actions can be taken for withholding information.

A second important initiative in Europe is the INSPIRE Directive. INSPIRE defines the legal framework for establishing a common spatial data infrastructure for supporting environmental policies in all European Member States. INSPIRE aims to make spatial information more accessible and interoperable and defines 34 spatial data themes for environmental applications. INSPIRE is being transposed into national laws, e.g. in the UK in 2009. An example of another international convention which was transferred into European and subsequently national law is the Aarhus Convention from 1998. This Convention aims at free access to environmental information, the participation of the public in decision-making and the access to justice in environmental matters. Regulation (EC) No 1367/2006 implemented the Aarhus Convention into European law.

Besides these legal frameworks there are other initiatives and policies in place on European level which focus on specific data themes. For example, the Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS) is an initiative founded in 2008, with the objective to simplify the collection, exchange and use of data required for implementing environmental policy. It defines several principles including easy access of data to all users and full availability to the general public. Another example comes from Copernicus, the European earth observation programme. A dedicated regulation within this programme defines that access to data is free and open to any citizen for public, commercial, scientific or private purposes.

Many organisations of the European Union as well as intergovernmental organisations have also adopted individual open data policies. EUROSTAT, the European Environment Agency (EEA), the European Space Agency (ESA), the World Bank, and UNEP are only few to be mentioned. All of these policies aim not only to make relevant and quality information available for transparency and traceability reasons but also to allow the exploitation, re-use and re-combination of data for commercial use. These objectives are usually the same for the Open Data initiatives of the individual European Member States which also have to adopt European legislation into national law.

This short overview shows that there are a significant number of Open Data initiatives in Europe and on global level. The original intentions behind opening up government data were to provide greater transparency. Today, the large economic potential of Open Data as a resource for innovation is another important factor that is considered by governments.

It is important to understand, however, that despite this economic potential, the label "Open Data" does not necessarily mean that data is free for commerical re-use. In this respect, its similar to open source software projects. Instead, government data is still often considered as a valuable economic resource providing a steady income to the public administration and charges can be applied for data handling. The many different initiatives and laws require users to thoroughly investigate the individual policies and licenses of a dataset before re-using it.

Open Data as a resource for innovative services requires coordination at a European level, in order to harmonize data and license policies as well as to define the technical standards required to allow for the interoperability of data from different sources. The INSPIRE Directive is a good example of this coordination - providing standards for sharing, viewing, discovering and downloading environmental data in Europe. Moreover, the Open Geospatial Consortium publishes many standards related to spatial information. These existing standards should be applied. It is a promising approach by the European Commission to facilitate the implementation of the EU Open Data policy and legal framework by preparing guidelines on recommended standard licenses, datasets and charging for the re-use of documents. This is another step towards grabbing that Open Data treasure.

For more information please have a look at the full MELODIES report.

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