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Turning Government Data into Gold

Posted by Dominic Byrne on Mon, 19 Dec 2011 08:04:55 GMT

We are sitting on a resource that has a potential market worth tens of billions of Euro, that could stimulate new innovations, and that could increase the transparency and governance of public life. That resource is the data held by European public sector bodies. Last week the European Commission took a major step forward on the road to Open Data with the launch of an Open Data Strategy for Europe.

At a press conference on Monday 12th December to announce the strategy, Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes spoke strongly of the potential benefits of Open Data.  According to the Commissioner "We are sending a strong signal to administrations today. Your data is worth more if you give it away. 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.”

A study released by the Commission found that an additional €40 billion could be derived from public sector information if it were made available as Open Data.  This information includes digital maps, meteorological, legal, traffic, financial, economic and other data.  Much of this data can be re-used in products or services such as car navigation systems, weather forecasts, financial and insurance services.

So what exactly is contained in the Open Data package announced by the Commission and what is the impact likely to be on Open Data in Ireland?

The Open Data package includes the following -

  • a communication on Open Data outlining a vision and policy
  • a proposal to revise the 2003 Directive on Re-use of Public Sector Information
  • creation of a portal for the publishing of European Commission data
  • creation of a pan-European data portal for data from member states
  • provision of €100 million in research funding in respect of data-handling technologies

In addition, the Commission has published a number of interesting and valuable studies that informed these proposals.

Communication on Open Data
The Communication on Open Data outlines four main reasons for implementing a European Open Data strategy -

  • Untapped business and economic opportunities
  • Addressing societal challenges
  • Accelerating scientific progress
  • Need to act at all levels: local, regional national and EU level

The strategy includes a number of actions and target dates for implementation.

Revision of PSI Directive
The Commission is proposing an update of the 2003 Re-use of Public Sector Information directive, to include -

  • A general rule that all documents made accessible by public sector bodies can be re-used for any purpose, commercial or non-commercial, unless protected by third party copyright;
  • Establishing the principle that public bodies should not be allowed to charge more than the marginal costs for the supply of data - in practice this will mean that most data will be offered for free or virtually for free, unless duly justified;
  • Making it compulsory to provide data in commonly-used, machine-readable formats, to ensure data can be effectively re-used;
  • Introducing regulatory oversight to enforce these principles;
  • Massively expanding the reach of the Directive to include libraries, museums and archives for the first time; the existing 2003 rules will apply to data from such institutions.

European Open Data Portals
The European Commission will make its own data available through a data portal which will launch in spring 2012.  It is planned to make this a single-access point for re-usable data from all EU institutions, bodies and agencies.

The Commission is also working on creating a pan-European portal by 2013 which will bring together data from different Member States as well as from the European institutions.

Research Funding
The Commission will fund research to test and promote the development of innovative solutions, and to ensure the widest possible uptake of open data. Funding will include -

  • €100 million on data-handling technologies;
  • Funding for portal websites, which will also contribute to improving the interoperability of data from different Member States and their aggregation into the portals;
  • Support for research data infrastructures

In support of the various initiatives announced in the Open Data package, a number of very useful studies have also been published -

A review of recent studies on the PSI market
This study reviews the market for Public Sector Information and makes a number of key findings regarding the value of the PSI market.  The direct PSI market was worth €28 billion in 2008.  However there are also indirect benefits and the study estimates the combined direct and indirect economic impacts of PSI applications and use in the EU to be worth €140 billion annually.  Furthermore, if the data was open the potential direct value to be derived from PSI related activities is estimated at an additional €40 billion annually.

An assessment of different models of supply and charging for public sector information
The assessment analysed the impact of charging models for Public Sector Information re-use.  It found that where public sector bodies moved to marginal and zero cost charging or cost-recovery, the number of re-users increased by between 1,000% and 10,000%.  It also found that lowering charges reduces barriers to market entry and may attract new types of re-users, in particular SMEs.  Reducing or eliminating charges also strongly increases demand (including increases of up to 7,000%).  A number of case studies in the report illustrated increased tax revenue as a result of lowering or eliminating charges, and delivery of a high return on investment for the public sector.  In addition, the transaction costs for public sector bodies also decrease significantly when charges are eliminated.  In many cases improved data quality and process efficiency has also occurred as a result of feedback from re-users due to their shared interest.  The study also finds that there is a need to take a medium-term or long-term view of the direct economic impact from the growth in re-use of data, as this growth takes time.

A snapshot of the Apps market
The snapshot of the Apps market analysed the Apps market and how availability of public sector information could contribute to the development of new Apps.  The overall mobile apps market is one of the fastest growing segments in the IT market.  In the short term, there is no large profit or employment potential, however this is predicted to change dramatically within the next three years.  The main revenue opportunities from Apps utilising public sector information will emerge from Apps that integrate different data sources, more value added datasets and datasets which provide real-time data.  The main barriers are competition from public sector bodies creating their own free apps, a wide range of conditions for re-use across European countries, and unexpected changes in re-use conditions.

A study of Open Data portals
The study on Open Data portals analyses the impact of portals.  It found that there is a large variability in the supply, take-up and impact of Open Data Portals.  Larger Data Portal initiatives have been affected by recent budgetary cutbacks, but this has not affected smaller initiatives in the same way.  The main impact of Open Data Portals is indirect - the portals stimulate creativity and innovation and pave the way to unanticipated value creation.  Activities organised by portals such as apps competitions have played an important role in these areas and are popular among developers.  “Start small” approaches have proven to be most effective for portals.  The study concludes that Open Data portals are an effective way to kick-start a process of cultural change that ultimately leads to achieving high-level policy goals such as opening up high added-value datasets and deriving direct economic effects.

A study of PSI re-use in the Cultural Sector
This study examines trends in the development of the re-use market for cultural material. and also estimates the importance of re-use in terms of revenues for cultural institutions.

Details of the Open Data strategy and links to the various documents are available on the European Commission Information Society website

How will this affect Ireland?
This announcement from the European Commission is a very welcome step forward for Open Data.  In particular, the accompanying studies provide very valuable evidence and findings regarding the value of opening up public sector information.  From an Irish perspective, it is a pity that none of the research makes any reference to this country - although this is probably due to Open Data being a relatively new development here.

The report of Open Data portals concludes that they are an effective way to kick-start awareness of Open Data and that they ultimately to lead to economic benefits.  This affirms the initiative taken by Fingal County County a year ago in creating Fingal Open Data - the first Open Data portal in Ireland.  It also supports the work of the four Dublin Local Authorities and NUI Maynooth in creating Dublinked - interestingly, the report talks of Open Data portals ultimately leading to the release of high added-value datasets, which is a specific objective of the Dublinked initiative.  Hopefully, the two existing Irish Open Data sites will be joined by more in 2012 - including the national data portal recently announced by the Irish Government.

The potential value of Apps which utilise public sector information is highlighted in the study of the Apps market.  The 18 Hour Open Data Challenge organised by the NDRC last July demonstrated the type of business opportunities that are possible with Open Data.  The Apps4Fingal competition currently underway through Fingal Open Data also aims to demonstrate this potential through the Apps that are being developed for the competition.

The study of charging models contains a number of case studies of public sector information made available at lower or no cost.  The majority of case studies relate to mapping, cadastral or meteorological data.  It would be interesting to examine the findings of these studies from the perspective of Irish mapping and meteorological agencies and data, to determine whether similar benefits might also accrue in Ireland from revised supply and charging models in these areas.

The measures contained in the strategy should complement and reinforce the recent announcements from the Irish Government on Open Data, and inform the work of the National Cross Industry Working Group on Open Data.  The proposed changes to the PSI directive are welcome, but will take two years to implement.  However, as the Commissioner states in a message to public sector bodies “you don’t have to wait for this package to become law.  You can give away your data now – and generate revenue and jobs, and even save money from the better information and decisions that will flow”.

Dominic Byrne,
Fingal County Council.

19th December, 2011


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