On Monday 12 December in Brussels, the European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, launched an initiative that is sorely needed in Europe, a project that will not cost much, but which could prove very lucrative: Data is the new gold is the name of the package which proposes to revise the 2003 European directive on the re-use of public sector information.
It the information produced, assembled or acquired public authorities is placed at the disposal of companies and civil society, it will provide the foundation for diverse initiatives in business, culture and society.
Information in this category notably includes cartographic, meteorological, statistical, environmental, tourist, maritime, scientific, cultural, and transport data.
At the dawn of a new era
For example in Boston where I am at the moment, the local transport authority (MBTA) has made available real-time data on the position of buses, trains and subway trains, enabling everyone to use it as they wish.
As a result, as many as 35 smartphone applications have been developed — both freeware and commercial — that enable passengers to make more intelligent and effective use of public transport.
We are still at the dawn of new the era of open data. As and when new data are made public, they will be cross referenced to create increasingly effective applications, which will make life easier for companies and individual users.
For example, imagine you want to travel downtown to see a show: simply input a few preferences into a single application that assembles a host of real-time information from diverse sources — cinemas, theatres, restaurants, and also transport, traffic, and parking monitoring services — and in just a few seconds you will have a range of intelligent suggestions on how to spend your evening.
Make public spending more transparent
Tourists (and also locals) will be delighted to use tools of type. Here is another example: the publication of detailed sources on public spending will enable taxpayers and associations not only to be more aware of how their taxes are being spent — and potentially to uncover wasteful measures — but also to benefit from a more developed civic conscience.
We are still at the dawn of this new era, but the package announced by the Commission — which constitutes one of the pillars of the Digital Agenda for Europe — will certainly attract the attention of member states: all the more so because Brussels expects it to generate economic gains of 40 billion euros per year in the EU.
It is good start, but a lot remains to be done before we can begin to cash in on some of this 140 billion. We will have to increase the quality and quantity of available data, develop alliances between the public and private sectors, and, perhaps most importantly, overcome resistance from a large number of civil servants who behave as though this information, which is the public property, belonged to them personally.
Open data portals
Several countries have already launched open data portals, where users can find information on subjects like the national budget, air quality, public subsidies, health, the population and taxation. In Europe, they include Austria, Belgium,Spain,Estonia, France,Ireland,Italy, Moldova, Norway, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.