A First Step Toward a Single Open Data Portal for the European Union

At the very end of 2012, the European Commission launched a beta version of its new Open Data Portal. The European Public Sector Information Platform calls the portal a “first step towards a pan-European data portal that will provide access to all underlying national (and regional, local) data portals across the 27 Member States.” While some several European member states have their own open data initiatives—like Data.gov.uk (United Kingdom), Data.gov.be (Belgium) and Data.gouv.fr (France)—the EC’s goal is to build a centralized data repository on top of these distributed nation-specific sites. In addition to decreasing the fragmentation of the EU’s open data initiatives, the EC’s program aims to probe member states that are lagging behind the open data trend, like Germany, a country where “Open Data activists and representatives from industry and science” are having difficulty convincing the government not to lock away data. Vice-President of the European Commissioner (and responsible for the European Digital Agenda and for the Open Data Potal) Neelie Kroes acknowledges in a blog post on unlocking government data, the challenge now is to help different EU administrations fully grasp the idea that providing free or low cost data could benefit their governments. 

At launch, the data portal provides access to over 5800 datasets, with most, at this point, coming from the European Commission’s stats agency Eurostat.  At the moment, the data housed in the portal “concerns all the information that public bodies in the European Union produce, collect or pay for…This could include geographical data, statistics, meteorological data, data from publicly funded research projects, and digitised books from libraries.” The EC portal cannot yet match the volume of data stored at the United States Data.gov, but the Commission is committed to working toward achieving that goal. Similarly to Data.gov (United States) and Data.gov.uk (United Kingdom), the EC Open Data Portal does not provide its data in any single, uniform file format; rather, each dataset is made available in at least one reusable, machine-readable format. The new portal also uses SPARQL endpoint for linked data.  SPARQL, now the World Wide Web Consortium standard for the Semantic Web, allows both humans and machines to quickly query a database and returns the data in machine-readable formats.

The portal implements the Commission’s “Open Data Strategy for Europe,” announced at the end of 2011, which aims to “deliver a 40 billion euro boost to the EU’s economy annually.” After releasing EU data in a centralized portal, “a level playing field for open data across the EU will be established” and new open data measures will be “backed by the €100 million which will be granted in 2011-2013 to fund research into improved data-handling technologies.” The Open Data Strategy also includes more specific goals, many of which are furthered by the launch of the Open Data Portal:

  • Making it 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 costs triggered by the individual request for data (marginal costs); in practice this means most data will be offered for free or virtually 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 portal notes that, “this … is about transparency, open government and innovation.” The Commission’s original plan noted that the new Open Data ecosystem in the EU would benefit not only journalists and academics, but also the public at large by boosting “the thriving industry that turns raw data into the material that hundreds of millions of ICT users depend on,” and fostering the creation of innovative new applications, “such as maps, real-time traffic and weather information, price comparison tools and more.”

In addition to the economic value proposition behind open data, a video on the portal’s landing page notes that data is increasingly becoming a “digital echo of the world around us”. As such the Commission recognizes that providing unfettered access to data is also a matter of social justice.

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