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Data Innovation Lessons from Europe

by Travis Korte

The European Union (EU) and its member countries have advanced a number dubious policies around data in recent years, including the so-called right to be forgotten, taxes on Internet data flows, and proposed restrictions on data sharing for medical research. But it would be a shame to take these unfortunate policies as an excuse to ignore some of the good data policy being done in Europe in other areas. In particular, policymakers in the United States should look to European countries on open data, the Internet of Things, and health and science data management.

While the United States is undoubtedly a world leader on open data, there are still a few tricks it can learn from its friends across the pond. Perhaps the most important lesson from Europe around open data is taking funding more seriously. For example, the EU announced in November 2014 that it would commit €14.4m ($17.9 million) to a multifaceted array of open data efforts. The UK has also begun funding efforts of its own, including a £1.5 million ($2.4 million) commitment that will go toward open data training for public servants, releasing more local public data, and collecting open data case studies to help government officials learn from successful past initiatives. U.S. efforts around open data have mainly been on the policy side, but offering funding opportunities to startups using open data and supporting open data research can help accelerate these efforts in the future. But even on the policy side, the United States can take inspiration from Europe. While open data efforts in this country have benefitted immensely from the 2013 Open Data Executive Order and similar state efforts, ensuring that these advances will continue to develop under future presidents might require legislation, of the sort Italy used to enshrine the “open by default” ethos into its national laws. Finally, appointing a national Chief Data Officerwhich France did first, could help coordinate efforts around open data and other data initiatives well into the future.

Next, the United States can take inspiration from European efforts around the Internet of Things (IoT). Again, the major difference is in funding. The European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program budgeted €92 million ($114 million) in 2014 to smart cities research, and the U.K. government recently committed £46 million ($73 million) to support Internet of Things startups and projects, including programs around digital health and connected freight. While U.S. efforts have largely involved the private sector or taken place at the city level, a national effort could help accelerate the growth of the IoT economy in the United States. But large, multipurpose investments are not the only way European countries are promoting IoT. In Denmark, the national energy agency is funding the Denmark Outdoor Lighting Lab, an ongoing project to install energy-efficient light-emitting diode (LED) streetlights equipped with versatile sensor systems into a Copenhagen neighborhood in hopes of demonstrating the energy-saving potential of connected urban lighting. Finland is also allocating an undisclosed amount of funds to a unique R&D partnership with India, one of the focuses of which is smart cities. That program will fund research projects with high commercial potential. The United States should take heed of these projects and create its own ambitious smart cities initiative backed by federal funding to start establishing best practices and creating contacts between the technology community and government agencies.

Finally, European organizations have been at the forefront of several leading efforts around science and health data. One such effort is the UK’s National Health Service care.data program to combine patient data from general practitioners with similar information from hospitals to inform medical research, funding allocation, quality of care assessments, and other purposes. Although the program has faced opposition, the benefits dramatically outweigh the risks and the United States should consider emulating England’s approach in its own efforts to make better use of data in health care. In addition, the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s (CERN) efforts, not just around big data processing but also data preservation and long-term stewardship, should serve as a shining example of how to manage large-scale scientific data efforts. While the United States has made some attempts to participate in international discussions of best practices for scientific data management, such as taking part in the international Research Data Alliance, CERN’s model is in many ways the gold standard for this kind of work and U.S. agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would do well to learn from it.

The United States may differ from many European countries on issues surrounding personal data, but that is no reason to ignore the great work being done with data on other frontiers. Most of these innovations are geography-independent, and just because Europe has developed them first it does not mean that the United States and others cannot benefit from them in the future.

Image credit: Flickr user David Perez

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