Home PublicationsCommentary The Commission’s Proposal on Public Sector Data Is Good, But Could Be Better

The Commission’s Proposal on Public Sector Data Is Good, But Could Be Better

by Nick Wallace

The European Commission has published a package of measures entitled “Towards a common European data space,” which aims to promote the sharing and re-use of data in the European Union. The only legislative component of the package is a proposal to revise the Public Sector Information (PSI) Directive, which requires member states to allow individuals and organizations to re-use publicly-held data. The proposed changes are all positive in that they would boost the reuse of public sector data, but it would be better if member states agreed to a general obligation to make the data available by default.

The PSI Directive, which was adopted in 2003 and last amended in 2013, requires member states to ensure publicly-held data can be reused for both commercial and non-commercial purposes, such as by permitting re-use in content licenses and by using open standards. However, the Directive is neither an open data law nor a freedom of information law, because public bodies do not have to publish anything or let citizens access anything (unless national law says otherwise), and can screen each request to reuse the data they do make available. As the Center for Data Innovation pointed out in a recent report, only a couple of EU member states perform particularly well in open data, and some even lack functioning freedom of information laws.

The Commission’s proposed amendments would not establish a general obligation to release data either, but they would require member states to ensure that “high value datasets,” of which the Commission will publish a list, are available for free, are machine-readable, and are accessible via application programming interfaces (APIs), which allow third parties to more easily integrate data into their own applications and tools.

The amendments would require member states to make “dynamic data”—electronic data updated frequently or in real time—available via APIs as soon as it is collected, and would extend the scope of the Directive to include “public undertakings” commissioned by the public sector but run by companies or state-owned independent entities, such as public transport systems, utilities, or meteorological offices. Those two changes would mean that any live transport information or live weather data, to give just two examples, would be available for re-use in applications such as journey planning tools for citizens or precision agriculture systems for farmers.

The proposal covers data from publicly-funded research, which is not included in the current Directive. Member states would have to adopt national policies that make more research data openly available, but it is not clear to what extent openness would have to be mandatory.

The updated Directive would remove a provision that allowed public sector bodies to charge users for data in order to cover the cost of collecting it, but would still permit them to charge in order to recoup the costs of making the data reusable, such as the cost of anonymizing personal data. However, institutions would still be able to charge amounts in excess of these costs if they are expected to cover a large part of their own running costs (such as public transport services).

The Commission’s proposed changes to the PSI Directive are positive because they would make it easier to reuse valuable public sector datasets. However, member states would still not have to make public sector data accessible by default, and could still place bureaucratic hurdles in the way of people seeking to re-use data. A better approach would be for EU member states to agree to an “open by default” rule, whereby all publicly held data should be publicly available and reusable, except when disclosure threatens the public interest.

Image: Photo YourSpace

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