The European Commission has just published draft legislation that, if enacted, will bolster the reuse of public sector open data. The new proposal offers guidelines for European Union (EU) member states to publish publicly-held, high-value datasets for reuse. This proposal is a positive step toward making public sector data available, reusable, and valuable by default.
The proposal, entitled “laying down a list of specific high-value datasets and the arrangements for their publication and re-use,” builds on past EU directives like the Public Sector Information Directive and the INSPIRE directive that informed public sector data infrastructure, use, and organization. The Public Sector Information Directive required member states to ensure that publicly held data can be reused but did not require public bodies to publish anything and enabled them to screen each request. The INSPIRE directive created general rules of the road regarding spatial data in the EU to harmonize data used for environmental applications.
The new proposal will harmonize the technical, legal, and granular specifications for how member states publish data sets from six categories with high socio-economic potential: geospatial, earth observation and environment, meteorological, statistics, companies and company ownership, and mobility data. By requiring this data to be more easily accessible via application programming interfaces (APIs) and Creative Commons licensing, this legislative proposal ensures that others can more easily integrate this high-value data into new innovative applications.
Accessible and reusable open data can bring enormous value to the public and private sectors to develop innovative solutions, make informed decisions, conduct research and development, and ensure government transparency. For example, businesses and NGOs can use the earth observation and environmental data to monitor and plan for how climate change will worsen the urban heat island effect—how city infrastructure absorbs and retains heat—and its offshoot harms to air and water quality. Likewise, organizations can use the mobility data in question to help create public transport solutions that will reduce the negative impact of traffic congestion and private cars.
The draft legislation does not present any data protection risks for member states. Public sector bodies will retain the ability to protect individuals’ privacy and can impose additional conditions on any high-value data sets that include personal data. Even so, public sector bodies are unlikely to need to share personally identifiable information as these high-value data sets typically involve aggregated and de-identified datasets. But by allowing member states to impose additional restrictions involving personal data in specific use cases, the legislation ensures public sector bodies adhere to the EU’s data protection obligations.
The Commission’s draft legislation makes publicly held data more available and reusable, but this initiative, like its predecessors, is still limited. The proposal broadens the open data obligations in the Public Sector Information and INSPIRE directives but is limited to only a few high-value data sets.
The Commission should go further, eventually making publicly held data open by default, and only narrowly limit public sector data if detrimental to the European public interest or Europeans’ privacy. Member states within the EU like Estonia, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and Poland are already taking steps to open up publicly held data more than is supranationally required. For example, Spain has a national open data policy, and Ireland has built a robust open data portal for all public sector expenses.
In the future, the EU should build off this legislative proposal and create supranational open data legislation that makes publicly-held data open and harmonized by default. Doing so will further unify the European data economy, prevent legislative fragmentation, and ensure data-driven innovation can continue to thrive on the continent.