Why interoperability is vital to sharing data and linking systems – part 2

Raymonde Weyzen

In a previous opinion piece, we explored semantic interoperability and why it’s vital for data sharing. Interoperability has many different facets, and semantic interoperability is one of them. When it comes to sharing data, legal interoperability is equally important. In this opinion piece, we explore what legal interoperability means and why this type is instrumental to data sharing and linking systems.

In the context of the European Union, it’s easy to understand what legal interoperability means. Beyond the valuable work of homogenisation achieved through EU regulations and directives, organisations, both public and private, still, and often operate under different (national) legal frameworks, policies, and strategies. The Open Data Directive itself – that is at the centre of the EU open data programme – is implemented by the EU Member States in dedicated regulations, one in each country, that are intended to be consistent with the guidance of the general directive but can potentially diverge in their detail. You can learn more here.

To make sure they are able to meaningfully collaborate and share information, a clear understanding of how to deal with differences in legislation across borders needs to be developed, potentially even advocating for putting in place new legislation. Luckily, for longer than a decade in Europe legislators and policymakers, in general, have been attentive to the potential of data sharing in government and in private sector. Understanding the need for clarity around data sharing’s legal aspects is what also incentivised the creation of initiatives such as our own, at the Support Centre for Data Sharing and our legal research.

As data is often subject to licence – a legal tool specifying the terms and conditions regarding sharing and re-using data – sharing data is inextricably linked to legal interoperability.

Licences are the most basic element of legal interoperability. A licence enables a data provider to specify how data can be used, without relying on more complex tools such as contracts. Imagine you are a medical researcher at a European university, and, for a research project, re-using data collected by another university in another European country and their research would be ideal for you. For the sake of the example, we will assume that – if the original researchers collected any personal data of patients, too – the dataset being offered for you to re-use is heavily aggregated and anonymised, and there is no possibility that it still includes any personal identifiable information. You still would want to know how you can use their data. Can you only view it, or can you use it for analysis and publish it in your name? Or, if you want to make your findings available, can others use them and sell them?

The answer to all these questions can be captured in a good licence, but the legal considerations don’t stop there. You would also like to know if the privacy of the patients involved in the original study is protected when you re-share the data with others (data protection), or who has the rights over the data (intellectual property rights): the original researchers, yourself as a re-user, or possibly the patients? To which national laws are the data subject and – in re-using the data for your research – will you be in condition to preserve the patients’ rights according to those laws (data sovereignty)?

To make it possible to share research data and alleviate users’ concerns about data security, data sovereignty, intellectual property rights, and liability risks, the European Commission has created platforms such as the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC), a secure environment supporting the achievement of all those objectives.

How can this initiative enable the reusability of data/interoperability? Many recommendations are shared by academia and sourced in best practices, collected by Support Centre for Data Sharing over many years supporting the data sharing community across Europe Institutions:

  • Ensure open access to research data and promote FAIR principles (data should be findable, accessible, interoperable, and re-usable). Data must be “as open as possible and as closed as necessary”. 1

  • Copyrightable metadata (that is, the data describing the data, not the actual data) should be free from any restrictions preferably under the Creative Commons No Rights Reserved (CC0) licence 2 , ensuring that others can freely build upon, enhance, and reuse the work. 3 This is also the choice made, for example, by the European Union with data.europa.eu. The project has waived all copyright and related or neighbouring rights, to the extent possible under the law.

  • In the metadata, there needs to be a standardised human and machine-readable statement of rights, legal restrictions, applicable licences, and additional conditions of use (such as applicable jurisdictions) of the data they are assigned to. 4

  • Copyrightable data (not the metadata) should be FAIR and, as much as possible, be made part of the public domain or assigned a permissive licence. 5 A standard permissive licence such as the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY 4.0) licence 6 , in particular, is also useful as it achieves two objectives: it ensures the preservation of basic provenance information - as it requires the re-user to reference the source of the dataset – and it provides the data provider with some protection from liability concerns.

Studies such as “Legal Interoperability and the FAIR Data Principles” by X-officio provide more recommendations to ensure that information can be shared within the EU, within legal constraints. The combination of enabling work volunteered by organisations such as Creative Commons over almost 20 years, offering the community robust and standard licences, together with modern legislation such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation and platforms such as EOSC make data publishing and re-use easier and safer than ever before. Re-users still need to be aware and responsible for their action, though in many cases they won’t need professional support from legal or technical advisors.

Why interoperability is vital to sharing data and linking systems – part 2
2020, Uriel via Unsplash

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