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Diamonds are forever, datasets... meh

Gianfranco Cecconi

Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not represent the views of the Support Centre for Data Sharing or the European Commission.

Imagine you run the biggest ambulance service in your region. The non-profit has been in the making for many years and saves hundreds of lives every year. Strong of a dozen ambulances and a mix of employees and volunteers, you use data to use your funding in the most cost-effective ways, e.g. to calculate which are the most critical places in the cities where to station your ambulances awaiting a call, or to forecast the likelihood of incidents in relation to the weather and festivities (why do people enjoy fireworks, really!) When you can, you use open data, but there is a lot of information you must buy instead, e.g. the best route planning suitable to ambulance services use traffic and roadworks information that is only available from private organisation. Fine – you think – it is worth it: getting there even a few minutes sooner may mean the difference between life and death for someone.

Then, one day, you get a letter in the post, saying that they’re closing the service and the data won’t be available anymore. What do you do? I wonder how many of us realise the degree to which we depend on temporary data sharing agreements – whether or not they are called that way - whose conditions may change anytime, with little or no notice.

One of the more largely documented examples of this comes from recent news, when in early November 2019 Macmillan, one of the biggest publishers in the USA and worldwide, changed the licensing of their e-books available to libraries.1 What does it have to do with data sharing, you ask? Well, there are digital books (data) being licensed by a data provider (Macmillan) for other business and organisations (the libraries) to re-distribute in a controlled manner to end-users (the patrons). For the first eight weeks after an e-book goes on the market, a library will now only be able to offer one single copy to the public. By enforcing scarcity, the publisher will cause longer waits, incentivising readers to purchase the book – whether on paper or digital – and producing better revenues for the publisher. Of course, we trust the publishers – like Macmillan’s own CEO John Sargent – when he commits to reinvest the money in new e-books and new authors and illustrators and the whole ecosystem. However, this will also make the books less accessible to people who depend on the libraries and digital, such as the less wealthy or visually impaired using voice reader systems. Jessamin West, a librarian in Vermont, US, explained more of the e-book licensing system and how this change impacts her library’s patrons in an interview to Marketplace Tech. 2

Now, back to your ambulance service. Come again, when was the last time that you checked the terms and conditions of your licensing agreement? :-) Was your data provider required to give you notice? Is there a compensation for the termination of the licence? Can you sue them? And who cares about that anyway, I have people who need my ambulances now.

For the ones of you coming from the open data world all of this will likely be an exotic family of problems you never needed to test yourselves against. Open data licences are usually non-revocable. A data provider may stop publishing a dataset if they get off the bed on the wrong foot, but you can keep a copy of the latest download you made and keep going with it for as long as you like until you find a replacement. It’s still a challenge, but nothing like being in breach of contract because of using data you’re not supposed to.

The picture is much more complicated in general data sharing. There’s no one-size-fits-all licence that can give you enough comfort. We need awareness around contractual terms, and we need consumers of data sharing agreements to be alert and knowledgeable about what their rights are, and what terms they subscribed to. Many organisations worldwide are spending substantial effort developing standard re-usable licences for data sharing, from Microsoft3 to IBM, from Technology Finland4 to our project itself, soon. Most of these initiatives will be featured in our practice examples5 and in our legal reports6, and possibly one of those will become mainstream one day as much as, for example, Creative Commons licences are in open data today. One thing for sure, is that this exploration will at least define the space within which we need to develop maturity: if not specify the terms, make us aware of what terms need being specified, and that will already be progress.

By the way, you were smart, and had subscribed to contractual terms that regulate the termination of your data sharing agreement. Your ambulances will be able to keep using the latest version of the data for the next 48 months, that will give you enough time to find a new provider and do some healthy negotiation on terms. More lives will be saved. Diamonds are forever, datasets... meh.

Diamonds are forever, datasets... meh
Image credit:
“Ambulance”, (C) 2005 Miguel Mendoza