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Open or shared?

Esther Bodil Huyer

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.

In the wide spectrum of options available to share data, publishing it as open data means making it available for re-use to the public free of charge or, at maximum, at marginal cost. In governments’ efforts to open up data, questions about revenue models and legal concerns are constantly raised. As a result, many datasets are published in a "minimum version" because there are no resources allocated to improve and maintain their quality. To be compliant with actual or presumed legal restrictions, particularly with datasets that include personal information - data is heavily aggregated, and its characteristics limited to very generic information. The previously mentioned lack of resources limits the efforts that are made into investigating legal aspects further.

After realising that we cannot solve the lack of resources and quality for all potential open datasets, new legislation focuses on high-value datasets. (see Article 13(1) of the European legislation on open data and the re-use of public sector information (also called Open Data Directive). The new Directive is a promising approach to make those datasets open that have the biggest expected impact on the economy but also in supporting environmental and social goals. It also addresses the characteristics the dataset should have to be of high- value, like level of aggregation, granularity, and frequency of updates. With this list, a proper description of those characteristics, and the implementation into national law by 16 July 2021, the problem seems about to be solved, at least for those datasets. For example, business registers may be identified as a high-value dataset. Its required characteristics may include the list of company directors. That would solve the concern of data providers such as the chambers of commerce around the GDPR implications of distributing such data.

However, it is a rocky way to develop a list of these datasets and their respective characteristics that enable high value creation. All Member States, their data publishers and providers, have to find consent on all-time-favourite concerns like data privacy, which is influenced not just by national law but by prevailing ethics and the social-political situation. Furthermore, strategies to reallocate funds for decreasing revenues and increasing efforts need to be found and implemented.

Open data strategists from several Member States now start asking the taboo question: Is open the only way or can we find other approaches? This question hurts open data enthusiasts that have been fighting for the last decade for opening up public data and rightly still aim to further progress. Opening data is more than a goal on a digital agenda. It is the belief in fairness, accountability, independency, open access to information, and in equal opportunities for businesses, especially SMEs, for researchers and for developers. Those values can connect deeply with the people involved, and that is why opening data feels like the right thing to do, and why moving away from open as default feels wrong. However, alternative approaches to open can support the above-mentioned credo, sometimes better than compromising our opportunities of value creation with data.

Why should the taxpayer support an open business register if it mainly interests businesses? If an open business register aims at transparency, fraud protection and accountability, why shouldn’t businesses register to get access and be transparent and accountable? Why can they not pay - based on their revenues- for the service of making this data available in good quality and frequency? Restricting access by requiring the user to authenticate is not compliant with the "open-principle" however it can address many legal and ethical concerns. Paying for the service to provide data also does not comply with the "open-principle" however it can ensure resources are dedicated to maintaining the data, increasing its potential value. Moreover, it is compliant with most European countries' idea of reaching fairness in funding social goods and services like infrastructure, broadband or data with individual tax, linked to income.

It surely depends on the dataset, the area of expected value creation and the target group of beneficiaries. This is not an excuse to stop all reasonable efforts in reaching a European-wide consent around high-value datasets. It simply advocates to not follow a dogma that by now seems outdated when we should rather be "looking at data holistically" (Yvo Volman in his speech at the European Big Data Value Forum 2019 in Helsinki).

Esther Bodil Huyer
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