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Digital economies driven by global open data

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 17, 2013
Europe is following the US lead on open data in a digital government age with the European Parliament implementing new rules designed to ensure that non-personal information hoarded by governments can be accessed cheaply and used to make new applications.

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Neelie Kroes, EC Commissioner for the Digital Agenda

Europe is following the US lead on open data in a digital government age.

The European Parliament last week voted to implement new rules designed to ensure that non-personal information hoarded by governments can be accessed cheaply and used to make new applications.

The rules are intended to guarantee all public data, excluding anything that would amount to personal information, from member states is made available in digital form on the Internet.

Data should be presented in an open format that can be easily re-used. Companies will be able to get at the data already available to public bodies either for free or for a marginal cost.

Neelie Kroes, EC Comissioner responsible for the Digital Agenda, commented:

There’s a huge benefit to opening up. Once information is out there, there is so much you can do with it. Today many of you are familiar with apps that tell you where you are and where you need to go – based on public data from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. But it goes beyond that: the boost from easier access is of the order tens of billions of euros. In short, this is an amazing raw material for innovation; we’re basically sitting on a goldmine.

But to make a real difference you need a few things. You need prices for the data to be reasonable if not free – given that the marginal cost of your using the data is pretty low. You need to be able to not just use the data: but re-use it, without dealing with complex conditions. And you need a wide range of data from across the EU, with consistent rules to make it easier to handle (like being machine-readable, not some poor-quality scan). And that is exactly what we are delivering.

All this can really make the difference: for example, when the Spanish land registry abolished charging in 2011, the number of companies downloading data went up 15-fold, from a few hundred to several thousand.

In the UK

Meanwhile the UK government has issued its response to the Shakespeare Review which called for a national data strategy. This will now be largely implemented under the auspices of the wider Information Economy Strategy, published last week.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude commented:

The data commitments we are announcing today will strengthen the hand of citizens in holding commercial and charitable organisations to account. They will also support growth and the creation of data-led businesses in the new information economy – helping the UK compete in the global race.

Among the key points:

  • Implementation plans will be set out through the UK OGP National Action Plan, which will be published in October.
  • The Cabinet Office Transparency Team will set out a collaborative process for identifying those datasets which should be part of the ‘National Information Infrastructure’
  • A team from the Data Strategy Board and Public Sector Transparency Board will lead delivery. 
  • The Transparency Team will start to blog on a monthly basis from June about the delivery of the domestic transparency agenda.
  • HM Revenue & Customs is to launch a public consultation on releasing parts of the VAT register as open data. By being able to prove VAT registration, companies, especially smaller firms, should find it easier to secure credit.
  • Land Registry has also confirmed it will publish historical Price Paid Data (PPD) in CSV format as linked data from July. This will include records of the price paid for every residential property sold at full market value and registered between 1 January 2009 and 31 January 2012 in England and Wales.
  • The UK government says it will continue to emphasise the importance of data analytics skills across all disciplines of the civil service and through the new Civil Service Professions Council, which will be the co-ordinating body.

Global action

On a more global scale, the Global Open Data Initiative (GODI) has been formed, led by the Open Knowledge Foundation, Open Institute, Fundar, Sunlight Foundation and the World Wide Web Foundation. It mission is to share principles and resources for governments and societies on how to best harness the opportunities created by opening government data.

The initiative is intended to provide a roadmap of policies and institutions that countries can use to build meaningful new open data reforms and initiatives, informed by the successes of others. On the GODI website, Christian Villum, the Open Knowledge Foundation community manager for Open Government Data, explains:

With this initiative we intend to provide a roadmap of policies and institutions that governments can use to build meaningful new open data reforms and initiatives, based on the successes of others. The formalized collaboration is motivated by the fact that each of our organizations are in different and complementary ways focused on developing tools and ideas to help build locally and globally sustainable open data ecosystems. Putting our strengths and networks together in the Global Open Data Initiative is a natural step towards intensifying these efforts.

Specifically, the GODI intends to:

  • Serve as a global guiding voice on open data issues 
  • Provide a leading vision for how governments approach open data 
  • Increase awareness of open data
  • Support the development of the global open data community 
  • Amplify and broaden the evidence base for open data 
  • Gather and strengthen existing resources


Open data is a critical element of the wider digital government agenda worldwide. Todd Park, the US government CTO, nicely defines open data as:

taking data that is sitting in the vaults of the government, that the taxpayers have already paid for, and jujitsuing it into the public domain as machine-readable fuel for entrepreneurship and innovation.

That's as neat a definition as I could ask for at this stage.

The challenge for every administration is how to make government an open platform that allows people inside and outside government to innovate in order to enhance and extend the digital economy.

To that end, open data pushes at national, regional and global level are essential and welcome. As the UK's Maude notes:

Whereas in the past governments tended to hoard their data – today the world is opening up. We are at the beginning of a global movement towards transparency.

But the benefits of open data won’t just fall into our hands. It’s not just about getting data out there; it’s about data that can be used and will be used effectively.

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