Sharing data in the public sector: how the EU is making it easier to access and re-use public data

EU negotiators reached an agreement on January 22, 2019, making it easier to share public sector data within the digital single market. The meeting aimed to develop a revised directive that will facilitate the availability and re-use of data in the public sector.

The European Commission was keen to stress that data plays a vital role in today’s economy, especially in IT. “Data is the fuel that drives the growth of many digital products and services,” according to a press release. The EU is now working to ensure that high-quality, high-value data from publicly-funded services is widely and freely available. The aim of this is to “accelerate European innovation in highly-competitive fields” that rely on access to vast amounts of high-quality data.

What is public sector data exactly?

Public sector data can be anything from anonymized personal data on household energy use to general information about national education or literacy levels, according to the Commission.

The new Directive on Open Data and Public Sector Information (PSI) updates the framework setting out the conditions for making public sector data available for re-use – with a particular focus on the growing amounts of high-value data that is now available.

Public sector information has already been paid for by the taxpayer. Making it more open for re-use benefits the European data economy by enabling new innovative products and services, for example based on artificial intelligence technologies. But beyond the economy, open data from the public sector is also important for our democracy and society because it increases transparency and supports a fact-based public debate,” said Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society.

The EU introduced rules in 2003 to encourage Member States to facilitate the re-use of this type of data, with minimal or no legal, technical and financial constraints. But “the digital world has changed dramatically since then,” the Commission acknowledged. The new rules are therefore intended to allow data to be shared, while taking into account the challenges and requirements we face today.

How will it become easier to re-use public sector data?

  • In principle, all public sector content that can be accessed under national rules is freely available for re-use. Public sector bodies will not be allowed to charge more than a marginal fee for the re-use of their data, except under highly-limited circumstances. This will allow more SMEs and start-ups to enter new markets and provide data-based products and services.
  • A particular focus will be placed on high-value datasets, such as statistics or geospatial data, which have a high commercial potential. These can speed up the process of developing a wide variety of value-added information products and services.
  • Public service companies in the transport and utilities sector generate valuable data. Access to their data is covered by various national or European rules, but if their data is available for re-use, they will now be covered by the new Open Data and Public Sector Information Directive. This means they will have to comply with the directive and ensure appropriate data formats and distribution methods are used, while still being permitted to charge reasonable fees to recover associated costs.
  • Some public bodies make complicated data deals with private companies, which could lead to public sector information being ‘locked in’. Safeguards will therefore be put in place to improve transparency and limit the ability to conclude agreements that could lead to exclusive re-use of this data.
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