How to make the most of the open data opportunity

With governments across Europe increasingly recognising the benefits of making their data open and reusable, the subject played a significant role in discussions at the EU’s inaugural Digital Agenda Assembly. Open government data is the access to public information that is stored by governments on behalf of the citizens such as meteorological, legal, traffic, financial, economic, population and demographic data as well as maps. Typically, it doesn’t include personal or identifiable information and becomes even more useful when it has local relevance.
Better access to public sector information based on open data is more than a legal requirement. It can improve quality of life and make interfacing with government much easier. And according to the EU’s E-Government action plan, open government data in machine readable format “allows citizens and businesses to find new ways to use it and to create new innovative products and services”.
In 2009, the European Commission estimated that the European market for the reuse of public sector information at €27bn. However, it appears that as a whole Europe still does not fully perceive that there is a really significant market behind Open Government Data. Major barriers, especially on data reuse, need to be removed.

Open data, open projects
The pervasive incompatibility between data housed in different systems creates a major barrier, as multiple developing languages and tools are used to access the data. What we’re seeing is that the prevalence of open data is published to application-specific, non-reusable formats that also lack terminology and data consistency. Government agencies and ISVs need a fast time to market while containing or reducing implementation costs. Data access should support multiple accesses in a seamless way, which requires great scalability.
This is why open government projects are increasingly being hosted in the cloud. Cloud platforms, such as Windows Azure, open up new opportunities for driving the development of digital citizen services by third parties, bringing government data to their fingertips. As the cloud is inherently ‘open’, highly scalable and supports a variety of open standards and protocols, vast amounts of government data can be hosted in the cloud inexpensively.
Microsoft has made open access to data part of its interoperability strategy, through its data reuse platform, the Open Government Data Initiative (OGDI) – a cloud-based collection of open government software assets that enables publicly available government data to be easily accessible. The OGDI platform can be implemented by any government agency because the code is open source and can be integrated as a data upload and reuse engine in any existing website or portal. It significantly speeds up the time to market for government agencies and re-users, allowing them to define and attach to the datasets their own terms of use and make open data accessible from Silverlight, Flash, JavaScript, PHP, Python and Ruby among others, as well as cutting infrastructure costs.
For example, the European Environment Agency (EEA) developed its Eye On Earth platform based Windows Azure. Users can view water or air quality from the 32 member countries of the EEA, using high-definition Bing Maps. Similarly, Microsoft has worked with Madrid City Council to provide an application that contains a complete inventory of the trees in its streets, so people can learn about urban trees better and submit requests for improvements or new trees. More case studies can be found here.
The potential of open data based services was proved with 430 entries from 23 EU Member States for the Pan European Open Data challenge. Jonathan Gray, Community Coordinator at the Open Knowledge Foundation, commented, “Crucial to this success of the Open Data Challenge was the broad coalition of partners who supported the competition, from established open data players like data.gov.uk, emerging players like data.gouv.fr, to NGOs, media partners, developer communities, and IT companies like Microsoft, who were a lead sponsor of the competition. The level of support we saw for the competition reflects broader interest in open data as an area of emerging social and economic opportunity.”

The winners were:
Applications category
Eva Vozarova, Fair-play Alliance, Slovakia –ZNasichDani (an app that adds transparency to the public procurement process of government contracts)
Ideas category
Jonas Gebhardt, University of Potsdam, Germany –bePart (a mobile app that helps citizens learn more about urban planning in their area)
Visualisations category
Oliver O’Brien, University College London, UK – Bike Share Map (an app that visualises the current state of bike-share systems in over 30 cities worldwide)
Public sector datasets category
Codrina Maria Ilie, National Institute for Research and Development in Environmental Protection, Romania – eHarta Historical Maps – (an app that collects thousands of old historical geo-referenced maps)
Open data has so many benefits for society, in Europe and beyond. It’s time for us all to come together to demonstrate them and make open data more widespread.

Francesca di Massimo, Security and Interoperability Lead, Microsoft Western Europe

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