Not (enough) Open Data at the European Open Days?

A couple of weeks ago (1) I attended the Open Days of the 9th European Week of Regions and Cities. Seeing a bit closer how the EU works and interacts with local administrations is good. Together with some depressing situations you also find worthwhile initiatives that almost never make prime time TV. The most interesting things I’ve seen at the 2011 Open Days aren’t directly related to each other, so I’ll report them in several independent posts. Here I share a few thoughts on the Open Days and something that constitutes much of my work in this period, Open Data.

A one-paragraph definition of the Open Data movement may be: regularly publish online all the raw public data produced and used by Public Administrations, with licenses and formats that allow (automatic) reuse, in order to improve efficiency, increase transparency in politics and create or preserve jobs in all sectors.

As I explained in my first Open Data, Open Society report, in these times of crisis Open Data seem more a necessity than an option for local EU administrations. Therefore, I was pretty surprised to see that the official program of an event with more than 100 workshops and debates with 6000 expected participants from 206 EU regions and cities (2), an event whose theme is “Investing in Europe’s future: Regions and cities delivering smart, sustainable and inclusive growth” made no explicit mention of Open Data. All the talks, press conferences and seminars to which I participated where full of speakers and attendants who:

  • (with the great exception of Culveer Ranger from London!) seem to have never heard of Open Data, but…

  • proved time and again in their talks and questions that, as unfamiliar as they may be with the term, they badly need and should like them if adequately informed!

During the first day Mercedes Bresso, President of the Committee of the Regions (CoR), mentioned the need to get and share concrete, measurable results from the post-2013 EU Cohesion Plan. Later on, Johannes Hahn, European Regional Policy Commissioner, added that “we must create a monitoring system, since making Europe more visible and positive is a priority”.

The need of “more data to identify real needs and gain support from citizens” constantly came up both in the meetings about sustainable local transportation systems and in the seminar on the SuperGrid. Experiences of Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) in Belgium showed that centralized procedures, tenders and regulations for building new sport facilities (but the same reasoning applies to any other public work) have many advantages, like for example:

  • maximum price known in advance

  • lower workloads for local administrations

  • maintenance costs paid for 10 years

and also disadvantages like:

  • no direct control is or seems possible, both to administrators and to citizens. Local administrations were sometimes “annoyed by the silence they found” when they asked more information to the central offices handling all the projects

  • projects appear too expensive in the perception of citizens

but these are exactly two of the problems that doing Open Data right would prevent! Perception is what happens when you have no data.

Of course the real problem is, as always, cultural. During a lunch break, I heard a CoR employee complain about corrupted administrators “misusing” EU funds. Therefore, I tried to explain to him Open Data as “if everybody knew as soon as possible where the money goes, much corruption would be spotted immediately or just wouldn’t happen”. After the third time he dismissed the idea as irrelevant because “they’re all corrupt, so it wouldn’t make any difference”, I stopped. I realized that I was saying “everybody” to mean all citizens. To him, instead, the only “everybody” conceivable in such a conversation was “every (and ONLY) involved public servant, from Bruxelles down to the city level”. He was sincerely angry about corruption, but the idea of all citizens checking the procedures just couldn’t check-in in his brain.

Minutes later, a mute listener to the same conversation asked me with concern “but couldn’t everybody alter the data and spread false information, if we didn’t publish them only as PDF files?” She remained speechless when I replied that “what I want is evidence that the “official” PDF files contain correct data”. On the last day, I tried to introduce the idea to a couple of city majors, and all I got was an “Internet stuff? Sure, we’ve got a nice department just for that, ask its manager”. Of course the Open Days are a huge event with thousands of people, so I may just have been very unlucky. If there were presentations or discussions about Open Data which I missed, please mention them in the comments!

May this change? Yes, if….

A private conversation with an EU manager was more productive. As the others, he didn’t understand immediately what I meant and why, when I asked him why Open Data should become a necessary prerequisite to apply for EU Structural and Cohesion Funds??? But when I explained (as a real simple example) that it’s about getting funds spending reports from Cities or Regions also in processable formats like, say, Excel instead of PDF, he did look interested: “Hey, if I did get spreadsheets together with PDFs, it would be much better for me too! I could waste much less time to analyse, compare and reuse those numbers!”

That manager also explained to me that the right channel to pass such a “radical” innovation (3) would be the Coordination Committee of the Funds (COCOF). This is the Committee that discusses issues related to the implementation of the regulations to follow to get EU Structural and Cohesion Funds. So the final message to all EU citizens and Open Data advocates is: ask COCOF to make Open Data a mandatory requirement for getting EU funds. And while you’re at it, please tell your majors or Region Governors to participate to this local Open Data survey that has been extended to 2011/12/31!

  1. This and my other articles about the 2011 EU Open Days were meant to appear online the week following the event. Their publication was delayed by causes outsides my control, i.e. a mandatory migration of this website to another server, which made it impossible to upload new articles for a while

  2. The Future of Europe, The Parliament Magazine’s Regional - Europe’s Regions and Cities Review, Oct. 2011, page 19

  3. which isn’t radical at all, and isn’t even complex: in its first version, it could be as simple (and unexpensive) as “from now on, you MUST also provide the original, editable files from which the PDFs you must already send come from”