On 24 July 2015, the Belgian Council of Ministers approved an ambitious federal Open Data Strategy to unlock the full potential of reusing public sector information (“PSI”). The strategy includes both a set of fifteen concrete guidelines as well as a legislative proposal, which would implement the latest PSI Directive 2013/37/EC.
Public Sector Information
PSI is generally defined as any information, which is generated or owned by public authorities and services and which can be freely used, re-used, redistributed and exploited by anyone – either for free or at a marginal cost.
In the US, open and unrestricted access to PSI is a long-term tradition, which has resulted in the rapid growth of information intensive industries, particularly in the geographic information sector.
In this context, the adaptation of the first PSI Directive 2003/98/EC marked a major step forward. It provided a common legislative framework to a previously unregulated European market aimed at making open public data the standard in all members states. Three years later, this Directive was implemented into the then twenty-seven national laws.
More recently, the above mentioned PSI Directive 2013/37/EC broadened the scope of re-use of PSI and laid down a clear obligation for member states to make all content of PSI re-usable for commercial and non-commercial purposes.
The federal Open Data Strategy together with its fifteen guidelines and legislative proposal intends to bring Belgium a step further in this European process towards a true open data ecosystem.
Belgian Legislative Proposal
As part of the Open Data Strategy and in compliance with the Directive 2013/37/EC, the legislative proposal adopted the principle of open public data by default. No derogation will be allowed unless for privacy or security reasons. In stating so, this proposal reverses the actual Belgian approach whereby open government data is rather an exception than the rule.
Furthermore, PSI from all public sector bodies are concerned, including public data and documents from state owned companies. As a result, an unprecedented flow of diverse information ranging from the timetables of the Belgian railway company to the weather forecast of the meteorological institute will be released soon. Alexander De Croo, the Belgian Minister responsible for the Digital Agenda, emphasizes the businesses opportunities in turning such raw data into useful materials, in particular for use in smartphone web apps.
Following the approval by the Council of Ministers of the legislative proposal at first reading, it will now be submitted to the State Council and the Belgian Privacy Commission for comments.
A Package of Concrete Actions
Granting access to PSI to non-public entities could obviously unlock significant economic benefits across a variety of sectors. According to the Belgian federation for the technology industry (Agoria), a profit of around € 900 million could be generated. To seize such economic opportunities, the Open Data Strategy includes a set of fifteen practical guidelines. The key points are:
- A free use of PSI without any reference to the public authority where the PSI originated in order to facilitate the combination of content data for the creation and development of new innovative applications;
- Public data and documents should be provided in a machine-readable format, meaning that software application can easily identify, recognise and extract specific data;
- By 2020, the federal government will not only have to provide PSI on request, but will have to do so proactively. In fact, the myriad of data processed today by public sector bodies remains vague in the eyes of companies. Business possibilities appear only when PSI are fully made available on the market;
- A federal web portal providing continuous access to all available and usable PSI will be set up;
- Each public service will set out its own open data strategy and appoint an open data champion, playing the role of contact point within that organisation.
Protection to Privacy
In order to avoid any potential privacy issues in such an open data environment, the legislative proposal made it clear that public data and documents can only be exploited as long as they have been entirely anonymised. Among the practical measures adopted to protect the privacy of citizens to the maximum extent, a committee of experts from the Belgian Privacy Commission will be established to advise public service companies on their open data approach as well as anonymization techniques. As the remaining potential for re-use of PSI is undoubtedly tremendous, we truly look forward to the further roll-out of this federal Open Data Strategy.