Open Data – A postcard from France

Open Data – A postcard from France

Last week was held in Aix en Provence a public conference dealing with ‘Open Data and Citizen’ []. The conference, organized by Arsenic PACA @arsenicpaca and lead by Philippe Méda @merkapt, was an opportunity to hear major french actors in the open data area. Here is what I could capture from that open day, mixing conference, panelist discussion and active brainstorms.

Open data – origin and today’s mood

While the 120 people gathered in the amphitheater of Aix En Provence Library, named La Méjane, were very educated about open data topic, Valérie Peugeot @valeriepeugeot, from Orange Labs and Vice President of French Digital Council (CNNum),  took some time to remind major aspects of the open data movement. She recalled open data origin based on citizen requiring from their government and politic representatives a better transparency. First laws in the US to allow citizen to access data were made in1966, but since, the topic has greatly evolved, with the arrival of the digital, which has pushed the citizen requirement from ‘let us watch the data’, to ‘let us make use and circulate the data’. On which a number of governments have answered positively, from left to right and from Americas to Europe, with first success stories in Africa.

Valérie listed the key success factor for releasing the data and being able to use it :

  • have appropriate format to use it (referring to Linked Data),
  • make sure licensing aspects about data usage are clear,
  • clarify the business model for data usage.

After showing some great examples of smart applications based on open data, covering areas such as sport localization, handicap and disabilities map, restaurant guide, traffic maps, school level monitoring, crime follow up, bookshop network, she admitted that the open data little world had baby-blues. All enthusiasm related to that socio-technical tools, all great ideas to be said about open data were said, but… actual endorsement of the technology by citizen, companies, was not there. Several blockers were listed such as data quality, retention of data by administration, privatization of data by companies, high complexity of the value chain.

Nevertheless, Valérie reminded that open data is a technology able to influence the social aspects of our society, but is not a magic tool. In other words, open data will only be what the citizen want it to be. To end on a positive note, she gave few ideas to make open data promoters surviving the baby-blues :

  • open data can support citizen opinion allowing to by-pass the media mainstream power (fact checking journalism),
  • open data can help to analyse social questions and have interaction with politics based on facts,
  • open data is an infinite ocean of data (and thus in infinite ocean of opportunities): private sector data, ‘stolen’ data, crowd-sourced data.

She ended on an expected message reminding that those challenges would require some mediation thanks to organizations such as the 4 500 “Espace Public Numeric” (or public digital places) deployed in France by regions to support citizen in their approach to digital, under the hat of the french minister of the industry, energy and digital economy [fr].

Well this was a starter.

After several year of open data, are citizen on board ?

Claire Gallon from @LiberTIC, an association based in Nantes highlighted some basics related to the place of the citizen in the open data movement. Citizen can consume, look at, produce, question, solve. Five postures that progressively bring the citizen into the party. But few of them are really experiencing the entire chain. Beside the open data experts, some developers driven by hackatons, few association trying to use open data, and very few journalist discovering the kingdom of datajournalism, the open data is just a non-topic (by the way, test your direct environment, you will be surprised).

How to make that better ? How to make the entire society benefiting of that tool for transparency ? Claire recommended two axes that should be worked :

  • make sure data are qualified data and are expected data. This induces that administration delivering data and citizen do meet to exchange about the type of data expected, and feedback on its usability and interest.
  • make sure visualization of data is enabled by data producers (or service providers). This raise a potential danger, as it introduces a layer of subjectivity in data presentation, which may require specific education for citizen.

Claire demonstrated benefit of crowd-sourced data. This was also perceived as an interesting mean to generate innovative usage and bring innovative answers to citizen problems. Some projects were mentioned such as citizen capturing the level of pollution [fr], or activist opposed to the opening of an airport in Nantes area [fr].

Some examples of collaboration between citizen and government were also mentioned, like Parlement & Citoyen [fr] , a platform allowing citizen to give their opinion about law design to deputies and senators. Demonstration was made that the open data could be a mean to modernize the political life and make the politic 2.0 happening.

Words from the field…

While most of the speakers were open data experts, there were some discussions with people in the field, such as digital mediation agent. The words were wise : “Frankly speaking, who cares about open data ? People are expecting to better understand internet, use software (potentially may be interested in open source software), have a better life in their town, and potentially have fun by sharing information about their life. But, open data is far from their interest”. In the end everyone agrees with the hidden strategy : lets make the people paying with open data, without telling them it is open data. Lets take the people having a digital walk in their town, lets make them recording, take picture, and in the end tell them they have gone to a ‘map party’ (cartoparty in french) for Open Street Map [fr], an international initiative for building a free map of our world.

Words from the politics…

Obviously this day was also a good day for the politics to show how best in class they are on open data. Representatives from Aix-en-Provence city and around, from Provence region, from Montpellier town were present to witness. One IT manager from the open data project shared interesting blocker about data quality. He said that publishing the data was a 10 minutes operation, what makes his life a nightmare is the maintenance of the data. How to make sure that public transportation will support the open data wave by improving processes to maintain accuracy of data.

This gap between the open data theory and the field was also confirmed by experimented open data promoters like Jean Michel Bourgogne @jmbourgogne, Directeur of “Monpellier Digital Territory” promoter of open data in France. Education takes time. Education of elected representative, and education of citizen.

In short…

Open data has no intrinsic value. Most of the speakers admitted that open data was a technology having some problem to define its own value. While being either pushed by politics as a powerful communication tool (meaning a tool to promote their kind openness and transparency), or pushed by clusters of citizen to lobby their cause, open data was not about to be a real democratic tool.

Open data is not a community. All actors agreed that there was not a need to create dedicated community, but rather invest existing communities and offer them to use open data to support their project, if relevant. Techno push on open data is supposed to end soon.

Opendata is everywhere. The data are not only public data. The trend is now on crowd-sourced data, but also self-quantified data and finally private company data. And as such the notion of open data can not anymore be a technology, but more an enabler, a culture, that may or may not help a project.

What’s next ?

Capitalization. Charles Nepote @charlesnepote from La Fing, suggested to have an on-going collaborative effort thanks to InfoLabs. Some places gathering know-how and experiment of open data roll out. He defined those places as being accessible (without requiring special skills), open (to companies, association, public administration) and continuous duty (to extend meeting, hackaton, projects and capitalize on experiments), in order to deliver to the mass open data knowledge and experiments.

Partnership. Yves Sibilaud, president of Arsenic @arsenipaca and Gael Musquet @RatZillas, president of Open Street Map signed a contract to ease some joint “cartoparty” in PACA, in order to make the data actually growing, and the open data makers sharing their culture with the citizen. Encouraging the others to have service providers and public entities working hand in hand.

Vision. Stéphane Martayan @smartayan Responsible for Innovation and Digital Innovation for Marseille region invited the representatives to extend their open data scope to environment and public transportation area, beside usual tourism and town geo-localization.

In the end…

That day was a great moment for exchanging and challenging the open data stream. Some workshops were held, allowing participants to draft next steps or better understand blockers to open data endorsement. Something which was quite obvious was the absence of the private sector interests in the discussions. If nothing changes to welcome and educate the private sector, open data might stay a political toy for governments and enlightened citizen. A missed opportunity for the private sector.

Note :

All material (slides and talk) is available on Aresenic website : [fr]

Open Data France website to follow all initiatives in France

One example of workshop held related to open data value proposition, lead by Louis David Benyayer from Without Model [french slides]

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