Early last month, the Rhineland-Palatinate regional government opened up its data to the public. During CeBIT, it launched the Open Government Data Portal Rhineland-Palatinate (OGDP-RP), which will provide centralized access to administrative data from regional agencies and local authorities. But for what purpose exactly?
Basically, "open data" means making all sorts of information available without charge, so that it can be used, distributed, and reused without any restrictions. This includes spatial data, statistics, traffic information, scientific publications, medical research findings, and radio and television broadcasts.
Data that has been lying dormant because of storage structures that have evolved over decades is often invaluable. Companies, organizations, and even individuals can now evaluate this data and use it to underpin decisions and business models. Population statistics, for instance, may encourage the expansion of private educational establishments. Developers may use geographic information to identify new industrial sites. Startups can develop apps and business models based on weather and traffic data without being hampered by copyrights, patents, or other proprietary rights.
Such projects have already produced results. Dr. Elmar Jobs has developed a simple mobile app for checking water level data for German rivers. It accesses information from the Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration. Meanwhile, Ozon Sonar shows the current ozone level in Berlin. It uses a graphic scale to warn residents about ozone pollution.
Interestingly, this new approach has also caused administrative roles to change. Undersecretaries are suddenly becoming CIOs. They've realized that making data freely available to everyone paves the way for useful developments. And those supporting this tactic regard it as a logical step. After all, public money enabled the information to be generated in the first place, so it's only fair to make it available to the general public.
Germany's federal government has granted access to information collected from local, regional, and federal agencies at www.govdata.de. If that's not enough for you, visit the European Commission's data portal, which contains information from the commission and other EU institutions (or at least those that have agreed to participate).
This portal and others work to promote and expand knowledge about data in Europe -- not necessarily to the delight of all politicians. For example, farmsubsidy.org lists who has received EU agricultural subsidies, which account for nearly half the EU's total budget. This is something that German politicians in particular have long tried to keep under wraps.
Open data must be structured and provided in a machine-readable manner if it is to be filtered, searched, and processed in other applications. One frequent snag is that data from government agencies is often in PDF format, which can make it tricky to reprocess.
The idea of open data isn't new, of course. The term first cropped up in the 1970s, when NASA asked international partners for assistance in monitoring American satellites. All parties committed themselves to the Open Data Policy regarding the formats of NASA and other US agencies, as well as the public availability of this data.
It's tough for critics to respond. Arguments citing the morality of copyright law seem tired and outdated. But are there other valid concerns?
— Charlotte Erdmann comments on a wide range of technologies from her base in Berlin. In addition to blogging, she is a media and communication consultant, organizing and managing large customer magazines and marketing activities within the IT industry.