Written by Léonard Mouny, State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation
On 1 July 2015, the association Opendata.ch held its annual conference in Bern. On this occasion the major actors from the Swiss and international open data scene were present. The conference lasted a whole day and was divided into three parts; it started with keynotes on different aspects of Open Data, followed by workshops dedicated to specific themes and was concluded by a panel debate about the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the Swiss legal framework for Open Data. In this article, the essence of this conference will be summarised.
During the morning session, 8 speakers, from very different fields, gave the audience an overview of the many facets of Open Data and its application to tackle societal challenges. The finance director of the canton of Bern, State Councillor Beatrice Simon-Jungi, opened the conference by spelling out that the three basic principles for Open Government, i.e. transparency, innovation and efficiency, were crucial for the improvement of State affairs. As a proof of goodwill from the canton of Bern, she gave the example of the project developed in partnership with Opendata.ch. This project aims at painting an interactive picture of the canton’s budget. She closed her intervention by stating that the Federal strategy for open government data should be implemented, but that a legal basis was still lacking. This brought out the main issue with Open Data today: even though the authorities might be interested in open data, there is still some reluctance in fully implementing the necessary framework.
The second speaker, Prof. Dr. Peter Messerli, director of the Centre for Development and Environment of Bern University, demonstrated how Open Data could be used for sustainable development. Indeed, he showed how data was used to determine the ecological impact of socio-economic development in Laos. He also explained that thanks to data, they could find out where investment from development Bank had a negative or positive impact. Prof. Messerli concluded his keynote by saying that data should be available, accessible and adequate and that for the data to meet these three requirements, it had to be Open Data.
The rest of the keynotes tackled other topics of Open Data and gave examples of success-stories. The different speakers described how data analysis was now recognised as a genuine research subject, how it can be the basis for new business models, how Open Data could be used as a political instrument and how the future of Wiki is Data. Finally, a new product was presented: MyData. This new application runs through all the data you create throughout your daily activities in the different application on your smartphone and gathers them to exploit their full potential.
To summarise this first part of the conference, the range of actors involved in the development of Open Data goes from political authorities, through civil servants, to CEOs. This proves that the Open Data is a movement that goes beyond single actors and in order to exploit Open Data at its full potential, there is a need for all these players to work in synergy.
Throughout the afternoon, nine workshops took place. The topics discussed went from political subjects like the stand of Switzerland in the Open Data world to very hands-on themes like the offer and demand for data format on the Open Government Portal.
In the workshop dedicated to the national data infrastructure, two representatives of the main data providers (i.e. the Federal Statistics Office (FSO) and Swisstopo) at the national level presented their processes and strategies for the opening of government data.
The representative from the FSO clarified what the national strategy in Switzerland was. He informed us that the collected data for 2012 census amounted to the humongous number of 5 Zettabyte of data and that this number would be 50 times larger in 2020. It all began a decade ago, when the Federal Statistics Office decided to use a new way of collecting data. Before this change, the gathering of information was conducted through phone calls and mail survey. Nowadays, they cross-reference different registers and can deduce all the information needed from this cross-referencing. It is worth noting here that the data protection is at the heart of the system.
Unfortunately, the two experts also informed us that their capacity to act, innovate and open the data was quite restricted by the State procedure, which is a 5 step cycle. First, there has to be a public policy, which leads then to a legal basis. This legal basis is used by the administration to act and create an outcome that will be evaluated. This evaluation will serve as basis for the politics to formulate new public policy. Hence they need to complete a full process to be able to develop a new legal framework for the opening of the government data and this is a rather long process.
The workshops ended with the presentation of Ton Ziljstra, CEO of The Green Land and data expert for the World Bank. He gave examples of implementation of national strategies for open data, which he supported in Denmark and the Netherlands. He pointed out that the major similarity is the way these investments are considered. Indeed, the political authorities recognised the implementation as a new type of public infrastructures for the digital era. Furthermore, these infrastructures proved to be indispensable to fulfil the new data policy He also stressed that the government increased its benefits only after opening its data.
To summarise the workshops, even though the government has a strategy to optimise the collecting and management of data, this strategy does not aim at full disclosure and accessibility of this data. The examples of swisstopo with the website geo.admin.ch and the regular publication of the FSO’s results are showing the right direction towards opening of data. However there is still progress to be made in terms of copyright, format of data, accessibility and gratuity.
These were the highlights of one of the nine workshops, if you are interested in this topic or other topics tackled in the different workshops, you can find all the workshop’s presentation on OpenData.ch.
To introduce the main discussion points for the debate, Prof. Dr. Isabelle Häner, from the University of Zürich, delivered a presentation on the opportunities and threats linked to a new law for the Open Government Data (OGD). First of all, she reminded us that when one is planning to introduce a new law, one should bear in mind that the legislation procedure comes with high costs. Then she laid out the key pillars, which a potential new regulation should possess:
- Centralisation and unification of the OGD in the administration
- Freedom of use (in the sense of copyrights)
- Free of charge (facilitation of access)
- Application of the law through courts of law: extension of the right to transparency
Although a new law seems very appealing, Prof. Häner reminded us that the existing laws already tackle some issues concerning open data. The transparency principle is a passive right that compels the state to inform the public in due time and extensively. However it does not entitle citizens to a legitimate claim for information, i.e. no individual can enforce his active right for information.
After the Ordinance on Freedom of Information in the Administration (FOIA), the authorities shall publish important documents on the Internet as soon as possible. However this does not specify how these documents should be published. For example, it doesn’t define the format, the copyrights, type of documents, the gratuity or where they should be published (Open Government Data Portal).
A second possibility would be to complement the Government and Administration Organisation Act (RVOG) with a special provision concerning the publication of government data. The canton of Zürich is now working on the implementation of this solution.
Prof. Häner concluded her presentation by reminding us that the creation of new law can take up to 5 years and that the special provision on an existing act or ordinance, although not perfect would be the more efficient solution.
Following this presentation, the panel debate took place. The participants were representative from the different players involved with Open Data: Hanspeter Thür, the Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner, Simone Machado, member of the cantonal parliament Bern, Anne Wiedmer, Swiss Federal Archives, Martin Stoll, SonntagsZeitung, Christian Laux, Opendata.ch. The panel debate was moderated by Hannes Gassert, one of the co-founder of Opendata.ch.
The panellists each took position on the elements presented by Prof Häner. All speakers agreed on the objective of increasing the volume of data published by the government, but they had different views on the best way to reach this goal. The main dissension was about the necessity of a new law or the adaptation of existing laws. Martin Stoll stated further that in addition to a law, some sort of check on the publication of government data was necessary. The panellist stayed put on their position and no consensus could be reached, but it helped the audience to realise the main challenges for open data in the coming years.
In conclusion, with more than 200 participants, the Open Data Conference 2015 was a real success. The diversity amongst the participants allowed the audience to have a better overview and understanding of the current trends in the Open Data scene. The presence of representatives from the federal administration, the political authorities and civil society showed that society as a whole is interested in open data. This also confirmed the need for non-governmental players like opendata.ch, to improve the visibility of open data.
If you want to know more about opendata.ch activities or if you would like to have access to the conference’s presentations, please visit the following website.
 A gigabyte is equal to 1,024 megabytes. A terabyte is equal to 1,024 gigabytes. A petabyte is equal to 1,024 terabytes. An exabyte is equal to 1,024 petabytes. A zettabyte is equal to 1,024 exabytes. A yottabyte is equal to 1,024 zettabytes.
 FOIA, Art. 19 :
“The competent authority shall publish important official documents on the Internet as soon as possible, where:
- this does not give rise to excessive costs; and
- publication on the Internet does not conflict with any statutory provisions.”