A Big Bang in the French Big Data Policy

Written by Maxime Goin and Le Thy Nguyen, Embassy of Switzerland in France

Big data as a growth driver

Since his first day in office, French President Hollande has considered “big data” as one of the key elements of the national strategy to foster innovation and the competitiveness of the country. The French ambition in that field manifested itself through the creation of a Ministry for Digital Affairs, held by Axelle Lemaire since 2014. The fact that she reports directly to the Minister of the Economy, Emmanuel Macron, confirms that the big data policy is considered as a potential direct growth driver.

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A “Digital Republic” bill

A first draft bill for a “Digital Republic” has just been published. It is the result of a three-year process launched by the government and carried out by the Ministry for Digital Affairs.
The main goal was to outline a general orientation of a big data policy providing the basis for future sectorial policies. Basically, the draft is composed of three pillars:

  1. Open data
  2. Protection and confidence
  3. Accessibility

While the latter points of protection, confidence and accessibility are more related to the well-known issue of private data, the first pillar “open data” essentially focuses on the public domain. With innovative openness it introduces what might be dubbed a “big bang” in the French big data policy. In the light of its national importance as well as the extreme originality of the proposal, the idea of “open data” merits closer scrutiny.

Public data open by default

The gist of what amounts to a cultural revolution is the notion of complete transparency of the public administration’s data. In other words: all public data should be open by default and accessible to the citizens for free. The data could, for instance, be made accessible by the French Agency for Employment or the French Agency for Sanitary Security. The proposed open data policy intends to encompass all data considered “of public interest”. Private enterprises with state links, such as SNCF (French railway Company) and EDF (electricity provider), or research supported up to a certain amount by public funds would also be taken into account. “Both innovation and economic growth are strongly driven by open data from either public or private sources, said Axelle Lemaire, Open data facilitates the democratic process and injects vitality into society” The Minister also stressed the importance of open data as a vector for creative ideas and a gold mine of information for start-ups.

Democracy 2.0

The draft bill went through a rather unusual legislative process. 3 weeks before the submission to the Ministers’ Council, the citizens had the chance to comment and enhance the text via an online platform. It’s a first not only in France but also in the European Union!

The French government is making a big deal out of this open democratic process but in practice no real mechanism can force them to modify or integrate any proposed changes to the government draft.  According to the Deputy Minister for Digital Affairs, the final text will be submitted to the government in November 2015 and examined by the National Assembly at the beginning of 2016.

Catching a glimpse of the possible future

The website http://www.data.gouv.fr/fr/ is a first step towards the future transparency of the public administration’s data. On this platform, citizens already have access to data in the fields of culture, agriculture, education and health.

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