Friday, 16 December 2011

Could European Open Data Strategy be a lever for change in Finland?

Institute's Fellow Antti Halonen writes about the European Open Data Strategy and the possibility for change in Finland.
 By the time of writing this, the Parliament of Finland is just about to start to discuss the issue of opening up data of the National Land Survey of Finland (Maanmittauslaitos). The on-going debacle has been arguably the most visible case of open data discussion in Finland up to date.
Case has its roots in the current Finnish government programme, which states that government further facilitates the opening up of publicly funded data sets. In November, the Land Survey announced that it would release all their mapping data in an open and freely re-usable format, thus losing 1,5me in annual sales profits. Opening up of these data sets is, however, expected to release significant social and commercial value, which would eventually exceed that immediate financial loss. Moreover, if completed, the move would be unprecedentedly progressive open data initiative in the scale of the whole Europe. The Ministry of Agriculture has already approved this, but one single department of the Ministry of Finance has reportedly decided to block the initiative.

There are couple of interesting points to be made.

Firstly, as i.e. Poikola has argued, is the question of political accountability: elected politicians have decided to support open data, but unelected officials effectively vetoed against it. Moreover, the civil servants from other ministries and even different departments of the Ministry of Finance appear to back the initiative. There is a possibility that this is mostly a question of power and where it lies: in the hands of accountable politicians or a few individual civil servants, who don’t even want their names in public.

Secondly, there is the wider European framework and how this Finnish case fits it. Vice-president of the European Commission, Neelie Kroes, announced recently the new European open data strategy, which includes a complete revision of PSI Directive 2003 and will supposedly further enhance the status of open data in the Union and its member states. So far the Brussels’ whip has not been strong enough and there have been cases where member states have used several loopholes in the Directive and kept data behind closed doors, or behind the paywall, as is the case in Finland.

Further Brussels-led regulation is not particularly popular idea at the moment, but it will be interesting to see whether the Finnish Land Survey vs. Ministry of Finance case could prove to be a testing point for the new European data initiatives, when they eventually are concretised into a new Directive and new regulations.

Back in the Finnish parliament, the Minister of Finance, Jutta Urpilainen, has promised to take the matter into discussion with her ministry, but in reality’s sake, one must bear in mind that the minister probably has her hands full of Eurozone crisis at this time. There is a strong possibility for a nasty scenario, where open data gets buried under a pile of more urgent matters if the case is left for the ministry to handle by itself. Moreover, it very well may be summer already when the European open data initiative concretises into action and Brussels’ watchdogs can start gazing over reluctant member states, albeit the fact that vice-president Kroes explicitly encouraged member states not to wait for legislative changes but to start to release data immediately.

As civil society actors, we should be able to find potential solutions on how to influence the ministry in this matter, if we truly find open data important enough objective to pursue. It is quite likely that the Land Survey case will be the test of strength for the Finnish Open Knowledge community, which has begun to find itself of late.


Antti Halonen
Fellow at the Finnish Institute in London

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