Waiting for the Arrival of the Open Data Killer Application

Author: Martín Álvarez-Espinar

Martin Alvarez-Espinar, Engineer in Computer Science, is the Manager at the W3C Spanish Office. He has broad experience in Web standards development. Martín has worked as eGovernment consultant at CTIC since 2007, specialized in the Open Government field. He has participated in the development of over a dozen of Open Government Data initiatives in Europe, and he is part of various working groups at W3C and in the European Commission’s Joinup, for the standardization of technologies in the Open Data an PSI re-use field.

 

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After several years of data opening at public administrations in the majority of – politically and technologically – advanced countries, we already have some examples that demonstrate the benefits of reusing public information, which we have been annunciating among politicians and public managers, who have been sceptical during the past few years. We certainly have examples, but the reality is that we are still far from exploiting that great potential that open data bears and finding the killer application that will make this new paradigm a necessity, rather than an added value for our society.

There are innumerable variables that can make an open data initiative – strategic and political, meaning it can affect legislation, as well as technological – succeed or fail. What we can be sure about is that within a publication and reuse-based model, we need consensus at a political and technological level. The people who manage information should be clear on and share the principles of open data – it seems to be going in the right direction –, applying measures that make these principles affect each one of the structural units of the administrations efficiently. Now we must take the technological step…once there is willingness of opening information offering free access and reuse, how should it be offered? Undoubtedly, using universal open standards.

Europe is experiencing one of the best examples of consensus in the production and distribution of information. Since 2007, the European Commission has promoted an infrastructure based on standards for geographic information from the different member states of the European Union. This infrastructure, known as INSPIRE, is supported by a legal framework that regulates the geospatial sector and encourages data opening, ensuring the interoperability of the technologies used and understanding between all the involved actors. INSPIRE is a complex case in which national public administrations are involved from a higher position, so they legislate and apply the standards to ensure a legal and technological common basis. The implementation process of these and other adjacent standards are still active with the participation of specialized groups within W3C, OGC or the ISA Programme.

Another significant case, less formal but equally effective and more far-reaching, is the de facto standard towards the distribution of information on public transport (schedules, stops, etc.), that TriMet, the public transit agency of Portland, OR (U.S.A.) and the tech giant Google developed in 2005: GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification). Thanks to this common vocabulary, public transit companies from all over the planet, regardless of the language they speak or the differences in their service, can share their information in a standard and interoperable way, offering a quality open data to potential re-users. There are various applications for trip planning based on GTFS, e.g. Rome2rio, moovit, RouteShout, among others, with Google Maps (Transit) being the most widely used and known.

Re-users find it very difficult to gain access to information, but this – satisfactory – example of data opening unveils one of the common problems that some of them have to face. Thousands of public transit companies have offered their data to Google so it can be available on their app, although re-users do not benefit from an equal access; this is, however, a topic to discuss separately.

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