Waiting for the new French Digital law

According to the last UN Survey on E-Government published this year, France proves to be at the top of the list of the countries embracing a high level of e-government development, reaching the 1st rank in Europe and the 4th worldwide. The study praises particularly the good integration of e-services through the online platform service-public initiated in 2005 which enables citizens, professionals and associations the access to administrative information (on their duties and legal texts among others), simplifies procedures and provides a large civil service directory. Not to forget Legifrance and vie-publique which both document legal and current affairs online. Let’s just say that efforts towards a transparent public administration have been the leitmotiv behind these initiatives.

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If we look at the Open Data side, we come to data.gouv.fr, the national Open Data platform launched in December 2011 which features nowadays its second version, this time developed with CKAN and without any fee so that the data gets indeed re-used. Those fees were one of the blackheads listed on the OKFN Index in 2013 which ranked France at the 16th position among 70 countries from all continents. Among the negative points are following the lack of relevant data like government spending or budget and the too low resolution of maps from the National Institute of Geographic and Forest Information. Thus, if a national Open Data strategy has been embraced since 2011, there is still lots to be done. Above all a law (currently being drafted) is needed to push local and regional administrations to liberate their data on an open way, because the situation is strongly disparate.

Bildschirmfoto vom 2014-09-20 17:08:32Actually, the French OD movement took root at the local level. It started in the Western region of France, Brittany, where the city of Brest decided in March 2010 to release its geographical data and in Rennes, the main town, which launched at the same time an OD site dedicated to transport data and a couple of months later the first OD platform in France, multi-sectoral and containing various web and mobile apps besides the datasets. A similar site in Nantes then regional initiatives in Loire-Atlantique and Saône-et-Loire followed during autumn 2011. Today, the map of the local and regional OD movement in France made by LiberTIC shows the commitment of administrations at different levels (regions, cities and even villages as the one of Brocas with OpérationLibre) in different parts of the country and the creation of civil society groups too.

According to the current draft of the law on decentralization imposing French towns to release their data as open, only municipalities over 3500 habitants will be affected that means 92% of them are excluded. In addition, the obligation is limited to the data already electronically available and none format or standards has been specified. Never mind, the law has to be in compliance with the implementation of the European Directive 2013/37/EU on the re-use of public sector information, named PSI Directive, which strengthens the Open principles and has to be transposed into the different national laws by each EU member country until the 18th July 2015. In France, Etalab, a special committee created in 2011 and dedicated to the governmental OD strategy, is in charge of the implementation.

The French FOI law dates back to 1978. It was modified in 2005 by an order, according to the European Directive 2003/98/EC, the first legislative measure which shaped the European framework for Open Data and was amended by the Directive of 2013 above mentioned. Preparing the implementation of this last one with the law on decentralization and another on digital technology, France appears to be very active these last months and hopefully that is a good omen for the future. Etalab organised last April a national conference on Open Data and Open Government, inviting representatives of the private sector and the civil society. The future appointment of a Chief Data Officer was announced (still to be designated) as well as the participation of the French government in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and France will even join the OGP steering committee from 1st October. Last but not the least, the Senate published in June a report on the access to administrative documents and public data which supports the efforts made by the government since 2011 to release public data to the public domain but underlines that the results so far aren’t up to the actual challenges and don’t fulfil neither what has been expected by the civil society. Too often, the data is not complete or available in an unfriendly format, its quality varies depending on the administration, updates and meta-data are missing, revealing the lack of resources and reluctance to agree with the Open Data action. The report ends with 16 recommendations like the use of visualisations to make the data more comprehensible for the users which should be taken into consideration in the preparation of the both upcoming laws.

FLOK Society @ Quito, Ecuador

During our ongoing research, we have witnessed how the principles of Open Knowledge are being applied in almost all areas of our society. We have seen how software developers are considering Open Source as a serious model for releasing their products, how governments are sharing their data to bring more transparency or even how non-proprietary machinery designs are revolutionising agriculture, just to name a few examples. As the map on the top of our website shows, those initiatives are happening all-over the world, however they do happen mostly independently.

But, what if a set of such initiatives would be put in practice at the same time in a political framework? At a county level, or even better, nationally?

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This is what is currently being prepared in Ecuador, where an initiative called FLOK Society has being launched in a cooperation between the Ecuadorian Ministry of Knowledge, Secretary of Higher Education and National Institute of Higher Education: a project aiming to change the productive matrix towards creating a society based on common, free and open knowledge, as part of the government’s National Plan for Good Living (2009-2013).

FLOK Society’s research team, composed by Ecuadorian and international researchers and led by P2P-Foundation’s founder Michel Bauwens, has been elaborating 15 strategic documents in the last months. This documentation, along with theoretical approaches, refers to success cases of the implementation of Open Knowledge happening already around the globe. Those papers are the starting point for the upcoming decision making process.

An event called FLOK Summit is taking place as we write these lines (from May 27th to 30th). During it, the feasibility of the actions proposed in the base documents are discussed by the team together with representatives of the government and members of the civil society (150 invitations could be distributed among citizens interested to join). Optimally, further steps and a detailed implementation plan will be drafted as outcome.

Because the benefits of sharing knowledge have to be explained and debated with the Ecuadorian society as well, the team has organized 24 workshops in the country since the beginning of the year. Ecuadorians will be the first beneficiaries and their support and collaboration are without doubt essential for the success of this ambitious initiative.

Bildschirmfoto 2014-05-26 um 10.36.38Considering that the project was officially launched in January 2014, the work done so far is impressive. We invite you to go through the large amount of documentation available on FLOK’s wiki, videos and social media (twitter, facebook). Surprisingly, there has not being much resonance on the international media yet. However, the concept already seems to raise interest among other communities all over the world, not at national level as Ecuador but rather in local urban areas, and hopefully similar projects can crop up as early as in 2015.

Meeting @ Cargografías, Buenos Aires, Argentina

DSCF7160Matter of fact, most of the experts and participants gathered in hackathons and events around Open Data / Open Government come from the IT or media scene. But Open Data and Open Government are not a private club for coders and journalists. You might give your two cents whatever you do. Designers are also part of the hacktivists initiating and developing such projects. And we have enjoyed so much exploring this perspective through the work of Andrés Snitcofsky.

Captura-de-pantalla-2013-10-23-a-las-15.27.59Both graphic designer and professor of heuristics at the University of Buenos Aires, Andrés had the idea in September 2011 to build what became later on Cargografías, an interactive time-line visualisation of the highest positions from the Argentinian political sphere. Users can search by position or name to explore and easily understand how the political framework is structured, what are the relations between the different positions at the power and how the higher politicians have been replaced along the years. The idea arose in the context of the Argentina’s economic crisis in 2011 and, although time was too short to fix it for the presidential elections in October 2011, the tool was finally achieved and revealed to be very useful during the next campaign of 2013.

The project got developed within the group of Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires (HHBA), created at the same time in 2011 and which counts nowadays nearly 2500 members, the biggest local group in Latin America of the international grassroots journalism organization. With other members of HHBA, Andrés collected the raw data, researching on wikipedia or scrapping the information from other relevant sources before sorting it out manually into spreadsheets. The actual version 2.0. is the result of this collaboration and, even if it already represents a great piece of work, some updates are needed and new features could be added to extend the current capabilities. The users’ feedback, set as a participative function, help to point out what could be improved and also which contents have to be completed.

The initial team has sadly been changed and Andrés is now looking for a developer to implement the next version. This is a call for a coder! Cargografías will be released as Open Source as soon as some help (no matter from Argentina or not) will be found, since the tool is definitely worth to be replicated in further countries and political contexts.

Meeting @ GCBA, Buenos Aires, Argentina

In our experience, Open Government initiatives are usually implemented firstly at national level before being applied in regions and cities. This enables to test and experiment technologies and mechanisms prior to adapt them to more local administrative scenarios. The case of Argentina is different since it is the administration of the capital, the government of the city of Buenos Aires (GCBA), which pioneers in this matter.

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Gonzalo Iglesias, Chief of the Cabinet at the Open Government Directorate in the Ministry of Modernisation of Buenos Aires, welcomed us in its office. Located in the very centre of the city, the building serves also as co-working space and laboratory for experimentation on Open Data and citizen-oriented tools. The first tasks of this young and passionate team gathered two years ago were to integrate and improve the existing digital services of the different directorates of the municipality; and at the same time to conceive new mechanisms promoting transparency and empowering citizens. The launch of the Open Data platform ensuing the Open Gobernment legislative decree in 2012 has been one of the main milestones in their work and has served as reference for similar initiatives in the country, such as the city of Bahia Blanca.

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The team, composed by less than 20 members, focuses its efforts on two main fronts: First, to assist the numerous municipal sections and agencies on the process of releasing Open Data. This involves sharing know-how and sometimes even advocating for the benefits of sharing public information with the citizens. In order to address these challenges, the team organises a yearly unconference called GobCamp where civil servants have the opportunity to learn and exchange in small working groups how they can make data available and develop Open Government instruments. The second focus of the Open Government Directorate’s team is to ensure that all the information being released to the public domain is actually demanded and finally used. To achieve this, two hackathons and App Challenges, open to everyone interested, have been already organised and proved to be quite successful, if you consider the impressive amount of civic apps designed so far.

Buenos Aires counts with a FOIA law since 1998, but an equivalent at the national level is still missing. However, last year, the government has committed to initiatives such as the Open Government Partnertship, created its national platform to host and offer Open Data to users for download, and even organised a hackathon to encourage developers, designers, journalists and other interested to think of ways to turn the available datasets into something valuable for the society. But the fact that Argentina is a federal republic and also that the political party ruling the nation opposes the one in the capital make a collaborative political environment difficult. A closer cooperation where everyone could learn from other’s experiences could definitely accelerate the steps towards more Open Government in Argentina.

Meeting @ Mekong River Commission, Vientiane, Lao PDR

mrc1 For our last meeting in Southeast Asia, we headed to the Lao PDR capital to document the Data Portal developed and maintained by the Mekong River Commission Secretariat (MRCS). The agency represents an inter-governmental initiative between four (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam) of the six countries located in the Mekong Basin which, quoting from its website; acts as a joint management of shared water resources and sustainable development of the Mekong River.

The focus of our meeting, held with two members of the IT Team, was to discover more about its Data and Information Services Portal launched in 2005. The MRCS Portal is the access point for data, information and services provided by MRCS via the Internet. It provides access to quality assured datasets, atlases, model setup, model results, Google Earth overview, map services etc. On this platform, built using Open Source technologies, real time water level and quality data among other Mekong Basin related information are available as interactive maps, reports and multimedia contents. As we could experience, the data is being aggregated from different governmental agencies, MRCS Programmes, but also automatically transferred from a network of 47 hydro-meteorological stations within the region, which continuously feed “near” real-time information to the system.

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Users can register for free to access the data. Daily, about 40 to 90 visitors from national agencies, research institutes, academia, students and companies accessed the Portal since 2011 when the redesigned Portal was launched. Only registered users who had signed a license agreement can download or purchase data sets. Compared to Open Data platforms, there are restrictions when it comes to downloading and using the information. Depending on the categorisation of the contents, some fees may apply. All users, except internal ones who are national agencies, are required to pay for handling services. The data are owned by the countries, and they are happy to share them among the member countries, but not all the data are meant to be readily available on the website.

Along this line, we could discuss with MRCS’s IT-Team about the benefits of releasing the data in an open manner. As the intention of the portal is to make the data available in a usable way, choosing open licenses for the content would contribute to the goals behind it and might be implemented in the near future. Although, this decision requires a common agreement between MRC’s member countries.

Talking about the future, the team revealed us some interesting new features the platform will offer with an upcoming update. Raw text will be replaced by XML as the chosen format to release the data, users will be able to combine multiple layers on the interactive maps and the last research results about climate change will be soon available increasing the number of datasets.

Back to the context in Laos, there is, as we already experienced in Cambodia and Thailand, no official Open Data platform. Neither we could find any other data portal or similar projects during our research in this country.

Meeting @ KSHIP, Bangalore, India

Our meeting today took place in the central office of KSHIP (Karnataka State Highways Improvement Project), an initiative of the Public Works Department of the Government of Karnataka for improvement of road network of the southern indian state. By creating a special committee called [email protected], the organisation aims to include Open Governance mechanisms in its workflow, thus encouraging citizen’s participation and giving transparency more weight.

DSCF0267We were invited to be part of the second meeting of the committee and were asked to give an input on tools and strategies in the field of Open Data they could adopt to realise their goals. For us, it was really interesting to have an insight on how such a project gets developed in a public organisation from its initial state. Since the project is still in the concept phase, where the basic steps have to be defined, our presentation and the big amount of examples we introduced served as inspiration and reference of what can be done in a later phase.

DSCF0273Our participation in this meeting wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Sridhar Pabbisetty, one of the contacts we established in the indian IT-Metropolis. With a background in Computer Science and a MBA at IIM Bangalore, Sridhar is one of the most active individuals pushing Open Government initiatives and the constructive use of Open Data in India.

His activities in the field are numerous. First, he conducted the creation of opengovernanceindia.org, the first Open Data platform in India which was launched just one week before the one from the national government. Besides participating in worldwide events as the OKCon 2012, where he held a lightning presentation, he is advising administrations and organisations about the benefits of acting towards openness, allowing citizens to be part of the decision-making process and raising consciousness of a sustainable use of resources.

After leading the Center of Public Policy, he took the decision to contest for the Hebbal Assembly constituency in the Karnataka Assembly Elections (MLA) in spring 2013 obtaining encouraging results. Parallel to all of this, he initiated the Center for Inclusive Governance, a team of people that “strives to enable citizens to lead the change they want to see, helping them to understand the legal, bureaucratic, political and civil society perspectives.”. We are happy to have met such an remarkable activist today and wish him all the best for his future projects.

Bangalore has proven to be a very productive environment for our research. Next Monday, we still have our workshop at the Center of Internet and Society and look forward to discovering even more!

Meeting & Workshop @ Transparent Chennai, Chennai, India

Bildschirmfoto 2013-10-26 um 21.12.33Transparent Chennai is a project that was started three years ago with the aim to improve the quality of data used for urban governance in Chennai, and present it in ways that help people understand and use the data for planning, monitoring, and for making claims on the government. It is housed in the Centre for Development Finance (CDF), one of three centres for research at IFMR, a business school in Chennai. This small group of researchers, mostly women, does a great job aggregating, creating and disseminating data and research about important civic issues facing the city of Chennai, including those issues facing the poor. Quoting their website: „Our work aims to empower residents by providing them useful, easy-to-understand information that can better highlight citizen needs, shed light on government performance, and improve their lives in the city.“

We met researchers Satyarupa Shekhar and Vinaya Padmanabhan, who explained Transparent Chennai’s ongoing research. In few words, their work consists on researching and collecting data with a focus on: slums and informal settlements, solid waste management, walkability and pedestrian infrastructure, and water and sanitation. A great part of this collected information is accessible in an aggregated form through the interactive map which users can find on their website.

The way they collect this data represents a laborious and passionate task. Depending on the project, they work with local residents or call for volunteers to conduct citizen surveys. They collaborate with other citizens groups and civil society organisations, and work closely with the local administration, which provides them with first-hand data. As you can read on their blog, they work closely with residents and that enables them to develop a better understanding of the problems and actual needs of the population of the city, who is at the end the one who will benefit from the output of their action.

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One successful case is the recent study about the current state and optimal location of public toilets. The results of this research are going to help the municipality to define an efficient strategy for the construction of new sanitation facilities.

Another project that showed the impact of their smart use of data: by conducting surveys, they could map the location of homeless people in different neighbourhoods of Chennai and contrasted it with the position of the existing shelters. Through this research, they could find relevant inconsistencies and propose a better distribution in order to improve the quality of life of this group of less fortunate citizens.

And Open Data? Does Transparenct Chennai release the collected data as open? We obviously formulated this question during our meeting. On the Database Section in their website, you can find some of the data sets they have generated so far. Also, and without leaving the Open Data topic, we experienced that they are participating in the Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC) project. This study, led by the World Wide Web Foundation, has the goal of understanding how open data is being put to use in different countries and contexts across the developing world.

DSCF8971After this enriching exchange, we could present our workshop counting with around 15 attendees from different areas: representant of the region Tamil Nadu, Open Source activists, students, members of research institute and renewable energy initiatives,… From the beginning on, the audience showed a big interest in the data collection methodology and data visualisation tools. Many projects were mentioned during the closing discussion. For example, the results of the national rural employment programme conducted by the indian Ministry of Rural Development, which can be visualised online and downloaded as CSV file since last week only.

Finally, we were asked whether we were going to pass by Bangalore. Indeed, the capital of the Karnataka region is well known in India for being the headquarters of many Open initiatives and the participants pointed us many organisations and individuals we could meet there. For sure! Bangalore was already on our schedule and it seems that we will experience a lot there. We expect to arrive around mid november and will keep you updated!