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A brief history of INSPIRE and its links to open data and local governments

(This article was published in the n°117 of the Géomatique Expert revue, July-August 2017, which was distributed during the INSPIRE 2017 conference)

I have occasionally been asked to comment on articles detailing European regulations, open data and local governments. Being somewhat involved in the first two for decades, I realise how complex they are and what bad teachers we are, despite our repeated attempts. Contrary to what can be read here and there, the set of European regulations on data is unrelated to open data, and local governments are not its target.

A possible cause of this confusion is the lack of clear documentation detailing the origins of the INSPIRE directive. This short essay aims to address this issue.

Which open data are we speaking of?

The reader will reflexively refer to the French government’s definition: “Open data is a global effort made by public entities, mainly public bodies, to share the data they possess. This sharing must be free of charge, use well-known formats and allow for data reuse.”

The European directive on reuse of public sector information (PSI), initially approved in 2003, was updated in 2011. However, the purview of the text was not expanded to include free-of-charge, free-to-use and standard-formatted public data. There is simply no current EU legal framework on open data.

Besides, the PSI directive update had no effect on INSPIRE and vice-versa. The PSI directive’s unique scope is reuse of public data. It contains no provisions about free-ofcharge dissemination (if one considers that data dissemination implies a complimentary policy). As a matter of fact, Article 6 (“Principles governing charging”) states: “Where charges are made for the reuse of documents, those charges shall be limited to the marginal costs incurred for their reproduction, provision and dissemination.”

Perhaps what some authors refer to as open data must be construed according to the Legifrance definition, which does not entail free-of-charge availability? In a brief I wrote May 22, 2013, I wondered what exactly people meant by “open data”. An article written by Simon Chignard, which unfortunately seems to have been deleted, described the ideological battles fought between five think tanks boasting five different definitions, more or less compatible one with another. As often, the term open data has finally evolved into a fuzzy concept. Care must therefore be taken to define it clearly when one wants to use it.

We could also wonder why the EU has decided to push forward the concept of Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) instead of joining the open data tidal wave.

One explanation is that, at the beginning of the 2000s (when even the youngest of you, readers, were already born), open data was neither a politically driven movement, nor even a subject for discussion. Nevertheless, some entities, such as the French Ministry of Environment, were already (since 1998) disseminating their datasets, spatial or not, and were actively seeking out tools to solve their recurrent interoperability issues. INSPIRE was shaped by those early experimenters involved in the dissemination of free, complimentary and public domain licenced data.

We also learnt that volunteerism was not enough, as evidenced by all the municipalities falling behind schedule, barring the most advanced ones.

Why Inspire?

Does INSPIRE proceed from an effort to assemble all the relevant actors around a tremendous concept all European citizens could benefit from?

Not really.

INSPIRE was born out of the ashes of the “GI 2000” project, led by the DG XIII (telecommunications) from 1995 on. The EuroGI association was one of its champions, and some of the people involved in it moved on to work on INSPIRE: F. Salgé, M. Craglia, A. Annoni… At that time, the scope of INSPIRE was to organise the European market of spatial data in order to guarantee its sustainable growth.

The origin of INSPIRE from GI2000 is hinted at here.

The DG XIII failed to gather sufficient momentum in support of such a sweeping regulation, and, it also seems, to find matter-offact cases demonstrating what good it would do. The next step was therefore to find a suitable leader. Ms Margot Wallström, the European commissioner for Environment from 1999 to 2004, resolved to assume stewardship and started working on it. In 2006, the negotiations between, on the one hand, the European Commission and the European Parliament and, on the other hand, the Member states, were about to break down after the Council and the Parliament had failed to reach an agreement twice in a row. The bone of contention was the former article 23(1), now 17(2), which states that: “The measures […] shall preclude any restrictions, especially of a transactional, procedural, juridical, institutional or financial nature, likely to create practical obstacles, occurring at the point of use, to the sharing of spatial data sets and services.” A majority of Member states, the United Kingdom at the head, feared it would upturn the business model of mapping or weather agencies. These issues remain very much at stake even today. The Commission does not pass laws; the Council (of Member states) and the Parliament do, and both have refused to take a clear position.

For the same reasons, the draft of the article 24, which should have established “common licencing conditions” has been revoked and the current article 17(3), which allows for royalties, has been added.

The very day before the final talks, some of us bet on failure. That would have led to the inevitable withdrawal of the INSPIRE project. But the Parliament and the Commission agreed on a trade-off with the Member states in extremis.

Choosing an environmental framework widened the support for the proposal, since the European Parliament, which coauthors laws in this field, had its say. It was also an opportunity to put forwards clear advantages, namely the increased facility with which public entities would be able to complete environmental impact studies. This is quoted in the directive’s recitals.

However, neither the “citizen” nor the “enterprises” are cited in the directive provisions, whose scope is solely the sharing of data between public bodies, full stop. Of course, the obligation to publish those data on the Internet is not to be made light of. But the French implementation, quite ahead of the pack, does not hide the fact that some Member states have interpretations and implementations much less welcoming to the Internet.

Why are local governments concerned by INSPIRE?

In its article 4(6), the directive excludes “the lowest level of government” from its scope, except if “the Member State has laws or regulations requiring their collection or dissemination.” Transcribed into French law, this yields: “(INSPIRE) is not applicable to datasets belonging to municipalities, except if another law requires their collection or dissemination.” French negotiators fought tooth and nail for this provision, aware of how much the implementation of INSPIRE over a territory made up of 36,000 municipalities, most of them rural, would cost.

To wrap up, before the passage of the Digital Republic Act (October 2016), only urban planning data were subject to the directive. And until the beginning of 2016, much of that obligation was handled at the county level.

Why are local governments so clumsy at implementing this multi-scale European project? At the end of the day, is it not because they are the least impacted?

Conclusion

Trying to interpret the INSPIRE and PSI directives using Open data “à la French” or the European Commission’s “Digital strategy for Europe” – both of which were written ten years later – as keys to their deciphering, is at best anachronistic. So, beware of casual commenters!

Open data and local data are simply out of the scope of the directive, by intentional political wish spoken out during the preliminary talks. Whatever one may think of it, Open data is not a piece of the current EU body of laws.

Finally – and, if possible, I would like this to be the takeaway of this article – the hidden fairies who blessed the INSPIRE directive were never sent by politically driven strategies. As usual when it comes to innovation, INSPIRE was the coalescence of the outstanding motivation of a small core team made up of idealists or utopians, and the feeling of two European Commissioners. Together, they succeeded in convincing the co-legislators.

And that’s how Europe is great.

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