A call for truly open data

Open Data is already a legal obligation for public actors. But a handful of private companies are gathering and retaining access to considerable datasets that should also belong to all of us.

Open Data refers to the information collected, produced or paid for by public bodies which can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose, as the European Data Portal (an initiative developed by the European Commission) defines it. In a series of reports led in the EU28+ (EU28 plus Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein) and in several large and smaller European cities, the European Data Portal observes that Open Data maturity is, in fact, well underway. Not only have European countries and cities opened their data to the public (a majority of the EU28+ countries have successfully developed a basic approach to address Open Data), but they have also developed advanced features on their portals, and both the use and impact of data have increased over the past few years.

Opening everyone’s data

But, for now, the responsibility of opening the data only falls on these public actors, and that seems hardly fair, or relevant. Connected and autonomous cars generate 25 Go of data every hour, according to a McKinsey study. This data can feed artificial intelligence algorithms that will help make mobility more efficient, cleaner and safer. But what if Tesla refuses to give access to this information? What if Uber or Google can withdraw sets of mobility-related data, even though they arguably belong to the common good? While public actors are opening their data, we also see an unprecedented concentration of equally crucial information in the hands of a few extremely powerful companies. And this is detrimental to the whole mobility ecosystem.

In fact, one consequence of opening the data is that building an efficient and reliable smart mobility system is no longer the sole responsibility of public authorities and public transportation entities. The presence of a reliable, comprehensive, documented, and insightful set of data feeds has resulted in an ecosystem of third-party ‘apps’,” writes Oliver O’Brien, a urbanist and researcher at University College-London. These apps allow to better navigate the public transportation system and foster multimodality, making it easier to spot the nearest available bike or to assess which route is the fastest. For O’Brien, a key driver of success for these open data ecosystems is that the data provider accepts that while there is a value to the data that they release on a free and open basis, the third-party commercial marketplace is better positioned to realize this value, through innovation and different thinking, allowing the transit authority to focus on their core role of running and managing the transport.

But we cannot expect these apps and services to work with only part of the existing information, at least not in a way that is in the best interest of the end users. The fact that a significant portion of mobility-related data remains closed not only perpetuates the monopoly of the likes of Google, Tesla or Uber, but it also hinders economic development and innovation in the field. It is time to embrace the fact that, whoever produces and gathers it, mobility data is, in fact, a common good. It is time for all the actors of the sector (constructors, digital companies, public and private transportation entities, local authorities) to open access to their data sets. It is time for a European mobility database on which we will build the transportation systems of tomorrow.