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Let’s defend Open Formats for Public Sector Information in Europe!

Regards Citoyens - December 3, 2012 in Access to Information, Campaigning, Open Data, Open Government Data, Open Standards, Open/Closed, Policy, WG EU Open Data, WG Open Government Data

Following some remarks from Richard Swetenham from the European Commission, we made a few changes relative to the trialogue process and the coming steps: the trialogue will start its meetings on 17th December and it is therefore already very useful to call on our governments to support Open Formats!

When we work on building all these amazing democratic transparency collaborative tools all over the world, all of us, Open Data users and producers, struggle with these incredibly frustrating closed or unexploitable formats under which public data is unfortunately so often released: XLS, PDF, DOC, JPG, completely misformatted tables, and so on.

The EU PSI directive revision is a chance to push for a clear Open Formats definition!

As part of Neelie Kroes’s Digital Agenda, the European Commission recently proposed a revision of the Public Sector Information (PSI) Directive widening the scope of the existing directive to encourage public bodies to open up the data they produce as part of their own activities.

The revision will be discussed at the European Parliament (EP), and this is the citizen’s chance to advocate for a clear definition of the Open Formats under which public sector information (PSI) should be released.

We believe at Regards Citoyens that having a proper definition of Open Formats within the EU PSI directive revision would be a fantastic help to citizens and contribute to economic innovation. We believe such a definition can be summed-up to in two simple rules inspired by the Open Knowledge Foundation’s OpenDefinition principles:

  • being platform independant and machine-readable without any legal, financial or technical restriction;
  • being the result of an openly developped process in which all users can actually be part of the specifications evolution.

Those are the principles we advocated in a policy note on Open Formats we published last week and sent individually to all Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from the committee voting on the revision of the PSI directive last thursday.

Good news: the first rule was adopted! But the second one was not. How did that work?

ITRE vote on Nov 29th: what happened and how?

EP meetingA meeting at the European Parliament
CC-BY-ND EPP Group

The European parliamentary process first involves a main committee in charge of preparing the debates before the plenary session, in our case the Industry, Research and Energy committee (ITRE). Its members met on 29th November around 10am to vote on the PSI revision amongst other files.

MEPs can propose amendments to the revision beforehand, but, to speed up the process, the European Parliament works with what is called “compromise amendments” (CAs): the committee chooses a rapporteur leading the file in its name and each political group gets a “shadow rapporteur” to work together with the main rapporteur. They all study the proposed amendments together and try to sum them up in a few consensual ones called CAs, hence leading MEPs to pull away some amendments when they consider their concerns met. During the committee meeting, both kinds of amendment are voted on in accordance with predefined voting-list indicating the rapporteur’s recommandations.

Regarding Open Formats, everything relied on a proposition to add to the directive‘s 2nd article a paragraph providing a clear definition of what an Open Format actually is. The rapporteurs work led to a pretty good compromise amendment 18, which speaks pretty much for itself:

« An open format is one that is platform independent, machine readable, and made available to the public without legal, technical or financial restrictions that would impede the re-use of that information. »

This amendment was adopted, meaning this change will be proposed as a new amendment to all MEPs during the plenary debate. Given that it has the support of the rapporteur in the name of the responsible committee, it stands a good chance of being carried.

Regarding the open development process condition, MEP Amelia Andersdotter, shadow rapporteur for the European Parliament Greens group, maintained and adapted to this new definition her amendment 65:

« "open format" means that the format’s specification is maintained by a not-for-profit organisation the membership of which is not contingent on membership fees; its ongoing development occurs on the basis of an open decision-making procedure available to all interested parties; the format specification document is available freely; the intellectual property of the standard is made irrevocably available on a royalty-free basis. »

Even though it also got recommanded for approval by the main rapporteur, unfortunately the ALDE and EPP groups were not ready to support it yet and it got rejected.

Watching the 12 seconds during which the Open Formats issues were voted is a strange experience to anyone not familiar with the European Parliament, since most of the actual debate happens beforehand between the different rapporteurs, the committee meeting mainly consists of a succession of raised hand votes calls, which are occasionally electronically checked. Therefore, there are no public individual votes or records of these discussions available and the vote happens very quickly.

What next? Can we do anything?

Now that the ITRE committee has voted, its report should soon be made available online

As the European institutions work as a tripartite organisation, the text adopted by the ITRE committee will now be transferred to both the European Commission and Council for approval. This includes a trialogue procedure in which a consensus towards a common text must be driven. This is an occasion to call on our respective national governments to push in favor of Open Formats in order toc maintain and improve the definition which the EP already adopted.

The text which comes out of the tripartite debate will be discussed in plenary session, planned at the moment for 11th March 2013. Until noon on the Wednesday preceding the plenary, MEPs will still have the possibility to propose new amendments to be voted on at plenary: they can do so either as a whole political group, or as a group of at least 40 different MEPs from any groups.

Possible next steps to advocate Open Formats could therefore be the following:

  • Call on our national governments to push in favor of Open Formats;
  • Keep up-to-date with documents and procedures from the European Parliament: ParlTrack offers e-mail alerts on the dossier;
  • Whenever the proposition of new amendments towards the plenary debate is opened, we should contact our respective national MEPs from all political groups and urge them to propose amendments requiring Open Formats to be based on an open development process. Having multiple amendments coming from different political groups would certainly help MEPs realize this is not a partisan issue;
  • When the deadline for proposing amendments is reached, we should call on our MEPs by email, phone calls or Tweets to vote for such amendments and possibly against some opposed ones. In order to allow anyone to easily and freely phone their MEPs, we’re thinking about reusing La Quadrature du Net‘s excellent PiPhone tool for EU citizen advocacy.

In any case, contacting MEPs to raise concerns on Open Formats policies can of course always be useful at all times before and after the plenary debates. Policy papers, amendments proposals, vulgarisation documents, blogposts, open-letters, a petititon, tweets, … It can all help!

To conclude, we would like to stress once again that Regards Citoyens is an entirely voluntary organisation without much prior experience with the European Parliament. This means help and expertise is much appreciated! Let’s get all ready to defend Open Formats for European Open Data in a few weeks!


Regards Citoyens — CC-BY-SA

How to study lobbying with crowdsourced open data

Daniel Dietrich - May 10, 2011 in External, Featured Project, Open Data, Open Government Data, WG EU Open Data, WG Open Government Data, Working Groups

The following guest post is from Regards Citoyens, a French organisation that promotes open data.

For about a year, Regards Citoyens has been working together with the French chapter of Transparency International in order to bring more transparency in the processes of influence and lobbying within the French parliament.

Lobbying is a very controversial subject in France: we discuss it a lot, but we do not know much about it. So we decided to try and study the visible part of this mysterious iceberg by bringing out some new data to the public debate. On a regular basis, MPs publish official reports regarding the preparation of their legislative and government evaluation work. It makes sense that they would listen to anyone concerned with the current topic during this process. But is this done in a fair, plural and transparent way? Are corporations and unions listened on an equal footing? What about NGOs and other actors from the civil society? Much like the European Parliament did, the French Assembly recently created an official register of lobbyists who get granted access to the hallways. But it turns out that this register does not contain more than a hundred names.

Official MPs reports
A few official reports from MPs

We decided to take a closer look and try to get a more complete list by browsing through all the 1,174 reports published between July 2007 and July 2010. Indeed, some of them propose an appendix with a list of all the hearings organised during the preparation of the report. Unfortunately, we quickly discovered that most reports do not feature such a list: using text analysis tools, we found them in only 38 % of the reports. Even this small visible part of influence seriously lacks in transparency. But that already provided us with an important dataset of 16,000 names, much more than the few officially registered lobbyists.

Our main concern then was to identify each organisation behind all of these names. Doing so was sometimes easy (mentioned along the name in the appendix), sometimes a bit harder (requiring to read pieces of the report, for instance). So we decided to develop a crowdsourcing tool allowing anyone to participate. An application available under a free licence, the AGPL, was built to process each name one by one, at least by three different users to validate the data. The idea was to make anyone able to easily contribute for just a few minutes, without having to register. Registration was only needed to participate in the top 50 contributors ladder. The simplicity and dynamicity of the Ajax-based interface (fields pre-filled and reports pre-loaded and scrolled), the fun of discovering lobbyists while “digitizing them” and the competitive aspect, provided by the ladder, certainly helped a lot: in a couple days a good Identi.ca/Twitter buzz started, and while we expected the crowdsourcing to take a couple months, everything was achieved in only 10 days thanks to more than 3,000 citizens!

This cool process brought us a database of 16,000 hearings with names, sex, functions and organisations of each one of the lobbyists. After some brief discussions with the national Assembly and the CNIL (French commission for privacy rights), we decided to release only the names of the organisations and not those of the people. Even though they are already public, coming from official reports, these institutions were unable to find an agreement on whether the names of lobbyists were public or private information. In the end, we decided to anonymise the data and make sure no illegal database of religious or union affiliation could be published out of it. Using Freebase GridWorks, we finally refined the data and consolidated it into 9,300 grouped hearings of organizations, which were associated to the theme subjects of each report.

But to be able to draw trends, we needed to categorize these organizations by interests: unions, corporations, individuals, religious organisations, think-tanks, NGO’s and associations. We first used the EU registry, but the large number of organisations we needed to classify quickly revealed the limits of the commission’s categories, especially regarding the public sector organisations. So we decided to improve it and build progressively our own categorization of interest representatives (fr) while categorizing gradually the data.

Holding all of these enriched data, TI started browsing it and drafted an insightful study based on the results (fr). At the same time, we worked on developping a visualisation in order to present the data in ways people could easily understand and browse. Inspired by WhereDoesMyMoneyGo‘s first design, we used the powerful Raphael JavaScript library to put out in a couple weeks a fully accessible application allowing to browse by themes and in subdetails all of these information.

But what did we learn? First, that on all subjects, there were considerably fewer hearings with women (24 %), with the only exception of the reports regarding… gender issues, of course! Also, the study reveals that MPs listen mainly during their hearings to administrations and organisations from the public sector (48 %). Trade unions and other professionnal organisations come then, followed at the 3rd place by private companies. NGOs and civil society organisations lobby in only 7 % cases. But the most interesting conclusion probably comes from the comparison of the categories for each specific theme. We can observe that companies are more often listened on topics like economy, energy, environment and probably more suprisingly on transportations, culture or digital issues. On the other hand, civil society organisations are more presents in topics like development aid or veterans. All of these results concern of course only the visible part of the lobbying, but taking a close look at the holes (like the surprisingly low number of hearings for private companies on health issues) provides interesting insights and validates our conclusion: transparency in France is definitely lacking in this area!

Of course, all of the anonymised data that was generated for this study is republished as open data under the ODBL licence and freely reusable. We completed the data with extra information such as the authors and political groups of the reports and such. This means there are certainly plenty other possible uses to these data! We’re convinced making it open data can only bring more great projects!

Read the study and browse the visualisation online.

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