The following guest post is from Regards Citoyens, a French association of citizens with a shared interest in opening up information about the functioning of democratic institutions in France.
France is lagging behind…
There is no doubt about it: compared to other countries, France is definitely late in opening up its data. For a country so proud of its human rights and democratic revolution, it took a while before it finally joined the open data movement! The first “Open Data Camp” organized in Paris last December is a good example of this new momentum.
While the US and the UK have taken enormous steps in the past two years with the release of data.gov and data.gov.uk, France and many other southern European countries are still being very conservative about making public data public. To catch up in the world of open data will require more than just a few political measures. French institutions need a drastic change to their approach to the production and dissemination of official data. But nothing will be possible without support, demand and engagement from groups of citizens.
Interesting — and often relatively little known — projects already lead the way. For example, the HAL Archives opens up access to scientific journal articles and IREP offers access to data about pollutants. But this is just a very small fraction of material that is out there. The vast majority of official documents, datasets and publicly funded research remains inaccessible to citizens. Indeed, it can be very difficult for an individual to gain access to specific public documents. In 1978, a committee called CADA was created to provide advice on such demands, but such public services often won’t process the requests easily.
For historical reasons, it is especially difficult to change French officials’ approach to data release. For a very long time, most public data sharing has been done by public administrations classified as EPIC (Etablissement Public à caractère Industriel et Commercial or Public Administration for Industrial and Commercial purposes). These administrations have a prior commercial purpose even though their data are considered public. Examples include key providers of meteorological data and geospatial data. Having both public and commercial purposes, such administrations tend to be interested in making profit from the data by selling it to corporate businesses. Therefore, it can be a real challenge for citizens to get free access to these data and reuse them for civil society projects to strengthen democracy, to increase citizen engagement or to improve the delivery of public services.
The former DJO (Direction des Journaux Officiels or Directorate of Official Publications), now called DILA (Direction de l’Information Légale et Administrative, Directorate of Legal and Administrative Information), is another good example of this situation. This administration is in charge of all legal data including laws issued by the parliament and official government decisions. Before 2002, online access to the French legislation was restricted through a régime de concession à titre onéreux. This means only those able and willing to pay a license, mainly companies like Reuters or Lamy, were allowed to utilise the documents. The situation changed in 2002 and now any individual has access to these key legal documents thanks to LégiFrance. Extra features like an access to the rich XML feed of any legislation modification could be of great help to improve legislative monitoring projects like Regards Citoyens’ Simplify the law. Unfortunately these features are still restricted to users able to pay the fee.
Government initiatives: limited access but not openness
Despite all of this, the global movement for openness has recently taken a radical turn thanks to the data.gov projects, the 2007 EU INSPIRE Directive (planned to be transposed in France in June 2010) and Sweden’s initiative to promote eGovernment projects during its presidency of Europe. All of these seem to have triggered some change within French government’s view of public data and some things have started to change.
A new administration, the DILA, was recently created to replace the DJO and try to impulse an improved production and diffusion of public data. In this context, a new agency called APIE (Agence du Patrimoine Immatériel de l’Etat, the State’s Intangible Heritage Agency) was settled to lead the reflexion, coordinate, estimate and organize a common data effort between the different administrations. The objective is to propose by the middle of 2010 a platform that will promote all different sources of data and describe their respective licenses.
Unfortunately, the French government’s historical lack of openness left an open field to the private sector. Some companies largely benefit of this situation: they make profit out of the data by becoming an intermediate between the administration and data users. A good example of this is the GFII (the Groupement Français de l’Industrie de l’Information, or French Association of Electronic Information Industry). Disappointed in having such difficult contact with the government, this active lobbying group started to take care individually of civil servants’ training, and progressively became the official investor and organizer of training programmes instead of the government. This entry of the private sector into matters of public administration certainly contributed to the APIE’s information licensing decisions: there is an obvious inclination to sell the data to companies without considering the benefits of allowing reuse by citizen driven projects using open licences. This situation is neither good for innovation nor for the production of common knowledge.
Citizen driven open data initiatives in France
Like in many countries, the first steps into open data came from the research and the Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) communities. WikiMedia France and OpenStreetMap.fr are probably the most popular open knowledge projects in France. Early websites like Mon-Depute.fr — a vote monitoring project created by an archivist — or droit.org — a very active project from l’Ecole des Mines on legal publication — helped a lot to make democratic data available. Our work at Regards Citoyens on parliamentary activity with NosDéputés.fr and on electoral data is a new step for French open data for democracy and civil society.
OpenStreetMap.fr is a very good example of a citizen driven open data project. The Public Land Registry (Cadastre) has a website intended to publish their map, which provides interesting information but not openly. Therefore, some contributors of OpenStreetMap found out how to technically access the raw data. But this still was not enough to open up the data for anyone. So the OSM community studied the legal situation and contacted the French Ministry of Finance in charge of this service. They finally got an answer in January 2009: a global export of their whole database is not allowed, but a partial one is. So hundreds of volunteers began a crowdsourcing effort and OpenStreetMap.fr is now able to free more and more data from the Land Registry.
All of these are good examples that open data is not only about technology: it also often depends on the efforts of a community in order to legally secure the data and encourage others to allow it to be reused for any purpose. That is why we helped organise the first French Open Data Camp in Paris, where more than 120 people came to learn and share their skills. We learned a lot about information visualisation techniques from existing projects and from interesting theoretical ones! We also had a good conversation with activists, ‘hacktivists’, and others about the political, economic and administrative benefits of open data.
The success of this event seems like a pretty good demonstration that France is ready and already made its first steps into the global world of open data. Regards Citoyens will follow these changes and will try to modestly contribute to the global open data movement by working together with international organisations such as the Open Knowledge Foundation. With our fellow “campers”, we are convinced that making public data accessible and reusable will bring great benefits to commercial innovation, democratic organisations, and to civil society.