European Union member states will be forced to digitise all their government data in a move set to benefit developers and tech startups.
According to new proposals put forward by the EU's Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes, all EU countries will be obliged to make their public data available in digital formats. This represents a huge opportunity for tech companies, which could be worth €40 billion (£33.9 billion) to the EU's economy each year, according to the Commission.
Funding earmarked for research on data-handling technologies alone is around €100 million (£84.7 billion). Money will also be made available for creating data portal websites through the EU's Competitiveness and Innovation Programme, and the Commission will also back research into data infrastructures.
All this is aimed at making the most of Europe's hidden "goldmine" of information. Public data includes all the information that public bodies in the European Union produce, collect or pay for. This could include geographical data, statistics, meteorological data, data from publicly funded research projects and digitized books from libraries.
"We are sending a strong signal to administrations today. Your data is worth more if you give it away. So start releasing it now: use this framework to join the other smart leaders who are already gaining from embracing open data. Taxpayers have already paid for this information, the least we can do is give it back to those who want to use it in new ways that help people and create jobs and growth," said Kroes at the launch of the initiative.
The Commission will make its own data available through a web portal currently in development and due to be launched in the spring. This will serve as a single-access point for reusable data from all EU institutions, bodies and agencies, and national authorities.
It is expected that tech startups could benefit most from the new rules by turning the raw data into smartphone apps, such as maps, real-time traffic and weather information, price comparison tools, and the like.
In addition to distributing all the information in a machine-readable format, public bodies must deal with applications for data reuse within a set maximum time and will not be allowed to charge more than costs triggered by the individual request for data. In practice, this means most data will be offered free or virtually free, unless a charge is duly justified. These rules are particularly relevant to high-speed, cash poor startup companies and developers.
The Commission says that the plans will also increase transparency in government: "Open data is a powerful instrument to increase transparency in public administration, improving the visibility of previously inaccessible information, informing citizens and business about policies, public spending and outcomes." The proposal would operate in full respect of rules on the treatment of personal data.
A number of countries including the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have already created portal websites on accessible data, while last week France launched a portal exactly along the lines of the Commission's proposal. But other member states lag and only make their data available in paper format.
If approved by the European Parliament and the member states, the proposal is likely to come into effect in 2013. Member states would then have 18 months to implement it into their national legislation.