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

When we work on building all these amazing democratic transparency collaborative tools all over the world, all of us, OpenData 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 in order to grant european public OpenData a new paradigm enabling mandatory re-use and an enlarged scope of public data to be liberated.

As this revision gets discussed within the European Parliament (EP), this is the citizen’s chance to advocate for a clear definition of the Open Formats under which PSI should be released.

We believe at Regards Citoyens that having a proper definition of Open Formats within the EU PSI directive revision, and further on transposed in our national legislations, would be a fantastic help to both citizen and economic innovation with OpenData. We believe such definition can be easily summed-up to two simple rules inspired by OKFN’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 tried to advocate for in a policy note on Open Formats we published last week and sent individually to all 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 meeting
A meeting at the European Parliament

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 november 29th around 10am to vote their report on the PSI revision among other files.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) can propose amendments to the revision beforehand, but, to fasten the process, the EP 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 together the proposed amendments 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 kind of amendments are therefore voted on along a predefined voting-list indicating the rapporteur’s recommandations.

Regarding Open Formats, everything was relying 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. Having the support of the rapporteur in the name of the responsible committee, it should therefore get strong chances to get carried along.

Regarding the open development process condition, MEP Amelia Andersdotter, shadow rapporteur for the EP 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 whole 12 seconds total during which the Open Formats issues were voted can be quite surprising to anyone not familiar with the EP. 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, occasionnally electronically checked. Therefore, no public individual votes or discussions record of these decisions is available and the vote happens really really fast :

What next ? Can we do anything ?

Now that the ITRE committee voted, its report should soon be made available online and other committees may give complementary insights before the text is actually discussed in plenary session, planned so far for March 11th 2013. Until noon on the wednesday preceding the debate, MEPs will still have the possibility to propose new amendments to be voted in 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 :

  • Keep updated with coming documents and procedures from the EP : ParlTrack offers e-mail alerts on the dossier ;
  • Whenever the proposition of new amendments towards the plenary debate will be 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. Ideally, 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 will be reached, we should call on our MEPs by email, phonecalls or tweets to vote for such amendment 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 citizens advocacy.

In any way, 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, … Anything can help !

As the European institutions work as a tripartite organisation, the final text adopted by the European Parliament will then be transferred to both the European Commission and Council for approval. This includes a trialogue procedure in which a consensus towards the final revision must be driven ; this will be the final occasion to call on our respective national governments to push in favor of Open Formats in order to maintain the proper definition which the EP will hopefully have adopted. But this is another time’s battle ! ;)

To conclude, we would like to stress out once again that Regards Citoyens is an all-volunteers organisation without much experience regarding the European institutions : this beginning advocacy work was all of a last-minute discovery and reaction pulled by a few on the side of our respective jobs. This means anyone’s help is both possible and necessary ! Let’s get all ready to defend Open Formats for European OpenData in a few weeks !