France Expands Open Data
By Ian Kalin, Socrata Director of Open Data
On November 18, France launched a “node” of the Open Data Institute. Joining countries like the U.S. and Canada, a coalition of non-profit, private, and academic organizations will work with the French government to make government data machine-to-machine readable fuel for innovation while rigorously protecting privacy. The leading non-profit on the French endeavor is Five by Five, a Paris-based digital consultancy.
The nature of the open data movement in France is exemplified by a hackathon that was held immediately prior to the Node Launch. Sponsored by SNCF, a leading French train operator, the hackathon had the stated purpose of improving the accessibility of mass transit systems for handicapped people. With only a bit of new open data and an offer to collaborate directly with government officials, the event drew nearly 100 people and resulted in ten, solid apps. The winners of the event were as follows:
A web-based route planning tool built on top of OpenStreetMaps that provides directions for people with different types of accessibility needs. For example, even if a straight-line route is shortest, “No Way” can suggest a slightly different route for a vision-impaired person to use, such as a cross-walk that gives audio signal about when it is safe to cross the street.
Helps people with disabilities to connect with train station workers that otherwise would not know that a person was looking for help. For example, even though every large train station has a customer service desk, not all of those desks are wheelchair accessible.
This one is difficult to explain. Basically, it is a game that helps non-handicapped people to better understand what it is like to be mobility-impaired by leveraging a combination of wearable hardware, geo-location software, gamification, and automatically generated tweets.
For Americans that may feel a bit of hackathon fatigue after the fall conference season, it is fair to say that the level of attendance and output from this event was higher than would otherwise be expected. When discussing this international difference with the French participants and sponsors, many responded, “Well, we’re still new to open data and hackathons.”
And for those that are curious, French hackathons have a near-perfect symmetry to American hackathons. The groups of coders staring at dark screens, the cans of Red Bull, the strong technology beside not-as-strong presentations, etc. However, certain classic aspects of French culture made a strong showing, such as the beautiful displays of fine cheese over lunch, the routine exodus for smoke breaks, and the tall glasses of Champagne that were distributed before the judges deliberated on the winning apps.
The mass market French approach to open data is also very similar, yet different, to the American experience. For example, the reason the French government signed on to the G8 Charter on Open Data was because of a genuine interest to leverage new technology to improve the quality of government services and the accountability of elected officials, just as is being demonstrated by governments in the U.S. But unlike the U.S.A., the French people tend to have a much stronger faith in their public institutions. For many of the ODI Node Launch Event attendees, an informal survey demonstrated that people would much rather have open data improve the efficiency of government than create new businesses. Not that either benefit is mutually exclusive, but the American “open data leads to job creation” mantra doesn’t seem to translate in France. A second major difference between French open data and American open data is that the French agencies are currently charging for a good deal of national data sets that people use. There are some examples of this pay-for-service in the U.S., but the scale is very different in France.
The future holds tremendous potential for French open data. Under the leadership of Romain Lacombe, the Prime Minister’s Head of Innovation and Chair of the National Open Data Taskforce, France is progressing through its open data Action Plan. Major elements of the plan include more publishing of data “openly by default,” building an open platform to encourage innovation and transparency, and supporting open innovation throughout the world. Those familiar with the U.S. Open Data Initiative will recognize the similarities. While differences exist between the open government movements in the United States and France, there is also tremendous potential for continued collaboration in the future.