Etalab & The future of Open Data in France


In this week’s newsletter, we discussed the government’s apparent decision to reorganize and potentially put the breaks on Etalab, France’s Open Data project.  After about week of confusion about what really was going on with Etalab, it seems that project is not ending, but transforming into something else that is not yet completely defined.  According to their recent press release, the government has indicated that everything will be made clearer in the coming weeks.
Some background on Etalab…
For a bit of background on Etalab, the initiative originally kicked off under prime minister Fillon’s tenure.  It really was an effort to build upon the success of what had already been started at the local level (both regional and state) and extent that success national government level. The project was initially managed by Séverin Naudet who resigned during the recent shakeup.  The Etalab team initially launched a portal whereby individuals as well as startups could access more than 350k datasets.  As mentioned in our newsletter several startups have built themselves around this information, including FourmiSante, Home’n’go, CitizensUp and several others.  Many of these came out of Etalab’s open data contest Dataconnexions (which we reported on last May), where 6 finalists are selected by a jury of open data professionals to present to their projects to the broader Open Data community.  Dataconnexions have been a great way to encourage innovation around public data.  The next one is coming up soon, with a registration deadline of Friday, 16 November.
What’s really going on with Etalab?
We spoke to co-founder of Home’n’go (one of this year’s Dataconnexions finalists) Margaux Pelen to get her thoughts on the Etalab reorganization.  Pelen feels that the announcement is a bit more a repositioning rather than a move to end the projet entirely.  She sees this repositioning and move of Etalab into the”Secrétariat général pour la modernisation de l’action publique” as a potentially helpful step for Open Data as a whole as the regions, towns and cities have been working on Open Data for quite sometime and will continue to do so. In addition, she feels that having all the data with a dedicated task-force in the Secrétariat which one can go to to fetch the data as well as having one Open Data license could be advantages of the change.  The rumor circulating around monetizing the data is, in her opinion, a very bad move.  She feels strongly that there is likely little to no value to this as “data in itself is nothing : it’s the contextualization that makes it valuable.”  This also would ultimately have the affect of discouraging innovation around Open Data by putting up more barriers.
Apparently though, this shakeup has been planned for quite a while and the reorganization won’t be as substantial as some are expecting.  In fact, in an article that appeared recently in Owni, it seems that rival political factions and parties may have been attempting to benefit politically by putting the (false) idea out there that Etalab would be shut down or otherwise radically changed.  In addition, in the government’s recent communication about the shakeup, they indicated that they intend to maintain the current approach of not monetizing public data, so the concern around this also seems to be unfounded.
Where will things go from here?
There is a clear question though around whether the lack of clarity around this and, as Pelen noted above, increasing and further confusion around the initiative might risk setting France back quite a bit in this area.  Other countries, such as the UK who have recently launched an Open Data Institute backed by 10 million gbp, are investing in and moving forward with their own Open Data initiatives.  The EU, which via its initiative is encouraging member states to ramp-up quickly in the area of Open Data, currently recognizes France as having a progressed a lot further than most of Europe on this.  However, the UK appears to be much farther along and it’s probably a safe bet that other countries will begin to catch-up fairly quickly.  The government needs to make sure that the restructuring is quick and painless, clearly reaffirm that Open Data is a strategic priority (particularly with ‘Open Data startups’), and ensure that Etalab receives the support and funding it needs to succeed.