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France takes the lead in the global open data race

The appointment of a chief data officer (CDO) has already seen the nation create five different types of economic and social value

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Europe: CW Europe: June-August 2016

France’s first chief data officer (CDO), Henri Verdier, recently submitted his first annual report to the French prime minister detailing the state of open data in the country, as well as the considerable progress made since the position was created in September 2014.

The mere act of appointing a CDO was one of the principal reasons France catapulted to the number four spot in the Open Data Barometer published by Tim Berners Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation.

Moreover, the country is now a prominent member of another worldwide organisation, the Open Government Partnership, a “multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance”, according to its website. 

However, even before Verdier became CDO, France was already working hard to become a more digitally powerful government, with the portal data.gouv.fr in 2011, with over 21,000 datasets now available on the site.

While this is only a small fraction of the 10 million government datasets Gartner estimates to be currently available worldwide, Verdier claims that through data.gouv.fr, the French government had already created economic and social value in five different ways:

  • Reducing transaction costs: Because data is available for re-use, citizens and enterprises don’t have to spend the time and money producing or gathering the data themselves.
  • Stimulating innovation: The French government has helped startups by providing some of the data entrepreneurs need to create new products and services. One example is the company Snips, which applies cutting-edge data science techniques to open data to provide a tourism app to customers.
  • Ensuring equal access: France has created a more competitive economy by providing the same amount and quality of information to all organisations, big and small.
  • Creating feedback loops: Consumers of open data feed up-to-the-minute data back into the system. For example, traffic applications make recommendations on optimal routes to drivers by accessing the latest data. These same applications update the datasets based on what they observe about current traffic patterns.
  • Creating an ecosystem of collaboration: Consumers of open data also contribute to data quality by making corrections and improvements to the datasets they use. 

One of the responsibilities of the French CDO is to conduct experiments to find new ways of creating value through open data. Many of the experiments carried out so far have involved using data science techniques to make predictions.

Three ways to success

In his recent report, Verdier listed three tangible results of the actions he and his team took during the first year on the job. The first was to reduce energy spending in the government by making predictions about energy needs and price changes.

The second was to predict when and where cars would be stolen so police officers could be deployed to neighbourhoods accordingly.

The third was to make predictions about which companies would be hiring and to pass that information to the French unemployment office.

While France is notoriously centralised both in government and in business, its progress in open data isn’t just coming from the top. On a local level, many French cities are enthusiastically reaching out to citizens and local enterprises by making the right data available. 

Deputy mayor in charge of the open data initiative for Grenoble, Laurence Comparat, said: “In Grenoble we take a bottom-up approach. First, we try to find out what data will be of interest by simply paying attention to what the local organisations are asking for. A lot of people are asking about financial data on government projects. We also get requests for maps, and for data on buses and tramways”.

“Once we know what the local players want, we then go out to the data sources, such as local corporations or research firms. We let the data producers and gathers know that there is demand for their data, and we encourage them to make the information available,” she added.

Read more about enterprise IT in France

Air France-KLM is updating its airline wide area network (WAN) to improve communications across the regions in which it operates.

The French postal system is taking existing services and adding a digital dimension to support a new business model.

Ericsson joins with startup Red Technologies, Qualcomm and the French government to run a radio spectrum sharing pilot for future 5G mobile networks.

But, an area that still needs focus is cataloguing the data already in the government’s hands. And, Verdier said, because nobody knows exactly how much data is in the government’s possession, not only are we losing big opportunities to exploit what we have, we’re also duplicating work.

By way of example, Verdier said because a climate of sharing didn’t exist in the past, three different government departments did the same work of geolocalising house addresses.

Another example he gave is how ignorance of available data held up progress when an unnamed French city wanted to find out more about the hobbies of its citizens. A full year into its project, city officials discovered that local libraries were already in possession of the information it needed.

The city now uses data on which books are borrowed – and when – to discover the interests of its citizens, and even the times of year in which a given interest peaks. 

Verdier said he plans to focus on ways of reducing the occurrence of these kinds of errors.

A big thumbs up

The rest of the world is also hard at work in the same direction. Gartner analysts estimate that open data will quickly become a standard practice of governments. According to its recent report: “By 2018, more than 30% of digital government projects will treat any data as open data.” 

France seems to be on the right track for leadership, but how is Verdier’s work perceived in his own country, by local governments in France?

Comparat gives Verdier a thumbs up: “Whereas the data policies of the French government used to be very top down, now they are much more open, and data is more accessible”.

“The government now has a more coherent approach to open data. It used to be closed, now it’s more transparent. Things are working much better now. There is more collaboration,” she added. 

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