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Germany Releases Open Data Action Plan Amidst Grassroots Enthusiasm and Pirate Party Turmoil

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, September 22 2014

German Open Data portal

The German government on Wednesday unveiled its open data action plan to implement the open data charter established by the G8, now G7, countries. But while German open government advocates welcomed its release, for them it does not go far enough. Even as the open data movement is taking new hold in Germany on the local level with encouragement from the new Code for Germany effort, in the national Pirate Party, the supposed German net party, internal leadership disputes are overshadowing its digital agenda.

Open data movement gets a boost in Germany

The charter, released in June 2013, calls for government data to be open by default in consideration of privacy restrictions, places an emphasis on both open data quantity and quality, calls for the data to be available in as many formats as possible and urges governments to release data with the goal of encouraging more responsible governing and innovation.

In Wednesday's document, the German government says it aims to implement the commitments it outlines in 2015 to start off a process that will continue in the years beyond that.

One of the commitments is to introduce legislation that would legally codify the publication of administrative data with unified metadata descriptions, in machine readable formats and using open licenses as a basic principle.

In addition, the government says it will conduct a study to evaluate the possible revenue and expenditures involved with selling data, that it will call on all administrative departments to name open data coordinators and create guidelines for incorporating open data considerations during the IT procurement and development process.

The government says it will work to continue to make core datasets it has already identified accessible through the German open data portal by the end of 2015, many of which are only in PDF form. The German Open Data portal, which is in beta format, currently says it has around 12,000 data sets, documents and applications from the federal government, states and municipalities. Some of the federal datasets the government plans to make available on the portal over the next year include some budgetary calculations, police crime statistics and data on agricultural organizations. Data that is already available in machine-readable format on the portal includes main federal budget data for recent years, detailed national election result data since 2013 and German laws.

By the end of the first quarter of 2015, the government says it aims to have published at least two datasets from each supreme, higher and intermediate federal authority.

One challenge the plan identifies is the difficulty in ensuring the necessary quality and uniformity of metadata across different government entities on the national, state and local level. "The costs of preparing, describing and ongoing maintenance of data are still to high," the plan states.

In that context, one of the government's priorities will be working with states and municipalities to establish a standardized open data metadata structure to ensure that data is easily searchable. That will require a "semantic interoperability of data descriptions," the plan notes.

The government says it will also encourage states and cities to commit to the G7 open data charter, and says it intends to focus on publishing data sets that are valuable for the development of tools that are innovative and useful to the public. In the report, the government says it will work with users to identify valuable datasets specifically in the areas of traffic, transit and mobility, renewable energy, climate change and climate protection, demographic change, net infrastructure and public income and expenditures.

The report says that civil society, the business community, members of the media and scientists should have a way of communicating their data needs through the platform, and the government says it will give an explanation if it cannot publish certain datasets.

The government also says in the report that it hopes to engage the public through developer days and open data contests, build out the existing cooperation between government administration and civil society to establish a "public community partnership," while expanding outreach over the Govdata portal. The government adds that it aims to participate in discussions about establishing a European open data infrastructure and work to ensure that such an infrastructure can incorporate the Govdata platform through its interface and metadata structure.

The release of the open data plan came alongside the release of a broader, more extensive e-government plan. That plan calls for the creation of a framework to allow for more widespread digital document signing, allowing citizens to access government services securely using their personal id card number, broader implementation of DE-Mail, a German government sponsored communication service to exchange legal documents, a broadbased effort to replace paper files with digital records, to institute electronic billing and procurement, as well as the establishment of a geocoding service, a legislative drafting platform and responsive design for mobile access, among other efforts. To optimize government digital services, such as the ability for citizens to register or unregister their car, the government says it aims to conduct surveys exploring use cases for citizens and businesses in several different life and business situations.

Good but not good enough

The Open Knowledge Foundation in Germany in principle welcomed the action plan, but also found it lacking in many respects. In an e-mail to techPresident, OKFN board member Christian Heise noted that the government released the plan with a year delay and as one of the last of the G7 countries, and adopted very few of the recommendations that OKFN had made at the beginning of the year. In that respect, he wrote, the plan is "only a first, small beginning step" toward the government's stated goal of "becoming a leader in providing open data."

Heise praised the plan for stating its intent to continue idea exchanges with civil society groups, setting the goals of legally codifying open data, naming department open data coordinators and fulfilling the requirements of the globally recognized Open Definition standard.

But he also wrote that the plans to release two datasets per federal authority level and the forty datasets referred to in the report "are not enough for us qualitatively or quantitatively." He added that the OKFN would have liked to have seen more concrete details, and statements regarding Germany's intent to join the Open Government Partnership as well as the allocation of financial resources, adding that government bodies are "drastically under-equipped" in that regard.

Heise also wrote that OKFN would have welcomed more direct prior consultations regarding the action plan, "a lot more and more interesting datasets," plans for a central open data clearing office and more tie-ins with other open government efforts as well as a more concrete plan for supporting an open data ecosystem based on data reusability and determining data demand. He also noted that it would have been valuable for the plan to explicitly outline how open data also benefits the processes of the administration itself.

He praised the government's recognition in the plan that the path toward a more transparent state would require a longterm, step-by-step, process hand-in-hand with further changes in traditional administrative structures, attitudes and processes " to convince staff in public administration of the benefits of open data and to overcome fears when releasing data, for example with regard to liability."

In a positive development, he noted an upcoming announcement that the Govdata platform data license would meet the Open Definition standards, a development he attributed to successful dialogue between the government and civil society, which had criticized the portal's initial custom license use terms. In addition to pioneering open data efforts in major cities such as Hamburg and Berlin, he also highlighted "thrilling" open data initiatives in the smaller north-west German city of Moers, one of first in Germany to launch an open data portal, especially since the driving force for the initiatives there "to a large degree comes from within the administration."

OKFN has led the coordination of Code for Germany, which launched this year in partnership with Code for America. "I am still thrilled when I think about the fact that we have in the mean time fourteen active labs in Germany in which people like you and me meet regularly to make the world a little better with awesome open data projects," Heise wrote. "I just hope that in the future we find more partners to support these awesome projects in a more longterm way." Some of the first projects include an app mapping locations of the Holocaust victim memorial "stepping stones" on German pavements, a website providing data on tap water quality in Heilbronn, projects mapping defibrillator locations in Cologne, "playground deserts" in Leipzig and a local election campaign platform matrix in Münster.

Heise wrote that OKFN Germany is working with an American partner to create a concept and look for sponsors to undertake a broad evaluation of the G7 action plans and their implementation. "The open data charter topic will stay exciting since Germany will be the G7 chair in 2015 and therefore will be hosting the summit," he wrote. "Since the implementation of the G7 open data principles and their technical implications is also supposed to be politically realized by the G7 countries by 2015, that would be great peg to actually for once overfullfill the set goals. Only in that way could one seriously 'become a leader in providing open data.'" By then, he wrote, he hoped that OKFN will have had the opportunity to work out the relevant measures in a constant and constructive dialogue with the administration.

In Germany, the Open Knowledge Foundation was also among more than 100 transparency groups around the world following the lead of the Sunlight Foundation to sign a letter urging national legislatures to embrace legislative transparency and parliamentary open data in coordination with Global Legislative Openness Week. In a blog post, Heise noted that more legislative transparency would also have benefits for MPs and their work, suggesting that a more structured release of MPs' statements for example would lead to a better understanding of their voting behavior.

In a statement, the German Pirate Party called the government's open data plans, specifically the goal to publish two datasets per authority, only "moderately ambitious."

The statement was attributed to Anke Domscheit-Berg as the party's point person for open data and open government. On Sunday, however, she announced on her website that she was leaving the party because she felt that net policy issues were taking a backseat to internal disputes and she criticized what she said were some party members' anti-leftwing and anti-feminist attitudes and interest in adopting positions of the anti-European Alternative for Germany party. "Two and half years ago, I became a member of the Pirate Party because I believed that I would be more effective at fighting for my convictions within the party," she wrote. "I am now leaving the party because in the mean time I believe that the opposite is the case...What kind of 'net party' is this, that implements what was conceived as an online grassroots party base referendum at the party convention as a ballot by mail vote?" Hers was one of several high-profile departures from the party reported this week.

In the statement before her departure, she said it was encouraging to see the federal government embrace the open data portal, which she said currently mainly includes data from states and municipalities though it has been online since 2013.

She also wrote that the plan should place more of an emphasis on publishing data that has been up-to-now unpublished, beyond converting PDFs into machine-readable format, and she cites the 2009 White House Open Government directive to call for a focus on "high value" datasets. While she referred to the examples cited by the government as "very promising," she wrote that a "real open access strategy" would require that all results of publicly funded research projects to be open, as well as open data access to resources from the German digital library. She also noted that the government's announcement does not address the question of licensing. "Unfortunately, the ministry's memo is not clear about whether the contents are in fact really available at no cost and are really available for every non-commercial purpose; both are requirements for the utility of open data."

Regarding the e-government plan, Domscheit-Berg wrote that the transition to digital records is a welcome development "if it includes the publishing of well-documented, digital overview of the filing system," which is a component of German Freedom of Information law. "What is still missing is the required publication of all contracts with public authorities that go over a certain threshold, and doing so when the contract is finalized," she wrote. She noted that the city of Hamburg, which recently launched a transparency portal, has a law requiring the publication of all public services contracts above Euros 100,000. "On the federal German level, it is difficult to access such information even using freedom of information laws," she writes.

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