info2000 logo GREEN PAPER ON PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMATION
IN THE INFORMATION SOCIETY

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CERCO (Comité Européen des Responsables de la Cartographie Officielle)


CERCO (Comité Européen des Responsables de la Cartographie Officielle) is pleased to have this opportunity to comment on the concept of Public Sector Information being a key resource for Europe.

CERCO has encouraged all 35 individual national Members to play a part in ensuring that their countries make official responses to the Green Paper. It is to be hoped that you will thereby receive comprehensive and useful comments from all parts of Europe, and specific answers to your specific questions.

Having given much consideration in the past to the whole question of supply and demand of Geographic Information (GI), we feel qualified to make a response in our own right, giving a representative view on behalf of all the official mapping agencies of Europe.

We recognised from the outset that the Green Paper was attempting to address the widest interpretation of public information. Whilst topographic mapping provides a unique and vital base to which much other official information can be usefully referenced, we felt that it would be unhelpful if we were to focus merely on our own particular interests. We hope therefore that the following will make a useful contribution to the general debate that the Green Paper is designed to stimulate.

In summary, and as outlined in the attached papers:

  • The subject to be addressed is less the public sector and more public information,
  • the type of information is highly relevant when deciding the terms under which it is made available,
  • the financing of the supply and maintenance of public information needs to be discussed fully with those currently providing it,
  • the liability consequences need to be very carefully considered.

CERCO and the individual European mapping agencies are ready to contribute to studies which result from this Green Paper and, in the meantime, should you wish to follow-up any of the points raised, I would be happy to meet with you or your staff at your convenience.

Yours sincerely 
Jean Poulit 
President du CERCO


General comment on the Green Paper

Whilst we welcome any attempt to clarify European thinking on the important business of making official information more readily available to citizens, enterprises, and governments we felt that:

  • Undue emphasis had been given to the means rather than the objectives for a change of policy. The time to decide on the methods and tools with which to improve the accessibility of information is after the need for it has been established.
  • Too much prominence is given to the question of the originator of the information. To CERCO it is more important that the information is of the type to serve citizens’ needs, to enable businesses to prosper, and to make a positive contribution to the proper government and development of Europe, than that it happens to originate in the “public sector”.
  • No single policy can satisfactorily include all types of “public information”. CERCO believes that it would be more appropriate for the Green Paper to restrict its initial remit to administrative information that is fundamental for the functioning of democracy, or which provides basic information on the rights and obligations of citizens. (It is unlikely that anyone would argue against the freest availability of such information.)
  • Decisions about non-administrative information can only be reached following detailed discussion between the national sources of such information on a sector by sector basis.

These views are explained in more detail below:

The “Public Sector”

Many fundamental requirements of society are indeed met by the “public sector”, but not necessarily at the general taxpayer’s expense. Just as there are many different national attitudes towards the supply of public information, so there are a number of different “models” for its pricing. The latter however tend to be dictated by the characteristics of the information itself:

  • Information that supports the administration of daily life such as legislation, social welfare etc is usually provided at public expense (although considerations of personal privacy may require its supply to be restricted to those “needing to know”.)
  • The principle of “the user should pay” is increasingly accepted as a logical and fair way by which to fund the provision and administration of certain other public services, particularly those having potential for the adding of commercial value.
  • The much-vaunted American model in which information that has been funded from Federal sources is subsequently freely available to all citizens for all purposes at marginal cost appears attractive, particularly to those intending to exploit it for commercial gain. However, on the debit side it should be pointed out that this approach has not encouraged the same level of national quality nor completeness that exists in countries that impose more commercial disciplines for the management of their government agencies. (There is a greater willingness to publicly fund the nation-wide supply of useful information and services from an Agency if it is earning a contribution from its more commercial activities.) Given satisfactory access and pricing policies therefore, the private sector in Europe could have a positive advantage compared to their North American peers.
  • There are business relationships in existence which make the concept of “public” or “private sector” over-simplified. In an ideal world the separate strengths of these two sectors should be jointly exploited to the common good. In our own field of mapping this is happening already, and it is driven not by official dictum but by a willing and jointly enthusiastic response to market forces and real requirements. What is certain is that without such collaboration the right product at the right time and price is much less likely to be produced.

National vs. International control

CERCO recognises that the source of the funding and other resources employed in the creation of information can have a significant bearing on its cost and availability to its potential beneficiaries. At the same time we support that basic tenet of the European Union that, wherever possible, the principle of subsidiarity should apply.

CERCO believes that for information that is already being supplied at national expense, this method of funding should continue, even when it is destined to become part of a European infrastructure. However, the question of financing the harmonisation of the individual national inputs will need to be addressed.

Were Europe to take on responsibility for centralised supply and maintenance, there are major implications not only on the method of funding and staffing to be adopted, but also on questions of federal rather than national liability for the quality and use of the information.

For non-administrative information that is vital to the functioning of the information society, a major but separate debate is needed on the subject of its accessibility. This will need to take account on a sector-by-sector basis of the particular qualities of such infrastructural information. (For example, what is appropriate to meteorology might be quite wrong for geology, or for certain other forms of environmental information.) Close liaison between the various public agencies involved in the creation of such data throughout the wider Europe will be essential if workable and co-ordinated approaches based on mutual understanding and good practices are to emerge.

Information of very specialised interest and of potentially high economic value will, almost by definition, exclude itself from the “freely available” category of access.

Summary

It is hoped that the above very general analysis is of some value to the Commission when considering how to develop a European policy in the field of “public information”. As a much more specific and detailed assessment of how the Green Paper might impinge on the National Mapping Agencies, we attach as Annex A extracts from a Report prepared by a sub-unit of CERCO’s Working Group on Copyright and Economic Affairs. This Report was designed to help individual Members to understand the issues raised by the Green Paper and to contribute to their own national responses. It is attached because it sets out to provide answers to the formal questions posed in the Green Paper. We hope that it will provide an interesting insight into our particular world. However, it must not be taken as the actual official opinion of any individual NMA.


Comments from CERCO WG 1

1. Introduction of CERCO and the Mapping Authorities

CERCO (Comité Européen des Responsables de la Cartographie Officielle) is an organisation for the National Mapping Agencies (NMA’s) of Europe.

The NMA's of Europe have tasks that cover all types of public information, see our response on Question 1. The scope of the tasks will vary from country to country. All NMA's have a responsibility for collecting and maintaining basic geographic information and providing basic mapping. Some will also have a responsibility for cadastral tasks and other regulatory issues.

The NMA's operate under very different economic regimes, from over 90 % recovery of costs (Ordnance Survey GB) to full financing from public funds. In most cases final products are sold, though the price is often highly subsidised. Major customers tend to be national or regional governmental agencies; a high proportion of revenue earned is therefore from public funds.

The pricing of many products resembles the American model, in that only the costs of actual supply is paid by the user. For many NMA's the original cost of establishing much of the basic data will not be charged to the users.

Establishing basic geographic information for a whole country, and keeping it updated, is a very costly process. Only governments can afford to finance this service. Private industries are unlikely to invest in those areas of a country which promise profit. Yet society needs reference data for even the least populated areas of countries to be produced to the same standards; the requirements of defence, planning, national disasters and many others are frequently unrelated to population.

Basic geographic information plays an important role not only as a basis for value-added products, but as the carrier and infrastructure for other types of information, particularly other types of public information.

CERCO has created MEGRIN to help users access the European digital information which they require. It maintains metadata (and is developing a multi-lingual version for the Internet), and has created a seamless database of administrative boundaries for Europe (SABE). Its next important project is the creation of a seamless map database at 1:250.000 scale for Europe, and EC is supporting this.

CERCO considers the creation of spatial information to be a key issue in developing the information society.

Questions and answers

Question 1 :

Which definition of public sector is the most appropriate in your view?

What categories of public sector information should be used in the debate?

All three definitions of public sector in the paper have merit, depending on what aspects of access one is discussing. To choose one definition and leave out aspects of the others may not be fruitful.

One must also keep in mind that all these types of information may exist within one single state body.

1.The functional approach, in which the public sector includes those bodies with state authority or public service tasks.

This is the core area of the public sector. This definition will include bodies producing what later is called administrative information. However, a number of these bodies also have tasks which are not connected with state authority or public service task, but still produces important information that mostly is publicly funded. The NMA's are a good example here.

2.The legalist/institutional approach: only bodies that are explicitly listed in the relevant law(s) have a public sector character.

This gives good control, but little flexibility.

3.The financial approach, whereby the public sector includes all bodies mainly financed by public funds (i.e. not operating under the normal rules of the market).

This can be a contradiction. It is possible for a body to be mainly publicly financed but still operate under the normal rules of the market. It all depends on what type of public funding it is receiving. The Green Papers states further:

In all cases, state owned companies operating under market conditions and subject to private and commercial laws are not meant to be covered by either of these definitions.

The interesting issue here is whether operating under market conditions and being subject to private and commercial laws are the important thing, or whether it is the fact that they are a company, or both. A lot of governmental agencies operate under market conditions, are subject to private and commercial laws, and are at the same time receiving public funding. This is the case for many NMA's. On the other hand, plenty of state owned companies do not operate wholly under market conditions for at least some of their activities.

CERCO therefore finds it more interesting to look at the categories of public information rather than the type of institution. The interesting question is why the information is produced, for what purpose, and how one fulfils that purpose in the best possible way by stimulating access and exploitation.

The following categories should be discussed separately:

1 .Administrative information that is fundamental for the functioning of the democracy, providing basic information on citizens’ rights and obligations. This also includes decisions by government that concern a limited number of people, like administrative decisions on permissions, break of public regulations, etc.

The main focus of accessibility has to be on this group.

The main characteristic of this information is that it will be produced regardless of its economic value and that it is vital for the citizens in the sense that accessing it should be a human right. It is a paradox that in almost all countries this information is priced, while other types of public information are made available free of charge. For example, legislation is usually something which carries a price-tag.

Exploitation by private sector must not hinder the accessibility, by making for example consolidated legislation available only through commercial channels.

This is where an application of the American model will have the greatest benefits. It is hard to see any reason why this information should be profited on by the government or by private enterprises, if this hinders availability. Of course, it is reasonable that the government recovers the costs involved in making this information accessible. Use of technology can be of great assistance in reducing these costs. There should be no restrictions here on private industry making use of the information for value added products, as this would clearly benefit the public.

This type of information includes cadastral information. It is very important that this is accessible to those to whom it is of special interest, as well as generally for the society. A certain amount of user payment is more acceptable here. It is still important to remember that exploitation should benefit the public as a whole, not create income for certain groups of citizens.

2 .Non-administrative information of a basic character, which is vital to the functioning of the information society (the information infrastructure).

This includes basic spatial information, like basic map databases, geodetic systems and satellite imagery. This information is important as an infrastructure to use in providing the information of type 1, and also as a basis for commercial activities.

Providing this information should be a public task. It is enough to mention the importance of road databases in public and private transport. User payment should be decided based on how to best encourage its use.

A weakness in the American system is that the public sector will only produce the information they need, and there is no consolidated government effort to ensure quality and standardisation of geographical information. Also all citizens have access on the same conditions, regardless of whether they want to make commercial use or whether they want to use it for the public good. Those who want to make commercial use of it have the added benefit of not having to share any of the profits.

Here the European countries have a competitive advantage, see above. However, to ensure that this advantage continues, governments must either invest larger funds than they are currently doing, or the individual citizens and companies profiting from using this information must share some of that profit with the public. By this means the maintenance of the infrastructure is assured.

Most Mapping Authorities are publicly funded for the expense of establishing and maintaining such information. The pricing policy is therefore not unlike the American model (search, duplication and review costs, see Annexe 3).

Since the information is meant for use as an infrastructure, not merely for commercial product, it is more important to focus on its accessibility for SME's, non-commercial organisations and other public bodies. The price charged should not make it impossible for those to make use of the products for their activities.

3.Non-administrative information that is not basic infrastructure, but with a potentially great economic value and great interest at least to certain groups of citizens.

Other types of spatial information are included here. To a certain extent this is being created as a part of activities connected to the more vital areas in 1 and 2. It is a question for individual governments how far their tasks should go in this context, but this category of information is outside the scope of this Green Paper. Emphasis should be put on discussing 1 and 2, as these are the issues of real interest to the general public.

Question 2 :

Do different conditions for access to public sector information in the Member States create barriers at European level?

If so, what elements are concerned: requirement of an interest, exemptions, time, format, quantity?

What solutions can be envisaged?

The main barrier consists of the fact that citizens need time and money just to find out what the conditions are. For spatial information the main obstacle is the lack of meta-data, and often a lack of a clear policy on accessibility, including a clear pricing policy. To find a common policy, whatever it may be, will be a solution in itself.

Question 3 :

Could the establishment of European meta-data (information on the information that is available) help the European citizens and businesses in finding their way in the public sector information throughout Europe?

If so, how could this best be realised?

What categories of content should directories of public sector information resources contain?

Meta-data is very important, especially for spatial information, see under Question 2. Meta-data should be available on Internet free of charge. Financing this should be a governmental task.

One practical solution could be to have a standard template for meta-data, dividing it into different topics. For each topic, each country fills in who in their country produce this type of data and how to contact them. This template can be used on INTERNET or in brochures.

MEGRIN has a project called Le Clef that will distribute multi-lingual meta-data on base spatial data.

Question 4:

What impact do different pricing policies have on the access to and exploitation of public sector information?

Does this create differences in opportunities for citizens and businesses at European level?

As pointed out above, pricing must be discussed in the context of the category of information involved. It would be a great help also to governmental bodies themselves, if pricing policies were not too varied. However, negotiating the price of a product is a way of influencing the product itself. It may be the only means for a user or usergroup to influence the quality of a product.

The Green Paper includes an example on mapping software. However, the example does not say anything about the actual quality of the American mapping compared to the European digital mapping. The comparatively high price for some of the German and UK data is probably explained by the fact that theirs are high quality, detailed products, created mainly for use by professionals. These databases are also constantly maintained and updated, which is probably not the case with the American maps.

One of the problems here might be that Europe lacks the cheap, simplified products that would fulfil a lot of public needs. This is probably a challenge for the Mapping Authorities, but their governments need to be convinced that it is their task to supply such products. This is however not a good basis for conclusions about public pricing policies. The issues for mapping products are also completely different from the issues presented by more basic administrative information.

It is important to point out that the UK complaint is from an environmental pressure group. The companies that make profits from NMA-produced basic mapping can afford to pay the price asked, including the royalties. If a decision is made to provide non-commercial organisations with lower-cost data, commercial organisations must continue to pay the full price. Otherwise governments will either have to give up providing basic high quality map information, or increase their funding of the NMA.

A better model for pricing information of category no. 2, would actually be the opposite to the American. The government should select those products which have the most value to the public, and fund them in such a way as they are cheap and easy to access. Possible approaches are to exploit new technology, or to simplify the product and its updating. Pricing models based on a yearly fee might be considered to make the "threshold" lower.

The definition of use must be quite wide but when used to make a profit, the royalties charged would have to be increased to compensate for the fact that acquiring it in the first place was cheap. This is a more democratic solution than the American one, and will to a higher extent benefit SME's, non-commercial organisations and public bodies.

For category 1, there should not be any royalties, and in most countries such information is also excluded from being copyrighted.

A common pricing policy would greatly improve the situation for the businesses operating on a European level, as well as providing common opportunities for nationally based businesses. It is emphasised that a common pricing policy must distinguish between commercial and non-commercial users.

Public sector agencies are subsided by the State. The amount of the State subsidies varies according to the country. Ideally there should be a similar level of subsidy for all information of the same quality. Might it be possible to exercise European subsidies?

Question 5 :

To what extent and under what conditions, could activities of public sector bodies on the information market create unfair competition at European level?

The Mapping Authorities have to a large extent a factual monopoly for full national coverage of Geographic Information. The monopoly stems from the fact that only governments can afford to provide full coverage of a whole country, as mentioned above; establishing a basic map database for a whole country is not a profitable business! For small, scarcely populated countries, this is even more the case. They will therefor have to make certain that access to their data creates a level playing fields for all.

It is important to keep in mind that monopolies are not illegal; only abusing a monopoly is. Abuse must then be based on the position of full coverage. Public sector activities could create unfair competition, if the public bodies sell their information at various prices to clients being in the same situation. Dominant position is not an abuse providing products are sold at a “fair” prices to all.

Most of the NMA's are required not to cross-subsidise between government funded and commercial activities. This should apply for all governmental agencies which are the sole provider of certain information.

If all public bodies abide by the competition rules, it is difficult to see what problems they may cause. It is important that their activities are transparent enough to control whether this is the case. One thing that may create problems, would be a sudden change in the pricing policies. Such changes have to introduced with care.

Question 6 :

Do different copyright regimes within Europe represent barriers for the exploitation of public sector information?

Governments have freedom to choose whether they enforce copyright on their information, regardless of what copyright regime they operate under. Different copyright regimes do not therefore represent a barrier. However, harmonising of copyright regimes would have a number of benefits.

What does represent a barrier is the fact that different countries have no common policy about how to enforce the copyright. Such a policy must be linked to how the government wishes their information to be used, and by whom.

If a common view can be reached on how to make the information accessible, the use of copyright will merely be a decision on whether copyright is the tool needed to enforce this policy, or whether it can be enforced by other means.

Question 7 :

Do privacy considerations deserve specific attention in relation to the exploitation of public sector information?

In what way could commercial interests justify access to publicly held personal data?

Privacy issues definitely deserve specific attention. The tools of the digital era create powerful opportunities for exploiting personal information. Spatial information creates particular opportunities to identify individuals even where the database itself does not contain names or personal numbers. Mapping refines and defines other types of information and thus such issues become very relevant.

Cadastral information is an important example of where personal data should be accessed because of overiding public interests. Spatial information can be used to map out areas for activities for all sorts of marketing, from the canvassing of political parties to the locating of new shops. The mapping of ownership is an example of where the details may make it possible to identify persons by simply connecting the database with an address database.

Commercial interests can only in a limited way justify access to publicly held personal data.

Question 8 :

To what extent may the different Member States' liability regimes represent an obstacle to access or exploitation of public sector information?

It may create an obstacle by making public bodies less willing to give access when they are liable for damages. Also, there must be a connection between pricing and liability. If you price the information, especially on a commercial basis, it is more reasonable that you should be liable than if you give it away for free.

Liability would probably be based on negligence, not strict liability, and that should probably continue to be the case.

Question 9 :

To what extent are the policies pursued by the EU institutions in the field of access and dissemination of information adequate?

In what way can they further be improved?

An important aspect is in what form the information is provided, more than at what cost. If the public is to be given information to enable it to participate in the institutions and politics, the information must be provided in a form that is easy to deal with for the general public.

A good example is to provide all EU legislation in a consolidated version, since unconsolidated material is extremely hard to handle. If the goal is to make sure that citizens can participate, it is vital that laws and regulations can be read without assistance of a legal researcher.

This would be an important first step. Another would be to establish meta-data concerning where to reach information that is not so vital, and where user payment is the policy. The EU institutions should start with their own information, and lay the framework for the Member States to do the same.

Question 10 :

Which actions should be given priority attention at European level?

Priority should be given to

2) Starting a discussion on the overall policies and strategies of the EU and its Member States, concerning what are the goals and purposes of disseminating public information.

3) Making access to administrative information easy and cheap, by providing laws, regulations, court decisions and other administrative decisions, in electronic form, preferably on INTERNET.

4) Providing a framework (template) for how to publish meta-data on other types of public information.

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