Open Data in Germany More Transparency and Democracy

Openly available administrative data
Openly available administrative data | Photo (detail): © leowolfert

Authorities publish their data without any restrictions, your average man or woman in the street, as well as programmers, can make use of them – that is the core idea behind Open Data. For quite a few years now in Germany the topic has been gaining momentum.

Have you ever wondered what  the federal budget for education amounts to? How much ammonia does a pig farm emit in a year? And what districts you could move to, in order to  get to your place of work in a maximum of half an hour? The information needed to answer these questions, is often provided by the data available from public administration authorities, for example, geographical data or statistics. Some offices and agencies, however, make their data available only after lengthy enquiries and after charging a fee. That is now to change with Open Data – freely available official data.
The idea for Open Data comes from the USA, where there is a long tradition of people enjoying the right to access documents. Activists have succeeded in enabling data from public administration authorities to be accessed free of charge, their main argument being that the data collections are financed by taxes. Since 2013 in the USA all government information has had to be made openly available at federal level.

A great deal of persuasion is still needed

Germany is not quite ready for this yet. But there too, since 2010 activists from NGOs such as the Open Knowledge Foundation Germany have been working towards more government transparency and free data. Their argument – political action could be made more democratic by readily available data. At both federal and state levels there are small departments in administrative  authorities working on the idea, some of them are even in direct contact with Open Data enthusiasts. Rapid progress, however, has not yet been achieved. A great deal of persuasion is still necessary, in particular with authorities that have been earning money by selling their data, for example, with aerial photographs. In autumn 2012 Berlin, as the first federal state, went online and made its range of data freely available.
On an international level the signing of the Open Data Charter in 2013 by the G8 countries was a major pioneering step. Among other things, it determined that administrative data were to be made openly available in as comprehensive a way as possible. This also brought economic advantages for the governments concerned. For Germany, a study by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation calculated tax revenues of at least 12 billion euros per year from Open Data companies.

Open Data projects in Germany

Meanwhile, the federal government has initiated quite a lot of input into the topic of Open Data. In 2013, the national data portal launched – at first on a trial basis, now there are ten federal states, and some of the municipalities within them, publishing their data regularly (as of July 2016).  In the autumn of 2014 the National Action Plan to Implement the Open Data Charter of the G8 caused quite a stir in the authorities. It required every federal authority or agency to make at least two sets of data available.

Even on the local government level efforts are being made. In early 2013 Claus Arndt, head of the electronic administration of the city of Moers on the Lower Rhine, developed a project entitled Open Data Moers in collaboration with students. In the following years Moers organized so-called Hackdays, which brought different people together to work on data-based solutions. For the city it was important “to establish personal interaction with the local and regional community,” says Arndt. The Hackdays in Moers have now given way to a regular meeting called Code for Niederrhein, which is part of the Germany-wide Code for Germany. In many cities, teams get together at regular meetings to work on practical applications from data, for example, websites that visualize public spending budgets or ones that help to make municipal decisions transparent.
There are also a few projects run by web developers and (data) journalists that show how great the potential of Open Data is. Mapnificent, a project run by developer Stefan Wehrmeyer, is, among other things, based on the timetabling data of the Berlin-Brandenburg public transport system. The application uses a map of Berlin to show which destinations are accessible by public transport within a certain period of time – this can really help when looking for a new apartment, for example. The interactive editors of the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper published a much-acclaimed atlas about newcomers to the city – the Zugezogenen-Atlas. It uses public data to show all the cities and towns from which the newcomers to the capital originally came from.

Germany wants to catch up on the Open Data trail

For many European countries the UK, whose authorities started to publish extensive data in 2010, has set the pace for Open Data. The fact that Germany is not progressing quite as fast as desired can also be put down to Germany's federal system. The federal government cannot require the individual federal states to release large amounts of data, nor has the federal government direct access to municipal data or the data of the individual federal states.
In 2016 a positive trend towards more data openness has started to emerge. The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure set up its mFUND – a fund that provides 100 million euros for business ideas that are based on mobility, spatial and weather data. In addition, the Federal Government decided to join the Open Government Partnership in April 2016. The aim of this international association is to make governments more open and transparent. There is, however, still no law that requires all public authorities to make open data available in standardized machine-readable formats and under free licensing terms. Nevertheless – Jörn von Lucke, chief of the Open Government Institute at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen sees the changes as a sign of a new beginning – even if the financial and human resources that have been made available so far have been somewhat limited. “The realms of politics and administration in Germany have to perceive open data as an integral element of an effective, data-driven economic policy and to act accordingly.” At the end of the day both the business world, as well as the people, should benefit from this improved access to data.

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Should all administrative data be made public? How Open Data is your country?