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Neelie Kroes

Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda

Digital Agenda and Open Data

From Crisis of Trust to Open Governing

Bratislava, 5 March 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Prime Minister,

It is a great honour for me to be here today, at the occasion of the presentation of the Action Plan of the Slovak Republic in favour of Open Democracy. I would like to congratulate all those involved in this project, starting with the Prime Minister and the Plenipotentiary for the Development of the Civil Society. But really all the stakeholders involved should be congratulated and all the participants today. Well done!

The Action Plan is a promising start but it is by no means the end of the road and I look forward to an ambitious implementation of the principles of transparency and accountability that underlie this programme. What is needed, in Slovakia like in the rest of Europe, is to embrace a culture change in the way we approach the public sector. The challenge is real.

Today's economic crisis is a testing time for our democracies. Just look at the amount of protests in our streets across Europe. We need to bring back the trust in markets, in governments. Especially for young people who are massively left aside at the moment. One way to create trust is by increasing transparency in government. Citizens will be more confident if they can verify that the people they have elected inform them about what they do and how they do it.

Europe is facing a digital transformation. There are so many ways that this is helping our economy and society. In 2011 alone, around 170 million smartphones, 20 million tablets and 60 million computers were bought in Europe. Internet users in Europe are soon reaching 400 million. There are more than 700 million people on Facebook and close to 8 million people are following Lady Gaga on Twitter worldwide. But the digital revolution is not just about having cool new gadgets and new ways to interact. These tools are changing the way we can find information and express ourselves. They can rejuvenate politics and support democracy itself.

We've seen an extreme and welcome example in the Arab Spring – where online social media helped protestors find an exit from tyranny.

But even here in the EU, digital tools can help connect the government with the governed. Whether it's using Twitter to see how your MP or MEP is representing you. Or using e-Government to access public services more easily and cheaply – going online to register a business, enrol for university or access healthcare. Digital tools are powerful instrument to find about what is happening and to debate about politics. But this requires that public administrations engage in transparency and open their doors. This is a democratic project for Europe and for Slovakia too.

Let me underline one initiative that I am supporting to make digital technology work for governance and transparency: by opening up public data. In the digital age, data takes on a whole new value, and with new technology we can do great things with it. Opening it up is not just good for transparency, it also stimulates great web content, and provides the fuel for a future economy.

That's why I say that data is the new oil for the digital age. How many other ways could stimulate a market worth 70 billion euros a year, without spending big budgets? Not many, I'd say.

So we are planning to shake up how public authorities share data. We have recently proposed amendments to the Public Sector Information Directive: these would make it cheaper, simpler and more automatic for you to use and re-use public data.

Under our proposals, instead of needing complicated authorisations, people would be automatically allowed to re-use public data.

Instead of high charges, they would only have to pay marginal costs, if at all.

And we propose to extend the existing rules to valuable cultural material from libraries, archives and museums: while recognising their special commercial vulnerability.

The proposal is now with the European Parliament and Council. When agreed, all this is going to provide a big push towards a Single Market in open data: because the same rules will apply whether you're in Brussels or Bratislava.

I know this is not easy: it takes a culture change. I know because we are trying to do it ourselves in the EU's own administration. But we are making progress. In the coming months, we will make the Commission's own data available free, open and easily usable, from a single portal. Then we will push other EU institutions and agencies to join us.

And I also know that some Member States, including here in Slovakia, have also found this change difficult, even with our existing rules. And indeed these infringement proceedings are still ongoing against Slovakia, in the expectation that Slovakia will soon comply with the directive.

However, I have good reasons to believe that there is a great potential in this country to develop a vibrant eco-system around open data. Last year, in fact, I handed out the first Prize at the Open Data Challenge for an application developed by a Slovak Company, the Fair Play Alliance, to connect business registry data with public procurement data. This is just one example. There are in Slovakia a lot of talents that could embrace the potential of this digital revolution.

But remember, the legislation is important, but it's not just about that: it's also about a different way of thinking.

It requires everyone, every level of every public administration, to see can see how they and their citizens would benefit if they began to open up.

To see the many regions and countries that are already advanced.

To see what entrepreneurs in those places are doing, the marvellous magic they are powering with open data.

To see how these tools boost the economy, and improve transparency. And, indeed, how data helps public administrations themselves: by helping them make decisions more efficiently, based on sound evidence.

We all have a role in promoting and showcasing this. Not just governments but also entrepreneurs themselves. All the time I find good examples of the good things you can do with open data: I'm sure you do too. From Slovakia and across Europe. Let's make sure people know about them.

Then we can bring about change. Then we can make it clear to every EU public administration, in every country and at every level, that opening up will pay off. It will restore trust in our political system and rejuvenate democracy.

And then we can give a vote of confidence in the people of Europe, by trusting them to do good things with data they've already paid for.

Finally, let me conclude by saying that freedom of speech, in particular on the Internet, is something that needs to be protected too. This is something I am particularly vigilant about. Transparency does not mean that privacy disappears nor that everything is made available without respecting the rights of individuals, including their property rights and their private data. Collectively, we need to become more sophisticated about these issues, so that rights and responsibilities are fully preserve and enhanced, and so that we can be safe and experience open democracy.

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