Public Service Information (PSI) that is made made freely available to entrepreneurs by the authorities, has turned out to be a very good idea for both the economy and society as a whole. Really dull raw data about public transport timetables has been turned into cool apps and viable businesses for entrepreneurs, many of them small start-ups. The success of freely available PSI has surprised even many of its original advocates.
This is something that is already happening all over the EU, and there already is a PSI Directive from 2003. Now Commission wants to speed up the process by harmonizing and improving the rules for PSI. This is a good thing, and for once, a concrete measure that will actually do at least something to help the ailing European economy. This we know from experiences in the member states.
But the magic only works if the PSI data is free, in both senses of the word. It has to be freely licensed, so that entrepreneurs are allowed to play around with it in unexpected ways to discover new business opportunities. This is a tremendously important aspect, but I won’t say anything more about it here. I want to focus on the second aspect:
The PSI data must be supplied for free or at the marginal cost for making a copy.
If not, the magic doesn’t happen, and we don’t get as many new cool apps or new prospering entrepreneurs.
If the directive that the Commission is proposing is to have any positive effect in the real world, it is important that it does not allow the authorities in the member states to overcharge, unless there are really exceptional special circumstances. Otherwise we risk ending up with a directive that
- effectively shuts out SMEs and new entrepreneurs from the PSI market, so that only big companies afford to make use of the data, and
- has no or little harmonizing effect in practice.
The cost of the data is a crucial factor for any small company, especially since the would-be entrepreneur would normally need to get access to the data at the very start of the development cycle, so that she can play around with it and see if she can actually put together a useful product based on in. If the data is expensive, this becomes a very risky proposition for a small company with limited resources.
For big megacorporations, on the other hand, this is not a problem. If the data is expensive they know that they have a good chance of getting a de facto monopoly on using it, since the barrier of entry for SMEs and individual entrepreneurs is high. Although they would probably never admit this in public, it is quite possible that they would actually prefer PSI data to be rather expensive, since this would turn the exploitation of PSI data into a ”big boys game”, with little competition from SMEs.
In addition to the problems associated with an industry dominated by a few big players, the total size of the PSI based market will be smaller if SMEs are effectively barred from it by high data prices. This hurts the European economy.
Regarding the harmonizing effect of the directive, it is indeed true that there are a number of public authorities and institutions in various member states that currently finance part of their operations by charging commercial rates for their PSI data. Notorious examples from Sweden are the authority that is responsible for maps and geographical information, and the National Museum that has a lot of photos of objects in their collections. I understand that there are numerous examples from other member states as well.
But I don’t see this as an argument against having a PSI directive with very strict limits on the charges. After all, if the purpose of the directive was just to maintain status quo, there would be little point in having a directive at all.
The reason why the Commission is proposing to be very strict on the costs for PSI data is that they (rightly) see easy and cheap public access to it as a thing that is good for both the economy and society as a whole, and wants to put an end to practices in member states that block this new and very positive opportunity. I think we should support the Commission in this objective as much as we can, even if it means that some institutions in some member states will have to change their current practices.
The Commission’s proposal to amend the PSI Directive