Big data – Big issues – Big EC consultation – do we need to learn to think ‘pirate’?

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The major talking point in the EC today (October 25) is the digital economy and information rights. Much of the discussion centres on nations hacking into each others phones – but there is a big issue here for telematics (and for us as citizens).

It is an issue on which the European Commission (EC) is consulting – consultations close in four weeks time (Monday November 25).

The consultation is called: Access to multimodal traffic and travel data in the European Union.

It is straight-forward to make a submission – it is done online following the above link where you can also read the background documents.

What is the background?

Telematics is converting our cars into computers on wheels.

We get used to thinking about making sure our computers are safe from hacking and viruses. Soon we will have to ask ourselves if in addition, our vehicle anti-virus protection is up to date, and is my car safe from hacking?

And these new computers-on-wheels will generate information – loads of it – really big data.

Some of it will be used for a mixture of common good and commercial interest – to give us cheaper insurance policies.But, also, to alert emergency services if we are involved in, or witness, an accident.

Information collected can also be used to help make better use of the existing transport system – to make better use of highways, to improve highway design, for example.

But it can also be used to connect vehicles with other parts of the transport system and with people – and not just here, but across nations.

The big question about big data is – who owns it – how much is public and how much private – how much is common – how much open and how much concealed and only available to those with the money to pay for it.

These are the issues which the EC is now tackling – and they want to hear from ordinary EC citizens on what we feel about this.

The consultation documents are written in a form of euro-speak – but they can be easily translated into our everyday language.

Computer generated information – and what is public about it and what is private is a big talking point and in Europe (but not so much in the UK) and is being discussed in new and imaginative ways

As I discuss below, it is instructive to take a look at how one group of people (who have formed a new political party – the European Pirate Party) are taking a new look at the issues and developing novel policies which have implications outside the political arena.

The EC wants to know how private transport service providers get access to public telematics information so they can produce, promote and sell travel information services across Europe.

The answer at the moment is – not easily.

To take an example on my UK doorstep. Although it is easy for me to catch a train from my home town (Hastings, East Sussex) to Paris there is no way this shows up on the on-line departure or arrival boards – or in the ticketing service (or, alas in the ticket price). If I want to drive to the nearest international station (at Ashford) I cannot book in advance a parking space which matches the train arrival and departure times. And try taking a bicycle with you — some UK train operators have ticketing systems for cyclists which are antediluvian.

It is not just private domestic travel which is hampered.

For European transport fleet operators there is no one way in which information on road congestion, road charging, tolls, ferries or other telematic-related internet-based services match each other.

The proposals for a European digital economy (the thing they are talking about today in the European Union) would change all this .. it continues the move to create freedom of movement between nations and people.

The idea is for anyone to be able to plan a journey (by air – car – bus – train – cycle – walk) so it is clear how each service interacts with the other and can tell us what is happening in real time– for the whole journey – including the first and last mile.

This consultation recognises these tricky issues – but, at the moment, has a narrow, commercial focus.

Its main thrust is to open up data held by public bodies so that it can be used by private commercial organisations to provide better public transport information.

The goal is:

seamless door-to-door mobility

and consultation asks if to achieve this a basic framework is needed with

specific measures

(that means laws) to

promote the development and use of intelligent systems for interoperable and multimodal scheduling, information, online reservation systems and smart ticketing, which could include a legislative proposal to ensure access of private service providers to travel and real time traffic information.

In its background document the EC says

Currently, there are more than 100 travel planners in Europe; however the current offer is far from allowing the user to find door -to-door information or book a ticket for a journey within Europe regardless of the number of countries or transport modes involved

and

This fragmented framework leads to limited access to and availability of data, incompatible data formats and different conditions and terms of use and re-use of data as well as to different liability rules.

However,

for development and provision of multimodal travel information (including on-route information), planning and ticketing services, data should be accessible to all market players and public authorities.

The consultation is for:

Citizens, local or regional public authorities, national public authorities, associations, non-Government organisations, civil society organisations, companies, academia, who have an interest in the issue of access to multimodal traffic and travel data.

So, what has piracy to do with this?

Among the new European political parties taking up these issues with a vengeance – and in some ways changing the terms of the debate – are the Italian 5 Star Movement and the European Pirate Party.

Look at the latter. The pirate party takes as it starting point internet information.

The internet, it says, was created in common, can be considered to be owned in common and should remain owned in common.

It says, in its manifesto

We, the European Pirates, want society to welcome and adjust to the digital revolution: We identify the digital revolution as a moment of total renewal of human societies; we recognise therefore as one of our primary goals the defence of the Internet as a common good and a public utility

The idea of common ownership of things and public utility is not at all new – of course. In most nations the idea of commons is well understood. We get used to the idea in English of talking about ‘commons’ as pieces of land and rights-of-way, but of course it extends to other property including intellectual property, and of course, information.

Information created in common, should held in common remain available for common use. And telematics-enabled transport systems are (and will) generate a lot of common data.

So, applying a ‘pirate’ way of thinking:

  • that which is commonly owned, remains commonly owned,
  • that which was formerly held in common, but made private, should return to common ownership
  • that which will be created in common (for example, information on the use of public transport systems of whatever type) should stay commonly-owned, and
  • that which is personal and private, stays legally personal and private.

This issue is one of the major topics at the EC’s ITS Conference 2 December 2013 in Brussels.

A panel will discuss seamless travel:

…this panel will cover multimodal travel information and planning services as well as the provision of real-time traffic information; one of the issues we would like to emphasize here is the importance of enabling the access to data as well as maximizing the availability of data of good quality.

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Jonathan Coe, Editor

Journalist and comms specialist for over 40 years – trained in print, broadcasting, and industrial intranet. Written about comms policy (eg. as radio editor at Time Out); held senior comms roles in public bodies (National Health Service, local government) and privatised undertakings (London Electricity – now Electricité de France). Since, has developed interests in the ordinary citizen's use of judicial review to challenge irrational decisions of government and the use of rights (like the Freedom of Information Act) to explore irrational decisions (like the BBC's original decision to close the BBC digital radio service BBC 6 Music).