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EU open data fund to link innovation 'bubbles', says pioneer



A major EU investment in open data research will help link up "bubbles" of innovation currently scattered across the continent, according to one open data pioneer in France.

The EU has committed €14.4m (£11m) from its Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme to three initiatives designed to catalyse open data innovation across the continent, in what is claimed to be the largest investment of its kind in the world to date.

The initiatives build on UK and international work by the Open Data Institute (ODI), a non-profit body co-founded by inventor of the web Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

First is a €7.8m, 30-month Open Data Incubator for Europe (ODinE), a start-up support programme based on a similar ODI project which has backed 18 UK companies. The ODI will help deliver the EU incubator, working with partners including University of Southampton and the Guardian newspaper in the UK; Fraunhofer research institute and Open Knowledge Foundation in Germany; and Wayra, a start-up incubator set up by Spanish telecoms giant Telefónica.

ODInE will launch in Spring 2015 and aims to recruit about 50 startups by the end of the programme with each gaining up to €100k to develop their concept plus mentoring and technology support.

The second EU investment is of €3.7m to set up a European web data research network, funding 15 PhD researchers over four years to examine approaches to answering complex questions with web data, including combining data which is licensed in different ways. Partners in WDAqua (Web Data and Question Answering) include University of Bonn in Germany; Université Jean Monnet Saint-Etienne in France and University of Athens.

The third project will create a new European Data Science Academy (EDSA), a collaboration between nine academic research partners in the UK, Slovenia, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.

The moves were strongly welcomed this week by Kat Borlongan, co-founder of open data innovation agency Five by Five and host to ODI Paris, one of the institute's 17 partner "nodes" worldwide.

Borlongan told this week the three new EU-funded projects - for which she is not a direct partner - would galvanise the open data and tech start-up communities across the continent to the benefit of everyone working in the field.

"It's definitely very exciting", Borlongan said. "We already have bustling start-up hubs in places like Paris, London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Budapest but although you hear about them, they always seem somewhat fragmented.

"People have not really had as many opportunities as they would like to interconnect and build those bridges. Open data projects can be very national, so this is funding what is already ODI's mission of setting up nodes, to get us out of our little bubbles, and empower the many different communities to connect."

Borlongan's own work in France has included helping the French state-owned national railway operator SNCF become one of the first companies in France to pursue an open data strategy. One result is the award-winning "Tranquilien" app and website which collates data on passenger traffic in Île-de-France (the French region centred on Paris) including live crowd-sourced data, train locations and timetables and uses predictive algorithms to advise people ont eh quickest routes to take.

"It solved quite a lot of issues - not only could I as a passenger decide what train I could take but SNCF could see who was using it, anticipate the flow, and spread it out, if they wanted to direct people to take trains at 5.45 instead of 5.15 to save a lot of time and trouble", Borlongan said.

She said the hardest step for organisations like SNCF to take is cultural, to work openly with the tech community as partners and add crowdsourced data, rather than buying in a service from a subordinate company and retaining intellectual property. For large organisations like these this means a change in outlook across procurement, legal and marketing departments.

"When people talk about open data they don't see the kind of change it has meant for an organisation like SNCF."

Borlongan has also worked on open data projects in the developing world, working with the World Bank and Open Knowledge Foundation as part of a Partnership for Open Data initiative to help the government of Burkina Faso use data for development. Here the work focused on transparency of funding for schools: "We realised there were all these schools getting quite a lot of funding from government and international organisations, but it was not always easy to work out what schools were going to get funding and when and where."

Gathering, cleaning and publishing data such as how many students went to each school and what local medical and other access facilities were like meant any anomalies become clear and could be corrected, she said.

"We could see there was one teacher for 100 students in one place, and no medical facilities - so why were we putting all these funds into this other school? It pushes for accountability."
Pictured: SNCF trains at the Gare du Nord station, Paris by Chris Sampson/Wikimedia Commons

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