How France’s Open Data Team Is Modernizing The French Government Through Data

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A small team of 10 people called Etalab recently released a brand new version of Data.gouv.fr, France’s open data platform. Etalab essentially acted like a startup within the French government, utilizing its open data initiative to surreptitiously modernize the state itself.

As a reminder, open data is the idea that certain information should be freely available to everyone to reuse as they wish, without any copyright restriction. The term “open data” itself became widely used after a few successful government-owned platforms, such as Data.gov and Data.gov.uk.

“The open data movement shows the modernity of the state,” Etalab director Henri Verdier told me in an interview. Verdier became Etalab’s director in January 2013. Before that, he was co-founder of the Cap Digital business cluster. He also founded MFG Labs and is the co-author of a book about platform strategies with Nicolas Colin, L’âge de la multitude.

“It’s a good idea to nominate an entrepreneur to head this mission — it’s a small team with very practical goals,” he said. Only four people among the team of 10 worked on the new platform.

The first version of Data.gouv.fr was a giant repository storing as much data as possible. The main question was whether the search engine was good enough to find what users were looking for.

But it’s not the right angle if you want to create a long-term solution. For example, in the U.S., there is an ongoing debate about the link between open data and open government. Can you deal with one without the other? How can you use open data to really empower citizens?

“We wanted to create a sustainable and scalable open data movement — we thought like a startup,” Verdier said. As a French government entity, many expected Etalab to force other entities to share more data. But it’s not efficient in the long run.

“We are 10, and we only have the budget to do a website. We don’t have a budget to redo all the French information systems,” Verdier said. “So we asked open data activists if they could organize brainstorming sessions, hackathons and more to come up with what Data.gouv.fr should be.”

That’s how the team devised the key idea behind Data.gouv.fr — raw data is not enough if you don’t know how people are using it. For example, Slate.fr reused data from the ministry of sports and put it on a map to show where soccer or tennis is popular — you can now find the article directly on Data.gouv.fr. The main incentive for uploaders has become learning what people have been doing with the data they shared

“Similarly, to get traction, we chose not to pre-moderate. Anyone can open an account and post data in a few clicks,” Verdier said. Even though Etalab is keeping an eye on everything and is ready to delete inappropriate content, opening the website to everyone was no small feat. It took some engagement by the cabinet of the Prime Minister — it remains a government-owned website after all.

Despite a number of small challenges that complicated the development of Data.gouv.fr, the team kept pushing to change how data should be treated and it ultimately achieved what it wanted.

Etalab had three end results in mind: encouraging a better and more transparent democracy, creating positive economic externalities and modernizing the state. “The website does a bit of these three things,” Verdier said. “When we decided to accept data from the civil society, we hit a milestone. The idea was that we were about to make data accessible to serve the public interest.”