The EU Open Data Portal - Dataharvest+

Speech by Friso Roscam Abbing, Head of the Communications and Outreach Department, to the Dataharvest+ conference, Brussels, 9 May 2014.
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Dataharvest+ presentation by Friso Roscam Abbing

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Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here to address you and to have the opportunity on behalf of all EU Agencies to present ourselves.

I will begin by giving a brief outline of who we are before introducing the EU’s Open Data Portal. Then I will talk about some actual examples of agency datasets to whet your appetite and give you a taste of the type of information you can expect to find.

The EU is very much bigger than the sum of its parts. Single markets, a single currency, borderless travel, internal mobility are just some of the very tangible benefits that many of us cannot imagine life without today.

One of these aspects are the agencies set up to carry out specific legal, technical or scientific tasks. The majority of the 40 agencies work independently alongside the main EU institutions. They add value by helping to implement policy and promote the sharing of information and expertise in areas that impact the lives of Europe’s 500 million citizens. And, just to reassure you, all this is for only 0.6% of the EU’s total annual budget; In other words, only €1.6 for every man, woman and child in the EU, less than the price of a beer in many EU countries.

Much like the respected and widely cited federal agencies in the US such as Food and Drug Administration, the FBI and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the agencies were established to help implement EU policies more efficiently and to respond to particular needs identified by the EU institutions and Member States. They collect data on a wide range of areas that touch the lives of everyone across the EU from surf to turf, from farm to fork, from health to disease, from drugs and pills to the chemicals used by industry, from education to working environments and the environment that surrounds us, from justice to security. This list is not exhaustive, but serves to give you a flavour of some of the many areas we cover.

So what data do we collect, and what do we do with it?

Agencies provide advice to the EU and to individual Member States, based on robust data. This helps to facilitate the exchange of best practice between Member States and, ultimately, feeds into the process of evidence-based policymaking at the EU and national levels. 

Let me begin by giving you an example from my agency, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). Just two months ago we published the results of the world’s biggest ever comparative survey on violence against women. This showed the extent of abuse suffered by women at home, at work, in public and online. As well as demonstrating the wide prevalence of violence against adult women, the survey also revealed the extent of physical and sexual violence experienced by women in childhood.

This report was very extensively covered in the European media. But while the vast majority of journalists focused on the headline figures, such as the fact that

  • 33% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15, or that
  • the highest rates of violence were in countries such as my own, which are generally regarded as liberal and open-minded

there is a wealth of other information that was rarely mentioned, and which I would say is absolutely necessary in order to really understand the results. Just one example:

  • When respondents were asked about how common violence against women is in their country, without reference to personal experience, the headline figure was more or less turned upside down. While this obviously needs further investigation, it looks as though it’s possible that in those countries where there is more of a taboo surrounding violence against women and victims feel unable to speak about their experiences, they were able to do so when asked in the abstract.

FRA’s online data explorer, which I’ll talk about in greater depth in the workshop later, can help users mine our data to find those nuggets of information to tell the stories that can most interest your readers.

Then there is the question of general well-being. What do Europeans think about their lives? How do they feel? For this you can turn to the European Quality of Life Survey, from our sister agency, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, based in Dublin. Carried out every four years, it provides a comprehensive portrait of living conditions in European countries. It examines both the objective circumstances of European citizens' lives and how they feel about those circumstances and their lives in general. It looks at a range of issues, such as employment, income, education, housing, family, health and work-life balance. It also looks at subjective topics, such as people's levels of happiness, how satisfied they are with their lives, and how they perceive the quality of the societies they live in.

As with the other examples a data explorer has been developed to provide quick and easy access to the information so users can find the material they need. For example, at the beginning of this month, the Foundation published a report drawing on some of the data from their last survey. It is the type of analysis users could also do. Their report described the changing quality of life across the EU for different types of families with children. It particularly looked at the impact of the economic crisis. Some of the findings revealed that the conflict between work and family life has increased in all types of households with children. Lone parents working full time experience work–life conflict most often. Lone parents who are not working have the lowest life satisfaction and are the least happy.

EU agencies also collect data on the darker side of life, such as disease and illness. EU agency data can help here as well. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, based in Stockholm, gathers surveillance data from EU Member States on 52 communicable diseases and conditions using the European Surveillance System or TESSy for short. Such diseases include influenza, HIV/AIDS, measles, tuberculosis and salmonella, for example.

European surveillance is conducted through disease networks that regularly send their data to the agency. The agency, in turn, analyses and interprets this data and disseminates the information through surveillance reports on the disease in question, and through tables and charts available directly from a dedicated website.

Linked to illness, is pollution which has a considerable impact on human health, (as well as the environment). In many European cities recently, air pollution has hit the headlines as a blanket of smog has settled over capitals like Paris, Brussels and London. But how bad is Europe’s air? Should we be worried? When you consider tiny particles in the air from vehicles and factories are estimated to account for some 5 million lost years of life in Europe every year perhaps we should.

This is where some of the work of the European Environment Agency, in Copenhagen, can help. Each year they collect data air quality measurement data for a set of pollutants at a representative selection of stations from 32 countries across Europe. This database called Airbase contains a large amount of data including calculated statistics on Europe’s air quality over the last decade.

They have developed maps and different ways of viewing the validated data to enable users to quickly check on locations and statistics on air quality across Europe. Unvalidated data can even be viewed in real-time. In addition, users can explore how air quality has changed over the last years. There are also links to air quality data providers across Europe.

Other useful source of data comes from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. On 27 May they will present their annual overview of the European drug situation. Their annual European Drug Report will take centre stage which summarises the latest trends across all EU Member States, Turkey and Norway. It covers drug supply, drug use and related problems, health and social responses to drug problems as well as drug policies. The report will be accompanied by a series of perspectives on drugs, which are online interactive analyses providing insights into six topical issues including cannabis markets in Europe and internet-based drug treatment.

But for those of you who are most interested in data, the information package will be complemented by an overview of the data and statistics contained in it, not to mention country overviews offering national-level data and analyses. This includes a tablet version with interactive maps and graphics.

Last year, the report pointed to fewer new users of heroin, and declining use of cannabis and cocaine in some countries. But it also identified concerns over synthetic stimulants and new psychoactive substances, offered both on the illicit, and so-called ‘legal highs’, market. This year promises to again to be any interesting read following their earlier warning of two synthetic drugs that have been linked to deaths in the EU.

Then as a last example of a potentially useful dataset, there is the world’s largest terminology database, IATE. Launched by the EU’s Translation Centre (in Luxembourg) in 1999, it contains over 8.7 million terms across all 24 official EU. It has been open to the public since 2007, receives over 250,000 queries per day from over 200 countries worldwide. Rather than a source of material for stories it could be considered as a tremendous resource for many working journalists who may come across terms they are unfamiliar with in different languages.

Albert Einstein once said: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Which is why investigative journalists like yourselves can play a pivotal role. You can sort the wheat from the chaff, find that illusive needle in the haystack, and help explain what may seem inexplicable to your readers.

And this is where the EU’s Open Data Portal can help.

It aims to provide a single point of access, a kind of one-stop shop, to a growing range of data held by the EU institutions, agencies and other bodies. From here users have free and easy access to the data which they can simply search, explore, link, download and reuse for commercial or non-commercial purposes without any administrative, legal, technical or financial restrictions. The portal also allows users to link data from various sources which in turn can lead to new insights.

But it is more than a one-way street. Users can also suggest datasets, give feedback on the quality of data and share how the data have been used.

By making the data available via the Portal, it is open to public analysis and debate. This helps foster the transparency and accountability of EU institutions. But it also promotes social engagement and enhances evidence-based decision making and civic participation as public authorities can base their policy decisions on robust data.

To sum up,

FRA currently holds the reins of the network of EU agencies which rotates every year. We are closely working with the EU’s Publication Office to make more of our data available through the EU’s Open Data Portal. To date, there are already 171 datasets available from 13 agencies. It is still very much early days but we hope already you can begin to see the very rich potential of the work that is being carried out and the data being collected by the myriad of agencies that underpin the European laws and policies that govern our countries.

In order to help us to help you, we need to know what it is that you are looking for. I will therefore be delighted to hear your questions and comments, both now and in the workshop a little later.

You, journalists, are in a unique position to question whether EU policies and law are effective drawing on our data. You can ask the thorny questions to decision makers, and wider society, why exactly is one country different from another. We have the data. Feel free to dig deeper.

Thank you.