European Commission: EU countries must "wake up" to economic potential of coordinated 'big data'

Out-Law News | 09 Jul 2014 | 3:00 pm | 3 min. read

Lack of cross-border coordination, insufficient infrastructure and funding opportunities are preventing countries in the EU from taking full advantage of the economic benefits of 'big data' and cloud computing, the European Commission has said.

It has backed the creation of a contractual public private partnership (PPP) that could fund "game changing" projects proposing the use of big data to improve competitiveness, quality of public services and citizens' lives. This PPP, a proposal for which is already being developed by industry, could be ready by the end of this year and fund projects including personalised medicine, integrated regional transport and food logistics, according to a Commission report on the EU's progress towards a "data-driven economy" (12-page / 108KB PDF).

In an official communication to EU countries and the European Parliament the Commission said that the EU had been "slow to embrace" the economic potential of big data when compared to competitors, such as the US. Public consultations on big data had identified lack of research and innovation (R&I) funding on data, the shortage of data experts in the EU and the trading bloc's "fragmented and overly complex legal environment" as barriers to the development of big data in the EU, it said.

"This global trend holds enormous potential in various fields, ranging from health, food security, climate and resource efficiency to energy, intelligent transport systems and smart cities, which Europe cannot afford to miss," the Commission said in its communication.

"Yet the European digital economy has been slow in embracing the data revolution compared to the USA and also lacks comparable industrial capability. R&I funding on data in the EU is sub-critical and the corresponding activities are largely uncoordinated. There is a shortage of data experts able to translate technology advances into concrete business opportunities. The complexity of the current legal environment together with the insufficient access to large datasets and enabling infrastructure create entry barriers to SMEs and stifle innovation," it said.

However, the Commission said that "significant new opportunities" remained in a number of sectors where the application of big data methods to problems was "still in its infancy and global dominant players have not yet emerged". These sectors included health, smart factories and agriculture, where large US companies did not yet dominate, it said.

In its report, the Commission made a number of proposals which it said would enable European companies and national governments to take advantage of big data opportunities while solving the problems identified by consultation respondents and industry. As well as establishing the new PPP, the Commission has proposed the creation of an 'open data incubator' to help SMEs set up supply chains based on data and use cloud computing more, to fit within the Horizon 2020 R&I funding framework. In addition, a series of 'supercomputing centres of excellence' could be established throughout Europe to increase its number of skilled data workers, the Commission said.

The setting up of a PPP to support big data projects would "enshrine commitments on the part of the Commission and of the industry to engage in R&I activities and constitute a valuable discussion forum", the Commission said in its report. By allowing R&I activities to be coordinated with the national agendas of the various participating countries, the Commission said that the PPP would "focus all relevant efforts on the most important challenges and bottlenecks, maximise efficiency and avoid duplication". As part of its work, the PPP should develop incentives to encourage partners to share datasets with each other, and mechanisms to facilitate knowledge and technology transfers, it said.

To help develop a single market for cloud computing and big data, the Commission said that it would consult on and set up an expert group which would assess whether specific 'data ownership' and liability guidance was needed, particularly in relation to data gathered from individual devices connected through 'Internet of Things' technology. It would also study whether data location requirements and other barriers limiting the cross-border flow of information should be amended, it said.

In its communication, the Commission said that the reported use of big data-style technologies for surveillance purposes had the potential to "feed concern and reduce trust in the digital economy among individuals and organisations".

"The Commission has always taken such concerns very seriously," it said in the communication. "It will continue to address them by enacting effective data protection and network and information security rules, supporting secure technologies and informing the public about ways to reduce privacy and security risks. A high level of trust is essential for the data-driven economy."

Commission vice president Neelie Kroes said that it was time for business leaders to "embrace" the potential of big data.

"It's about time we focus on the positive aspects of big data," she said. "Big data sounds negative and scary, and for the most part it isn't."