The Intel-Moovit Deal and the Precious Data that the Government is Hoarding
22 years after passing the Freedom of Information Law, Israeli researchers, entrepreneurs, and citizens must still jump through hoops to receive access to databanks that are essentially theirs
We recently learned of the massive $1 billion acquisition of public transportation tracking app Moovit by tech giant Intel—the latest link in a chain of Israeli exits and without a doubt a cause for national pride.
This success story has another extraordinary dimension that offers important insight. Not many people are aware that the database on which Moovit’s app was based is a government data bank that was made accessible for the public benefit. The database, which includes real-time public transportation data, was in use by the Ministry of Transportation and in 2012 was released on demand to the general public. Anyone could use the data, be they entrepreneurs, researchers, developers, or simply curious citizens. One of them was the founder of Moovit.
The Moovit deal illustrates the power and economic potential of government-owned databases. A report by international consultancy firm McKinsey that was published in 2016, estimated the economic potential of revealing databases held by governments around the world at about $3 trillion.
Equally intriguing is the research potential of these government-held databanks. The provision of big-data repositories for the benefit of the research public may lead to the next research breakthrough. This possibility gains special relevance these days when the medical research world is in the midst of a race to find a cure and vaccine for coronavirus (Covid-19).
The principle is simple. It is anchored in the Freedom of Information Act, and has been ratified many times by the Israeli Supreme Court— the public authorities are custodians and trustees of the information they possess. The databanks created by the various government offices were paid for by taxpayer money and for the benefit of taxpayers. A citizen who seeks access to a database held by a public authority, whether for financial, research or any other reasons, seeks to exercise his or her natural right to use the property he or she actually owns. It is, therefore, the responsibility of the public authority to allow citizens to exercise their right to use its databases, apart from in exceptional cases that compromise the protection of privacy or national security.
Unfortunately, this is not progressing fast enough. Although the Israeli government decided in 2016 to grant access to public databanks, a report by the government’s Information and Communications Technology Authority (ICT) on the implementation of the government's decision, three years after it was passed, indicated that its implementation rate stands at only 73%. The government is also facing major challenges when it comes to defining the principles of releasing information that contains confidential data by introducing effective anonymization. Apparently a paradigm shift is also needed in this regard. Until that day, there is nothing left for the public to do but to demand access to data through the Freedom of Information Act.
We are nearing the 22nd anniversary of the passing of the Freedom of Information law by parliament. There is no doubt that the law has made a significant contribution to promoting transparency and public discourse in Israel, however, the law has only partially fulfilled the hopes that hang on it — the hope that authorities learn to release the information proactively, equitably and systematically, without waiting for an applicant to demand it and without them having to invest their own time, effort, and money to get it. Twenty-two years after passing the law, the path to its proper implementation is still long, and likely requires both a legislative change and no less than that, a shift in the attitudes of the decision-makers at the government offices.
The author is the head of the government's Freedom of Information Unit, in the Ministry of Justice