This article is part of our special report The nexus between data and transport.
Transport is turning increasingly to digitalisation to cut costs, boost services and reduce emissions. But the potential of data sharing, seen as a major opportunity and challenge in equal measure, needs to be unlocked. MEP Josianne Cutajar explained how the EU aims to do just that.
Josianne Cutajar is a Maltese MEP with the Socialists and Democrats group and was rapporteur for the transport committee’s opinion on the digital services act (DSA).
She spoke to EURACTIV transport editor Sam Morgan.
When it comes to the current raft of data rules, do you think that the SMEs, in particular transport operators, have enough to trust sharing their data? What can EU legislators do, as they consider the next steps, to make sure smaller companies feel the benefits?
I think that with GDPR (general data protection regulation), SMEs aren’t overburdened. These are European standards. There are pressures from certain sectors who would say that it is killing SMEs, killing innovation, killing business. I always believe there needs to be a balance. Right now, when we speak about the transport sector, we’re faced with a conundrum that we have to recognise. On the one side, GDPR limits the sharing of data. On the other, there is this data sharing strategy. We have to see and find a way for GDPR and data sharing to go together and not clash. Both are essential. We also need to find out how to instil trust, even in our SMEs, when it comes to sharing data. The rules need to be set in such a way that they don’t overburden SMEs with a lot of red tape. Cutting down red tape is something I’m pushing for through the SME strategy. Trust between businesses needs to be built through assurances. For sure, it is important that we recognise that SMEs are different and have different starting points compared to big businesses. Access to data for SMEs needs to be ensured.
Digitalisation has a huge potential to cut emissions, create value and so on. Will this happen regardless of regulation or does it need a push?
Digitalisation is essential when it comes to green transition. Technological advancements as well will help cut down emissions and build a greener future. That brings to mind integrated transport, smart vehicles, multimodal transport, promoting public transport, decreasing the use of personal vehicles, the list goes on. Digitalisation will also help from a cost-benefit and safety perspective, helping businesses identify shortcomings in their logistics and decrease the number of accidents. What is essential here, during this shift, is to make sure no-one is left behind, including our SMEs. Regulation is needed in order to set a clear framework that will establish clearer rules, opportunities and incentives for businesses and citizens alike.
Will coronavirus make digitalisation happen faster?
It will for sure have an accelerative effect but you have to keep in mind that it was bound to happen anyway. Our focus was on data before the pandemic and it is important that it continues to be there. We obviously have to address the issues raised by the pandemic but we cannot forget what was already on the agenda before coronavirus struck. Rather than a catalyst, I would say the pandemic was more like a wakeup call in reality, because when you look at which businesses have been affected by it, those that are technologically savvy have had an edge. Both public and private companies are seeing the benefits of digitalisation and smart working. Going back to this idea of ‘leaving no-one behind”, it’s important not to forget about the importance of up-skilling and re-skilling. We need to have skills in place not only to ensure European competitiveness but to make sure our workers are not left behind.
Europe wants to be a leader on data sharing but places like the US are already more advanced. Is it too late then?
It’s true that we have to step up a lot more in this sector but I think that Europe will be a real leader and I believe in this because, maybe others have moved first, but we have to look at our value added. Effective value added. That is where we can become real leaders in the sector. Smart regulation will set standards and make others follow. Europe is seasoned in protecting businesses and protecting personal data. We might be kicking off from a starting point in its infancy but we’ll manage to get there.
B2B is one of the most challenging issues with regards to data and transport.We know the sector is made up of data generators, who often feel that they will not feel the benefits of sharing that data with data processors. The EU’s task now is to make sure the benefits go both ways and that the challenge is translated into an opportunity. We need a data strategy which aims at achieving Win-Win scenarios possibly through incentives. Ideally, there shouldn’t just be rules in place but a culture of trust exists as well, which causes people to realise that sharing data is beneficial to everyone. I agree that better data sharing leads to better competition, better innovation and true collaboration models. For SMEs, we need to push for data cooperatives and data unions to empower small businesses and workers, plus allow them to consult with experts that can help them benefit from data generation. We have to keep in mind that not everyone has the necessary skills yet.
Do you think that data sharing should be voluntary or mandatory?
Ideally, there should be voluntary schemes that incentivise and create digital ecosystems that are needed to achieve all of these benefits. On the other hand, when it comes to imbalances in the market or public interest reasons, there might have to be corrections using mandatory practices, mandatory sharing schemes. For example, this could apply to strategic or essential transport services.
There’s one main element here that is needed though: legal clarity. The EU did a good job with GDPR in protecting its citizens. It must do the same with transport businesses. And the best protection and incentivising of data sharing results from clarifying when, where and how the data can be used. This will help foster a culture of trust. Trust is of course the preferable incentive!
A smart mobility strategy from the Commission is coming out, the DSA, digital governance etc are also in the offing. Will there be enough regulation-wise to generate this trust?
I think that it is important to listen to all sides of the debate, from actors in the sector to consumer concerns. At the end of the day, for the sector’s business model to be successful, consumers have to trust it. When it comes to trust, the use of personal data is also a challenge that we have to address. Inclusive dialogues can help here. We need to have more discussion on how GDPR applies to situations where it is hard to differentiate between personal and non-personal data. The European Commission needs to lay out a sound legal approach to mixed datasets to ensure trust in the market. Education is also crucial. First, for the data strategy to succeed we need to pool together knowledge generated by researchers, universities, engineers. This will create European know-how harmonising data procedures across the EU. Secondly, we need up-skilling and re-skilling programs in transport, especially for SMEs, ensuring a data literate workforce. That’s how Europe becomes a leader.