March 17, 2022

“We are working on something big”

Data spaces have come a long way since a group of experts at the Fraunhofer Institute first expressed the need for an architecture to guarantee a safe and sovereign exchange of data more than seven years ago. IDSA now boasts more than 130 members and similar data spaces are springing up across Europe and throughout the world. But along with the growth come new challenges.

When Ed Curry, director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics in Dublin, looks at the current state of the International Data Spaces Association, he feels quite pleased. “I think we can say that Data Spaces 1.0 is fully operational. It’s happening right now,” he said, during the final panel of the IDSA Winterdays 2022.

Alongside Ed Curry, panelists included Herman Pals, business consultant at TNO, Bert Verdonck, program manager for health data spaces at Phillips, Rainer Straeter, SVP Cloud Services and Global Platform Hosting at IONOS and Lars Nagel, CEO of IDSA. The theme of the workshop was: “Data Spaces in 2025: Challenges and Visions.”

Data spaces in 2025: challenges and visions

One of the first things the panelists could agree upon was that the time frame of the next three years is too short to accurately examine the policies and processes needed in order to guide the evolution toward Data Spaces 2.0, 3.0 and beyond.

“I believe we should be talking about 2030 rather than 2025,” said Rainer Straeter. For Mr. Straeter, 8 – 10 years is the minimum amount of time needed to see how the system can solve the key challenges of growth: “What we are seeing are thousands of data spaces proliferating completely separately and in a disconnected way,” he said. “We need to figure out how to connect them, how to benefit from being cross-disciplinary.”

Mr. Straeter’s colleagues agreed. “In the next years, interoperability is the greatest challenge,” said Mr. Curry. “We need to bring the networks together and create a big ecosystem.”

As of now, according to Bert Verdonck, there are still manageable numbers of parties within data spaces. But what is also already becoming clear is “that cross-sectoral opportunities arise, and people see the added value of combining them,” he said. Consequently, varied forms of federation are already springing up: “We see hierarchically federated spaces, and we see ecosystems of ecosystems”, Mr. Verdonck described the bandwidth of ways in which data spaces are organically becoming intertwined.

Opportunities and risks for data spaces

Looking at the future of data spaces, the panelists saw tremendous opportunities but also risks. One issue, the panelists all identified, was the need for a model of growth. Hermann Pals, for example, noted that there needs to be a process governing the transitions between data spaces 1.0 to 2.0 and consecutive versions: “We need to get into a mode of continuous evolution”.

One of the solutions he proposed was finding ways of managing data spaces. The directories Yahoo offered in the mid-nineties were an example he raised. “They were very useful as long as the number of domains were in the hundreds of thousands. When they went into the hundreds of millions, these directories became impractical”. Just as with the advent of Google, Mr. Pals said, data spaces of the future need to may need to compromise accuracy for practicality.

Meanwhile, for Mr. Straeter, rapid growth above all requires strong governance: “We have to converge with strong leadership and make sure that nobody outside of this ecosystem will highjack our ideas and create something that completely overtakes us. We have to make sure IDSA stays the leader. We have to define the rules.”

But Lars Nagel was able to reassure the other members, that IDSA was on a good path toward asserting this sort of leadership by setting up strong alliances with other data spaces. “We are on track with harmonization”, said Mr. Nagel.

Towards a fully harmonized standardization process

However, Nagel admitted that regulation from the public sector is somewhat lagging. He indicated that IDSA must continue to give the public sector strong feedback, as to what it needs to create a regulatory framework.

Mr. Curry meanwhile cautioned that implementing standardization and a framework for growth is not an overnight project.  “We look at things like the DNS for the internet or IP and forget how long it took to establish these. We need to take some of the pressure off,” he said.  Realistically, Curry thinks it will take ten years before data spaces have a fully harmonized standardization process.

For now, Mr. Pals believes, it should be enough for a player to prove interoperability in order to participate in a data space. “From there,” he said, “it will be a natural evolution toward standardization”.

At the end of the panel, however, the participants agreed that the problem of managing rapid growth is a great problem to have. The overall sentiment at the Wintedays was one of excitement that the long years of preparation are coming to bear fruit. “There is a lot of energy here,” Mr. Nagel said in summing up the talks. “It feels like we are working on something big.”

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