Old wine in new bottles: From data infrastructures and sectoral systems in the late 1990s to data spaces in the early 2020s

After a visit with the ODECO team to the European Commission, I found myself reminiscing about discussions we had over twenty years ago regarding information on infrastructures and sectoral systems. Back then, a typical sectoral system would rely on the information on infrastructure as its foundation. Following our visit, it became apparent that the “new” concept of common European data spaces resembles sectoral systems from the late 1990s, early 2000s, with one significant distinction: the absence of a connecting information infrastructure serving as the cornerstone of these data spaces.

Figure on the left (Van Loenen, 2006): the relationship between information infrastructure and sectoral systems as depicted in the 2000s. Figure on the right (European Commission, 2022): ten data spaces introduced by the European Commission.

In the past, I, along with many others, have argued that a general information infrastructure forms the core infrastructure for sectoral information frameworks such as a national health information infrastructure, environment information infrastructure, and transportation information infrastructure (see Van Loenen, 2006). Despite ups and downs, significant efforts have been made to realize our vision of establishing an information infrastructure capable of serving the interests and needs of multiple sectors. While INSPIRE was among the most promising yet also most disappointing endeavors toward this ideal, in some countries and regions, we succeeded, at least to some extent, in implementing the principle of “collect it once, use it many times.” This principle has led to efficiency and impact within government and, following the implementation of open data policies, extended well beyond. 

The current movement toward establishing common European data spaces without a common underlying information infrastructure will lead to the development of siloed sectoral systems, each with its own unique definitions, attributes, and specifications. In the years to come, as each data space seeks to exchange data with others, it will become evident that there is a lack of interoperability, no “collect-once-use-multiple-times” capability, and no solution to pressing societal questions and challenges. By that time, we will have only know one thing for sure: data spaces were merely old wine in new bottles.


Chan, Tai & Williamson, Ian. (2000). Spatial Data Infrastructure Management: lessons from corporate GIS development. Paper Presented at AURISA 99 – The 27th Annual Conference of AURISA Blue Mountains, New South Wales, 22-26 November 1999.

European Commission (2022). A European Green Deal Data space And the GreenData4All as an instrument to bring the public data in. Presentation at the 16th Meeting of the INSPIRE MIG, 24 November.


European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Farrell, E., Minghini, M., Kotsev, A. et al., (2023).
European data spaces – Scientific insights into data sharing and utilisation at scale, Publications Office of the European Union, 2023, htps://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2760/400188

Loenen, B. van (2006), Developing geographic information infrastructures; the role of information policies. Dissertation. Delft University of Technology. Delft: DUP Science.



Bastiaan van Loenen

Delft University of Technology, Netherlands