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A conversation with Ulrich Ahle, founding and board member of the International Data Spaces Association (IDSA) and CEO of the Fiware Foundation.

Ulrich Ahle, board member of the International Data Spaces Association (Photo Ulrich Ahle)

Ulrich Sendler: Mr. Ahle, you were one of the founders of the International Data Spaces Association in 2016. What was the goal of the founding?

Ulrich Ahle: The IDSA was initially founded as the Industrial Data Space Association. In particular, collaboration in industrial supply chains was becoming more intense and complex. The solution could only be digital, and so concepts were developed to enable data sovereignty: Whoever generated a data set must be able to trust the recipient of his data. To do this, he should be able to determine and technically enforce what someone accessing this data is allowed to do with it and can do with it. What he is allowed to do can be regulated in an electronic contract. But what they can do should be technically ensured. This is what we call a data space. Data space connectors were developed to enable partners to connect to a data space. The well-known standard EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) usually helps two partners who know each other and have painstakingly built up their connection. The Data Space Connectors dissolve this 1:1 connection and create a data space in which even (previously) unknown partners adhere to the same exchange formats and rules.

The IDSA was originally founded by 11 organizations for this dual purpose. It was to develop a reference architecture for such data spaces and then support their implementation in concrete projects and their certification.

Ulrich Sendler: What led to the change of name a little later?

Ulrich Ahle: It quickly became clear that data spaces are not only needed in the manufacturing industry, but almost everywhere. There will be no smart city without secure data spaces, and of course no smart mobility either. Both are now lighthouse projects for the implementation of the concepts of corresponding data spaces. Another lighthouse project is already much better known: Catena-X for the digitalization of supply chains in the automotive industry. However, data spaces cannot only be German or European. Whether supply chain or connected traffic – data spaces must function internationally. And so the Industrial became the International Data Spaces Association.

Ulrich Sendler: Another name that has become increasingly important in recent years is Gaia-X. What is that and what role does it play in connection with data rooms?

Ulrich Ahle: Gaia-X was launched by Economics Minister Altmeier in 2020. It was intended to initiate a standardization of rules for data use across Europe, based on the practice of the Franco-German company Airbus. This was because Airbus had succeeded in competing globally with companies such as Boeing in a collaboration between several European countries. Gaia-X was an initiative initially involving 11 German and just as many French organizations. Now based in Belgium, it has more than 300 members. Then, in October 2021, Gaia-X, IDSA, BDVA and the Fiware Foundation formed the Data Spaces Business Alliance (DSBA) to combine their respective forces and activities for the realization of data spaces.

Ulrich Sendler: You mentioned Catena-X. What is the purpose of such lighthouse projects?

Ulrich Ahle: The reference architecture and the overall concept of data spaces developed by the IDSA have to be translated into architectures and data spaces for concrete use cases in practice. There are already almost a dozen of such lighthouse projects. Catena-X was one of the first. The goal is global data spaces, because automotive supply chains are extremely distributed around the world.

This example is a good illustration of how lighthouse projects work. The Eclipse Data Space Connector (EDC) was created for Catena-X as one of the data space connectors that follow the IDSA reference architecture. Currently, a total of five such connectors are in the certification process. They are intended to facilitate access to data spaces by forming a standard for them.

But Catena-X had to map some requirements in the Eclipse Data Space Connector that were not yet included in the underlying IDSA reference architecture 3.0. Now, corresponding extensions by IDSA will ensure that version 4.0 fits the EDC again. Mutual adaptation is therefore necessary. The previously known standardization methods are not fast enough for the current needs in digitalization. By the way, IDSA releases a new version of the architecture every year at the Hannover Fair.

Ulrich Sendler: How does the European Union ensure that this initiative, which originates in Europe, is recognized worldwide?

Ulrich Ahle: The EU Commission has set up the Digital Europe Program. As part of this program, it was decided at the end of 2022 to fund a project called the Data Spaces Support Centre, which will initially run until 2026. It is being carried out by a consortium of 12 organizations, which, in addition to the members of the Data Spaces Business Alliance, include the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft and similar organizations in the Netherlands, Finland and other countries, or the KU Leuven in Belgium for the legal issues related to data spaces.

This consortium has a mandate from the EU Commission to define the framework conditions for the realization of interoperable data spaces in Europe and to support the implementation projects that have already been set up. Approximately 80% of the building blocks of such data spaces should be domain-agnostic, i.e., they can be used everywhere, and only 20% should be domain-specific. Preparatory projects were set up for this purpose at the end of 2022, which will become implementation projects after 12 months without any transition.

Taking Catena-X as an example, we can see how quickly this initiative is picking up speed. Catena-X hubs already exist in Texas, Austria and a number of other countries, not just in the EU.

Ulrich Sendler: Let’s go back to Gaia-X: So this is not an attempt to build a European cloud and position it against the current hyperscalers?

Ulrich Ahle: Very true. Cloud technology and services based on it are, of course, a core element of future data use, and to that extent also of the data spaces defined with Gaia-X and corresponding projects. Gaia-X wants to integrate these federated services from any provider in such a way that they fit in with the defined data spaces and the rules that are followed in the process. It is not intended to create a competing offering to existing service providers.

Reference architecture for data spaces (graphic DSBA)

Ulrich Sendler: Is there a time frame for when we can expect concrete practical applications?

Ulrich Ahle: We are talking about months rather than years. Catena-X, for example, was launched two years ago, and now a new project is already being presented in the fall that uses all the preliminary work and makes it available for application not only in the environment of the automotive industry, but the entire manufacturing industry from mechanical engineering to aircraft construction and shipbuilding. It is called Manufacturing-X and is very much supported by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology and the Industrie 4.0 platform. This means that, presumably as early as next year, small and medium-sized companies will also be able to plug into such data spaces without any major investment.

And in March 2023, Gaia-X released its first own product, Gaia-X Digital Clearing House. It is used to automatically check the compliance of participants in data spaces with Gaia-X.

The pressure continues to grow relentlessly, and we have to be very fast. Germany alone is investing about a billion. Add to that what the EU is doing, and finally the contributions from the industry itself.

Ulrich Sendler: Finally, do you have an example of what kind of business is made possible by such data rooms?

Ulrich Ahle: As Fiware, we were involved in the use case of a smart parking solution for the city of Wolfsburg, among others. Normally, smart parking involves equipping individual parking bays with sensors that are installed under the parking surface or in the road surface. Or cameras are installed to detect free spaces via image recognition. This information is then linked to a mobile app on a smartphone or to the navigation system of a car equipped with the corresponding functionality, and the free space takes the place of the destination entered.

Some vehicles, however, already have systems with radar and laser sensors. The edge of the road is scanned and the size of the parking space is determined so that the car can then park automatically. Such data is collected with the driver’s consent and made available to local authorities in real time. This works via the Mobility Data Space. Mercedes has a separate business unit for this, which works with this data. This allows municipalities to expand their smart parking solutions to include areas where no sensor technology is available. Instead of expensive expansions of the parking area and instead of individual contracts between manufacturers and municipalities, the data is placed in the shared mobility data space. And access to the data space will at the same time settle the question of the cost of the data that makes this service possible. Such new types of data business only work via jointly shared data spaces.