Against all odds: open data in Italy make a breakthrough

Last Tuesday in Rome a wonderful thing happened: OpenSpending Italy — the first Italian contribution to the OpenSpending platform — was launched.

The data were there. They come from a dataset of consolidated public spending by region that the Department for Development Policies started gathering in 1998. They were already published in open format: the Department can rightfully take credit for it. Yet, I would argue that Tuesday’s launch marks an important step forward.

A step forward was made in accessibility to data. A very important, well maintained, comprehensive dataset on public spending is now accessible through advanced, interactive visualization, easy to compare with analogous international data. Even more interesting, it was published in widget form: anybody can copypaste the embed code anywhere she wants, like I did above.

But the more interesting step was made in the scope and diversity of collaboration that lead to this result. The data for OpenSpending Italy have been gathered, cleaned and associated to metadata by Italian civil servants in the Department for Development Policies and the State’s Accounting Service; processed by code written by British and German coders at Open Knowledge Foundation, a third sector organization; and published through the data journalism channels of Guardian Media, a British private business. The idea has been generated in the context of the meeting places of the Italian open data movement, and of a virtual meeting place in particular: the Spaghetti Open Data mailing list, born in September 2010 to provide civil servants and civic hackers with a constructive, respectful environment to talk about open data.

Thanks to this “managed diversity” (in the sense that trolling is not tolerated) SOD — like other places — allows people with complementary backgrounds and skills to meet up, explore each other, and maybe do something together. OpenSpending Italy was born from the collaboration of two wonderful civil servants, Aline Pennisi of the State Accounting Service and Simona De Luca of the Department for Development Policies, and civic hacker Stefano Costa of Open Knowledge Foundation Italy. Stefano got the international branch of OKF involved (Jonathan Gray and Friedrich Lindenberg need mentioning); and the latter enlisted Guardian Media (Simon Rogers, who — just like Gray — happened to be in Italy to participate in the Journalism Festival in Perugia). 72 hours later the data went live on OpenSpending’s first page and on the Guardian’s datablog.

This story, as I see it, has a clear implication: the Italian open data movement has come of age much faster than expected. Available datasets are growing; we are converging on standards of openness; we have visualization tools, physical and virtual meeting places, supporters in several administrations and ISTAT. We have friends overseas in the global open data movement, and we can and do collaborate with them as peers. We even have an emergent leadership: even as OpenSpending Italy was released, Aline was already working on a new project with OpenPolis and Open Linked Data Italy. Codenamed Open Budgets, it aims at making the budgets of more than 8000 Italian municipalities open and accessible. All this in a country perceived as indifferent, immobile, declining — with good reasons.

Me, I’m just happy and proud of the little I can give to the Italian open data movement, maintaining the SOD mailing list (I am the condominium’s janitor, so to speak). All together, civil servants, geeks and simply curious, committed people, we are showing that we can achieve some change for the good here and now, with the available resources and skills, without having to wait for some Global Change or a cultural singularity. May this attitude spread elsewhere in the public sphere. Heaven knows we need it.

5 thoughts on “Against all odds: open data in Italy make a breakthrough

  1. Ton Zijlstra

    hi Alberto, thanks for the cool write-up of the processes behind projects like these, and why they are important. It is very similar (the mixing of civil servants, coders, other citizens) to how my home town got to adopt an open data motion last month. (see my blog for a history of that)

    1. Alberto Post author

      Hey Ton, I read and very much appreciated your blog post on Entschede already. What you failed to write (out of modesty, perhaps, but we need accuracy more than we need modesty) is that it is by no means certain that Entschede open data city would have happened if you did not live there! In a way you played a part similar to Berners-Lee in the UK: when he made forceful recommendations, as Micah Sifry writes in his book, “ministers were likely to say yes”.
      I guess that further proves the point we both make: civil servants and civil society are leading this process – elected officials have been followers so far.

  2. Ton Zijlstra

    Hi Alberto, yes I’m sure my work has been essential in making the open data motion happen in my city. I think my contributions are two-fold. One, I had the wider perspective and experience of working on open data nationally and internationally, which made me a trustworthy source locally. Two, I know how to create emergence by network building, build momentum etc. Both helped make sure that the others, who were already interested could actually connect and see how to get to work together. I was the kernel of coalescence I would say 🙂 It might also have happened otherwise, now it happened more quickly.

  3. Pasquale Notargiacomo

    Buonasera Alberto,
    le scrivo per segnalarle che il Dipartimento del Tesoro esiste da tempo anche qui da noi: Giusto perché, almeno, in questo caso non credo di aver commesso un buffo inciampo, nonostante google continui ad associarlo al mio nome.

    Spero possa rimediare
    un saluto
    Pasquale Notargiacomo

    1. Alberto Post author

      Mi correggo, grazie!

      Anche se i dati continuano a essere del Dipartimento di politiche per lo sviluppo, nato in seno al ministero del tesoro, poi dell’economia e poi scorporato nel ministero dello sviluppo economico.


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