Meal at the unMonastery

Reinventing the family: co-living as a system attractor

Thanks to Vinay Gupta I have come across The Embassy in San Francisco, a co-living space that, judging from its website, feels like some of the cool co-working spaces like The Hub – or is it the other way around? Unfortunately, there is no house map, which would be really helpful in trying to imagine your life in an honest-to-God, Californian style co-living space – how many people to a bathroom, for example? But it is clear that these guys, like many others (myself included), are trying to reinvent inhabiting.

Two things seemed particularly interesting in The Embassy: the franchise model and the groupware.

The franchise model means this: The Embassy wants to be a network of spaces, just like our very own unMonastery. “One rent, many homes”: you can be nomadic while still staying inside of your tribe – in fact nomadism is a necessity, because your tribe now inhabits a cultural space instead of a physical one, and is smeared all across the globe. This is exactly Neal Stephenson’s idea of phyle. Some edgeryders have started mesoscale social arrangements that they call phyles (for example Indianos and Aesir in Spain). This kind of arrangement seems to be an attractor for a highly connected society: Edgeryders itself has some of the characteristics of a phyle.

The groupware is simply a web platform called Modernomad that functions as the hub and janitor of the whole arrangement. For now it does mainly reservations, guest management etc., but the idea is to be a sort of close community management tool. Another attractor: most co-living experiences with over 4-5 people have some kind of groupware, even just a mailing list.

I am personally uncomfortable with the way The Embassy portrays itself as an infrastructure for startup capitalism.

From the ground up, the coliving movement is designed to offer stability, inspiration and opportunity to independent, ambitious young professionals — the backbone of tech startups, who are often expected to live on peanuts and take huge risks with little chance of reward – (source)

These are places that have mission statements. Do I want my home to have a mission statement? Maybe not. But then again, the unMonastery certainly has a mission statement, and I am willing to consider it at this point (and I have briefly tried it). Maybe most people born in the late 90s and 2000s will live in places like The Embassy in ten years. I am thinking I might live like that myself – in fact I live in a small co-living arrangement already. Is this where we are going? What do you think?

Photo: Marco Giacomassi

Setting the agenda: how the open data community entered the radar of European political leadership

On July 17th 2014, addressing the Open Knowledge Fest crowd in Berlin, EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes made the following statement:

We want to work with you, and see you work together across borders and languages. We have set up Erasmus for Open Data to support this. Starting with an event in Nantes, France, in September. But if you have an idea for what more we could do – then let us know! – source

I normally don’t pay too much attention to announcements, but hey: this was fast. To the best of my knowledge, the idea of an Erasmus for open data did not even exist before April this year. For a concept to go from first-time appearance in a private blog to candidate policy of the first economy in the world in three months is unprecedented. Just what is going on?

A short recap:

  1. Back in April, in the wake of the Spaghetti Open Data gathering, I wrote a post that argued for a proposal for an Erasmus-like program for open data. The idea was to build those all-important horizontal ties that can connect today’s open data communities, largely national, into a European-level one. The post sparked a small debate with some of my fellow activists in other European countries, notably some that are or have been involved with EPSI (the European initiative on public sector information), like Ton Zijlstra in the Netherlands and Martìn Alvarez in Spain.
  2. In early July I got an email from French NGO LiberTIC: they have gotten the city of Nantes to get behind a conference seen as the launchpad of a future Erasmus Open Data initiative. EPSI platform is fully involved. The European Commission is going to show up, probably represented by EPSI platform’s project officer. To show they mean business, LiberTIC have even allocated a small budget for funding at least some data geeks to fly to Nantes. With the usual generosity, Spaghetti Open Data are rising up to the challenge – Italy will be well represented in Nantes, I can promise you that.
  3. Now, the Commissioner has joined the front line. That she even knows about this means somebody in DG CNECT (the EPSI team?) must have done a really good job of getting the idea up through the hierarchy.

We might get our Erasmus for open data. Or not. Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear to me: if a random guy like me can spawn an idea on his personal blog in April and hear a European Commissioner throwing her full support behind it in July, it means the open data community is setting the agenda. We are on the ground, we are doing interesting things with data, and everybody acknowledges that. We are talking to government agencies who are supposed to set the standards and write the guidelines, and at times doing quite a bit of the work for them – and who else can those guys talk to? We can mobilize quickly and effectively – just look at how LiberTIC threw together an international conference in two months. And everyone knows you just can’t do open data without a strong open data grassroots community.

So Europe is listening; and the signs are there that the Italian state, amidst the usual drama, handwaving and short-termism, is listening too. It would be a shame to waste this opportunity to build some data-powered transparency and knowledge sharing into our societies. But I think the community is ready, and the opportunity will not be wasted.

Meanwhile, Ms. Kroes, thanks for your support. There is a small factual mistake in that part of your speech (“we have set up…”): Erasmus open data, as of now, is a community initiative, not a EU one. No big deal; we are not territorial, now the idea is out for everyone to improve on. You are welcome to Nantes, just like any other data geek, within or without your official capacity. If you come as a private person, drop us a line: there will be code to write, and datasets to cleanup, and pizza and war stories about data to trade. We’ll sit down together and scrape some EU website. It will be fun.

Join us in Nantes for the Erasmus Open Data conference

Milano Cathedral

You did WHAT? The Italian revenue agency infringes OpenStreetMap’s copyright

A couple of months ago, Simone Cortesi, deputy president  of Wikimedia Italia and the primus inter mappers of Italy’s geohackers, noticed an oddity in the maps of the Revenue Agency’s property market dataset. How could they know about the walkways in his own garden? He realized he himself had uploaded those data, not into any government dataset but into the “wikipedia of maps”, OpenStreetMap. Since the maps did not credit OSM as the data source, the Revenue Agency was technically infringing on OSM’s intellectual property rights. OSM maps are free to use for all, but if you do use them you must respect the terms of the Open Database License protecting the data.  If Simone’s allegations proved to be correct, this would be the largest ever copyright infringement against OpenStreetMap. And done by the tax authority of a G8 country, no less.

A group of Italian expert contributors to OSM coded a website exposing the problem and containing a tool for comparing the Revenue Agency’s “proprietary” maps with OpenStreetMap. Hundreds of eyeballs were put on the case, and sure enough, the data are the same, and the copyright infringement was there.

On July 8th 2014, after the Italian Twittersphere had put the word out, the Revenue Agency tweeted back that it had “demanded an explanation” from its technology provider, a company called Sogei. This is an in-house company, 100% owned by the Ministry of Treasury. Later in the day, Sogei complied with the terms of the OpenStreetMap license and issued a statement of apologies. With this, the generous Italian mappers declared themselves vindicated. Simone, bless him, rose to the occasion to demand the Agency opens up its own data, specifically those of the real estate registrar, as he and many of us in the Italian open data community have been advocating for years.

Over and above the embarassment, there is a deeper lesson to learn here. Sogei is a monopolist: the Revenue Agency had no choice but to get its tech from them. Sogei, in turn, ostensibly acquired their geodata from a company called Navteq, (source, in Italian), owned by Nokia (wikipedia), that appears since to have changed its name into Here.

So what happened, really? Did Navteq repackage free and open data and sell them as proprietary to Sogei, who resold them back to the Italian state? How much money was spent on this procurement process? Was there financial damage to the public purse, and was it intentional (hence an offence)? How much money could we have saved, and keep saving, if smart communities like the OSM, open source and open data communities were involved in public procurement?