“Ad universos homines”. A hackathon on archaeological open data and how it connects to European Capitals of Culture

I am the director of an Italian government project called OpenPompei, trying to encourage a culture of transparency, open data and civic hacking in the Pompei area. Modern-day Pompei, of course, contains the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii; it also contains many other things, including an aggressive presence of organized crime, so the project is not exactly a walk in the park.

But open data and transparency are a powerful force too. Despite many cultural resistances, we are making progress. Our most important success so far is probably the open data portal of Grande Progetto Pompei, a very large scale government project that allocated 100 million EUR to the area – mostly to preserve the Pompeii dig and the services thereof. We started releasing financial data on how this money was spent, who is winning the tenders etc. back in September 2014, and have kept the site up-to-date; additionally, we organised citizen monitoring initiatives, worked with local schools to explain the importance of open data, and convinced the Pompeii superintendent to open the site to the fabulous Wiki Loves Monuments initiative (Italian law requires an authorization to take pictures of cultural heritage landmarks).

In 2015, last year of the OpenPompei project, we decided to up our game. We forged an alliance with the tiny, but brave and potentially hugely significant scene of open data archaeology. These guys are really marginal, now. But they hold the keys to a sweeping change of the guard in archaeology and cultural heritage management. They can do computational research that sweeps across many digs, as long as they have interoperable data models. They can do 4-D maps (in fact, they have to do them, because you in archaeology you reference artefacts not only in space but in time too!). Soon they will be all over the journals, develop augmented reality experiences for the visitors to the archaeological sites, and start getting the top jobs. If they have an open mentality, they can really help making cultural heritage open. And open culture is powerful, inclusive. It frees up interaction with cultural heritage and history, and makes everyone a protagonist of history’s great tapestry. Open is the reason why this small bunch of  underfunded, marginalized archeo-geeks are the future of archaeology.

So, first we organised a “school of open archaeological data” in Pompeii (inside the actual dig!). We called it STVDIVM, thinking English is great but it would be fun for the open archaeologist to reclaim a dead language, Latin, as their cultural signifier. That went well: the enthusiasm was palpable. Very few archaeologists can code or data crunch, but man, are they ready to learn!

Based on that experience, we are now taking yet another leap of faith, and dreamed up the first-ever archaeological hackathon, held (again) inside the Pompeii dig. We called it SCRIPTORIVM, because we can and because by now Latin has become a sort of badge of honour. SCRIPTORIVM’s minisite has the navigation interface in Latin, and its video trailer is in Latin too.

In the past few months, this experience has been creating interesting patterns of interference with the work I and others did in the past years on the candidacy of the Southern Italian city of Matera to European Capital of Culture 2019 (and yes, we won). In Matera, we moved to create a cultural strategy based on radical openness; this allowed us to mobilize many, many people beyond the usual intelligentsija, and this ultimately gave our proposal an unbeatable amount of creativity and sheer brainpower. This experience has been generative: the company I helped found, Edgeryders, has now been enlisted by the city of Bucharest to advise on the city’s candidacy to European Capital of Culture 2021; there are talks of an Edgeryders Culture Team, curating a line of business on cultural policy advice.

From Pompeii to Romania, from Matera to Brussels, all of these stories seem, for me, to point in the same direction. To all of you doing culture, my message is: do open culture. Steamroll anyone trying to play gatekeeper, disrupt entrenched cultural élites and make it all about the people. Culture is  meant to be for everybody, ad universos homines. This fantastic post by open archaeologist Gabriele Gattiglia says this better than I can (and uses more and better pop culture references!).

And if you want to see what an open data archaeological hackathon looks like, come to Pompeii on June19th and 20th. We will have tracks for data geeks and no-previous-experience-required tasks. If you like it, well – you can always organize your own, and make it about your city’s (or your country’s) cultural heritage. More info here.


Lifestyle innovation in Brussels: new space, new people

Almost exactly three years ago, as we were planning our move to Brussels, Nadia and I decided to look for flatmates. Most of our friends and family members were rather puzzled: not many couples decide to share their apartment, though they can afford not to. We, however, thought it completely logical. Nadia is Swedish and I am Italian: at the time we lived in Strasbourg, France. That made us a migrant nuclear family, completely cut off from the network of emotional and material support that our friends and families of origin could offer. We were simply too isolated in our Strasbourg apartment, nice though it was; and we decided to try something different. So, we rented a much bigger apartment than we needed and asked the Internet for someone to share it with.

Three years on, we think the experiment worked. For the last two years we have been living with Kasia and Pierre, a young couple of expatriates (Kasia is Polish, Pierre French). We really enjoy the co-habitation: the home feels more animated, and not a day goes by that we don’t chat at least a little bit, over coffee or breakfast. We enjoy the big, airy living room overlooking the city. And, frankly, we appreciate that our lifestyle is really good value for money: thanks to the economies of scale implicit in family life, we pay a reasonable rent for a really nice space.

Along the way, we discovered that what makes our living together so enjoyable is that we are so different from each other. We come from four different countries; we are of different ages (Pierre, the youngest, is 19 years younger than me, the oldest); we have very different jobs (Kasia is a dental nurse, Pierre is the manager of a fashion boutique, whereas Nadia and I both belong to the “what is it that you do, again?” tribe); Nadia and I travel a lot, whereas Kasia and Pierre tend to be in town most of the time. This works well on many levels. On a purely practical level, when we travel we love the thought that the home is not empty, and in the event of some misfortune (think plumbing failure) they can intervene; and I am sure they enjoy the privacy and the extra space. We pay for electricity, phone and the Internet, they pay for the cleaning services – less paperwork to do. We have an extra room, which normally serves as Nadia’s and my office; but it doubles up as a guest room for the guests of all four of us.

But there is more to co-habitation than practicality. Kasia and Pierre are lovely people: and, crucially, they are different people from Nadia and myself. We live out the city in different ways. We have different takes on almost everything, from French politics to Belgian beer. Comparing notes with them is always interesting, and I really value their insights and wisdom. Not that we spend all that much time together. I think our co-habitation unfolded in the right sequence: we started by a default attitude of rigorous mutual respect of each other’s privacy and spaces. Then, over time, we grew closer, started to share the occasional meal, the occasional outing; we met each other’s friends and families, lovely people to the last one.

It’s working well. So well that, when a month ago our landlord announced that he was reclaiming his apartment and we would have to move out in the summer, we decided to stay together, and to look for a new place as a four-people household. More than that: we are even considering expanding. If four people can live so well together in a larger apartment, how would it work with five, or six, or seven in an even larger one?

If you wonder about this, too, get in touch. We are considering including in the household one or more friendly, respectful people of any age, gender, nationality or walk of life. Of course, we do need to find the right space, so that we have common areas for conviviality but also adequate private areas for privacy! If you see yourself in this picture, come over for coffee and let’s talk. Worst case scenario, we’ll have had coffee in good company! And if you know of a large apartment (at least 3 rooms and 2 bathrooms, ideally more) in Brussels (ideally Saint-Gilles, Ixelles, Etterbeek, Anderlecht, Forest or Uccle) that we could rent, we will be grateful it you let us know. Lifestyle innovation needs space.

We do this for totally egoistic reasons: we enjoy each other’s company, we save money, we live in style. At the same time, we are aware that we are working our way through solving a global problem. Planet Earth has 230 million international migrants; intra-EU migrants like us are 8 million. Many of Europe’s young people simply cannot afford to hold their ground: their work, education paths, and love lives lead them to migrate. When they do, they, like us, lose their supporting networks, and it is really hard to rebuild them. Living together, especially in diversity – the older with the younger, the sporty with the mobility-challenged, the academic with the blue-collar worker – becomes a platform for sharing our different abilities, and being able, as a household, to solve many different problems, both emotional and practical.

None of this is new. You have heard it all before – at social innovation conferences and workshops, for example, and typically by people who live in middle-class nuclear families. But we have decided to walk this particular talk; it will probably not be the right choice for everyone, but it is the right choice Nadia, Kasia, Pierre and myself; and I strongly believe it might be right for many others. So, who wants to join?

Dambisa Moyo redux: is Ethiopia’s governance model mimicking China’s?

Since the rise of development economics in the 1960s, the prevailing discourse around development has maintained that liberal democracies tend to grow faster than centralized, authoritarian societies (and this, in turn, is an echo of Max Weber’s then-revolutionary thinking). So, if you want development, focus on giving people freedom: they will use their political rights to start companies, whip their leaders into serving the collective interest and so on. Result: fully developed economies.

This approach has recently become the target of piercing criticism by Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo. This model is failing, she says: economic activity seems rather to flourish on the back of economic stability and infrastructure provision. In an already sufficiently developed economy you might think of market forces providing infrastructure (well, that’s the theory – don’t get me started here); but when development needs yet to be bootstrapped – and in a context of low literacy and low standards of education – such provision needs to rely on some central authority – a government. What kind of government? A pragmatic, technocratic one, made up of engineers and scientists rather then lawyers and journalists. One that emphasizes “getting the job done” rather than rules and processes, and economic rights over political rights. In one sentence: China’s government. And sure enough, China’s achievements in fighting poverty are astonishing: this one country has single-handedly lifted some 300 million people out of poverty over the last decade. I recommend you watch the video above in its entirety – especially if you are a Westerner, like me and like most readers of this blog.

I am just back from Ethiopia. It is one of the poorest countries in the world (per capita income: 570$), and it has a fairly poor human rights record. And yet, everywhere we went we perceived a fairly upbeat mood. With robust growth (double-digit in 2013, 8% in 2014), a booming tourism industry and an expanding middle class, many Ethiopians see their lives improving year after year. Crime rates are very low, and the streets safe. Many tribes and religions live together in peace, and Ethiopians seem to think this is a more or less permanent arrangement. With concern to human rights, the mood seem to be ambivalent: while people do not expect much change from the upcoming elections, they seem to be completely unafraid to discuss politics and criticize their leaders.

More than that: many are ready to give their government their due: the Ethiopian government has had the vision to embark in large-scale infrastructural project. Three were most cited to me: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the  Blue Nile; the new regional road network, connecting the country’s main cities across different regions (since regions were designed along linguistic/ethnic lines, this means “bringing Ethiopia’s tribes closer together”); and the new rail network, consisting of a planned national long-distance network, of the Addis Ababa light rail network (under construction – testing began the day after we left Ethiopia),  and of the Dire Dawa-Djibouti line (already in operation; construction work to prolong it to Addis is underway, with the first Addis-Djibouti run to take place in September 2015). These projects, and many more, were carefully planned and are available for public review in a document called the Growth and Transformation Plan (yes, it’s a 5-year plan).

Many Ethiopians take pride in the achievements of their country, and they seem to think yes, in principle you could fight to get different people in power, but why trouble? This crowd seems to be doing a competent job – whatever their ideology, they are quite good at technocracy and pragmatism – and by not having to get involved in politics we can concentrate on improving our own lives. This is similar to the mood I perceived in previous visits to China; another similarity with the Chinese leadership is the background of  Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, by training a civil engineer who studied and taught in Finland and the USA.

So, I guess, score one for Dambisa Moyo. I am afraid that, if Western countries want to inspire Africans with its style of governance, it will have to do a better job of tangibly improving life for their people.