Tag Archives: open data

“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.

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

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?