The Decision Maker in His Labyrinth

The predictable failures of public policies, those immediately obvious to everyone save the decision makers responsible for them, are legion. From the International Monetary Fund’s East Asian structural adjustment recipes to the 40-years-old Messina Strait Bridge project, we all have, at some point, read the proud announcement of some government project and thought “This is never going to work”. People who make these decisions, clearly, think they make perfect sense. How to explain such a large discrepancy? The only thing I can think of is that many public decision makers live in an information bubble which is completely disconnected from the world you and I inhabit. They simply do not have access to some relevant information. If it really is so, then maybe they are not qualified to make policy decision in the first place.

Consider, for example, a City of Milano project called Ambrogio. Here’s how it works: some organizations (district councils, local police) were given handheld devices, and they can use them to report problems with streets and public spaces. The report is filed in the databases of the competent offices, which then fix the problems.

This project has serious flaws.

  1. it is technologically flawed. Why incorporate this functionality into a physycal device? It would have been enough to write software for smartphones. This would have enabled anyone with a smartphones to participate. Plus it would not force the poor “sentinel citizens” to carry yet another device, recharge its batteries, update its software etc.
  2. it is socially flawed, as it disables self-selection. Only individuals sected top-down by the City can use the system directly: it would have made social sense to enable everyone, leaving each individual to decide if and when to decide. Large numbers in potential participation lead to high impact even when participation rates are low – as is almost always the case. This way, a lot of potential contribution will never happen, and many of those devices will gather dust in some drawer.
  3. it has useless features, like the possibility to attach photos. If somebody abandons a bicycle chained to a pole, uploading its picture on the City’s servers adds no significant information and burdens the system with image recognition algorithms. A simple form to report textual information is much easier to process. Additional advantage: since you can fill the form typing on your home computer’s keyboard, you don’t even need a smartphone to participate
  4. it lacks transparency. As I write – and the civil’s society requests notwithstanding – Ambrogio has no website; it in unknown how much it costs or what technologies it uses. Given that the technology partner is Telecom Italia, hardly a champion of free software, I don’t expect those technologies to be open. If I am right,
  5. it clashes with common sense and with the E-government Code of Laws, which mandate the reuse of technology. The city could have used FixMyStreet, a British open source project that was later adopted in Norway. The Norwegen meshed it with the OpenStreetMap geographic database, itself open source. The code is up and running, it would have been enough to translate the user interface into Italian! Or it could have asked the city of Spinea for its system, and maybe add a couple of thousand euro to add a smartphone app to it.
  6. it is expensive – though, given the lack of transparency, we don’t know how much. Media reports have spoken of 400,000 euro.

What strikes me about this series of mistakes is how easy it would have been to avoid them. A Google search would have returned FixMyStreet and Spinea. Just talking to Milano’s own civil society would have led to competent, passionate people who work on technology as a participation enabler, like the Green Geeks and the creators of NetLAMPS. Putting their work front and center of the city’s effort would have reinforced a narrative of empowerment of an active citizenship. But that did not happen: instead, the people responsible for Ambrogio somehow managed to avoid any contact with these informations and the people who might have helped them. Unfortunately this is a common situation.

I have no problem with a mayor not being a technology expert: she might have other expertise, other experience to serve the citizenry with. But when no one, in her circle of advisors, even thinks of doing a Google search or giving some cognoscent citizen a call before spending 400,000 euro of taxpayer money, I find it unacceptable. Something to meditate upon, since elections are coming up.

PS – I am curious about the famed handheld device. Does anybody recognize it?

PPS – The post’s title is a tribute to García Márquez.

9 thoughts on “The Decision Maker in His Labyrinth

  1. Marcello

    Qui credo che valga la battuta di Andreotti, quella a che pensare male si fa peccato ma ci si azzecca. Non è detto che tutta l’operazione non sia stata costruita attorno al palmare e che quindi “Ambrogio” senza palmare non funziona.
    Il problema credo sia quello di ritenere che l’azione della pubblica amministrazione sia improntata al buon senso, cosa che a volte succede, ma non sempre.
    Tu hai tutte le ragioni, anche perché la prima cosa che si dovrebbe fare prima di predisporre un’intervento dovrebbe essere un’analisi dello stato dell’arte. In questa materia basta davvero poco, per esempio leggersi il tuo libro “Wikicrazia”, oltre che cercare qualche esperienza già realizzata in Italia e ce n’è.
    Non credo quindi che quello che tu proponi sia una prova di analfabetismo informatico del sindaco, ma semplicemente un progetto che accontenta tutti gli stakeholders impegnati. Tutti tranne i cittadini.

    1. Alberto Post author

      Marcello, non mi convince molto. Perché l’argomento vale lo stesso: se io, amministratore, decido consapevolmente di fare un’operazione di questo tipo e spero che nessuno se ne accorga vuol dire che vivo in un mondo parallelo. Se nessuno dei miei collaboratori mi avvisa, vuol dire che ci vivono anche loro. C’è sempre una Wikileaks; per credere di vivere ancora in un mondo di informazione razionata dall’alto bisogna veramente vivere in un mondo di fantasia, come la madre del protagonista in Goodbye Lenin. Che mi è anche simpatica, ma non credo sarebbe un buon sindaco.

  2. Francesco

    Ciao Alberto,
    sto seguendo fin dall’inizio il progetto Ambrogio per interesse personale dato dal fatto che sto lavorando ad un progetto simile ma pubblico e aperto a tutti.
    Vorrei chiederti un parere, posso contattarti privatamente?


  3. Davide 'Folletto' Casali

    I agree on everything but one point: “like the possibility to attach photos”. As a designer, I can tell you that we don’t know. A photo, from a GPS enabled device that smartly matches locations with a database, might even be a quicker and more effective way of notifying things and parsing problems (because it’s quicker to parse a serie of images than blobs of text). 😉
    That’s so effective that the same FixMyStreet you cited works with text, location and photos. 😉

    Then, how to know that photos are (or aren’t) the right approach? We could go through a proper user centered process, something that would have addressed also the points 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. All of them. 😉

    1. Alberto Post author

      Davide, fair enough. When we talk taxpayer money, I have a bias in favour of code-minimizing solutions, because feature creep is in the best interest of the contractors and sometimes they manage to sneak in stuff that we don’t really need, but that they can bill for. But I readily concede I might be wrong in the case in point.

      1. Davide 'Folletto' Casali

        I can see your bias Alberto, it’s a perfectly fine view and very often that kind of approach also matches well with a proper design approach.

        It this very situation a photo can be a solution that fits that exact sweet spot.. but at the same time can be also a feature creep. It depends a lot, that’s why I was saying that a proper design would help. 😉

        In my experience when you do a proper design thorough all the process you are able at the same time to minimize the UI, minimize the code and minimize the running expenses of the system. And very often minimizing the third one is the biggest gain, when you factor in everything. 🙂

        My comment was just a detail that however makes the point you were trying to make even stronger. 😉


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