Photo: Marco Giacomassi

Missing out: why we don’t have an European open data community (yet)

The last weekend of March was SOD14, the second yearly gathering of the Spaghetti Open Data mailing list. The acronym in English may be awkward (it was just too funny to pass on!), but the event was just great. We had 182 people registered over the three days; attendance peaked at the conference on Friday 28, with 139 people in the room at the same time. About 100 people attended the hackathon Saturday 29 and the training session on Sunday 30. We produced 12000 tweets (and, being geeks, we archived them all). Everyone came on their own time and money.

The hackathon was spectacular: we had planned for four tracks, but so many people showed up that we ended up doing seven. We hacked things like data on goods confiscated to mafia bosses, the Open Knowledge Foundation’s open data census; we designed a sort of peer-to-peer service for civil servants wishing to release open data; there was a track for lawyers and one for civic monitoring.

Everything , from conference program to hackathon tracks, was built from the bottom-up. Spaghetti Open Data is a community: it has no money, no corporate structure, no leaders, so it can’t help being bottom up.  SOD14 was completely organized by volunteers: though our host city of Bologna and its regional government stepped in with free venues, free coffee and flawless connectivity and two (community-designed and delivered) mini-courses, for a grand total of 1500 euro. The community provided video trailers, logos, jingles and ringtones, t-shirts,stickers and even superheroes; there was a very diverse attendance, (data geeks, data lawyers, developers, data journalists, policy makers, even some open data archeologists) with a strong female presence. SOD14 had the playful energy of the really grassroots events. And when the event was over, people simply retreated to the mighty mailing list: at the time of writing, Spaghetti Open Data has three and a half years of life, 894 subscribers, 1,840 threads, an estimated 20,000 posts (well over 20 a day in 2014). It is far and away the largest open data resource in the Italian language.

So all was well, except that something was missing. There was no Europe in SOD14.

We did our best to stay in touch with our European brothers- and sisters-in-arms. We had our only keynote in English – with Wikimedia Germany’s Adam Shorland telling us about Wikidata. I personally called EPSI, DG CNECT’s initiative for promoting open data across the European Union, and asked them for support – not in the form of money, which we can’t accept anyway, but embodied in someone to come to our gathering and say “you are not alone, we are happy you are doing this work”. Even though we had updated and verified the EPSI scoreboard for Italy during 2013, nobody showed up at SOD14 to say “thank you” in person: they agreed to do so initially, but then they decided they were covered by Matteo Brunati, EPSI’s correspondent for Italy, present at SOD14.

Dear European Commission, as a European patriot and  an open data activist, I feel it is my duty to let you know you’ve wasted an opportunity, and to advise you never to do that again. In SOD14 we were not discussing Italian open data problems. All our problems were at least European. For example, we had a fascinating session about open data in archeology and cultural heritage. Italy is hardly the only European country to deal with these kinds of issues; we are struggling with very conservative cultural institutions here, and could benefit a lot from comparing notes with people doing equivalent work in, say, Greece or France. That’s where you could have made a difference – but didn’t. I could make ten more examples like this from SOD14 alone, and so could you.

Matteo is a high-level civic hacker, and EPSI is very fortunate to have him on board. We, on the other hand, are his home community, and talk to him every day. There is no value added to our event if you just put a different hat on his head. The way you add value to Matteo’s European commitment is to dispatch him to events like ours in Estonia, Belgium or Ireland; and the way you add value to Italian events like SOD14 is to dispatch people like Matteo, but with experience in Denmark and Spain and Austria. It’s horizontal relationships that make a community. I know you know this, because you have been doing Erasmus-like stuff in many variants and for a long time. But horizontal relationships are slow to build, and no one is working on building them now – not even you. And so, things that should be taken for granted don’t happen. Why don’t we have civic hackers from across the continent cooperating in doing some open data project about the European elections? Because European civic hackers don’t get the chance to hang out together all that much. Even TweetYourMEP was built exclusively by Italians. So, there is no such thing as a solid European civic hacking community.

But don’t give up just yet. Europe played a key role in unlocking the supply side of the open data scene. The EPSI Directive was fundamental in nudging less data-friendly governments like ours onto the right path. Europeana is a great idea. You have done well on those fronts: why should you not do equally well in helping unlock the demand side of open data? A year ago, EPSI interviewed me and asked me “what do you think Europe should do around open data?”. And I replied “invest in the community. Give them free venues, free travel and something to do” (this video, at 6:08). I still think that would be the best way to use your EPSI infrastructure. Actually, tell you what: why don’t you go all the way and start an “Erasmus for Open Data” program. A few hundred international exchanges, with people from across the continent actually working together on data projects, would go a long way towards creating the small world network we need to be a community at the European level. Spaghetti Open Data stands ready to help. Are you game?

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14 thoughts on “Missing out: why we don’t have an European open data community (yet)

  1. Ton Zijlstra

    Thanks for the write-up and call to arms Alberto. I’d like to think that when I was involved with ePSI we did just what you suggest: showing support across the EU and putting both the issues and the community in a European context. Over 24 months (2011-2013) we actively participated in 80 events in at least 16 countries, although I am sorry to say I had to bail out on coming to SOD13 at the last moment.

    Indeed, it would be good if ePSI would continue to aim for active involvement on the ground. By definition government bodies look only at, and are legally limited to, their own geographic area, as that is their jurisdiction. The open data community is the only group of people that can provide and realize cross-EU connections. Therefore the networked communities are the most important piece in the puzzle for moving open data forward in Europe.

    Reply
  2. Marc Garriga

    Alberto,

    Thank you for this post.

    As you know, I’m involved in EPSI Platform service as an external advisor, I’m not a member of EPSI Team. I hope EPSI Team will answer your criticism.

    You’re right!, we need a real European vision of Open Data, without borders nor jurisdictions of each government. In Europe there are several Open Data initiatives very interesting: SOD in Italy, Libertic in France, ODI in UK, Open Data España, OKFN and so on.

    But, maybe this initiatives are too local, they have only a scope: Italy, France, Spain, UK… not Europe, (maybe ODI and OKFN have a wider scope).

    As you know, two years ago I (and more people) tried to promote a single Open Data licence in Europe. It was a step to this European scope of Open Data movement that you have mentioned.

    Your idea of “Erasmus for Open Data” program is brilliant!, count me with me to promote it 😉

    Regards.

    Reply
    1. Ton Zijlstra

      Hi Marc, good to see you here! 🙂
      I don’t think local / national initiatives are too limited in scope and should create a European scope. By default we are most connected to where we spend most of our time, and the local issues that exist there.

      To create a better European community I would rather connect all local activity into a rich and diverse European tapestry (which is actually one of the stated goals of ePISplatform), than abstract local activity into a European stakeholder/player. If everything local happens in the full awareness of what is going on elsewhere, and everything European is aware of everything local (widening our shared context), all our local activities will be better for it. For impact they do need to be local though, addressing the communities you are trying to solve things for. (And you can read local for everything from national, regional, city, hyperlocal)

      Case in point: some of the greatest open data projects are centered on 1 single neighbourhood. They will die if you try to make it a European thing. But they will thrive if you copy them to your single neighbourhood and your local connections with your neighbours.

      Reply
      1. MarcG

        Ton,

        Yes, in Europe we have a lot of Open Data initiatives, most of them in local scope.

        I think this is good, I think the best place to open data is in local governments, they know (or they should know) what (open) data need the reusers.

        But we also need European initiatives in order to “sew” these local initiatives to achieve a real powerful European Open Data movement (and market).

        As Martín mentioned, this is one of the goals of EPSI Platform: to have a broad European Open Data and PSI reuse community.

        But, we need more (public and private) initiatives, it isn’t enough with only EPSI Platform.

        Regards.

        Reply
  3. Martin Alvarez-Espinar

    Hi Alberto,

    First of all, congratulations for all your efforts in promoting Open Data and engaging the community in Italy and Europe.

    EPSI Platform’s goal is the same as Tom and you mentioned, just a broad European Open Data and PSI re-use community. Of course, we all (the full team of ePSI Platform) would have liked to attend your meetup. It’s always a pleasure to share experiences and learn from others who believe in the same things than you –and it’s our work as EPSI members. As you can imagine, the budget is limited and we cannot be present at any event, although we try it.

    In order to have a broader coverage, our team is distributed around Europe. All the EPSI correspondents are part of the core team of the platform, so it’s not just a person in charge of it but a group of experts –Matteo is one of them. Trying to make the most of the resources, we thought that Matteo’s presence would be enough to share the point of view of all of us. Also, he may speak both in English and Italian.

    Apart from this, we are developing new features on the platform to enable this community growth (i.e., new thematic groups of discussion that can be proposed by anyone). Also we emphasize participation from the community, so anyone can register on the platform and submit their blog posts, report events, news, etc. The platform is just a tool for everyone.

    I’m sorry, if there have been any misunderstanding but we are completely aligned with your way of thinking in this sense.

    Best,

    Martin

    Reply
    1. Luis Meijueiro

      I seem to remember that ePSI Platform faced over 20% budget cut regarding the preceding call for tenders, so I think it is always a matter of optimizing plan and resources to decrease costs.
      Best,

      Luis.

      Reply
        1. Luis Meijueiro

          You are right. It was 15%. And I will add that this 15% budget cut is more or less equivalent to one person’s travel expenses for attending 60 events – or even more – around Europe (over a 36 month period).

          Reply
          1. Ton Zijlstra

            Yes budgeting can get in the way, and it often does. In the previous round, next to also up front having budgeted out of pocket money to help make local events happen, we had budgeted and planned for attending 24 community events (1/month), but in the end we did 80 (3+/month) as we saw a higher demand/need to be visibly supporting and in interaction with community groups. The additional resources came out of each team members ‘take home pay’, meaning we reduced our own fees to afford it.

            The 15% cut of course doesn’t help, plus I think there’s also a difference in whether you had planned doing outreach through visiting/supporting events at all.
            A tactical difference is that currently there is no visible epsi team other than the local representatives and advisory board, who aren’t involved in the day to day runnings of the platform. No one knows who’s writing the stuff on the platform. If you want to strengthen community you need to be an integral and active part of it, you can’t do community stewarding from the outside. Obviously you can run a platform from the outside, but that’s a very different tactical choice. As Alberto points out in his posting, resulting in his call to be a more actively ‘hands-on’ and ‘on the ground’ supporting member of the open data community in Europe.

  4. Alberto Post author

    Great to see such a lively debate. Thank you, Ton, Marc, David, Luis and Martin for your words.

    Look, this is not a blame game. We are all experienced enough to expect that EPSI is delivering what was in the tender, and it would be naive to expect them to detour from it. But I submit to you that the tender was badly designed, because it is missing out on one of two important activities (the other is monitoring and drawing across-Europe comparisons) that are needed to develop a healthy open data scene in our continent: building horizontal relationship across different national communities. The ultimate goal of this is the Single Dataspace, kind of like the Single Market.

    So, the proposal is: let’s sit down with DG CNECT and offer help to redesign the EPSI tender. They should love the input. Italians will enthusiastically support the idea. If you guys in Spain and the Netherlands agree, that’s already 3 national communities. Let’s ask for an appointment to someone, show up, offer help. If they want to play ball, we mount a participatory design exercise (small, easy, free, grounded in the community). If not, we just go on with business as usual.

    Reply
  5. Martin Alvarez-Espinar

    I’m sure DG CONNECT will be pleased to hear proposals to improve ePSI Platform or other projects. We (ePSI Platform) want to offer as much as possible so we would be glad listen to these new ideas and foster them in case they help the growth of the community and the usefulness of the platform.

    Personally, I can tell you this is more than business. Just as an example, see the Open Data Spain Community Group we launched time ago, aiming at the community engagement in Spain. Thus, as part of the ePSI Platform and part of this local group, I will be glad to take part of this.

    Reply
  6. Ton Zijlstra

    I agree, sitting down with DG CONNECT on how to better support the community with their efforts such as ePSIplatform is a good idea.

    I think originally before tendering the current contract there existed the notion that the purpose and description of the contract might be altered. In the end reorganization and reshuffling of people at the EC got in the way of that it seems. At least I was somewhat surprised when the request for proposals in the end was more or less identical to the previous one.

    It meant for us, and means for the current team, that a lot of the aspects the work is judged by are not optimally connected to the purpose of really strengthening the community. And it is not easy to then create the ‘wiggle-room’ to do what you feel is also needed. Discussing that with DG CONNECT seems a good step in this light.

    Reply

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