Tag Archives: Bologna

The open map of unused public buildings, the unMonastery call for residencies, the wi-fi hotspots app: score three for bottom-up smart cities

Here’s three stories from my native country, Italy.

As with all cities, in Bologna the downsizing of the City’s staff and other, more contingent factors, have left a legacy of buildings that the city owns, but does not know how to use – nor, knowing it, would it have the manpower and money to do so). Recently the city produced a georeferenced list of such properties and released it in open format on the city’s open data website. This allows and encourages anyone to download the data, visualize them on a city map and dream up ways to use them better. The city has also activated a dedicate email address to collect suggestions that might come from citizens, business or other entities.

Another Italian city, Matera, has launched an international call for hackers and social innovators. The call makes a radical proposition: become “innovators-in-residence” for a period ranging from one to four months, living in town and interacting with the local community to cook up low- and no-cost hacks for a better city. Anyone can apply, with no limitations on qualifications, nationality or age. The resident hackers will live and work in the unMonastery, a new kind of living and working space that takes inspiration from 10th century monastic life. According to its founder Ben Vickers, the unMonastery’s goal is to “embed expert knowledge into a local community”.

In the very same week, online magazine CheFuturo launched a free map that gives its users access to 24,000 open hotspots scattered across the country. Thousands of citizen helped to build its dataset, simply by using a dedicated hashtag on Twitter and Facebook; validation, dataset cleanup and app development were contributed by the Chefuturo group, at no cost to the taxpayer. The dataset will be maintained by Wikitalia, a NGO for open government (disclaimer: I am a member of its board).

These three Italian stories developed indipendently one from the other. They happened in different places; are trying to solve different problems; their initiators (Bologna’s digital agenda alderman, Matteo Lepore; the director of the Matera 2019 committee, Paolo Verri; and CheFuturo’s editor-in-chief Riccardo Luna) did not coordinate. Yet, they share a common approach, a similar idea of how you get things done. More than that: they share a vision of how to live together in our cities. This: when faced with the most difficult challenges, the best card to play is the citizenry’s collective intelligence. Consequently, it is essential to give citizens information and power of initiative, so that such collective intelligence can be mobilized.

These are small-scale initiatives that – wisely – seek to squeeze tangible results from few or no resources. And yet, they contain a seed for the reversal of a thousands of years old idea of what it means “to govern”. From the hereditary bureaucracy of ancient Egypt’s scribes to the top-down “scientific” collectivization of farming in Stalin’s Soviet Union; and through Plato’s philosopher-kings ruled Republic and Imperial China’s invention of a meritocratica civil service, the art of governing has almost always been rooted in the idea that the governed are unable to make wise decisions. This tradition imagines good government as a far-sighted decision, made in the common interest by a carefully selected élite. Instead, Lepore and Verri decentralize: they don’t try to find solutions to their respective problems; they don’t even try to identify a priori people or organizations that could suggest such solutions (“let’s open up a forum with local business and the university”). They simply inform and enable citizens. Not just their own, either, but those of the whole planet. Why not? The Internet makes this last choice obvious and free. It is very possible for a Materan to come up with a good idea for one of the unused spaces in Bologna, or for a Ghanaian to suggest a useful and realistic project for Matera. It would be senseless to exclude potentially valuable input from the get go. On the other side of this game, you find citizens like Luna, who are able to turn generic aspirations (“we need channels to stay connected while mobile”) into specific actions (“let’s map open wi-fi hotspots! Once we aggregate them, we’ll have made visible a nationwide network that’s already there, only no one knows it”) – and to do so without waiting for anyone’s permission.

A few months ago, I asked myself what we mean by “smart” in smart cities. My answer was that there are two alternative answers. One considers that the smarts of a city is concentrated in its universities and in the R&D labs of its large, hi-tech companies, and gives citizens the role of consumers of the various gadgets that these invent. The other, on the contrary, maintains that the smarts of a city is distributed among all citizens, and works to create spaces for everyone’s creativity to find outlets. The first approach to smart cities produces electric cars, in response to questions like “how can we reduce emissions from cars in the city?”; the second one produces bicycle cooperatives and urban farming, in response to questions like “do we really need cars to get around?”. It seems clear to me that the initiatives of Bologna, Matera and CheFuturo subscribe to this second approach.

From what I have heard, Lepore, Verri and Luna have all read and thought through my post. But whether they did or not is irrelevant: the spirit of radical decentralization in the choices they made is great news for those that, like me, believe that any city’s best tool is promoting the creativity of its citizens. Just as countless smart cities-themed conferences discuss sensors, the Internet of things and large-scale investments to program, thousands of smart citizens get together, experiment, fail, make progress, often collaborating with their institutions. The ones have money and large organizations; the others have many people, and networks to connect them. It will be interesting, in the end, to see which side will have been the smarter.

Civic hacking made easy: four small innovations to ramp up citizen involvement in hacktivism

I am still reeling from the impact of #SOD13, the first Spaghetti Open Data gathering. What they wrote about it, though a little overenthusiastic, is largely true. #SOD13 was a major energy high; it let us glimpse another possible world, and I am proud to have contributed to making it happen.

In my perception, a fundamental driver of #SOD13’s success was its uncompromisingly inclusive stance. Spaghetti Open Data was inclusive from day one, because we designed it that way. At the time (2010) I was thinking of a mutually respectful encounter between experts from different domains, hackers and civil servants, computer scientists and policy makers. #SOD13 aimed higher than that, all the way to the inclusion, as a protagonist, of anyone wishing to be part of the community. The problem was how to achieve this without watering down the gathering, without giving up on the opportunity to push to the edge the technical expertise of the more skilled members of the community. We wanted to boost inclusivity not by forcing everyone not to hack (which we could have done by, say, focusing on discussing the prime principles of open data), but by presenting participants with a sort of menu of things to do. Different items on the menu required different skills: programming, understanding and writing legal code, statistical data analysis, but also citizen engagement, data cleanup, monitoring. Each participants decided what she wants to do on the basis of inclinations and skills, and all these activities are part of a workflow to build technically complex projects. In this way, everyone involved, whatever his or her skill level, can jump in and be a civic hacker, immediately and in the narrow sense of the word. All it takes is being willing to get your hands dirty.

#SOD13 designed and deployed four of these activities.

  1. The non-technical hackathon. Led by two young lawyers passionate about open data, Morena and Francesco, one of the hackathon tracks revised the European Commission’s EPSI Scorecard for the part concerning Italy. A while earlier, we had noticed that these data were in urgent need of an update. The revision required half a day of work, a lot of web searching for supporting evidence, and a lot of patience, but it yielded an extraordinary result: Italy’s score leaped from 300 to 450, even with a conservative interpretation. The EPSI people thanked profusely the civic hackers in #SOD13 and updated its official site with our data. If, for once, Italy is proudly at the top end of a tech chart (in fourth position, after France, the Netherlands and the UK) we Italians owe it to them. In the same logic, SOD’s volunteers are manually populating the database supporting Twitantonio, an app that lets citizens find candidates to the upcoming elections: this work does not require more expertise than looking for someone on Twitter, but if it does not get done the app is useless.
  2. The monithon. This simple, elegant idea was proposed by the Opencoesione crowd. Opencoesione is a government project, and easily the largest-scale open data project ever deployed in Italy. The people in charge of it hang out in SOD since inception, well before Opencoesione was dreamed up, and I suspect that they got the idea from the mailing list. Monithon works like this: you query the Opencoesione database and find which projects near you your taxpayer euro went into. Then you go there, ring the bell and ask to see how it’s doing. I did not take part in this, but the report (Italian) is great. A bunch of Ministry wonks roaming the renovated schools of Bologna, on a Saturday, with citizens in tow? That’s a sterling silver punk attitude to monitoring in my book!
  3. The documentathon. Developers – especially in open source communities, where many contribute on their spare time and are unpaid – don’t like to write documentation for the code they write. Often they are spread thin across a project, and they simply don’t have the time for it. Result: tons of undocumented code, very difficult to make sense of, improve and even use. Even very rookie programmers with minimal can be very useful to a development project simply by adding comments to code written by others (“here we simulate clicking on the top right link”). If you want to see an example, check out this scraper, written originally by Vincenzo and modified and commented by me.
  4. The iron pact with the ladies. The hacker community has a problem, and that’s that women tend to stay away from it – so it loses half of its potential! After reading a sombering post by Asher Wolf, I asked the community for help in making SOD more attractive to women. That led to a fruitful collaboration with the Bologna chapter of Girl Geek Dinner on the whole three-day gathering. Also thanks to them and their Spaghetti Open Data Gender Survey, rolled out as a track of our hackathon, the female presence at the gathering was numerically strong and high quality on all fronts, writing code included. I intend to keep trying to do more to build female-friendly environments.

All in all, #SOD13 was definitely a step in the direction of “everybody is a civic hacker” – and that, as far as I’m concerned, is the right direction. We’ll see how it pans out.

Wikicrazia goes to Bologna (Italiano)

È un po’ come essere in tour: si prepara un borsone o uno zainetto, a seconda di quanto durerà la trasferta, si ripassa mentalmente lo spettacolo, e si parte. Solo che in questo caso lo spettacolo non è un concerto, ma la presentazione di Wikicrazia. Dopo il rodaggio di Milano e Barcellona, mercoledì 27 ottobre sarò a Bologna per una chiacchierata sulle politiche pubbliche al tempo della rete. Mi ospita la Libreria Trame, in pieno centro (via Goito 2c), fondata e diretta dalla mia vecchia e cara amica Nicoletta Maldini. Sono molto contento, perché tra i 50 partecipanti alla fase aperta di scrittura del libro ci sono diversi bolognesi, e si preannuncia una bella discussione. Ho già deciso che farò un’introduzione al libro da 10-15 minuti e poi farò io domande al pubblico, invece che viceversa. 🙂

il programma è questo:

  • martedì 28 alle 12.00 sono ospite di Pigreco Party su Radio Città del Capo (in collegamento telefonico).
  • mercoledì alle 18.30 presentazione a Trame.
  • a seguire ci prendiamo l’aperitivo con chi c’è

Siete tutti invitati, bolognesi e no! Informazioni su altre presentazioni si trovano qui.

AGGIORNAMENTO: la presentazione è stata inserita tra gli eventi di BolognaIN, la comunità bolognese di Linkedin, e del TagBoLab del wikicratico Michele D’Alena.