Tag Archives: Commissione Europea

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?

#LOTE2 gearing up: can citizens do actual policy design?

Designing policy
I am looking forward to #LOTE2. Some of the most interesting people I know are coming: as if that were not enough, we are also coming up with a really great, interactive, no-spectator-allowed program. My favorite part is the Policy Hero Challenge: the idea is to take up some of the recommendations generated by the Edgeryders project and hammer it into policy. Real, solid, compliant, accountable, honest-to-God policy; the stuff that could be put before Parliament, or just be signed into existence by a senior bureaucrat as is. Of course citizens – even very smart ones – typically cannot do that. So, we are deploying professional policy makers in each session. They are tasked with not allowing the session to be simplistic.

Let me give you an example. We have a session on rewiring innovation policy. Edgeryders think innovation policy in Europe is missing the opportunity to support innovative people, as it simply can’t see beyond organization. So, how would innovation policy that targets individuals look like? I can imagine the conversation starting like this:

CITIZEN: “Governments only like to give big money to big tech companies. Everybody knows these are not the most innovative players! I mean, Dilbert works for a large tech corporation. Are you really giving taxpayer euro to Dilbert’s boss to innovate?”

POLICY MAKER: “Not so fast. We are required to account for every penny, and that is a good thing. Large organizations can show us how they spend taxpayer money: they have sophisticated accounting systems and they own large assets – so, if they don’t deliver, we can always sue them and get the money back. For example, in 2009 there was a really nasty episode with some small firms that put together a scam […] Of course, if we had reliable ex ante project quality indicators, we could take more risks on the accounting as long as we would be supporting the best projects, but measuring the quality of an innovation project a priori is a very hard problem. Here’s why […].”

It boils down to this: if you want to make policy, you have to take on board its full complexity. A dumbed-down version just won’t work: at least, I can’t think of any way to do this without treating everyone as an intelligent adult, and demanding everybody behaves like one. And when you think of it this is a really beautiful idea. It demands full honesty and transparency from policy makers; intellectual rigour and hard work from citizens; and mutual respect from everyone. It brings out the best everyone has to give. And it might work.

I am really, really curious to run the experiment, and very proud. I am proud of the Edgeryders community for making the effort (God knows many of them are broke, and investing time and money to come to Brussels to have this kind of discussion is a really generous gift); proud of our policy makers, Prabhat Agarwal and his colleagues at the European Commission’s DG Connect, Justyna Krol and her unit at UNDP-CIS, Anna Maria Darmanin at the European Economic and Social Committee, Amelia Andersdotter at the European Parliament; super-proud of my colleagues at the Council of Europe – Gilda Farrell, Nadia El-Imam, Malcolm Cox, Noemi Salantiu, Andrei Trubceac, Joel Obrecht – for supporting the event even though it is not an official Council of Europe one.

And I am proud of you all, my fellow humans, so well represented by the wonderful people at #LOTE2. After all of the screwups in the long, bloody history of what we today call government; after all the false starts, broken promises, bogus ideologies, visionary leaderships betrayed by mediocrity (and don’t even get me started on the really heavy stuff of Gulags and secret police), it looks like we are still smart enough to look truth in the eye; strong enough to forgive each other; and crazy enough to try again, and even think that, this time, we might get it right.

If you want to participate to #LOTE2, read this.

#LOTE2 gearing up: can citizens do actual policy design? (Italiano)

Designing policy
Non vedo l’ora che cominci #LOTE2. Parteciperanno alcune delle persone più interessanti che conosco: e se non bastasse, stiamo montando un bellissimo programma, interattivo e no-spectator-allowed. La mia parte preferita è la Policy Hero Challenge: l’idea è di prendere alcune delle raccomandazioni generate dal progetto Edgeryders e dare loro la forma di politiche pubbliche. Processi possibili, seri, compatibili con la normativa, accountable; roba che potrebbe essere presa così com’è e portata in Parlamento – o diventare una decisione amministrativa di qualche dirigente. Di solito i cittadini – anche quelli molto intelligenti – non sono in grado di fare questo. Quindi, a ogni sessione parteciperà almeno una persona che lavora nelle istituzioni. Il suo compito è è non permettere alla sessione di assumere un atteggiamento semplicistico.

Lasciatemi fare un esempio. Abbiamo una sessione su “ricablare le politiche per l’innovazione”. Molti edgeryders pensano che le politiche europee dell’innovazione si perdano l’occasione di sostenere persone innovative: non le vedono nemmeno, perché sono concentrate le organizzazioni. Come potrebbe essere una politica per l’innovazione centrata sugli individui? Immagino che la sessione comincerà circa così:

“CITTADINO: “I governi vogliono solo dare grandi progetti a grandi imprese high tech. Tutti sanno che non sono questi i soggetti più innovativi. Dilbert lavora per una grande impresa high tech! Stiamo davvero dicendo che ha senso finanziare il capo di Dilbert per produrre innovazione?”

POLICY MAKER: “Piano. Dobbiamo rendere conto di ogni centesimo, e questo è bene. Ora, le grandi organizzazioni sanno fare a spendere denaro del contribuente: hanno sistemi di contabilità sofisticati e possiedono beni di valore – quindi, se non producono risultati, possiamo sempre fare loro causa e recuperare il denaro. Per esempio, nel 2009 c’è stato un episodio sgradevole in cui alcune piccole imprese hanno montato una specie di truffa […] Certo, se avessimo indicatori affidabili della qualità dei progetti ex ante, potremmo correre qualche rischio in più sull’amministrazione in cambio della certezza di sostenere i progetti migliori, ma misurare la qualità di un’innovazione a priori è molto difficile. Ecco perché: […]

Alla fine è questo: se vuoi fare politiche pubbliche, devi misurarti con la loro piena complessità. Le versioni annacquate non funzionano: almeno, a me non viene in mente un modo di fare queste cose senza trattare tutti come adulti pensanti, e senza pretendere che tutti si comportino come tali. E a pensarci è un’idea bellissima. Esige completa onestà e trasparenza da parte dei policy makers; rigore intellettuale e duro lavoro dai cittadini; e rispetto reciproco da tutti. Porta alla luce il meglio di ciò che ciascuno ha da dare. E potrebbe funzionare.

Sono molto curioso di fare l’esperimento, e molto orgoglioso. Sono orgoglioso della comunità di Edgeryders che fa lo sforzo di autoconvocarsi (Dio sa che molti di loro sono poveri, e il loro investimenti di tempo e denaro per venire a Bruxelles a fare queste discussioni è un dono generoso); orgoglioso dei nostri policy makers, Prabhat Agarwal e i suoi colleghi alla Commissione Europea DG Connect, Justyna Krol e la sua unità a UNDP-CIS; super-orgoglioso dei miei colleghi al Consiglio d’Europa – Gilda Farrell, Nadia El-Imam, Malcolm Cox, Noemi Salantiu, Andrei Trubceac, Joel Obrecht – per sostenere l’evento anche se non è un evento ufficiale del Consiglio d’Europa

E sono orgoglioso di tutti voi, umani come me, così ben rappresentati a #LOTE2. Dopo tutti gli errori nella lunga, sanguinosa storia di ciò che oggi chiamiamo governo; dopo tutte le false partenze, le promesse infrante, le ideologie false, i leaders visionari traditi dai mediocri intorno a loro (e non parliamo nemmeno della roba davvero pesante dei Gulag e delle polizie segrete); dopo tutto questo, sembra che siamo abbastanza intelligenti da guardare la verità in faccia; abbastanza forti da perdonarci a vicenda; e abbastanza pazzi per riprovarci, e perfino per pensare che, questa volta, potremmo riuscire.

Se vuoi partecipare a #LOTE2, leggi qui.