Tag Archives: Italy

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?

Why the Italian government should not create an open government unit

Apparently the new Italian government is determined to move to adopt open government practices. It is plausible: several ministers are curious enough to investigate new ways, and smart enough to live out this space as protagonists. Regional cohesion minister Fabrizio Barca has written a review of my book of open government that shows a deep and sophisticated understanding of the topic. The most determined in this is probably Education minister Francesco Profumo, who in 2011 – as the newly appointed CEO of the National Research Council, was taking steps to open up its governance. Not by chance, Profumo requested and got the competence on innovation.

The interesting problem is how to open up the Italian public administration, overcoming its inevitable resistances. To keep it simple, consider two possibities: a top-down strategy, focused on the production of regulation and guidelines, and a bottom-up one, focused on building capacity in the various agencies of the central State, but also – and mainly – of the Regions.

The top-down strategy consists in building a strong open government unit in the Innovation department. This unit writes regulations that mandate the adoption of radical transparency and citizen engagement practices; and it produces tools for the various government agencies to do so (for example guidelines, definitions, technical documents). If it works, this strategy results in a new central institution that can do open government.

The bottom-up strategy consists of infiltrating the various state and regional agencies with open and transparent policies and projects. The goal is not to concentrate competences, but to distribute them; and not to set up transparency and openness as add-ons to the policy process, but rather embedding them in each phase of the policy cycle, from design to ex-post evaluation. If it works, such a strategy builds new capacity in the existing agencies to whatever it is they do (education, health care, infrastructures and so on).

Clearly, the two strategies are not alternative but complementary. Nationwide regulation is needed: for example, we need a Freedom of Information Act as a legal tool of last resort, and you can only do this top-down. But I believe that the bottom-up strategy should be the main one. Here’s the reason: a technical unit that owns open government risks to be considered as a nuisance by the frontline agencies; and the latter can jeopardize open government policies simply by not cooperating, or treating them as more red tape, another bureaucratic requirement. It would be a disaster. Contrived open government is very likely to turn into a sad charade.

Some unsolicited advice to Profumo: minister, resist the temptation to gather the best and the brightest around you. Promote, rather, a community of practice of the Italian civil servants engaged in open government practices; set up an annual conference, reboot Innovatori PA, open channels of cooperation with the world’s leading administrations; use the authoritativeness of your role to reward those who perform well, at any level of the hierarchy; open up spaces of dialogue with the civil society. Don’t create another silo; rather, let open government’s women and the men work from the trenches, were public policies are deployed. Do this to stimulate the agencies’ demand for openness rather than push it down their throat. We risk the emergence of a typically Italian uneven situation, with some agencies performing much better than others. Well – that beats an evenly dismal situation.

Open Data summertime

Sorry, this post in Italian only. It is a call to arms for a collaborative translation into Italian of the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Data Manual. The rationale is that many Italian public authorities seem to be sincerely considering opening up their data, but they find taking the first step quite intimidating – lots of jargon to cut through. If you know enough Italian to help, read on!

È un buon momento per gli open data in Italia. Diverse amministrazioni mi sembrano considerare con sincero interesse l’idea di aprire i propri dati, nell’interesse della trasparenza e della collaborazione. Fare il primo passo, però, richiede il superamento di una certa timidezza iniziale. Lo capisco bene: ci sono scogli giuridici da evitare, un’infarinatura di know-how tecnico da acquisire, e la tentazione del “chi me lo fa fare” è sempre in agguato. In più, molta letteratura rilevante è in inglese.

E così, nella mitica mailing list di Spaghetti Open Data a un certo punto è nata l’idea di tradurre in italiano l’Open Data Manual della Open Knowledge Foundation, che è un documento ben organizzato, scritto per persone che non sanno nulla di open data. Come per tutte le cose veramente sentite, non è chiaro chi abbia avuto l’idea: qualcuno ha dato la colpa a me, ma io sono sicuro di non avere proposto nulla del genere (può essere che abbia detto “sarebbe bello”). Comunque sia, un paio d’ore dopo quelli della OKF avevano caricato il Manuale sul web per la traduzione.

È un venerdì di agosto. Proporre ora un’esperienza collaborativa (tra l’altro impegnativa come una traduzione) va contro ogni regola della comunicazione web. Ma va bene così: è un’operazione che si è montata praticamente da sola, e questo in genere è un buon segnale. In effetti, al momento in cui scrivo abbiamo già tradotto il 15% del manuale! Per il rimanente 85, tutti i lettori di Contrordine Compagni sono invitati ad arruolarsi. Va benissimo anche tradurre solo una o due frasi. Istruzioni:

  1. andate qui e registratevi.
  2. andate qui. Cliccate sul link “Open Data Manual → all.pot” e poi su “Translate now”.

Io sto facendo la mia parte e sono qui.