Tag Archives: partecipazione

Area C in Milan: the converging conversation

Area C is the name of a City of Milan initiative, not unlike London’s congestion charge: you pay to enter the city center in a car. The back story is this: a previous city administration had introduced an experimental congestion charge. When the experimentation period was over, municipal elections were coming up, and the mayor of the time put off the decision of whether to scrap it or keep it. The 2011 elections ousted the incumbent mayor; the new one had already promised it would keep the congestion charge, with redesign.

The city administration opened an official Area C group on Facebook. While unusual, the move made a lot of sense: when almost everybody is a driver, any limitation to car circulation is going to stir controversy. The idea was probably to do damage control, channeling discontent in a controlled space where moderation could be exerted and the city authorities could make their voice heard. About a thousand people joined the group.

And then something unexpected happened.

First, quite a lot of people started to voice in no uncertain term in favour of Area C. There is even a hardliner group that is clamoring to extend the policy to the rest of the inner city: why should just the rich people in the center enjoy the good life with far fewer cars? We want it too. Makes sense: traditional (offline) participatory processes are expensive and exhausting: you have to cross the city, during business hours, to sit in boring meetings. You are not going to do it unless your financial interests are at stake – and even then, you are likely to hire lobbyists to do it for you. So, of course, every time it tried to pedestrianize a city center, an administration would in principle involve its citizens, but in fact it would end up talking to the shopkeepers lobbies. But this, man, is the Internet: an entirely new ballgame. It’s always on, you can participate from your home at midnight if you want to. The threshold of participation for Area C is so much lower than it was for its forerunner initiative that suddenly you are hearing the voice of pedestrians, cyclists, mothers of small children, the minority of shopkeepers who are actually in favor of it. The city administration (represented in the Area C group by a clearly identifiable user called “Moderatore Area C”) redressed its role accordingly: it is not in the business of selling the policy to its citizens anymore, because the citizens themselves are doing that. No, the city is now playing arbiter: asking questions (“has anybody used such and such service payment? How did you find the first car-free Sunday?”), enforcing netiquette, providing links with factual knowledge (“here you can see the data: the average speed of public transport has gone up 22% in the first month”).

Second, the quality of the debate soared. Mutual aggressions between fanboys and haters rarefied; factual contributions seemed to be rewarded by far more Likes and comments, and that nudged the emerging Area C community towards a square meter-by-square meter monitoring of the policy. Traffic has thinned out in street X; it has become impossible to park in square Y, just at the border of Area C; and on it goes. People take pictures with phones and upload them to prove their point. The conversation is still tense: a popular activity is to upload pictures of cars damaged after a crash, with accompanying status updates like “see, this is what car culture does to you and your children”. But it hardly ever crosses the border to insult (moderators had to kick out a few trolls in the early days to get it across that they were serious about enforcing netiquette). People who make meaningful points and share factual information are popular: one of the stars of Area C is Davide Davs, who likes to download air pollution data from the Milano environmental agency’s website and use them to plot charts comparing how Area C is doing with respect to its predecessor initiative for various pollutants. Davide is a twentysomething from the South of the country who works in Milano. He is the typical citizen expert that emerges from a well run online community around a public policy – and that would never get invited to an offline stakeholders meeting, simply because there is no way to know he exists before creating a self-selecting community on the matter.

In weeks, the group had gone from confrontation between citizens and the city to confrontation between citizens and citizens to informed assessment of the policy. The next step was obvious: proposals. And proposals came. So many came that the administration decided to organize an event, Traffic Camp, where citizens could present their ideas without asking for permission (to get on the list of speakers, you just write your name and the title of your presentation on the event’s wiki). A whopping 47 talks were given at Traffic Camp, parading online journey planners for cyclists, car sharing schemes, bicycle-only delivery services and much more. The first speaker was Pierfrancesco Maran, the young alderman responsible for Area C, who gave fellow citizens a progress report. From the accounts I read, Traffic Camp was hugely popular: lots of ideas, good vibrations, packed rooms.

Third, it became clear that the question about the merits of the Area C congestion charge had been the wrong one all along. At this point the conversation is not even so much about Area C anymore: it has moved on. Everybody is talking about mobility. Everybody agrees that any viable solution for Milan’s mobility problems is going to need to deploy a variety of instruments, and both induce and rest on significant behavioral change. Everybody agrees that bicycles are going to be a big part of any such solutions. Area C is likely to be short-lived: as that solution emerges, my guess is that it will need be redesigned, probably beyond recognition, to fit and support that solution. The question was wrong, but the only way to get at the right question was to ask the wrong one, structure an open, knowledge-oriented, institutionally backed interaction environment and let citizens work it out.

In my book Wikicrazia I have argued that online conversations converge: given the right values and the right rules of engagement, a shared conclusion will be reached. Decision makers considering using the Internet as a channel for citizen participation are worried that their participation initiatives will be maimed by trolling and flame wars, that the constructive citizens will flee and they will be stuck with the haters. I have tried to convince them that the mechanism of a well-structured online conversation rewards good contributors like Davide Davs with attention and reputation effects. It is always nice to see somebody proving you right.

Also, consider the costs and the time scale of the process: all of this involved no more than three months and a lot of attention by skillful community manager Pietro Pannone and strategists Alessio Baù and Paola Bonini, all with Hagakure. Another couple of projects like this one and traditional offline participation processes will become an unviable proposition. As far as I am concerned, good riddance: participation will be much easier for those who can’t afford to hire professional lobbyists. That is, at the end of the day, for all of us.

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.

Il sindaco nel suo labirinto

Molti sono i fallimenti annunciati dell’azione amministrativa, quelli immediatamente evidenti a tutti tranne che ai responsabili: dai rifiuti di Napoli, al ponte di Messina, alla legge Pisanu con i suoi registri cartacei, a tutti noi è capitato di leggere annunci trionfali di nuovi progetti pubblici e pensare “non funzionerà mai”. Le persone che prendono queste decisioni, evidentemente, sono di parere opposto. Come si spiega questa discrepanza? L’unica spiegazione che riesco a darmi è che molti decisori pubblici vivano in una bolla informativa del tutto scollegata dall’ambiente in cui viviamo voi e io: semplicemente, non hanno accesso ad alcune informazioni importanti. Se è così, probabilmente queste persone non sono davvero qualificate a prendere decisioni di interesse pubblico.

Prendiamo, per esempio, il progetto Ambrogio del Comune di Milano. Funziona così: alcuni soggetti (consigli di zona, vigili di quartiere, società partecipate) hanno un palmare (in tutto 200), e lo usano per segnalare i luoghi gli interventi di manutenzione e di decoro urbano. La segnalazione viene scritta nelle basi dati degli uffici competenti, che provvedono a risolvere il problema. Il Comune intende assegnare altri 150 palmari a “cittadini sentinella”.

Questo progetto ha problemi seri.

  1. è tecnologicamente sbagliato. Perché incorporare questa funzionalità in un oggetto fisico? Bastava scrivere un software per gli smartphone. Questo avrebbe messo chiunque abbia uno smartphone in condizioni di partecipare, senza costringere i poveri cittadini sentinella a portarsi in tasca un altro aggeggio oltre al loro telefono, tenerne le batterie cariche e il software aggiornato etc.
  2. è socialmente sbagliato: non abilita l’autoselezione. Solo i soggetti scelti top-down dal Comune possono fare segnalazioni. Avrebbe avuto più senso abilitare tutti, e lasciare che ogni cittadino decidesse da sè se e quando partecipare. Grandi numeri nella partecipazione potenziale portano a un impatto alto anche quando i tassi di partecipazione sono bassi, come avviene quasi sempre. Così molti contributi potenziali andranno perduti, e molti di quei palmari rimarranno a prendere polvere nei cassetti.
  3. ha funzionalità inutili, come la possibilità di inviare foto. Se qualcuno abbandona una bicicletta incatenata a un palo, caricarne la foto sui server del Comune non serve a nulla se non ad appesantire il sistema con algoritmi di riconoscimento immagini. Un modulo in cui caricare informazioni testuali è molto più facile da gestire per l’ente che deve ricevere la segnalazione. Queste informazioni si possono scrivere da casa, quindi a che serve il palmare?
  4. è poco trasparente. Al momento in cui scrivo – e nonostante le richieste di informazioni della società civile –  Ambrogio non ha un sito; non si sa quanto costi; non si sa su quali tecnologie si basi. Visto che il partner tecnologico è Telecom Italia, non esattamente un campione del software libero, non mi aspetto che sia basato su tecnologie aperte. Se è così,
  5. è in contrasto con il buonsenso e con il Codice dell’Amministrazione Digitale, che prevedono il riuso delle tecnologie. Per esempio, il Comune arebbe potuto usare FixMyStreet, progetto open source britannico già adottato anche in Norvegia. I norvegesi l’hanno interfacciato con il database geografico di OpenStreetMap, anch’esso in open source. Il codice c’è già e funziona, sarebbe bastato tradurre i menu in italiano! Oppure chiedere al Comune di Spinea il suo sistema, a cui magari aggiungere, con una spesa da qualche migliaio di euro, una app per gli smartphone.
  6. è costoso – anche se, vista la mancanza di trasparenza, non sappiamo esattamente quanto. Alcuni media hanno parlato di 400 mila euro.

La cosa che fa più impressione di questa sequela di errori è quanto sarebbe stato facile evitarla. Una ricerca su Google avrebbe consentito di trovare FixMyStreet e Spinea. Alzare lo sguardo sulla società civile di Milano avrebbe permesso di incontrare persone competenti, che lavorano sulla tecnologia come agente abilitante di una cittadinanza più attiva, come l’associazione Green Geek e gli animatori di NetLAMPS. Valorizzarne il contributo di questi cittadini appassionati di tecnologia sarebbe stato un ulteriore elemento di promozione della cittadinanza attiva. E invece no: nella nostra Milano iperconnessa, i responsabili di Ambrogio sono riusciti in qualche modo a evitare di entrare in contatto con queste informazioni e con i concittadini che avrebbero potuto aiutarli. Purtroppo, questa è una situazione frequente.

Che un sindaco non sia esperto di tecnologia va benissimo: avrà altre esperienze, altri punti di forza da mettere a disposizione dei cittadini. Ma che nessuno dei suoi collaboratori sia in grado di fare una ricerca su Google o di telefonare a qualcuno che, in città, conosce queste cose prima di spendere 400mila euro dei contribuenti, questo lo trovo inaccettabile. Forse sarebbe il caso di pensarci, in vista delle prossime elezioni.

PS – A me incuriosisce anche il famoso palmare. Voi riuscite a capire che roba è?

PPS – Il titolo del post è un omaggio a García Márquez.