Tag Archives: Spaghetti Open Data

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?

Buongiorno Wikitalia: a new phase for Open Government in Italy

Last week – that appropriately ended with the Open Government Data Camp in Warsaw – has been extraordinary for Italians who care about open government and open data. The Emilia Romagna Region and the City of Florence launched the respective open data portals; the Ministry for innovation and public service announced the dati.gov.it, recruiting civic hacking competition Apps4Italy for added firepower; and Wikitalia, an ambitious civil society initiative, went public.

The present scenario seemed unthinkable just a year ago. Sure, there are reservations and new challenges, as Andrea De Maio warned; we need to be on our guard, and to keep our bullshit detectors on and fully charged. But we have reasons to savor the moment and treat ourselves to a small celebration.

The Italian way towards an open government is different from the more famous cases of the USA and the UK. In those countries the initiative was taken by the government, whereas south of the Alps the civil society has played an important role, in some cases a leading one. Informal meeting spaces – my favorite one is the Spaghetti Open Data mailing list – allowed the more curious and adventurous civil servants to interact with the movement and build up ammo to “sell” open government initiative to their respective institutions. For this reason, we in SOD (I know, unfortunate acronym) have watched most open gov-open data initiatives unfold from the very early days: the ones quoted above, but also others (the Ministry’s initiative is an exception).

This interaction between institutions and civil society has been extremely constructive. The latest example: the portal dati.emilia-romagna.it was launched on Monday morning. The link was immediately picked up and circulated onto the mailing list. In the space of about ten hours, the Region got a lot of kudos – pushed out onto the main social media by mailing list members – and a comprehensive expert test drive, as different members tried its features and posted suggestions for improvement, unsolicited and for free. Something similar happened with ENEL’s open data website, that went live with an unappropriate license. The community’s suggestions (and in this case the criticisms), amplified by social media, led the person in charge of the company’s open data initiative to subscribe to the mailing list, where he received a warm welcome and a passionate argument for changing the license and really opening up those data. Three weeks later, ENEL adopted a fully open license. Take a moment to ponder this: this is what governance could look like – pluralistic, respectful, fast, knowledge-based and low-cost. In my country, it generally does not.

So, the time has come for taking this scene to the next level, and that is Wikitalia. The idea first occurred to Riccardo Luna. He chanced to read my book Wikicrazia at exactly the right moment, as he was looking for new challenges after successfully launching Wired Italia magazine. Riccardo resonates with the vision of constructive collaboration I outlined in the book, that of Internet-mediated collaboration between citizens and institutions is both viable and badly needed if we are to live in Italy. During the summer he, I and others fleshed out this vision into an organization and an action plan. The result is a nonprofit initiative which is inclusive (the door is wide open to any collaboration), action-oriented and with a clear strategy, and natively global (I personally insisted in involving friends and colleagues abroad like Beth Noveck, Andrew Rasiej, Tom Steinberg, Marietje Schaake, Micah Sifry and others right from the start).

So, buongiorno Wikitalia. All Italians that want a regeneration are invited to invest in themselves and get to the next screen. Press PLAY to get started, and good luck.

Against all odds: open data in Italy make a breakthrough

Last Tuesday in Rome a wonderful thing happened: OpenSpending Italy — the first Italian contribution to the OpenSpending platform — was launched.

The data were there. They come from a dataset of consolidated public spending by region that the Department for Development Policies started gathering in 1998. They were already published in open format: the Department can rightfully take credit for it. Yet, I would argue that Tuesday’s launch marks an important step forward.

A step forward was made in accessibility to data. A very important, well maintained, comprehensive dataset on public spending is now accessible through advanced, interactive visualization, easy to compare with analogous international data. Even more interesting, it was published in widget form: anybody can copypaste the embed code anywhere she wants, like I did above.

But the more interesting step was made in the scope and diversity of collaboration that lead to this result. The data for OpenSpending Italy have been gathered, cleaned and associated to metadata by Italian civil servants in the Department for Development Policies and the State’s Accounting Service; processed by code written by British and German coders at Open Knowledge Foundation, a third sector organization; and published through the data journalism channels of Guardian Media, a British private business. The idea has been generated in the context of the meeting places of the Italian open data movement, and of a virtual meeting place in particular: the Spaghetti Open Data mailing list, born in September 2010 to provide civil servants and civic hackers with a constructive, respectful environment to talk about open data.

Thanks to this “managed diversity” (in the sense that trolling is not tolerated) SOD — like other places — allows people with complementary backgrounds and skills to meet up, explore each other, and maybe do something together. OpenSpending Italy was born from the collaboration of two wonderful civil servants, Aline Pennisi of the State Accounting Service and Simona De Luca of the Department for Development Policies, and civic hacker Stefano Costa of Open Knowledge Foundation Italy. Stefano got the international branch of OKF involved (Jonathan Gray and Friedrich Lindenberg need mentioning); and the latter enlisted Guardian Media (Simon Rogers, who — just like Gray — happened to be in Italy to participate in the Journalism Festival in Perugia). 72 hours later the data went live on OpenSpending’s first page and on the Guardian’s datablog.

This story, as I see it, has a clear implication: the Italian open data movement has come of age much faster than expected. Available datasets are growing; we are converging on standards of openness; we have visualization tools, physical and virtual meeting places, supporters in several administrations and ISTAT. We have friends overseas in the global open data movement, and we can and do collaborate with them as peers. We even have an emergent leadership: even as OpenSpending Italy was released, Aline was already working on a new project with OpenPolis and Open Linked Data Italy. Codenamed Open Budgets, it aims at making the budgets of more than 8000 Italian municipalities open and accessible. All this in a country perceived as indifferent, immobile, declining — with good reasons.

Me, I’m just happy and proud of the little I can give to the Italian open data movement, maintaining the SOD mailing list (I am the condominium’s janitor, so to speak). All together, civil servants, geeks and simply curious, committed people, we are showing that we can achieve some change for the good here and now, with the available resources and skills, without having to wait for some Global Change or a cultural singularity. May this attitude spread elsewhere in the public sphere. Heaven knows we need it.