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.

Aperti nonostante tutto: gli open data italiani segnano un punto

Martedì a Roma è successa una cosa bellissima: è stato presentato OpenSpending Italy, il primo contributo dell’Italia alla piattaforma internazionale OpenSpending.

I dati esistevano già. Sono quelli dei conti pubblici territoriali, che il Dipartimento di Politiche per lo Sviluppo ha cominciato a raccogliere nel 1998. E non solo esistevano, ma erano già in formato aperto; della loro pubblicazione aperta va dato atto al Dipartimento e alle sue e ai suoi dirigenti. Eppure, credo, l’annuncio di martedì segna una svolta importante.

C’è stato un salto nell’accessibilità. Dati di grande rilievo sui conti pubblici italiani (spesa pubblica consolidata dello Stato e delle amministrazioni regionali e locali, divisa per regione) sono accessibili con modalità di visualizzazione interattive, avanzate e facilmente confrontabili con iniziative analoghe all’estero (in lingua inglese), Ancora più interessante, questi dati sono stati pubblicati in forma di widget: chiunque può copiare e incollare il codice di embed dovunque voglia visualizzarli, come io ho fatto più sopra.

Ma il salto più interessante è nell’ampiezza e nella diversità della collaborazione che ha prodotto questo risultato. I dati di OpenSpending Italy sono stati raccolti, puliti e associati a metadati da funzionari pubblici italiani della Ragioneria Generale dello Stato e del Dipartimento di Politiche per lo Sviluppo; elaborati attraverso software scritto e adattato da sviluppatori inglesi e tedeschi della Open Knowledge Foundation, che fa parte del terzo settore; e pubblicato attraverso i canali dedicati al data journalism del quotidiano britannico Guardian, che naturalmente è un’impresa privata. L’idea è stata partorita nei luoghi di ritrovo del movimento open data italiano, e soprattutto in un luogo virtuale: la mailing list di Spaghetti Open Data, nata a settembre 2010 per offrire a funzionari pubblici e hacker civici un luogo dove discutere di dati aperti in un contesto costruttivo e rispettoso.

Grazie a questa diversità “gestita” (nel senso che comportamenti irrispettosi non vi sono tollerati) SOD – come altri luoghi – consente a persone che hanno percorsi e competenze complementari di incontrarsi, esplorarsi e, forse, fare qualcosa insieme. OpenSpending Italy è nato da una collaborazione tra due meravigliose civil servants, Aline Pennisi della Ragioneria Generale dello Stato e Simona De Luca del Dipartimento di Politiche per lo Sviluppo, e il civic hacker Stefano Costa di Open Knowledge Foundation Italia. Stefano ha coinvolto i suoi colleghi internazionali (in particolare Jonathan Gray e Friedrich Lindenberg); e questi hanno chiamato in causa Guardian Media (Simon Rodgers, che in quel momento si trovava in Italia — come del resto Gray — per partecipare al Festival del Giornalismo di Perugia). In 72 ore i dati erano pronti per essere sparati sulla prima pagina di OpenSpending e sul datablog del Guardian.

Questa vicenda, almeno per me, porta un messaggio molto chiaro: il movimento open data italiano è maturato molto prima del previsto. I dati stanno crescendo; stiamo convergendo su standard per la pubblicazione; abbiamo tools di visualizzazione, luoghi di ritrovo fisici e virtuali, simpatizzanti nelle pubbliche amministrazioni e nell’ISTAT. Abbiamo amici stranieri che condividono il nostro interesse e con cui siamo in grado di collaborare alla pari. Abbiamo anche una leadership emergente: rilasciato OpenSpending Italy, Aline sta già lavorando con OpenPolis e Open Linked Data Italy su un progetto che si chiama Open Bilanci, che mira a rendere facilmente accessibili i bilanci degli oltre 8000 comuni italiani. E tutto questo in un paese che viene percepito (con buone ragioni) come bloccato, declinante, indifferente.

Poi ok, la stampa ha fatto un po’ di confusione nel riportare in modo corretto fonti e coverage esatti dei dati (Pasquale Notargiacomo su Repubblica, con un inciampo buffo, li attribuisce al Dipartimento del Tesoro, che esiste negli USA ma non qui da noi!), ma è un ottimo inizio, e sono certo che nel tempo ci insegneremo l’un l’altro a essere più rigorosi. Per quanto mi riguarda, sono molto orgoglioso e felice del piccolo contributo che do al movimento open data italiano, mantenendo la mailing list di SOD (sono una specie di portinaio del condominio). Tutti insieme, servitori dello Stato, geeks e semplici curiosi stiamo dimostrando che si possono fare cose utili qui e ora, con le risorse che ci sono e con le competenze che abbiamo, senza aspettare grandi riforme o rinnovamenti culturali. Possa questa attitudine diffondersi ad altri aspetti della sfera pubblica. Sa il cielo che ne abbiamo bisogno.