Tag Archives: terremoto

Sharing vs. the earthquake in northern Italy: a cause for hope

I find it hard to concentrate on my work today. I am from Modena, Emilia Romagna, Italy, that just today has been hit by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. I live in France, but my whole family and lots of friends are in hard-hit areas.

As I keep an eye on Twitter for news and updates, I realized that people are spontaneously mobilizing to create – apparently out of thin air – common resources that make a difference to the local people trying to cope with the earthquake’s aftermath. Let’s see:

  • first of all, there is Twitter itself. By now westerners have become accostumed to the uncanny speed with which online social networks, Twitter in particular, get on top of information and spread it as it happens. I know the math behind it (Twitter is a scale-free. multihub structure, extremely good for spreading information), but watching it happen is quite fascinating. In Modena today the cellular phone network went down: I learnt my own family was safe through a tweet by my sister. The hashtag has been used to pass news around and coordinate: bring water to village X,  parents of children taking part in sport event Y know that they are all safe, etc. It has even be kept free of non.operational stuff, like the emergency lane of a road closed to all traffic saved ambulances and fire trucks. As often before in comparable situations, professional journalists are reduced to updating their websites based on… Twitter.
  • second, as the phone network failed and the need for communication was very urgent, people quickly figured out they could create a rough-and-ready data communication network simply removing the passwords that prevent unauthorized users to connect to the wi-fi hotspots in their homes, shops and offices. Citizens, businesses, local authorities and at least two telecommunicatioin company with a commercial wi-fi offer (TIM and Vodafone – here is the latter’s instructions) all did this. The suggestion and the instructions to reconfigure hotspots is being spread through Twitter and Facebook as I am writing this. In densely populated cities like Modena, this means a more or less complete coverage. For free, and in minutes.
  • third, thousands of people were made temporarily (and in some cases, unfortunately, more than that) homeless, as their homes need to be checked for damages by technicians. The Couchsurfing network sprung into action, asking its members to post onto a specific web page whether they were willing to take on evacuees, and for how long. Immediately several pages of offers shot up. Many list a duration of “as long as they need to”. For those who don’t know it, Couchsurfing is a network of predominantly young adults who share their couches or guest rooms: it is a way to travel to a distant city  and not only save the money of a hotel room, but also have a local that they know.

So, these are three common resources that did not exist yesterday, and that today are helping to cope. There’s probably others I am not aware of. It is too soon to draw any final conclusions, but at least tentatively I would like to attempt two:

  1. commons are in the eye of the beholder. All of those wi-fi routers were there before. It’s just by looking at them in a new way and thinking “Hey, if I open  up my wi-fi my neighbor will be able to inform her family in a distant city that she’s all right; plus, if we all do it,. will be able to compensate for the telephone network’s failure.” instead of  “I need to keep my wi-fi protected from free riders or, worse, pirates” that the common good is created.
  2. Internet culture is conducive to creatng and maintaining commons. There is no going around it: all three phenomena (and many others) are intimately related to the Internet: enabled by its existence and consistent with hacker “do it yourself” ethics.

There may be a third one, but it is not very scientific: the seeming ease with which my countrymen and -women adopted such sharing behavior is a harbinger of hope. Looking forward to what comes next.

La forza e la fatica e degli open data

Dalla mailing list di Spaghetti Open Data (impagabile) raccolgo e rilancio due segnalazioni di questi giorni che mi sembrano interessanti.

  1. la prima è la straordinaria demo di data.gov sui terremoti. Pesca da un dataset di terremoti, archiviati per intensità e coordinate geografiche, e restituisce una mappa dei terremoti dell’ultima settimana. Siccome è aggiornata dinamicamente, la visualizzazione cambia nel tempo: qui sopra mostro uno screengrab che fa vedere i 300 e passa eventi sismici avvenuti in Giappone questa settimana, su oltre 400 in tutto il mondo (hat tip: Matteo Brunati). Riccardo Strobbia ha costruito uno strumento simile, stringendo i limiti temporali della query per avere una visualizzazione dei terremoti in tempo reale (hat tip: Federico Bo)
  2. la seconda è utile per temperare i nostri entusiasmi per i dati aperti con le difficoltà molto reali di manipolazione. Eric Sanna ha pubblicato una specie di tutorial per costruire un semplice grafico a partire dal dataset di assenze dal lavoro dei dipendenti del Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, la cui pubblicazione, come forse ricorderete, è prevista dal decreto Brunetta. Il CNR, come purtroppo molti enti e agenzie, ha pubblicato sì i dati, ma in formato PDF, quindi pochissimo aperto. A forza di smanettare, Eric riesce a passare da PDF a Excel, e da Excel a un grafico. Però ci mette un’ora e mezza: lui, che in quanto a rapporto con i dati è decisamente più attrezzato del cittadino medio (lavora all’ISTAT)! Inoltre, il lavoro descritto da Eric serve solo a fluidificare i dati e mostrarli, mentre si ferma alla soglia dell’elaborazione vera e propria – cioè della fase che potrebbe strappare ai dati qualche segreto, qualche intuizione. Per esempio: come interpretare il picco di assenze in agosto? Conclusione: manipolare i dati è faticoso, e lo rimarrà ancora a lungo. C’è ancora molto lavoro da fare per rendere i dati pubblici veramente fruibili, e fino a che non lo saranno il loro potenziale rimarrà ancora, almeno in parte, inespresso.

Open data: the hardship and the power

These days the Spaghetti Open Data mailing list (priceless) is all the rage for two interesting contributions.

  1. the first one is the extraordinary data.gov demo in earthquakes. It draws from a dataset of earthquakes, filed by intensity and location, and returns a map of earthquakes in the world over the last week. It updates dynamically, so what you’ll see changes over time: above is a screeb grab of what northern Japan looks at the time of writing, with well over 300 seismic evens over a world total of more than 400. (hat tip: Federico Bo)
  2. the second one is useful to dampen our enthusiasm with a realistic assessment of real-life difficulties. Eric Sanna has published a tutorial of sorts to build a simple chart starting from a dataset of absence from work of the employees of Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche. Italian law mandates public agencies to publish data on employee absences, and CNR obliged — but using PDF, not exactly on open format. Tinkering around, Eric went from PDF to Excel, and from Excel to chart. But that took 1h 30′; and Eric is way more data literate than the average — he actually works at ISTAT! Plus, his tutorial stops where the real elaboration begins, and the civic hacker sets off to extract some hidden knowledge from the data. For example, what could the peak in absences in August possibly mean? Conclusion: manipolating data is hard, and it will stay hard. There is a lot of work to do to make public data truly usable, and until that work gets done the potential of open data will go, at least in part, untapped.