Tag Archives: trasparenza

Trasparency brings growth

A few weeks ago, the open data community received a bit of a shock, in the form of a sharp, well-argued critique by Evgeny Mozorov. He claims that the “open government” meme hides a disconnect between those of us who interpret openness as transparency, accountability and ultimately human rights; and those that interpret it as contendibility to market competition, efficiency and GDP generation. In the extreme, he argues, “open government” can be made to mean “government open to competition from the private sector for the management of public goods”.

I agree with Mozorov that the difference in approach is there. However, I propose a point of view to reconcile the two different outlooks in practice. To do this, I borrow the words of the Italian blogger Michele Vianello, whom Mozorov would place firmly in the “openness for growth” camp. Michele is unconvinced by the sort of data that the Italian open data movement advocates the opening of.

How can we not understand that the most important data to open are those that enable citizens, businesses and government to generate economic and social value? […] How many GDP percentage points do we gain by live streaming the meetings of the parliamentary commissions?

Michele’s idea seems similar to what Mozorov attributes to the O’Reilly camp:

  1. The purpose of open data is mainly to stimulate economic growth.
  2. We can do so by releasing data that are amenable to being used for building value added services rather than government transparency data.

1 is the point debated by Mozorov. It comes down to what your values are. Let me leave it at that for now – I’ll come to it in a moment.

2 is definitely false – in the scientific sense of being contradicted by a veritable tide of economic literature. In the case of Italy, Corte dei Conti, our top administrative tribunal, estimates that corruption costs 60 billion euro a year. A few years ago this paper was quite popular (and there are many others). It says: increasing corruption by 1% (measured by polling indicators: corruption is by definition elusive to measure “at the tap”) implies a decrease of the GDP’s growth rate by a bit more than half a percentage point. Over the years, obviously, foregone growth itself follows an exponential growth curve – compound interest is an ugly beast – so that even small differences in the levels of corruption can lead to large ones in the absolute levels of national wealth.

In the following chart I imagine two initially identical economies (GDP at time 0 = 100), which would each grow by 2% a year in the absence of changes in their levels of corruption. I then posit that one of the two experiences a 1% increase in the levels of corruption in year 1. Following Mo, 2001 quoted above, this decreases its rate of growth by 0.54 percentage points. Corruption levels and everything else remain stable thereafter.


Twenty years later, the GDP of the more virtuous economy has a fifteen percentage points lead on the less virtuous one. Not by chance, the World Bank, OECD, UNDP and every other development agency worth its salt is turning an increasingly interested eye to pro-transparency, anti-corruption policies. Nor is it just corruption: the combination of open data, a lively data journalism scene and an attentive public opinion can help improve the effectiveness of public spending executed legally but poorly, that follows the same mathematical logic in decreasing growth. This is the rationale behind projects like Opencoesione (public expenditure data on over 600,000 projects funded with regional cohesion funds). Remember Linus’s Law: given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.

Now, open data are not only a component of transparency; my experience (and, I think I can say, the Italian community’s – just look at Spaghetti Open Data) is that they generate additional demand for transparency, drive to better understand, order in the data generation and in the policy process.

Conclusion: we, the open government/open data community, can disagree about our value system. But in practical terms, value systems does not make a lot of difference: we should all support radical transparency policies. If you agree with Mozorov, you will do it because you think we all have a right to know in depth what the government (and, hopefully in the near future, corporates) is doing, since that impacts our lives. If you agree with Vianello, you’ll do it because it’s good for GDP. Either way, the economic impact of open data has a tried and true channel for economic impact via increased efficiency in the overall economy from transparency; it’s there and it is solid. At the time of writing, it looks far more solid than impact via jobs created by startups that sell apps on Apple’s AppStore or Google’s Play.

OpenPompei: open data and the hacker economy vs. the mob

Veduta di Pompei
I’ve got a new task. I will run a new project called OpenPompei. It is part of the government’s new strategy in the Naples area, and in particular Pompeii.

Here’s the background: by the end of 2011 the government was convinced that the battle for the rule of law and a decent life for all in Italy’s Mezzogiorno would be won or lost in Pompeii, a symbol of the battle itself. In a very short time, three ministers – culture, interior and regional cohesion) set up a hundred-million euro project to restore the insulae damaged by the rain (a scourge of all open-air archaeological sites); got the European Commission’s seal of approval; wrapped it into an advanced security model that should keep mob-polluted companies to win any tenders. Thus was born the Great Pompeii Project.

As a very minor integration of this massive project, the government decided in 2012 to launch a small initiative for transparency, inquiry and mobilization. Spending on culture is great; protecting that spending against criminal infiltration is even better; but neither is enough. Public spending must be not just legitimate, but effective and efficient. It was decided that releasing the spending data from the Great Pompeii project must be a step in the right direction. Access to data and data-powered public debate can help to discover errors suggest improvements, drive administrations to perform better.

On this intuition, OpenPompei was born. Its remit has been kept broad on purpose, and includes:

  • promoting a culture of transparency and open data of a large area, of which Pompeii is the symbolic center. The idea is to have a small team ready to help southern administrations that wish to try their hand at open data policies. We shall start, obviously, from the data of the Great Pompeii Project.
  • reconnoitering and investigating the area’s hacker economy. As all densely populated places, the Naples area is full of co-working spaces, new digital companies, social enterprises, social innovators, sharing economy types. As everywhere, these initiatives are often fragile and isolated, but embody an idea of the future. Our ambition is to get to meet them, find out more about their goals, struggles and successes, and – if possibile – get their voice into the public policy debate, with no ambition to solve every problem.

The dream behind OpenPompei is to help build an alliance of civic hackers, non-compromised enterprises and State to maintain a high level of attention on public spending, so as to fight corruption and increase efficiency. It is unlikely for a small, peripheral project to achieve such a lofty goal, but we hope to give a contribution – at least one of knowledge.

To guarantee its independence, OpenPompai was set up as a European-funded project. Studiare Sviluppo, a in-house company of the ministry of the economy, was tasked with delivering. I worked with them before on Visioni Urbane e di Kublai. Wish me well, and be there for me when the going gets rough, ok?

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.