I was in Rome last week, to hold a keynote presentation at a large government tech/innovation trade fair called ForumPA. It was a lot of fun, with a very high energy exchange between me and the audience. 18 months after my book Wikicrazia hit the bookshops, we talked in a very frank way of where the frontiers of online collaboration between citizens and institutions are, and what new and interesting problems are emerging. One is “kicking down doors”: piggybacking on innovative civil servants or elected officials to set precedents and open up new administrative channels, in order to extend the space of actions perceived as possible by administrations. Another one is the dire need for complex ecosystems of governance, with civil society acting as skunkworks of new solution that might then be adopted by institutions proper. You can find the video here (very professionally made, in Italian); the slides are above.
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.