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07/12/15 Civic Technology , Open Policy # , , , , , , ,

OpenCoesione School – A scalable learning format using OpenData as Educational Resources

OpenCoesione School – A scalable learning format using OpenData as Educational Resources

The third edition of the open education project “OpenCoesione School” was launched on November 18th, 2015. While you are reading this post, about 2800 students and 200 teachers are involved in a collective learning experience focused on civic monitoring public funding through open data analysis, and also  visiting sites, and conducting journalistic research.

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OpenCoesione School – or ASOC, from Italian “A Scuola di OpenCoesione” – is an educational challenge and a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) designed for students in Italian secondary schools. ASOC was launched in 2013 within the open government strategy on cohesion policy carried out by the national agencies responsible for Cohesion Policy in Italy, in partnership with the Ministry of Education and the Representation Office of the European Commission in Italy. The project is also supported by the European Commission’s network of Europe Direct Information Centres.  

With a very limited budget compared to other similar practices, the project was designed in 2013 by a diverse group of experts including Damien Lanfrey and Donatella Solda from the Ministry of Education (who are now leading the ambitious Italian National Plan for Digital Schools), Simona De Luca, Carlo Amati, Aline Pennisi, Paola Casavola, Lorenzo Benussi and myself as members of the OpenCoesione scientific committee, and a specifically designated team including Chiara Ciociola and Andrea Nelson Mauro.   Francesca Mazzocchi, Marco Montanari and Gianmarco Guazzo joined the team in the following editions. Other OpenCoesione staff members such as Chiara RicciMara Giua and Marina De Angelis also contributed to the project.  

 

From Open Data to Civic Engagment

The objectives of ASOC are to engage participating schools towards actively promoting the use and reuse of open data for the development of civic awareness and engagement with local communities in monitoring the effectiveness of public investment. The participating students and teachers design their research using data from the 900,000 projects hosted on the national OpenCoesione portal. On OpenCoesione, everyone can find transparent information regarding the investment on projects funded by Cohesion Policies in Italy as it provides data with detailed information regarding the amount of funding, policy objectives, locations, involved subjects and completion times.  Schools can select the data they want to use in their research which can be related with their region or city.  

The program is designed in six main sessions. The first four sessions aim at developing innovative and interdisciplinary skills such as digital literacies and data analysis to understand and critically understand the use of public money. Thanks to a highly interactive process, students learn basic public policy analysis techniques such as identifying policy rationales for interventions and comparing policy goals with results. This process employs “civic” monitoring tools of the civil society initiative Monithon in order to work on of real cases. Data journalism and transmedia storytelling techniques are used as well.

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Schools that participated in the 2nd edition

During the fifth session, and based on the information acquired, ASOC students carry out on-site visits to the public works or services in their territory that are financed by EU and national funds for local development. They also conduct interviews with the key stakeholders involved in the projects’ implementation, the final beneficiaries and other actors. Finally, the sixth session is a final event where students meet with their local communities and policy-makers to discuss their findings, with the ultimate goal to keep the administrators accountable for their decisions. Here you can find all the video sessions and exercises: http://www.ascuoladiopencoesione.it/lezioni/.

 

Innovative learning

The teaching method combines asynchronous and synchronous learning. The asynchronous model is designed following a  typical of MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) style where participants learn through a series of activities and teachers are trained by the central ASOC team through a series of webinars. In the synchronous in-class sessions, these share a common structure where each class starts with one or more videos from the MOOC, followed by a group exercise where the participants get involved in teacher-led classroom activities. These activities are organized around the development of the research projects and reproduce a flipped classroom setting.

In between lessons, students work independently to prepare data analysis reports and original final projects. Also, in order to have an impact on local communities and institutions, the students are actively supported by local associations that contribute with specific expertise in the field of open data or on specific topics such as environmental issues, anti-mafia activities, local transportation, etc. Furthermore, the European Commission’s network of information centers “Europe Direct” (EDIC), is involved supporting the activities and disseminating the results. On ASOCs’ website there is a blog dedicated to share and disseminate the students’ activities on social networks.

ASOC’s pedagogical methodology is centered around specific goals, well-defined roles and decision-making. This has allowed students to independently manage every aspect of their project activities, from the choice of research methods to how to disseminate the results. On the other hand, the teachers are also involved in an intensive community experience that allows them to learn not only from their own students, but also from the local community and from their fellow teaching peers involved in the project.  

 

Involving communities and policy makers

Ultimately, this takes the form of a collective civic adventure that improves the capacity to form effective social bonds and horizontal ties among the different stakeholders, actors of the local communities. In fact, detailed Open Data on specific public projects has enable new forms of analysis and storytelling focused on real cases developed in the students’ neighborhoods. This, in turn, has the key goal of involving the policymakers in a shared, participatory learning process, to improve both policy accountability and the capacity to respond to local needs.

 

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Finally, ASOC’s key element is that the pedagogical methodology we have developed can be used as a learning pathway that can be adapted to different realities (e.g. different policy domains, from national to local, in different sectors) using different types of open data with comparable level of detail and granularity (e.g. detailed local budget data, performance data, research data, or any other type of data).

If you are interested in learning more from ASOC’s experience, you can read a case study which includes the results of the 2014-2015 edition on Ciociola, C., & Reggi, L. (2015). A Scuola di OpenCoesione: From Open Data to Civic Engagement. In J. Atenas & L. Havemann (Eds.), Open Data As Open Educational Resources: Case Studies of Emerging Practice.

Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us as we are looking forward to provide support to  your institutions and communities to share what we have learned from this exciting professional journey!

Here you can watch the ASOC’s documentary video of the 2014-2015 edition https://vimeo.com/138955671

A Scuola di OpenCoesione 2014-2015: le voci dei protagonisti from OpenCoesione on Vimeo.

 

This is an adaptation from this post published in OpenEducation Europa. Chiara Ciociola is the main contributor, while I added a few phrases to her final version. Javiera Atenas very kindly helped us with the proof reading. I am the one who’s responsible for any inaccuracy! 🙂

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13/09/15 Open Policy

At the origins of Open Goverment

At the origins of Open Goverment

As a European from “the continent”, I am particularly interested in the origins of the American “obsession” for government accountability and distrust in “the bureaucracy”. So I started reading some articles and books from the huge Public Administration literature, thanks to a class on this subject at the State University of New York at Albany. Here you can find just a note to myself (and to Public Administration geeks!). I really hope my understanding and reasoning will evolve over time, as I keep on reading 🙂

Woodrow Wilson mentions the European attitude towards Public Administration and politics when he cites quite rudely “a German professor of political science saying to his countrymen, ‘Please try to have an opinion about national affairs’” (Wilson 1887, p. 24).

In the US, public opinion seems to have (or have had) a different character. The fact that “the State” was not explicitly mentioned by the framers of the American Constitution represents for many the proof that “the bureaucracy” is something “somewhat illegitimate” (Rourke 1987, p. 232).  The origins of the US “stateless” Constitution are not only historical – i.e. the hostility to the English establishment – but also cultural, such as the influence of the Ancient Roman Republic (Stillman 1990, p. 157) and the civic virtues of heroes like Cincinnatus who, after his service as consul and dictator, retired as a farmer avoiding any compromise with power. The same view is reflected in the Jeffersonian tradition, focused on bottom-up government and limited apparatus (Kettl 2002, p. 34).

While the uneasy reconciliation of Republican values with the stateless origin of the American Nation was made thanks to “the expedient of locating sovereignty in the whole people” (Caldwell 1976, p. 478), according to scholars like Norton Long and John Rohr one of the sources of legitimation of Public Administration is the opportunities that it opens for the citizens to be involved in the decision making and in the work of government (Rourke 1987, p. 230).  It is not by chance that the recent paradigms of Open Government, Open Government Data (see for example Dawes et al. 2004) and collaboration in public services provision (see for example Noveck 2009) have all originated in the US, emphasizing the contribution of citizens and civil society to achieve goals of transparency and effectiveness of public policy.

In the “early voices” of the public administration science (Shafritz & Hyde 2012) the role of Public Administration as a way to reinforce democratic institutions and facilitate collaboration with the external environment seems to be not fully developed. For example, the works by Weber, Addams or Gulick are mainly focused on the internal issues regarding the functioning of the public administration machine. Wilson seems to negatively describe public opinion as something that (unfortunately?) comes with democracy, and that must be “educated” (…or manipulated?) by policy-makers (p. 21).
Lately, the Public Administration literature has taken into account the representativeness of public administration. The work by Kaufman shows that representativeness can be improved thanks to decentralization as the enabler of an “effective popular participation in government” (p. 266), even though this effort will not be maintained over time (p. 272).

The works by Wilson, Weber, Addams, Gulick, Kaufman are included in the anthology Shafritz, J. & Hyde, A. (2011). Classics of Public Administration (7th edition). Cenage Learning.

Caldwell, L. (1976). Novus ordo seclorum: The heritage of American public administration. Public Administration Review, 36(5), 476-488.

Dawes, S., Pardo, T.A., Cresswell, A.M. (2004). Designing electronic government information access programs: A holistic approach. Government Information Quarterly 21, 3–23.

Kettl, D. (2002). Administrative Traditions. In The transformation of governance: Public administration for 21st century America (pp. 26-49). Baltimore, M.D.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Noveck, B.S. (2009). Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful. Brookings Institution Press, 2009.

Rourke, F. (1987). Bureaucracy in the American constitutional order. Political Science Quarterly, 102(2), 217-232.

Stillman, R. (1990). The peculiar stateless origins of American public administration and consequences for government today. Public Administration Review, 50(2), 156-167.

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02/04/15 Open Policy # ,

(Open) Government <> (Open Government) Ecosystem

(Open) Government <> (Open Government) Ecosystem

Back in 2011, I wrote a post for this blog on the results of a workshop on the Open Government research agenda hosted by the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there. But somehow – albeit at a distance – it has shaped my interests so profoundly that now, after 4 years, I find myself working at CTG and dealing with the same interests and research topics.

Coincidentally, a couple of weeks ago I was asked to share my opinion on how to improve the Open Government ecosystem based on a paper that is reporting on the conclusions of the same, enlightening workshop.  Here are just my 2 cents on some of the fundamental ways in which governments should change.

img_28761. Focus on the long-term vision, not just on quick-wins. Changes in the open government ecosystem require long time. Government organizations are complex and removing the constraints to innovation requires special efforts.  The temptation is strong for leaders with short-term mandates to focus on the “easy part”, which generates immediate benefit from the point of view of political communication, but yields only short-term, unsustainable results (unfortunately, this is the history of most of the digital governance efforts in Italy).

2. But also commit to get things done. The vision itself is often not enough. The implementation of general principles and the execution of commitments are crucial.  What is the reason behind the decision of a Country to be part of the Open Government Partnership? Diplomatic relations, hype, emulation, or real willingness to change? Why President Obama announced a brand new USASpending.gov in 2014 and after almost a year the website has less functionalities than the older version?

3. Improve legibility and accountability, not just add a dataset to the open data portal.  Open data are sometimes seen as a panacea. While releasing government data in a useful way will enable new, unexpected uses in the open government ecosystem, open data are a means to an end, not an end in itself.  Open data don’t automatically imply transparency or accountability.  So a government cannot say “I am transparent, all my data are on line!”. Open data are a very powerful tool to improve transparency and accountability, for example, when data are “legible”, i.e. when it’s possible to track back the chain of responsibility behind that public action (a service, an infrastructure, a policy, etc.).  It’s a highly risky challenge that government organization should take.

4. Change the way to communicate.  Sometimes communication in public administrations is really old-fashioned.  Some public “communication officers”, for example, still debate in their conferences about “branding”, “products”, and “techniques to avoid difficult questions from the journalists” (true!!). This sounds like marketing principles during the ’80s!
An evolution is necessary from a unidirectional model (government > citizens) to a multi-directional dialogue. This enables new forms of collaboration between the citizens and the government.  For example, solving problems together and having the citizens telling this story would be a great form of communication.

5. Get involved with local communities. The paper refers to intentionality as one of the main factors shaping the Open Government Ecosystem. Just releasing open data is not enough. Governments should put in place proactive actions to stimulate the demand of their data. People and communities that are interested in a specific topic (e.g. NGOs, associations, unions…) probably ignore the very existence of that dataset that was just released. And, if they don’t, they probably don’t know what are the best way to analyze it, match it with other information, use it as a way to improve a given program or policy. So improving the “demand-side” of data publication (and related capabilities) is a brand new activity that the government should consider.  [In the photo: the 2015 Hackathon of the Italian Open Data community Spaghetti Open Data]

 

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6. (Not just IT) Change the organization.  Processing external feedback coming form the ecosystem is a totally new business for a public organization. This requires a transformation of processes and internal structure.
Some Open Government initiatives are just “special projects”. They have no “manager”, no “office”, no “department”. When nothing at the organizational level really changes, even processing the feedback can be difficult and can hardly be efficiently sent to the organizational units responsible for that particular program/policy.

7. Not just IT… but IT matters, a lot. So many Open Government websites and mobile apps fail because they are simply not usable, not “sexy”, not interesting. They are not fast enough, easy enough to scale up and involve a critical mass of interested users.  Also, the design of these tools has a lot to improve.  Many public consultations fail as well because their websites are poorly designed. Public engagement initiatives could find new opportunities for improvement at the intersection between art, civic design, technology and government action.

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05/03/15 Open Policy # , , , ,

A Question of Trust

A Question of Trust

This week Prof Maria Wimmer is visiting the Center for Technology in Government. Earlier today she presented an interesting theoretical trust model for e-participation.
Trust is indeed a central issue in participation in general, and e-participation in particular.

 

Please be vulnerable

Following the definition of trust of Mayer Davis Schoorman 1995, we as citizens are asked to “be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action”.  Why should we perceive that it is worth to take the risk of “being vulnerable”? What are the perceived benefits?

It’s useful to see the generation of trust as a self-reinforcing cycle. Trust can be seen as:

  • a condition for participation
  • a component of the process of participation
  • an outcome of participation

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If the outcome of participation is positive, then more and more people will be wanting to participate.  But having a positive outcome means, for example, that the feedbacks that government collects are used to actually change policy decisions. It’s more or less the opposite of what most governments are doing now, that is lunching fancy “on line consultation platforms” and then doing almost nothing with the feedback collected.

 

When e-participation (and trust) is up to “Funky Citizens”

The model from Maria Wimmer and her colleagues is primarily focused on a scenario in which citizens, groups and stakeholders interact directly with the government through IT tools.  She mentioned some examples such as the federal on line consultation platforms in Germany and the participatory budgeting tools in Cologne and Berlin. In all these cases, the only feedback “that counts” is the one submitted to the official platforms.  According to Prof Wimmer, other groups and citizens associations in Germany collect feedback on the same issues as well, but it not considered unless it is submitted through the official channels.

 

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However, other cases from different countries show that e-participation can be effectively realized by civil society organizations combining off-line and on-line tools.  They can act as intermediaries in the whole e-participation process.  Just two examples:

  1. BaniPierduti in Romania is an amazing example of a team of citizens calling themselves “Funky Citizens” that developed a participatory budget platform and are now stimulating citizen participation from the bottom-up at train stations and on the streets.  All the feedback collected then is delivered to the Ministry of Finance thanks to an old law (never actually used until now!) that allow citizens or NGO to ask for public debate on the national budget.
  2. Monithon in Italy is focused on public spending. An informal group of citizens is collecting evidence on how EU-funded projects are progressing and what results are delivering. Some monithon local communities have started a permanent dialogue with local public administrations to improve and speed up the projects.

 

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Where does trust come from?

In both examples, direct contact with real people and in-person interaction is a central feature in order to engender trust.  It’s not hard to figure out that it’s easier to trust a “Funky Citizen” than a federal on line platform.  In addition, in the case of Monithon, the Monithon “brand” is also more trusted by the managing authorities of EU funding than other independent associations. This is because the initiative is connected with the governmental open data portal OpenCoesione, which provides the data on the projects to be monitored by the Monithon community and often participates in joint initiatives with it.

So the geography of e-participation is indeed very complicated.  Numerous and different actors are involved, different governance models are being experimented, including sometimes “meso-level” actions and programs trying to close a little bit the distance between the government and its stakeholders.
But the question still stands: is the government willing to “play the game of e-partecipation”? The results of e-participation will generate enough impact to reinforce the virtuous cycle that Prof Wimmer presented today?

 

 

The source of the figure is Scherer, S. and Wimmer, M.A. (2014). Trust in e-participation: literature review and emerging research needs. ICEGOV ’14 Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance.

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18/11/14 Civic Technology , Open Policy # , , , ,

Open Government Meets Journalism: Should A Public Administration Actively Involve Data Journalists?

Open Government Meets Journalism: Should A Public Administration Actively Involve Data Journalists?

According to a brutal definition, Data Journalism is “Journalism with Data“. Even though this data can come from a variety of sources, Open Government Data is seen as a gold mine. A data journalist could be interested, for example, in tracking crimes through local crime data or discovering specific episodes of corruption and misuse of public funding thanks to the data on public spending.

Now let’s see this from the perspective of the government. As more and more public sector organizations are venturing in the world of Open Government, the actual (re)use of their own Open Data is a measure of success of their strategy.  And there is no doubt that Data Journalism is one of the best examples of re-use of Open government Data that can create public value.

It’s fascinating to see how many public administrations around the world are now aiming to actively involve data journalists in their Open Government programs.  From my experience, this collaboration has taken three different forms so far:

  1. [SOFT] The staff of an Open Government program participates in “data journalism hackathons” or other events organized by journalists. The government employees offer their knowledge about the data and the data journalists find a story worth telling.
    This is what happened, for example, during the hackathon of the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. Representatives of some Italian Ministries first presented their data to the journalists and then stayed all day to answer their questions and work with them.
  2. [MEDIUM] The government offers “training sessions” to journalists. Sometimes the data are difficult to understand because a specific jargon is used or the policy is so complex that at least a basic knowledge of some technical aspects is essential. The events are held on the government premises and are aimed at providing the journalists with the “right tools” to analyze the data (how to create a map or an interactive graph) and to interpret it.
    For example, the European Commission recently organized a “school” for journalists focused on EU funds.
  3. [HARD] The government hires data journalists. A data journalist working for the government can assume the role of communication officer and create visualizations and articles based on the government’s communication strategy. This is the case of the French portal Gouvernement.fr that recently added an “infographics” section (“les infographies et videos”) and is now looking for data journalists to create eye-catchy visualizations and content.
    But journalists can also have different roles, especially when working for specific Open Government initiatives. For example, a data journalist is part of the team of OpenCoesione School, a special project that involves high school students in the development of an investigation on the use of public funding through open data.

 

In the last few days I noticed a couple of interesting tweets on this.

An initial reaction to the “Medium scenario” (government training journalists) takes into consideration the principle of independence. In a tweet, the civil servant and public policy expert Tito Bianchi said:

However, an evidence-based debate in the press is possible only if the data are not misinterpreted, and working with the sources of information is a key part of the game. In addition, journalists may have limited quantitative skills to analyze the data or limited knowledge of the technicalities of a specific public policy.  

As for the “Hard scenario” (government hiring journalists), the experienced data journalists Nicolas Kayser-Bril commented on the French case with these words:

Nonetheless, he added that this could be an option if the agencies that are hiring are “independent, state-financed authorities that can scrutinize gov’t action, such as ombudsman, transparency authorities, courts of auditors”.

 

Do you think that a public agency should proactively involve data journalists? In which forms? Are there some “special cases”?
Under what conditions should a journalist accept to collaborate with an Open Government program?

 

 

Photo by Ahmad Hammoud

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12/11/14 Open Policy # , ,

A (long) list of the risks of Open Government

A (long) list of the risks of Open Government

Open Knowledge has recently published its Report on the Open Knowledge Festival 2014 in Berlin.  One of the most interesting workshops was called “Can Open Data Go Wrong“, “a safe and private conversation space for all those who wish to share their experiences of open data snafus, ranging from hilarious to perilous, with the goal of transparently learning from our failures”. You can find the Etherpad of the session and the podcast including an interview with the organizers Mushon Zer-Aviv and Tin Geber.

Here I would like to start to write down a list of potential risks of Open Government and citizen participation. I know it’s a long list, but I will start from some basic items from a discussion we had yesterday in the “Government Information Strategy and Management” class at the Rockefeller College, State University of New York.


From the point of view of a senator of a OECD Country:

  • Media are more interested in my personal expenses than in tracking the real use and impact of public money
  • Trust in government decreases at a point that Democracy fails
  • Only the “usual suspects” participate in the consultation I promote
  • Very limited public value from OpenGov initiatives

From the point of view of the CIO of a public agency:

  • Open Data are misinterpreted
  • Infomediaries are not ready to understand my data and no “ecosystem” is created
  • Few people are (re)using my data
  • No “new Facebook” is created thanks to the last app contest I launched
  • I don’t have the money / tools / skills to process external input
  • Cases of real collaboration with citizens are very limited (other examples after Peer-to-Patent?)
  • I have no real collaboration with other agencies on data standards and interoperability, no data created “as ready to be published”
  • No money to spend on OpenGov

From the point of view of an Open Government advocate:

  • Some data are there, but are not really relevant. Transparency is only on trivial issues
  • Open Data are available but data are poor quality, aggregated, difficult to understand
  • Open Data are altered, manipulated
  • Open data as a “gift” from the government, not a right of the citizen
  • We scraped Open Government Data and created interactive visualizations but nothing happened, because:
    • people don’t know that our tool is available
    • people are not interested
    • people cannot interpret the data
  • Open Government tools empower who is already empowered
  • Government is not listening, game over.

 

Any other points to add?

 

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25/07/12 Open Policy

‘OpenCoesione’ – here it comes the Wiki-Regional Policy

‘OpenCoesione’ – here it comes the Wiki-Regional Policy

Last week Italy witnessed a massive release of open data as the national government launched ‘OpenCoesione’, or ‘Open Cohesion’, an initiative that has gathered data on more than 450,000 development projects mainly funded by EU Regional Policy and managed by more than 50 different national and regional (sub-national) institutions. The projects are worth € 33.4 billion in resources for development and, in the lagging regions, they represent the main source of new investment in times of financial downturn. 
Now they are open to public scrutiny: information on costs, payments, private co-funding, schedules, names of the public and private institutions involved, locations, etc. are available on the web in order to enhance the debate on the destination and use of the funding.

Italy’s Minister for Territorial Cohesion and renowned EU Policy expert Fabrizio Barca believes that the lack of transparency on how public money is spent is one of the main reasons for the slow pace characterizing current Structural Fund absorption in Italy. This initiative is therefore unprecedented, especially if the context of Southern Italy is taken into consideration. Southern Italy is where most of the financial resources for development converge and it is often depicted as highly corrupted and (long before the crisis) economically paralyzed. After decades of subsidies, the extent to which European Regional Policy and its Structural Funds are actually effective remains controversial.
droppedImage_1So the main purpose of OpenCoesione is to disinfect EU and Italian cohesion policies with the aid of a little sunshine. And while doing so, to improve policy effectiveness through extended public participation and collaboration.


 

Stewardship vs. usefulness: a balanced approach

From the very beginning, OpenCoesione initiative struggled to cover the different needs of its potential users by diversifying the offer. This is to find the right balance between the two principles of stewardship (data quality, accuracy, etc.) and usefulness (providing easy-to-use tools to access the data).

Two main components of this initiative are now on the web [in Italian only, at least for now]:

  1. An Open Data section on the website of the Department for Cohesion, with a set of fully-detailed data on the projects funded by EU Regional Policy during the 2007-13 programming period. Data is published in CSV format under Creative Commons BY-SA license. The new website also includes additional data and two data visualizations [in English] on Italian regional budgets and other economic figures at sub-national level. There is also a page with any existing analysis and insight based on the data, to be expanded in the future as the data – hopefully – is going to be used for research purposes. A similar section is available on the website of the Inter-ministerial Committee for Economic Planning including open data on the development policies funded by the national accounts. 
This big open data repository is aimed at offering high-quality, easy-to-access data to anyone interested and so improving citizens’ trust in government as a good steward of their information.
  2. A new, open source website OpenCoesione.gov.it. The user can surf through geo-referenced images, project fiches, statistics and dynamic graphs. The Italian open data community immediately welcomed the portal highlighting its weaknesses, while the press, with a few exceptions, did not cover the news.
The portal is an effort to include non-technically oriented citizens and to provide a first, ‘official’ interpretation of the data. Obviously, anyone can use the open data to re-interpret the official message and come up with her own relevant analysis and ‘storytelling’. Though, a first-hand interpretation can help the citizen understand the original purpose of the policy maker, and so get an inside view of objectives, rationales and policy design. Now, basically, this is limited to providing (a) information on the policy, (b) contextual data (economic data or “output” data at the regional level, such as unemployment figures or the percentage of households with a broadband connection) and (c) a dual classification system composed of 13 themes (energy, education, research, etc.) and 6 types of intervention (grants, infrastructures, financial engineering instruments, etc.).

Data quality first

In his first speech to the Parliament on December 2011 [here in the ‘commentable’ version provided by CommentMario.it], Minister Barca described the data that his own Department has been managing for years as “extraordinary” in terms of its potential impact on public discourse. He called himself “lucky enough, since the data is ready and only needs to be opened up”. Correct, the data is indeed extraordinary given its high level of detail but, at that time, it was not ready at all.

As a policy analyst at the Department for Cohesion, I have been working with this kind of data for 5 years now. The national repository on EU Regional Policy is the main source of information for the insights and internal reports I make for my Director General. For this reason I have been involved in a process aimed at uncovering, cleaning up and making sense of a large amount of data including variables that were left unused – and so unknown. For example, I soon realized that in my work I was using only a small part of this huge dataset. While I was focusing mainly on the financial aspects of the projects’ implementation, the dataset contained all kinds of information about the project lifecycle. 
From January on, I can estimate that this process of cleaning up and consolidating the data involved 2-3 people full-time, all members of an internal working group led by Simona De Luca and Carlo Amati. Actually, many more people have been involved in the group but not on a full-time basis, which is not an ideal situation from an organizational perspective. The group combines different professional specializations (public policy, statistics, IT, law, etc.).

Two key issues soon emerged:

  • The dataset is a kind of “secondary source”. It collates data from at least 30 different information systems, which are used by the regional or national institutions for managing the funds and keeping track of the progress made by the projects, into one national repository. Even though metadata is the same, different interpretations of the same variable may occur, resulting in non-consistent or even conflicting information. This can be considered a sort of a side effect of multi-level governance, which characterizes EU Regional Policy (see for example Panorama magazine’s last issue on partnerships edited by the European Commission). 
In some cases, inconsistencies and conflicts are still to be solved through accurate analysis involving interviews with regional authorities. These variables are therefore “frozen” for future publication.
  • Some of the data contains personal identifiers, i.e. names and surnames included in the title of the project. It has been decided to intervene to protect the identity of the people involved with special attention to socially disadvantaged categories. So the projects aimed, for example, at promoting social inclusion or combating discrimination have been anonymized before being published. The projects that have been anonymized are the 10% of the total, and the 3% in terms of value.

The rise of the Wiki-Regional Policy: from transparency to control to crowdsourcing

Opening the “black box” of Structural Funds is for sure a big step towards greater transparency. Efficiency and effectiveness of regional policy would benefit greatly from improved transparency regarding how, where and when public money is spent. However, in order to have real impact it is essential to enable bi-directional flows of information between government and civil society by promoting participation and collaboration from all kinds of stakeholders.
The citizen and civil society in general can act as a powerful source both in terms of control of the spending and suggestions for further improvements in policy design and implementation. In particular, public, dispersed control should focus on the results of the policy by comparing targeted and achieved outputs with final outcomes, as represented in the figure above. This is expected to influence the decisions of policy makers with a positive effect on levels of fund absorption, the quality of public investments and citizens’ participation in public choices.

Firstly, OpenCoesione needs the citizens because the description of the projects is sometimes incomplete or not fully comprehensible. As highlighted by the Italian blogger Guido Scorza, current descriptions lack key information of projects’ rationales, objectives and genesis. Also, it is difficult to understand the broader policy objective behind it or what strategy was followed by the regional authority to justify this action. Information on regional strategies and objectives, as well as on the types of interventions involving one or more specific projects, is already in possess of the administrations. Here a more efficient coordination and better integration between the national and the regional information systems is needed.

However, detailed information about each project is sometimes simply not available. So, on the OpenCoesione portal, each of the 450,000 pages describing the projects includes a form that can be used to provide additional information about the project itself. A mechanism similar to that of Wikipedia. As Beth Noveck points out in her book Wiki Government, “when a policy problem is divided into smaller parts, so that it can be distributed and worked on by collaborative teams, the drive toward openness and innovation begin”.

Secondly, the citizen can provide feedback on project implementation, as well as information on perceived results. Examples of the questions included in the form are: “What did the project achieve?”, “What are the main results?”, “What is the impact on your city or region?”, “How can the project be improved?”. Within each thematic area of the website (research, energy, etc.), information on the projects funded can be compared with relevant statistics at the regional level, in order to highlight current levels of performance and related trends.

All the information gathered from the users (common citizens living nearby, experts, project managers, civil servants or researchers, etc.) on the projects’ achievements is going to be used to enrich current datasets, even if it is too early to determine exactly what this integration will look like. The intention here is to transfer the feedback on both data quality and the project results from central government to the responsible regional institutions in order to enable quick action. A permanent “technical group” has also been established with representatives of both national and regional institutions to strengthen the links between the two tiers of government and exchange additional information about the projects. For example, the Ministry of Research is ready to offer its data on research and innovation projects already published as open data on the website of the Programme “Research and Competitiveness”.


Built to last? The efforts of a government of technocrats

Such a big effort challenges well-established tacit norms and procedures in the management of development policies. In Italy, these “tacit norms” date back to the 50’s (see the beginning of cohesion policy in Italy) and often consider the EU requirement for transparency a question of mere formal compliance. OpenCoesione anticipates the future rules of 2014-2020 EU programming period and goes even further to encourage feedback and collaboration form all stakeholders. This is even more surprising considering that national policies, traditionally far less transparent than EU policies, are also being opened as part of the same operation. So, why now?
The Italian open data movement is quite proud of its bottom-up approach, a peculiar way to “innovate without permission”. However, in this case, it would have been impossible to open up such a huge dataset without the right, top-down push. If your data is stored in a vault, there is no way to get it back.

According to Simona De Luca, “in a time of severe economic austerity, Italy’s ‘technical government’ has increased [rather than reduced] emphasis on the publication of open data as a means to help boost the economy and make government more efficient” (see her talk at “Using Open Data” W3C/Crossover workshop). Alberto Cottica, one of the chairs of the workshop, commented on Twitter “Transparency provides legitimacy, and a technocratic government needs that a lot.”.
In any case, it is evident that this technocratic government is not going to last. In April 2013 (at the latest), elections will pave the way for a new, political government. This is why, in my opinion, such a government is less afraid of the consequences of exposing relevant data, which might be used to prove political failures.

At the presentation event for OpenCoesione Minister Barca invited all stakeholders to use and re-use the data. Only if this initiative manages to reach a ‘critical mass’ in terms of usage will it have the chance not to be shut down in 2013. Researchers, journalists, socio-economic partnerships and associations leaders, local public administrators, as well as government and opposition representatives are called for action. As always, big challenges lie ahead.

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31/10/11 Open Policy

The map of EU Structural Funds Transparency at regional level – October 2011

According to the current 2007-13 regulation, all regional and national agencies responsible for managing one of the 434 Operational Programmes funded by the 2007-13 Structural Funds must publish on the web a list of businesses or public authorities that have received public funding and the amount of funding received. But the way they do this varies greatly across Europe.

The second output of the evaluation activity of the availability and quality of open data on European Structural Funds is now being published. It’s a benchmarking report (in Italian only, at least for now) that I prepared with the help of my colleague Chiara Ricci for the DG Regional Policy of the Italian Ministry of Economic Development.
I had the chance to present it at the Annual Meeting between the European Commission and the Italian Managing Authorities of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), held on October 27-28, 2011 in Rome. It was an extraordinary opportunity to talk about the benefits of open government data in front of a number of high-level representatives of all regional and central institutions involved in the implementation of Regional Policy in Italy (here is my presentation).

The report features brand new data on detail, accessibility, formats, and other characteristics of the datasets on the recipients and the projects funded by European Regional Policy (“lists of beneficiaries”). It’s a new wave of data collected in October 2011, exactly one year after the first web-based survey. A total of 32 characteristics are taken into account in the evaluation process, including the presence of search masks and visualization systems.

The map of Structural Funds transparency reported below shows a core component of this research, that is the format of the data published by each region. The map shows the average score of all the regional and multi-regional programmes that have an impact of that specific territory. A very low score is attributed to PDFs and to HTML reports that split the data into multiple tables or pages (regions in red or orange) . Higher scores are assigned to the XLS format, which is machine-processable (in yellow). The highest scores are attributed to the few regions in Europe that publish data in an open format such as CSV (in green), since no data is currently published in XML or JSON or RDF (see the report for the details about the construction of the index). You can also find the link to the datasets by clicking on each region. The link to the Regional Programme is displayed where there is more than one dataset available.

One year after the first survey, the level of openness has not improved. About two-thirds of EU Operational Programmes still publish their data in PDF, while only 2% use open formats. A radical change is necessary to meet the requirements of new 2014-2020 regulation, as proposed a few weeks ago by the European Commission, which include the use of CSV or XML format.

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06/10/11 Open Policy

Structural Funds 2014-2020 open up to open data

This is very good news for the open data movement. Earlier today Commissioners Hahn and Andor presented the European Commission proposals for the new Structural Funds regulations for the period 2014-2020. The new general regulation includes an article that force EU countries and regions to open up their data on projects and beneficiaries of Regional Policy. EU Regional Policy (or Cohesion Policy) is worth € 376 billion, more than a third of the entire budget of the Union.
In the last few months, technical and policy recommendations on how to improve the rules of this policy concerning transparency were provided by two studies (one commissioned by the European Parliament and the other by the DG Regional Policy [pdf]) and one independent web-based survey. Plus, organizations such as Transparency International advocated better rules and practices, such as the creation of a centralized website that contains all EU funds beneficiaries and that publishes the data respecting the 8 principles of Open Government Data.

The good news is that most of these recommendations have been incorporated in the drafts of the new regulations. In particular, Art. 105 (Chapter II, Information and Communication) states that EU countries “shall in order to ensure transparency in the support of the Funds maintain a list of operations by operational programme and by Fund in CSV or XML format which shall be accessible through the single website or the single website portal providing a list and summary of all operational programmes in that Member State”. It has been demostrated that the presence of a single website covering all data from the local institutions will likely improve the performance of the country in terms of transparency.

The minimum set of information to be provided – currently limited to three items – has been extended to cover new interesting data such as postcodes of beneficiaries. The data fields that must be included are listed in Annex V:

  • Beneficiary name (only legal entities; no natural persons shall be named);
  • Operation name;
  • Operation summary;
  • Operation start date;
  • Operation end date (expected date for physical completion or full implementation of the operation);
  • Total eligible expenditure allocated to the operation;
  • EU co-financing rate (as per priority axis);
  • Operation postcode;
  • Country;
  • Name of category of intervention for the operation;
  • Date of last update of the list of operations.
  • The headings of the data fields and the names of the operations shall be also provided in at least one other official language of the European Union.

In my opinion, this proposal is probably a good compromise between the need to introduce new, more transparent ways to publish data and the current level of technical and administrative capacity of EU regions. However, a few important features characterizing real open data are still missing. For example the data should be released in a linked-data formats such as the RDF. Plus, a clear indication of the license under which the data are released should be provided. Introducing these features now – even though the RDF format seems now pretty advanced – is particularly important seeing that it is rather difficult to modify a multi-annual regulation once it is approved.

Obviously it will be crucial to monitor the actual implementation of these rules across the European Union. Luckily, official regulations have demonstrated to be a powerful tool, far more persuasive than other initiatives, such as the European Transparency Initiative, undertaken by the Commission after the approval of the official regulations. As already demonstrated, the level of compliance with regulations among EU agencies is extremely high, given that the Commission has the power to stop the flow of money from the EU to the Regions if these rules are broken.

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A citizen monitoring marathon of the development projects financed by the European Union