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14/09/10 Civic Technology

A chat with HAL VARIAN on Open Data and Gov 2.0

A chat with HAL VARIAN on Open Data and Gov 2.0

Professor Hal Varian is one of my personal idols. As a student, I studied microeconomics from his famous manual which is used in almost every University in the world. Recently, I usedMicroeconomic Analysis again in my own Economics course at La Sapienza University in Rome, and I rediscovered the clarity and rigor of this text.
But my life literally changed after reading Information Rules, a groundbreaking book he wrote with Carl Shapiro in 1999. This book led me to study innovation and technology and to make the study of innovation a profession.

Many of you might know he is now Chief Economist at Google, and his job is analyzing economic trends by exploiting the potential of Google Trends and the tons of queries people make every day. A very exiting job indeed. He is certainly the master of web 2.0 data.

Professor Varian is now touring Europe for a series of meetings that will culminate with the WTO Forum in Geneva tomorrow. Last Thursday he was over in Rome to meet the Italian Minister of Labour Maurizio Sacconi at a public meeting organized by the lobbying and media company Reti entitled “Web Economy: Internet for economic development”.
How could I have passed up the opportunity of being there and asking him a couple of questions about open data and gov 2.0?

Professor Varian, what do you think about this kind of global fever for open data and Gov 2.0? Is it all hype or does have a future?

I think that this model is very attractive. You can think of the government as the wholesaler of data, that puts it up in bulk form. Then this data can be downloaded, refined and improved for retail and distribution. There are a lot of reasons to think that that model might be attractive, because the role that the Government would play would be quite specifically defined: make the raw data available. Then people can extract from that what they want, and polish it, beautify it, crack it and a lot of other things. So that is a model which I think could be attractive to Italy, the US and the other Countries. The problem of managing the data from end to end is that it’s very expensive and a very big challenge. The most important step is to make the data available even if it’s in a raw and unfinished form.

Two days ago, at Gov 2.0 Summit 2010 in Washington DC Ellen Miller of Sunlight Foundation strongly criticized the availability and quality of the data published on USAspending.gov and Data.gov. It seems that this revolution is actually not happening yet.

Well, I think that in the Obama administration, for example, they are making a lot of more patent data available, FCC (Federal Communications Commission) data available, and so on. So it is happening, it’s just not as rapid as one might think, because it’s a difficult problem. But I think there’s enough momentum behind this effort, and we will see progress. As they say “pazienza”! (he laughs).

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09/09/10 Open Policy

Open data On Structural Funds at the european parliament – the long way towards transparency

A study presented at the European Parliament in July 2010 explores the open data on European Structural Funds made available in March 2009. The European Transparency Initiative is pushing the transparency agenda in most EU Countries.

As I wrote in one of my previous posts, European Cohesion Policy is well on its way towards greater transparency in managing Structural Funds. Member states and EU Regions are responsible for publishing data on the beneficiaries of the policy and the corresponding amount of public funding received.

Although the set of minimum information that the European Commission and Member States agreed on in the COCOF of 23rd April 2008 is still relatively small (it only includes the name of the beneficiary, the project and the amount of public funding), the European Transparency Initiative of the European Commission certainly represents a breakthrough innovation in the way most European Countries implement public policy. In the last few years the policy framework and strict regulation of Structural Funds have played a crucial role in pushing the transparency agenda in those areas of Europe where administrative culture and capacity is traditionally low.
A study on current availability of open data on Structural Funds was presented at the European Parliament during the public hearing Transparency in Structural Funds – recipients and beneficiaries held by the President of the Budget Control Committee, Luigi de Magistris (one of the aims of the hearing was to learn from the US website Recovery.gov, which was presented by Earl E. Devaney, Chairman of the US government’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board).
The report, entitled “The Data Transparency Initiative and its Impact on Cohesion Policy” (full report), evaluates the implementation of the European Transparency Initiative by providing some data and four case studies: Finland, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland. The study was carried out by the Centre for Industrial Studies (CSIL) in Milan, Italy and financed by the European Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development.
As stated in the blog Space for Transparency, the situation reported in the study “results in incomparable, often not machine readable and in some countries almost unusable data in different EU languages and different currencies”.

The results of the study are indeed not so encouraging. Only 78% of the European Regions managing an ERDF Operational Programme provide the minimum information required. 19% provide a description of the operations, 41% a location of the projects, 27% the amount of national co-funding. Moreover, while 44% of EU Regions publish data on the total amount of funding, only 32% of available datasets specify the amount of public money actually paid out. 
PDF is confirmed as the prevailing format in which data are released (52%), followed by XLS (27%) and HTML (21%); a situation that did not change one year later (March 2010). See the table I included in my post Open data and structural funds.
As expected, these different approaches seem to reflect differences both in administrative capacities and cultural administrative traditions. In addition, the report argues that centralization vs. decentralization issues play also a role. Obviously, a centrally managed Programme has the advantage that information flows are easier to manage and local actions are more easily coordinated.
The report draws some final recommendations:
• to provide additional essential information, such as contact details, localization, project summaries, description of project partners, etc.
• to make databases fully searchable and compatible, so as to make possible an EU-wide outlook of the data
• to describe the data in English and not only in the local language

Some personal remarks:
1) The study is the first attempt to evaluate the availability and quality of open data on Structural Funds provided by a diverse and complex set of National and Regional Authorities. The statistics provided are a useful starting point for any further research in the field. Moreover, the report provides a valuable contextualization and interpretation of results, along with a detailed description of the European Transparency Initiative.
2) The analysis dates back to March 2009 and should be updated. Since then the number of EU Regions providing at least a minimum set of information has grown and have now reached 100%, as reported in the map of InfoRegio website; though I guess the indicators on quality have not significantly improved.
3) The survey, which seems to be conducted starting from the links that were available on the InfoRegio map at the time, does not consider other important types of Operational Programmes such as the National Programmes and Interregional Programmes or the cross-border co-operation Programmes.
4) Data on quality of the open datasets are presented only in an aggregate way, so it is impossible to compare different nations or regions.

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