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.
So 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]:
- 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.
- 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.