Notes on Civic Technology and Open Development Policy
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.


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.

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 5.46.30 PM

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:


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.


Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 5.49.41 PM


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

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! 🙂

0 likes one response
10/10/15 Research # , , , ,

Pfeffer, Power and the Open Source Community: writing software as a political process

Pfeffer, Power and the Open Source Community: writing software as a political process

Managing with Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer presents a very detailed and comprehensive analysis of power in all its different forms. The author painstakingly reviews numerous sources of power, strategies and tools to employ power effectively. The central message of his “clinical diagnosis of power” (p. 300) is that power is a necessary condition for action. In fact, even the most brilliant ideas require power to be developed, diffused, and executed.

The book, although deeply rooted in the literature, has been accused of cynicism. Many of the “heroes” presented as examples – prominent individuals, smart enough to get power and keep it, at least for a while – seem to perceive power as a zero-sum game. In this view, every means to get power can always be justified by the ultimate goal of “getting things done,” a mantra repeated many times throughout the book.pfeffer

While this is probably true of the Machiavellian examples that Pfeffer included in the book, his relentless categorization of forms of power can also be read as a practical manual for the brilliant, honest member of an organization that just needs enough power for having his voice heard and make a change.

Indeed, the wide spectrum of categories of power represents a valid toolbox that can be applied to different situations and contexts. While the chapters of the book can be seen as different components or features of power to be activated or not depending on the specific case, the interaction between these elements is crucial to analyze real-life examples.

Here I would like to apply some of the most relevant elements of power to the case of the Open Source community, with the aim to show how Pfeffer’s points are valid even in a context that is sometimes perceived as unconditionally egalitarian, collaborative and open.


The Open Source community

Community is the key component of Open Source software (OSS) development. OSS is in fact based on the free access and redistribution of the underlying code, which each developer shares with the community of developers as a global collaborative effort towards the production of what was seen as a common [1].

Software developed as Open Source is widely adopted and its production model is so successful that some of the leading software companies in the world – including Microsoft – heavily invest in it. The model is based on a bottom-up structure, a non-coercive organization and a largely decentralized production [2]. OSS developers share a common culture (“hacker culture”) and ideology that, especially during the early days, has been called “Microsoft-phobia” [3]. This “alternative” view of software also derives from purely technical considerations, as commercial software is perceived as not totally reliable, and is consistent with the principles of self-production and user-driven innovation [4].


Entering the Community: Power Diagnosis and Allies

According to Pfeffer, the first step to get power is to diagnose “the relative power of the various participants and comprehend the patterns of interdependence” (p. 49). It’s important to define the relevant political sub-units, the existing social ties and reputational and representational indicators of each individual. Bergquist and Ljungberg [5] studied the case of a newbie (an inexperienced newcomer to OSS development) that wishes to enter the OSS community. They highlight the importance of studying the existing social interrelation and networks as well as community norms and values (p. 312).

In particular, to establish a sense of loyalty to the community, a newbie should understand the power relations in order to make allies. As Pfeffer points out, making allies is a crucial strategy to get power. Allies can be acquired thanks to obligations and favors. In the OSS community, the whole game is based on the “mutual interchange where one gift is given to another,” and a sort of interdependence is created between the giver and the receiver [5]. A complex network of givers and receivers then forms, in which the relations can be one-to-one but also one-to-many.   The search for allies takes place on the Internet through the shared on line tools of communication. There, conversations are not only public but also private, with gathering of alliances mainly through private conversations, followed by an alignment of the arguments in the public forum [6].


Reputation, Performance and Formal Authority

In “Managing with Power,” Pfeffer points out that formal authority, reputation and performance represent a key source of power and are interrelated.

Reputation, in terms of peer-recognition and prestige, is one the main driving factors that motivates OSS developers to work and share their products with the community [7]. In the first place, reputation derives essentially from performance. The quantity and quality of the code produced are easily recognizable thanks to the shared on line tools of production (such as the platform GitHub), as a signal of the quality of the individual programmer [2]. As Pfeffer highlights, this is a quite rare case in which performance can be measured in a quantitative way.

Once a developer obtains enough reputation, he also gets some sort of formal authority within a specific project through direct invitation. Sack, Détienne [8] studied the existing hierarchies among Python developers. Members’ levels span from the newbies at the bottom of the pyramid to Guido Van Rossum, the developer who founded the project Python.

Figure 1 – Sociotechnical stratification of roles in the Python project


Source: Sack et al. (2006)


Pfeffer maintains that formal authority “confers control over certain resources and the ability to take certain implied or specified actions.” In fact, high-level members of the OSS community have the power to control crucial resources.
First, they control the source code. In the case of the Python project, although the source code is stored in CVS files that can be read by any member, the write privileges are given only to a subset of developers, with evident asymmetries in power relations [5]. Second, high-level members of the community can monitor and sanction members behavior. For example, they can “ban” or “mute” a member due to “flaming discussions” or “trolling” [9]. Third, even though the discussion on software development is open to anyone, Sack, Détienne [8] found that some members – especially those with formal authority – can influence the discussions on specific topics and so have an impact on the decisions on product development.   The sequence of public messages in the Python forum and the links between them suggested that influencing people can deviate the course of a discussion and focus on specific arguments and line of work.


Location in the Communication Networks

“Managing with Power” includes a chapter on the role of communication networks and the individual position in the communication structure. According to Pfeffer, “People who are well placed in the communication network also tend to be central players in terms of power and influence.” Information and knowledge are therefore crucial sources of power, deriving, among other things, from social relations and connections.

In particular, network centrality can measure the degree of influence that an individual can exert over the structured tasks of a project. In the case of Python, Ducheneaut [10] looked at the evolution of the network position of the developer “Fred” from January to October 2002.


Figure 2 – Developer “Fred” position in the communication network of a Python project


Source: Ducheneaut (2005)


Fred is presented as a case of “successful socialization,” since he could manage to gain a central position in a specific project within the Python community in less than a year. At the beginning, although he has a strong background in Phython development deriving from professional experience in a software company, Fred does not know how the community works and starts asking questions. Then “By making connections with some of the project’s participants, Fred is trying to make the structure of this network more visible to himself […] discovering in the process which parts of the network relate to his work” [10]. Once he gets the reputation of a good “bug fixer,” his role in the communication network is more and more crucial as other members join the project. In October 2002, he has definitively acquired enough power to influence the group decisions as soon as Fred’s proposal to introduce a new software module is approved by the community.


In conclusion, the case of the OSS community shows that power dynamics matters in a context that sometimes is seen as the panacea of distributed collaboration. According to Bergquist and Ljungberg [5], “One easily gets the impression that the sharing of gifts in online communities creates a very friendly and altruistic atmosphere. And indeed it does, to some extent. But it does not mean that social stratification and struggles over power cease to exist.” In fact, developing software is inherently a political process.


  1. Benkler, Y., Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and “The Nature of the Firm”. The Yale Law Journal, 2002. 112(3): p. 369-446.
  2. Bonaccorsi, A. and C. Rossi, Why open source software can succeed. Research policy, 2003. 32(7): p. 1243-1258.
  3. Dalle, J.-M. and N. Jullien, Windows vs. Linux: some explorations into the economics of Free Software. Advances in Complex Systems, 2000. 3(01n04): p. 399-416.
  4. Von Hippel, E.A., Democratizing innovation. 2005: MIT Press.
  5. Bergquist, M. and J. Ljungberg, The power of gifts: organizing social relationships in open source communities. Information Systems Journal, 2001. 11(4): p. 305-320.
  6. Divitini, M., et al. Open source processes: no place for politics. in Proceedings of ICSE 2003 workshop on Open source. 2003.
  7. Greiner, M.E. Leadership behavior in virtual communities. in Proceedings of the 7th Annual Conference of the Southern Association for Information Systems. 2004. Citeseer.
  8. Sack, W., et al., A methodological framework for socio-cognitive analyses of collaborative design of open source software. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 2006. 15(2-3): p. 229-250.
  9. Markus, M.L., B. Manville, and C.E. Agres, What makes a virtual organization work: Lessons from the open-source world. Image, 2014.
  10. Ducheneaut, N., Socialization in an open source software community: A socio-technical analysis. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 2005. 14(4): p. 323-368.



Photo by Igal Koshevoy

0 likes no responses
1 2 3 4 5 13
Recent Comments
- Patrick to From closed data to open data ecosystems – stages of an evolution
Thanks for this interesting article. I agree with this evolution as you've laid it out – especiall...
- Putting research into practice: Training academics to use Open Data as OER: An experience from Uruguay | Thoughts on Open Education to OpenCoesione School – A scalable learning format using OpenData as Educational Resources
[…] developed by A Scuola di Open Coesione, and in the work t Chiara Ciociola and Luigi Reggi...
- Così fallisce l’Open Government: quando lo Stato fa auto-gol | to A (long) list of the risks of Open Government
[…] un post di un paio di settimane fa mi sono cimentato in una prima lista dei possibili ris...