Notes on Civic Technology and Open Development Policy
19/09/11 Civic Technology

Open Data to the next level: WHY and HOW to involve the private sector

The attention of civil society and policy makers is now turning to uncharted lands: open data from the private sector can be mashed-up with governmental data to create new apps and services. The Open Data portal created by Enel – a leading Italian power company – is a step in the right direction

While the open data movement is spreading within public sector – with very interesting initiatives both at local and international level – the attention of civil society and policy makers has turned to an uncharted land, that is the open data from the private sector. The need to involve businesses in the open data movement emerged quite clearly at the first European Digital Agenda Assembly, held in Brussels on 16-17 June 2011. In particular, the European Commission aims at stimulating more private participation in the open data initiatives, and is considering specific actions to promote the re-use of big datasets held by large private sector organizations.

Professor Nigel Shadbolt, a member of the UK Government’s Public Sector Transparency Board, outlines the benefits of an open data strategy in an article published in Think Quarterly. “Open data offers the prospect of instant connectivity between partners, as in open supply chains, where businesses source from places they might never have considered or even suspected could be a source. Open data can reduce integration costs, improve transparency and harness the innovation of others. If you release your data then others will develop applications that make best use of it – providing new services that benefit you directly, like all of those free travel apps that the travel companies didn’t have to write, but which nevertheless drive people onto the transportation network”.

Following the example of other companies such as SimpleGEO from the US, Enel – Italy’s largest power company and a key player in the European market – is now opening up a first set of datasets. The company, which originally launched an open data portal on 23 August under Creative Commons BY NC ND license disallowing commercial re-use, earlier today changed the license to a CC BY, merely requiring re-users to mention Enel as the source of data. Datasets include economic and financial information about the company and “sustainability data”, which comprise data on generation, distribution and sale of electricity and gas.

Raffaele Cirullo, head of New Media unit at Enel, reports on Enel strategies to the Spaghetti Open Data (SOD) mailing list. As a first step, an initiative entitled Enel Sharing was launched in 2008 to harness the power of social media to promote the brand amongst stakeholders and disseminate the cultural initiatives of the company. Then the unit focused on emerging innovations in the field of new media as a way to introduce a new culture of sharing within the group. Open data is of course one of the most interesting paradigm shifts, with major marketing impact within the private sector. These are the main goals of Enel Open Data initiative:

  1. improve the market by fostering competition
  2. increase transparency by increasing participation
  3. favor technological innovation by encouraging the development and spreading of new applications, mash-ups and data visualization systems.

Personally, I very much share the opinion of Lorenzo Benussi – researcher at NEXA Center for Internet & Society of Politecnico di Torino – who jumped in the discussion with a message to the SOD mailing list on the eventual advantages of the diffusion of the open data model in the private sector. First, open financial data on corporate accounting may lead to a more effective control of global markets. Secondly, information on businesses assets, processes and activities is of great interest to the public and can be mashed-up with governmental data on the matter. Some examples: information about natural resources provided by the oil industry, power and communication grids, ships logistics, etc.

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14/09/11 Civic Technology

Open Data up for adoption

“Linea Amica” – the integrated contact center of Italian public administration – is opening up and crowdsourcing a set of data underlying its information services to local communities. Everyone can adopt a record of the dataset and help the government solve major data quality issues.

An interesting initiative, with an unusual marketing approach, was launched last week by FormezPA, an agency of the Italian Government: Linea Amica – the official integrated contact center of Italian Public Administration – is giving the data up for adoption. This is the message displayed on the webpages of RubricaPA, a specific service that allows users to find and locate a public agency by searching among thousands of national, regional and local authorities. The service is now letting the users modify the underlying data by submitting more accurate or updated information on an agency location, telephone number or certified email.

The process is simple. You modify of a set of data through a form, then your suggestion is evaluated by the staff, and, if accepted… you have now adopted that specific data. This means that the staff at the ministry considers yourself somehow responsible of that data and its change over time. Something that may (or may not) create a sort of a personal bond with the data itself. Or even an act of love, quoting from Alberto Cottica’s definition of social network.

RubricaPA started to publish open data on public agencies addresses, fiscal codes and certified emails in October 2010 under the Italian Open Data License v1.0 (which is built on Open Data Commons and Creative Commons BY-SA), a step forward of national government towards open data. But the dataset, created through a matching of data from different sources (official statistics, central registers, old similar projects), is flawed by data quality issues and missing values. Some information is outdated or inaccurate, sometimes conflicting. That is why a little help from the crowd may become crucial. In fact, this is the first time that a central and official service sponsored by the Ministry of Public Administration resorts to crowdsourcing techniques to face major data quality issues.

The question is: who should be interested in helping “Linea Amica” improve its information services? The promoters hope to actively involve local public servants and citizens who care about their local community and want a major state-wide service such as Linea Amica help line to use the correct information. “This is my data, I should care”.

We will see if this kind of love is enough to get the right level of participation.

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07/09/11 Research

A strategic balance for open government data publication

A quite long debate on how to publish open government data is still  dividing stakeholders and researchers. Should government develop own tools for data visualization and analysis in order to include non-techically oriented citizens?


The debate on how to publish open government data is dividing public servants, open government advocates and researchers into – at least – two main groups.
There’s a first group of civic hackers organizations and – not surprisingly – academic literature that is focusing on the “invisible hand” of private sector or civil society organizations which is able to reuse PSI and to mash up this information with other sources to create new innovative services. In this case the government should only publish hi-quality data in an open, machine-readable format and let the others do all the rest.
Others are pointing to the risks of the so-called “data divide” or, from a public value perspective, think that government should consider different users needs and adopt a more pro-active approach e.g. by elaborating its data on governmental websites:

  • Interesting points on “data divide” or, more generally speaking, on “open data inclusion” for example are raised in Michael Gurstein blog. Moreover, in the comments of this World Bank blog post, Tim Davies highlights the importance of the skills to access, work with and interpret data widely amongst policy makers and local communities.
  • The public value perspective is introduced in this paper from the Center for Technology in Government (CTG), Albany, NY. Basically, this approach suggests that government should consider different users needs and the impact of a set of value generators on different groups of users.

So, what should public agencies do to ensure data inclusion and public value generation?

I recently presented a paper at EGOV 2011 conference entitled “Information strategies for Open Government in Europe: EU Regions opening up the data on Structural Funds”. In the paper I identified three groups of European Public Agencies publishing the data on the beneficiaries of EU Regional Policy:

  1. Agencies that publish the data in PDF with little information and detail on projects and financial data
  2. Agencies that focus on data quality, detail, accessibility and machine-readable formats
  3. Agencies that focus on data visualization, maps, graphs and interactive search, but only a few of them let the user download the underlying raw data

It seems that the second group is following a good strategy from an “invisible hand” point of view, but is lacking actions to include non-technically oriented citizens. The third, even if it can be argued that is not pursuing even an “open” data approach, shows some interest in data inclusion since it’s presenting the data in a “easier” way (maps, etc.) and/or in an aggregated form, which are useful for non-technically oriented citizens.

One conclusion that can be drawn is that both the approaches are necessary. But is it really necessary that every agencies develop their own data visualization tools? How many tools are necessary for the same kind of data (e.g. beneficiaries of EU funding) in EU regions? What is the minimum set of information (metadata, notes from the public administration to suggest a correct interpretation, etc.) required for this kind of data?
For example, in the case of European Common Agricultural Policy: should each State develop geo-referencing tools and maps or let do all the work?

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