During April I’ve written an article for Nodalities ( the magazine on semantic web and linked data made by Talis Corporation ), the topic was the story of Open Data movement in Italy and how we are looking for more support from international context. We were worried about “Save the Data Campaign”. Here the article:
Two years ago the US Administration launched the data.gov site, thanks to the famous Obama memorandum on transparency and government data accessibility,  which mainly encourages mainly three values which are associated with a new idea of government: transparency, participation and collaboration. It was one of the first interesting actions of the Obama administration, and one of the first basic actions inside an official government context, which speaks using the typical language of the Net culture of sharing and participation.
Thanks to this memorandum, the US federal budget enables, along these years, not only data.gov, but also usaspending.gov with the IT dashboard ( it.usaspending.gov ) and other sites which work as enablers for the new “Government as Platform” mantra.
For countries like Italy with cultural gaps on topics concerning the digital media, especially inside an official government context, it was like a boat covered in darkness lightened by a lighthouse.
As a follower of the Semantic Web community, it’s a pleasure to witness how these technologies can help to achieve goals proposed by Obama’s memorandum, because this context can help to a better spread of the Semantic Web and Linked Data technologies in the global community of developers and IT decision makers.
Now, in the middle of a better global understanding of the connections between the vision of Open Government and Open Data movements across the globe, there is a stop to the government support for these examples of a better democracy process: a probably cut off of the federal budget from $37 million to $2 million. It seems that the last offer is increasing the budget to $8 million: but it’s far from the actual $37 expense, so the issue remains opened.
What the “Save the Data campaign” is about
Obviously US citizens move on to make the Congress more aware of the importance of not cutting off the budget to support these transparency data sites. One of the main actors in that context is the Sunlight Foundation, that started an interesting bottom up action, called “Save the Data” campaign. It helps the citizen to sign in a letter to the Congress leaders asking them to protect funding for the Electronic Government Fund, and to contact them directly and finally to spread the word using social media.
At the time I’m writing this article, more than six thousand people signed the letter to the Congress, hundreds more have written letters, called their representatives, written blog posts or shared the campaign with their friends.
But this not only happens in the USA, also in Europe and Italy people talk about this campaign and help to spread the word.
To make sure it’s more understandable we have to avoid that people who are not involved in this studies should understand that the closing of data.gov imply the closing of the Open Government at all. It’s not that straightforward, luckily.
A story of the Open Data movement in Italy
I’m not a US citizen, but as a passionate user of data, and as a believer on the Web as a main actor of future enabled by transparency, and data accountability, I’m worried about what is happening in the US.
As a matter of fact, in Italy we are fighting for a more credible way to enable a similar type of transparency regarding the government activities, using US data.gov and similar sites as examples of this potential. This potential is expressed using the availability and the accessibility of the raw data, collected in one central point, and this made it easier to seek for everyone.
In a country where television is the main focus media to get informed about what happened around us, it’s a long journey to make the people more involved with the culture and tools enabled by the Net.
We have some difficulties to make the usage of Net and the usage of Web more understandable not only as a media channel, but also as a place and a platform of development, which can help us to enable a new augmented social dimension.
We know that we are not an example of Open Government as a platform (maybe as services available online), neither an example of a country leader in making IT technologies or leader in making an openness culture. Things like Creative Commons, Open Source and Open Linked Data are not known by the majority of people, also in our IT community.
In this context of cultural and digital division, not all things are bad; perhaps we can see the light at the end of the darkness. Italy is a living ecosystem as every country in the world. We made Italy, we can change it, and we can help to make it better. Young people are very smart, working hard to take the leap possible.
One year ago a small conversation was born in some blogs regarding Open Data movement and Semantic Web technologies. Also some articles were published in a special number of Nòva24, the technological insert of one of the main newspapers in Italy, called ‘Il Sole24Ore’, with some references published also in its online version, called ‘Nova Review’.
During the summer of 2010, a tiny but strong bottom up discussion came up, mainly in Italian blogsphere: we called it “Spaghetti Open Data”. Basically, we started with a lot of mails and some blog posts around the Open Data stuff, then we used a mailing list to a better support of our collective conversation. The clear thing is that in this conversation there aren’t only geeks, hackers, or Open Data and Linked Data enthusiasts, as happened in a similar movements around the globe but there are also some people working directly in the Public Sector, in Rome, who want to enable more transparency and citizen participation using a bottom up approach. They don’t know anything about technical factors behind the Open Data movement, but they are curious and interested in it. In those months, the only official participant from Public Sector involved in Open Data activities was Regione Piemonte, an European leader and innovator in local open data policy development and practices. In May 2010, Piemonte launched, as a matter of fact, an online beta data portal – dati.piemonte.it.
The second step of Open Data movement was a meme started from Alberto Cottica’s blog, at the end of September 2010. This meme ended up in November of the same year with a launch of a small example of what a data.gov.it site could be in the future.
We thought that it would be nice to collect links related to public data available online in Italian government websites in one place. This was a kind of one stop shop for people interested in transparency not just in theory, but in the practice of extracting information from public data.
So, in November 2010 the Spaghetti Open Data site was born with 32 aggregated databases (only linked, not hosted). Not bad when you consider that data.gov, with all the firepower of the Obama administration, had 47 at launch. These datasets available aren’t really Open Data, they are only public data, except a very few of them. The difference between public data and Open Data at that time wasn’t so clear to people not aware of Semantic Web context. So at the beginning we collected both of them and then the community and the conversation made that point clearer, naturally.
In the same days the first edition of the 5-stars Linked Data scheme was published. We used this scheme to make the overall context more understandable, using a column named “Reusability”, on the page showing all the datasets available.
The possibility of reusing data is one of the key concepts concerning Open Data. This data must be available for humans and for machines and must be shared with a legal license that allows to use them again, an aspect which has not been very well understood by data’s publishers.
We don’ t want to reinvent the wheel: without money we made spaghettiopendata.org using the famous Simile Exhibit framework connected with some Google SpreadSheets, and nothing else. If some sites would have published data using RDFa standard or similar, we could have inserted them in a moment without any added cost.
Meanwhile, we were ready to make it better for a complete integration with Italian CKAN repository, it.ckan.net, same data back-end that powered also data.gov.uk. Because of the lack of time in 2010, we are working for it nowadays. We could maintain spaghettiopendata site as another visualization of the main it.ckan.net repository, thanks to API and SPARQL endpoints.
And, last but not least, we can improve it as quickly as we can.
In last months of 2010, movement has grew up, with the birth of two different associations related to Open Data. The first was Datagov.it and the other one another was linkedopendata.it , born on January 2011. Datagov.it is a social platform open to collaboration in defining the OpenData Manifesto in Italy. Linkedopendata.it is a more structured evolution of our idea of aggregating Open Data in a Linked way, with Semantic Web technologies and SPARQL endpoints available for the users.
Things were keeping on move: two different meetups in Rome from September to December 2010, where other interesting ideas and apps came up, to enable the level of applications over data of Linked Data cloud.
One interesting thing was the official role of the main Italian statistical agency, ISTAT: an important supporter of the movement, also with practical contributes as a WordPress plugin for its Data Warehouse ecosystem.
Conferences like FammiSapere.info and “La Politica della Trasparenza e dei Dati Aperti” -with international people like Jonathan Gray of the Open Knowledge Foundation- are, nowadays, helping us reaching more mass media coverage and spreading the word.
From a regional level to an institutional one, our goal is to put Open Data movement on the agenda setting of our political class and mass media channels.
The challenge for Italy is to enable this level of institutional support at the regional level, because here we can make pragmatical steps to move on to Rome with a solid proof of concept.
So, with this context in Italy, turning back in the US, what is our perspective about the “Save the Data” campaign? Why is it so important for us? Let’s see.
It’s not about data, is about transactional costs connected with data
The choice of closing data.gov is not only a problem of data which totally disappeared from Web. As an Italian startupper said, “Startups will save Open Data”.
I think it’s a correct point of view: there are a lot of data startups in US which can store datasets, so it’s not a problem of data availability. It’s a problem of process, I think.
“Data.gov also plays crucial behind the scenes role, setting standards for open data and helping individual departments and agencies live up to those standards. Data.gov establishes a standard, cross-agency process for publishing raw datasets. The program gives agencies clear guidance on the mechanics and requirements to release each new dataset online. “
This quote is taken from Harlan Yu’s blog, and I totally agree with it.
Italy is a country where all the stuff connected with Open Data value chain has a cost, not only related to money, but also among social and political efforts. So, every added step is an obstacle for the birth of data infrastructure. And not only in Italy, but in all the places where Open Data movements are young.
Without a political support, we have to improve our work with data: seeking for it around gov sites and making it easier to access.
Now, in April 2011, asking support to an Italian politician outside data.gov story is really difficult. Making an official Italian data.gov while US is closing his own one, makes a politician skeptical about all Open Data value chain.
How to reply to this observation?
If a startup could easily find the data to work with, it could focus its own investments on the mashup idea or the service. But if the data has to be aggregated and made usable, the total cost is higher and a startup could be afraid of this high cost.
Another cost for a potential Open Data startup is the lack of standard published informations, because the data must be transformed again.
So without an easily access to data, a standard to publish them and a strong sharing process for gov data publishers, the entire Open Data movement in a country like Italy is at risk of imploding on itself: that’s why we are working on bottom up guidelines for Public Sector’s actors, like ‘Come Si Fa Open Data – Versione 1.0’.
Save the Data in the US means save the importance of sharing process
As we can see, it is a long journey to enable political support on these things, and a US leap backwards can damage all work done so far. It’s not a technical problem: we have to focus on the process and its institutional approval across Public Sector agencies. The enabler factor is here, and cutting off symbols of Open Data as data.gov breaks out our official references, and so our credibility for our local government.
 – http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/TransparencyandOpenGovernment/
 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/apr/05/data-gov-crisis-obama
 – http://sunlightfoundation.com/savethedata/
 – http://www.apogeonline.com/webzine/2011/04/05/save-the-data-sfumano-i-finanziamenti-di-obama
 – http://novareview.ilsole24ore.com/pubblica-amministrazione/
 – http://www.epsiplus.net/news/news/italian_piemonte_region_european_opendata_leader_and_innovator
 – http://opensource.com/government/10/11/spaghetti-open-data-little-thing-feels-right
 – http://lab.linkeddata.deri.ie/2010/star-scheme-by-example/
 – http://www.spaghettiopendata.org/dati
 – http://www.datagov.it
 – http://www.linkedopendata.it
 – http://www.meetup.com/The-Rome-Semantic-Web-Meetup-Group/events/past/
 – http://www.fammisapere.info
 – http://www.linkedopendata.it/la-politica-della-trasparenza-e-dei-dati-aperti
 – http://www.linneapassaler.it/2011/04/07/startups-will-save-open-data/
 – http://www.freedom-to-tinker.com/blog/harlanyu/what-we-lose-if-we-lose-datagov
 – http://www.scribd.com/doc/52509290/Come-Si-Fa-Open-Data-Versione-1-0