SOCIETY | Feb 23, 2017

Open Data: is it a dream?

The obstacles to the openness of data and the use of Big Data in Public Administration

Open Data has certainly been a term on everyone’s lips for some time, but it is also a technological phenomenon that has been slow in taking hold in Italy as it should have done. One wonders why, and the answers may make us think more deeply, perhaps generating more, even rhetorical, questions. Let’s try together. But, first of all, let us make a point.

It is necessary to specify that Open Data is not only a generic published piece of data but is something more specific. As defined by the Open Knowledge Foundation, “content or a piece of data is called open if anyone is free to use, reuse and redistribute it“.

In fact, open data is always accompanied by a special use license that expressly authorizes these freedoms, but is also represented in an open data format data, is free and is available for automatic use by software programs.

I do not know if this premise is obvious, but it is really very important.

Italian public administrations produce mountains of data, and there is often a real race to publish them. However, as indicated by the various “barometers” which measure the phenomenon at global level, not all Open Data are equal in the sense of being attractive, strategic and important.

So, it is not so much a matter of numbers as of the quality of published data and their usability (appeal).

But is it a problem of technologies?

No. At least it has no longer been for many years. The world’s leading online Open Data catalogs are displayed on reliable open source platforms (such as CKAN) and at a management cost that is completely sustainable for public administration.

As many other technologies make it easy to connect these catalogs to databases and software applications being used in offices, even by different administrations, enriching the information and processing them so that the quality characteristics of data is always maintained (what’s more in automatic mode).

No technological problem. So let’s go through the reasoning.

È un problema di processo?

Undoubtedly yes, but partly.

It is clear to everyone that data arise from processes that produce them. In the case of public administration, these processes have to do with our lives as citizens. Normally it is not enough to transform what was formerly analog into digital; that would be a little like replicating a paper application form to be filled in by hand in an electronic format to be filled in on a PC. Rather, something more than “re-engineering” should be used: the processes themselves should be radically rethought in a digital perspective, in other words rethought at origin. This is the concept of digital transformation.

So publication of a piece of data in this new process will not be an “of which” of the process itself, as if it were an optional step. It becomes a mandatory, almost central, element.

But are public administration offices ready for all this? With all the necessary case-by-case distinctions: no.

However, it must be said that several synergistic interventions in the fields of training, mentoring, support and empowerment for the public service (and not only) are being targeted by European funds in the 2014-2020 period. Objective: to accompany these downtrodden public service employees in an apparently endless process of ferrying, not surprisingly like technologies, from “how we were” to “how we will be”.

So, accepting that they were to be the real glitter on the take-off of Open Date, this initiative will definitely help to improve the overall picture, but I am afraid that examination of the causes of the current lack of success does not end here.

We have touched on technology, public service employees and processes. Let’s go a bit deeper.

Is it just a fad?

Many of us are convinced that someone really hopes so.

In fact, for some time now there has been a phenomenon called open-washing, that is use of the “OPEN” label for marketing purposes or because it is fashionable. Appearance over substance. Public administrations that do not respect their own announcements, or basically do not guarantee the quality of open data, their updating, or simply do not disclose information in an opportune manner, whether it is humans (users) or machines (software) that are the direct recipients.

Thus, Open Data is above all a political choice which calls for resources, persons, investment, infrastructure and best practices in order to reap the benefits of long-term results.

However, Public Administrations too often fail to guarantee the reliability, quality and sustainability of initiatives. This contrasts with studies and examples of excellence which encourage an organized, systematic and lasting approach.

So is it a matter of will?

I would say yes, mostly. Issues such as: specific ignorance on the subject, resistance to change, allergy to transparency, the hamstrings of stringent privacy legislation and statistical confidentiality, the malpractice of “why should I expose myself” or that of “in any case, what does it matter to people”. All this undoubtedly has a great weight on the problem and today it is complicated to find a solution.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that the public administration (and others) is being afforded a last train, which is passing right now and then it’s gone, I’m afraid.

In addition to those already mentioned above, a similar amount of European funds in the 2014-2020 period still allow us to venture out in territories to speak comprehensively about Open Data, the advantages it brings, the markets it opens up and the real opportunities that are created.

They make it possible to open digital services and public administration data by means of standard interfaces (API), while allowing enterprises the technological opportunity to create new advanced solutions and end-users to improve the quality of their lives.

They allow the public administration, universities, enterprises and local authorities to go into the schools and see with our children what can be done with digital, almost for fun, but rather accompanying them towards the professions of tomorrow.

In short, they allow us to shift the focus from technology to people, from servers to communities of experience, knowledge networks and exchange of good practices.

And this is a true mission of the public administration, if ever there was one.

Or, we can continue as we are doing, which is a bit like to stating a constant in a rapidly accelerating universe. While we’re still losing time thinking about the causes, effects and philosophies, making us miss the opportunity offered by Open Data, the world nevertheless continues to move forward. How?

Big Data Analytics

From our SIMs (mobile phones, which in Italy are almost 120% of the population), from internet connections, from the sensors of the Internet of Things (IoT): every second of our lives, an unimaginable amount of information about our habits and behavior is stored in gigantic Big Data systems.

Whatever interpretation we might wish to obtain, there are specific calculations and filters for every need, which deliver very sophisticated and reliable reports in near real time, both as measurement of a past phenomenon and of future prediction.

But while the use for the purpose of business of this new and powerful technology is clear to everyone, are we really ready for a Data-driven public administration for social purposes?

Are the public administration and politics culturally ready to use such systems for measuring the real effects of their actions on the ground, restructuring and remeasuring in real time how much/when is needed for the good of their citizens?

If the answer were to be trivially positive, Open Data would probably also be a reality everywhere and technology might go back to being more useful for everyone. Certainly more than it already is.

But since it is not exactly like this, we longstanding computer scientists jokingly say “go to start”. A loop is created and reasoning begins, while the clock continues to tick.

I thus invite you to go back to square one, but without taking the long way round.

Andrea Castellani