SOCIETY | Dec 13, 2016

Small stories of public data before Open Data

From the Business Register to PRA and the National Registry Office: public databases before "open data"

At the time to which we refer, the issue of Open Data still belonged to the realm of science fiction; at the most, as if evoking some esoteric reality, there was talk of “databases”. The period was the early ’80s; in the previous five years there had been massive investments in Italy in technologies which from “IT” would in a few years become “of information” for modernising the activity of Public Administrations. At the centre, the General Accounting Office was computerised and the Tax Registry was born; at the periphery, people began to talk about integrated information systems at the level of individual municipalities, while in the north-east, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, the first experience of municipal information systems integrable on a regional basis was financed from regional resources.

The scene was dominated by the FINSIEL group – the powerful public information technology holding company – which, with its linkages, colonised central PAs one after the other. However the most significant innovations in terms of “opening” of the world of public data came from CERVED, an in-house creation of the Chamber of Commerce. In the early ’80s, Cerved SpA (now INFOCAMERE: what is now called Cerved Group is heir to a spin-off placed at the service of banks starting from the original Chamber of Commerce CERVED) was completing its project for computerisation of the Companies Register.

At that time, there were two registers and two separate institutional entities to deal with the same situation, namely the world of business (as still happens with the register of the cars and their owners through PRA and the Department of Motor Vehicles): the “Companies Register” and the “Business Register”.

The first, concerning merely master data (that is, without financial statements), was run by the Chambers of Commerce (CCIAA) under the supervision of the Ministry of Industry; the second, the Business Register, in addition to the master data of individual companies, was also custodian of financial statements that companies were required to submit annually. It came under the Ministry of Justice which ran it through the chancelleries of civil courts.

Thanks to CERVED, the Companies Register (a name significantly more reductive than the more solemn “Business Register”) was quickly computerised and integrated online and, without any intervening reform, the local/provincial chamber register became national: it became possible to query the Milan Companies Register from Ragusa and vice versa. Nevertheless, however updated the system was, it was only partially possible to be informed about the existence or not of a “company” but not know their financial statements. The Business Register – decrepit in means, organisational structure, assigned personnel and technologies used – had the privilege of being able to certify, and moreover with certificates prepared manually, only on a provincial basis and, when it managed to retrieve them in dusty chancelleries, provide certified copies of financial statements.
The economic and productive system and the financial system (in particular the banking world) could not support such a duality that was as inefficient as it was harmful for everyone, and so it was that, a few years after completion of the computerisation of the Companies Register of Chambers of Commerce, a special regulation established that the chamber register would become, to all effects, the Business Register; that the financial statements, therefore, would be submitted exclusively to the Chambers of Commerce and that these would replace in their entirety, with the blessing of everyone, the chancelleries of civil courts and their clerks.

Meanwhile, even before the change of status of the registers they ran was sanctioned, the Chambers of Commerce began to market – still through their CERVED SpA company – data and information on companies. There was an explosion of turnover, of growth, of affirmation of new markets and new businesses. What is more, by parties – Chambers of Commerce – still belonging to the public system.
A market opened up that was willing to commit significant resources in order to have information that was up-to-date, complete and could be inter-integrated about the actual situation of Italian firms: enhancement of chamber data (to all effects public data) took such a decisive business-oriented direction that even today no one dares to assert with conviction the status of “OPEN DATA” for information processed by Chambers of Commerce.

However, the IT technicians of the period who, at that time, were beginning to think no longer in terms of technology to be adopted but content to be valued, were desolately few in number: the information market remained ancillary, subordinate to that of IT, which was essentially about hardware (still prevalent for some years) and software; the information potential of a service was taken into consideration only if able to determine significant investments in technology.

The discovery of the market growth potential of data and information from the creation of databases starting from the information pools of Public Administrations affirmed itself in CERVED in no painless way, giving rise to two divergent currents of thought and somehow in competition with each other: the first aimed, for the future of the company, at the discovery and exploitation of other information pools and thus no longer relied on the consolidation of its IT vocation in the strict sense; the second, on the hand, considered it dangerous to deal too closely with public data, over which it would moreover be difficult to place definitive constraints of commercial exploitation. The future of the company was therefore seen in capitalising know-how in terms of control and application of technologies learned in realising the chamber project and reallocating it, with appropriate business initiatives, on public and private markets.

In this way, CERVED Engineering (later Engineering Ingegneria Informatica SpA) was created within CERVED, initially owned by Cerved but destined to become completely autonomous and a multinational company in the field of systems integration. Following a split after the transfer of the Business Register to the Chamber of Commerce, there was a split from the original CERVED which, retaining the name of the parent company, embarked on privatisating itself to deal with databases for the banking system. After recognition of its definitively institutional profile as manager of the Business Register, what had been CERVED changed its name to INFOCAMERE.

But the game was not over. In 1984, again with CERVED, the idea was born to explore what could be done for municipalities (and with municipalities), taking inspiration from what had been done by CERVED with (and for) the Chambers of Commerce. Thus, in 1987, after various studies and drafting of strategic reports for realisation of the project, Ancitel SpA was created, a minor experience compared with its sisters in terms of market relevance, but important if some pathways of exploitation of municipal information pools are considered.

At the beginning (and even afterwards), the Ancitel mission appeared a bit tricky to understand for most people, who would have preferred dealing with an IT company of ANCI specialised in producing software for municipalities. The fact that they were being told that the Ancitel mission was not to produce software – which was and should have remained the responsibility of market operators – but that of exploiting the “information production” of municipalities and other public information sources first and foremost for the benefit of the municipalities themselves, left them cold, dumbfounded and also convinced that they were being taken for a ride.

These concerns were not infrequently also shared by those who had supported the establishment of Ancitel. The creation of the connection to the PRA database and videotel network of online services operated by Ancitel to give access to the Motor Vehicle Register at prices finally accessible to all municipalities was sufficient to reassure them.

Then it was the turn of population registry offices: the idea of ​​turning the 8,100 registry offices scattered and disconnected among each other into a national integrated information system was born in 1992. Work immediately began on its creation and it gradually took shape: municipalities adhered freely and freely gave their data.

That entity, with the name of INA-SAIA, of which ANCI and the Ministry of the Interior declared wanting to become aware of only at the beginning of 2000 (when more than 5,000 municipalities and 80% of the country’s population already connected online), was recently put into liquidation in order to create the National Population Registry – a new project that many struggle to understand how it differs from INA-SAIA – entrusted by the Ministry of the Interior to SOGEI.

Finally it was the turn of the Land Register: at the end of the last century, Ancitel tried to propose a management with municipalities, which would be rewarding for the commitment of these and useful for have an updated and clean Land Register. The initiative was seen as an attempt by the municipalities to lay their hands on a matter that was not of their competence; since then, there has been talk about the reform of the Land Register, to arrive with the Monti administration at the idea of placing an unspecified function of “Land Register, with the exception of functions maintained by the State by current law” among the core functions of municipalities.

Nicola Melideo