In September 2010, after a happy hour in Rome, people started spontaneously to share links on Italian open data and tools to crunch them with. With a few others, I thought it would be nice to collect these links in one place, a sort of one stop shop for people interested in trasparency not just in theory, but in the practice of extracting information from public data. One thing led to another, and in less than two months Spaghetti Open Data was online. We aggregated 32 databases at launch; not bad when you consider that data.gov, with all the firepower of the Obama administration, started with 47.
It’s only a small thing, but it felt right for various reasons.
- Firstly, it is a concrete achievement. I have had enough of complaining about the idle government, the backwardness of Italian culture, the financial crisis, bad luck. I have precious little time to spare, and I would like to invest it on projects that pay me back by yielding some kind of result. The Spaghetti Open Data group has put in some work, and in a few weeks it produced something which is actually there, and it works. If you want to build something with Italian open data you can, right now, without having to wait for structural change or a new generation in government. All it took is some voluntary work and 41 euro for hosting, which I paid up very willingly (the italian government eventually came around to putting online dati.gov.it. It took them another year and a lot of handholding, and even now it is far from a thorough job. I like to think seeing citizens seize the initiative put some pressure on the government to take action)
- Secondly, it is intellectually rigorous. We had to ask ourselves the same questions that I imagine confronted the people in charge of data.gov and data.gov.uk. Are statistic data open data? (Apparently not) Does it make sense for statistical and open data to be collected in the same place? (Apparently it does, so that citizens can correlate the ones with the others) How to organize metadata? (We went for compatibility with CKAN, as in data.gov.uk) we have mapped a possible way for Italian open data, and future legitimate websites of open data have an all-Italian benchmark that they can consider, or even copy.
- Finally, it is the expression of a small community of a mall number of bloggers, geeks and civil servants (about fifty at the start, about two hundred now) that worked together towards a common goal, across considerable cultural differences, showing mutual respect along the way. I have also had enough of bashing bureaucrats as stupid or evil. Some are just that, others are wonderful people and great war buddies. Most are reasonably clever, well-meaning people who happen to be very different from me: collaborating requires investing a little time and effort to come to understand each other. It is almost always worth it.
- a couple of civil servants joined forces with hackers from the Open Knowledge Fondation and the Guardian's datablog to release a fantastic dataset on public expenditure in a fully open and interactive form
- we translated into Italian the OKN's Open Data Manual for free. In two weeks. And during the August holidays, when absolutely nothing gets done in the country.