Italy has been on the news over the last few months, besides its colorful politics, for the sudden discovery that it is not immune to the economic and financial crisis that is storming across Europe. While just a few months ago Italians were looking at Greece, Ireland and even Spain with some (largely unjustified) sense of superiority, during summer they have discovered that a debt exceeding 1.9 trillion euro with sluggish economic growth and unclear strategy for recovery is just unsustainable. This led to a series of adjustments to the budget, amidst political turmoil, protests from different interest groups, and a sense of uncertainty as well as lack of direction, beyond the pressure exerted by the EU, the ECB and even the US.
In this climate, some people have welcomed the creation of an open data portal (dati.gov.it) that joins the many similar portals that are popping up all around the world, following the lead of data.gov in the US.
Any move toward transparency is always good, so there are definitely reasons to cheer. However, as many open government endeavors at local and national level have shown, sustaining these initiatives may be challenging unless they are focused toward the solution of a specific category of problems. Now, one of the biggest problems in Italy is the very high level of tax evasion, which may be approached by opening data about taxpayers (as I pointed out in a previous post, and was piloted in 2008), but as soon as this was aired as part of one of the several iteration of the budget decree, there was an outcry about privacy violation and big brother approach. Of course there are many other areas where open data may help detect waste, identify areas for cost containment and optimization, maybe even involve the many citizens who are concerned with the state of their nation help solve difficult issues by leveraging voluntary work as well as increasing self service.
However for this to work, focus is of the utmost importance. The discovery, transformation, publication and use of open data need to be directed to the solution of thorny and urgent problems. This requires leadership, clout, courage, a risk-taking attitude, and cannot but come from inside government, from individual agencies and departments that wholeheartedly decide to ask for help from constituents to tackle otherwise intractable problems. Unfortunately this is not the case in Italy. With the government surviving thanks to a fragile majority coalition, mounting protest, international scrutiny, and the reputation of many political leaders and government executives on the line, it is unlikely that an open government initiative will be able to tackle any of the big problems the country is facing.
What is worse is that the open data experts (be they researchers, professors, IT consultant and even politicians) are expressing their enthusiasm for the very fact that an open data portal is announced by the Minister for Public Service and Innovation, and relate to initiatives like the Open Government Partnership, probably already dreaming about the n-th version of an application contest (Apps for Italy?) leading to dozens of mobile apps that will be of little interest to citizens and of dubious relevance to addressing the urgent problems at hand.
Open government cannot be open-ended in its objectives. It needs to open data efforts to be finalized or at least prioritized for maximum impact. Leadership cannot be left to techies, consultants and politicians who look at open data as an end in itself, rather than a means to solve problems.
Therefore, while this announcement can prelude to a positive impact of technology on tackling and solving tough problems that plague our beautiful country, it can also turn into yet another failure of IT-savvy leaders in industry, academia and politics to make any real difference on issues such as fiscal equity, employment, sustainability of government services, that impact everybody’s life