The democratization of data to break down the "data divide"

More and more Italian public administrations are riding the hype of "open data". Following the mantra they set up official portals from which it is possible to search and download the data they hold, in open formats, with free and sometimes even "linkable" licenses (here an infographic). In short, we are about to witness a a veritable flood of public, open and free data. Well – we say – finally! But the risk is that that data will remain where it is, available to everyone, but essentially unused.

A new challenge, overcoming the "data divide"

Where is the problem? An answer began to suggest this brief interview with Jonathan Gosier Everyone has a big data problem – O'Reilly Radar, in which @jongos states that the "digital divide" will in fact be surpassed - I would say better supported - by the “date divide”. The deluge of information is now part of our daily life: “data problems manifest themselves in a multitude of ways: too many emails, too many passwords to remember, or simply knowing where to look online to find answers to questions“. The solutions to manage all this data and information are unfortunately not accessible to the average individual, for a variety of reasons.

Here in Italy we start first of all from a problem of "digital divide"which, however, is gradually being resolved. But the more serious one is the slow “computer literacy”, which leads to a general difficulty on the part of both the average citizen user in finding and using the tools that enable the management of this huge data bank, both of the PA that does not understand the potential of digitization.

The solution for Gosier is start a data democratization processi.e. giving people the ability to understand what data is available, how they can be manipulated, and how to use them to improve your life. Ability that at the moment very few possess, for the reasons mentioned. If we add to this a general reluctance of the Italian PAs to be transparent, a new challenge arises that needs to be overcome.

Can data save the world?

Another interesting idea came from an article by Alex Howard – always on O'Reilly Radar – titled “Data for the public good“. The incipit is formidable:Can data save the world? Not alone.

The article states that all data-for-the-public-good activities are driven by a distributed community made up of media, non-profit organizations, academics and activists, focused on building more aware citizens, generating new news, in whatever form it is distributed.

And we talk about open government as an even more important and certainly preparatory process to that of the adoption and dissemination of open data. The "Gov 2.0" is in fact a powerful combination of open government, open data, social media, collective intelligence and connectivity. In all of this, access to data held by public entities it is definitely an occasion to relaunch its economic value and encourage entrepreneurship. The movement of data for the public good therefore goes far beyond the actions that individual governments can take.

Howard goes on to state that it is certainly important that governments commit themselves to "opening up", but in many cases they need external advice or even funding to do so. In that context citizens, businesses and developers absolutely have to show that they are capable of using data, proving to express not only demand, but above all the ability outside the government to put open data at the service of accountability, utility for citizens and the economic opportunities they can generate.

Opportunities in Italy

I want to try now place these concepts in the Italian context, and understand what are the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities linked on the one hand to the adoption by the PA of open data and on the other to the real ability of Italian society and business to exploit them. I will be deliberately brief, because I'd like to start a discussion. Currently in Italy the panorama consists of:

  • a increasing availability of open and reusable data by the PA (open data portals flourish);
  • a citizens' demand for greater transparency is also growing (and therefore of data and information), due to the economic crisis and distrust in politics.

These supply and demand, for the reasons set out above, at present they meet with great difficulty. What can be the actions that would help bridge the gap that separates them? In my opinion, aim precisely at reduce the "data divide" on several fronts, which involve "ordinary" people, businesses and IT professionals. In particular:

  • raise awareness among citizens that their request for greater transparency equals greater availability of open data, thus transforming anger and frustration into civic activism;
  • integrate computer literacy actions with the development of individual skills concerning research and use of open data and more generally information;
  • foster in the media sector lo development of data journalism;
  • foster in the IT sector the growth and training of specialized professional figures for example in data mining, in the management and exploitation of open data, in the development of web and mobile applications for the use of open data, in the design and planning of data visualization platforms.

If we are able to systematize these macro-actions, in a few years we will have on the one hand a growing number of active citizens that generate more and more demand for open data that the public administration will make available, on the other, the economic growth of an entire IT sector made up of professionals and companies capable of bringing together the demand and supply of open data in the best possible way, acting as consultants to the PA and developing applications and platforms intended for both the PA itself and citizens. And there are already many available in truth.

The future is today

Actually all this has already begun with Apps4Italy, the first competition to design useful and interesting solutions based on the use of public data, capable of showing the value of public information assets to the whole of society. The contest is still open, applications can be presented until April 30th.

The results of Apps4Italy, especially in terms of number of participants, in my opinion they will be fundamental for having an initial benchmarking of the state of affairs about the actions I mentioned earlier. The number of applications will give a measure of readiness that the world of businesses, professionals but also active citizens themselves have in the use of public data, as well as their quality and real reusability for which public administrations are responsible.

So let's hope ten, one hundred, one thousand public administrations that open their data, who set up portals to disseminate them, but above all who promote initiatives for their use. Ten, one hundred, one thousand Apps4Italy…

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