An open data initiative in the Italian region of Lombardy has yielded good results, with particularly positive results from small municipalities that have followed suit and started publishing open data themselves.

In Sweden, we like to boast that we are leaders when it comes to digitalisation and transparency in public administration. Despite this, the OECD’s “Our Data Index” ranks us as the second worst country out of 32 surveyed when it comes to publishing open data in the public sector. It seems like we have a lot to learn from other countries.

Italy is one such country, specifically the region of Lombardy in the north. There, a concerted effort has been made to boost the use of open data. Before looking at what has been done in concrete terms, it is worth examining the conditions that have made it possible.

Legislation on open data

As in Sweden, national legislation concerning the management of open data is based on the European Union’s PSI Directive. The difference between the two countries is that the Italian legislation is much clearer and more binding. To put it very simply: in Italy, municipalities and other public organisations are required to publish open data, in Sweden they are merely asked to do so.

Firstly, the Italian law describing digital governance states that data should be “open by default”. Secondly, resources have been invested in a national public portal. Thirdly, a number of public initiatives are underway.

Perhaps the most important has been the work at regional level. In Lombardy, the regional government launched an open data portal back in March 2012, and in 2014 defined recommended data sets for the region’s municipalities. In 2017, when it was discovered that only 18 municipalities were publishing open data, a funding programme was launched to help municipalities get started.

The programme involves municipalities committing to publishing either 10 or 25 data sets, selected from a list of 50 approved ones. The regional government contributed €2,000 per municipality to cover the external costs of managing the programme. This may not sound like a lot of money, but its symbolic value should not be understated.

An important part of the regional programme is a requirement to develop and implement an automated system for updating data. This means that no human intervention is necessary to update the regional portal. Another important element is that publishing standards, or specifications of data delivery, were developed jointly with the municipalities, in accordance with both national and European guidelines.

The results were immediate

In 2018 and 2019, 136 municipalities joined the programme. By August 2020, 95 municipalities are reported to have reached the targets for the number of published datasets. On the regional portal, 1,275 data sets from municipalities are regularly updated and meet the defined quality standards, notably the facilitation of data re-use.

Interestingly, small municipalities, with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, are well represented in terms of data publication in proportion to their share of the region. In Lombardy, these municipalities represent 69% of the total number, which is significant. One possible conclusion to draw from this is that it is the small municipalities, which likely possess fewer resources, benefit most from these kinds of initiatives. It is after all them, that have the hardest time getting them off the ground. In the long run, this means that everyone, in this case a country, benefits, due to easier access to data.

A further observation is that the larger municipalities that publish open data tend to focus on transport-related data, while the smaller ones mainly focus on open governance, i.e. information on how they are governed. Could this be because the need for strong local democracy is greater in a smaller municipality? Or is it that the need to scrutinise possible corruption is stronger in smaller municipalities? This is speculation; what is indisputably positive is that smaller municipalities have been helped along with the publication of open data.

What can we learn from this in Sweden?

Definitely that efforts at regional level, that also cover smaller municipalities, are yielding fruit. This encourages regional initiatives that are now underway in Sweden, in which the Region of Västra Götaland (RVG) is leading the way. They are leading the way for other regions in Sweden not only because the number of data publications will increase, but also because there will be more publicists. RVG is enabling smaller municipalities to start sharing data. Something that would otherwise not happen.

So can the regions of Sweden play a role in Sweden’s digitalisation? The answer to that question is definitely yes, in several ways. There are lessons to be learned from Italy.