How a Reddit model led one Italian region to embrace open data and fewer datacentres

A major IT overhaul is afoot in Umbria, guided by ideas and opinions from the area's residents.
Written by Federico Guerrini, Contributor
Perugia, the capital of Umbria
Perugia, the capital of Umbria, where open data is a priority. Image: Shutterstock

The region of Umbria, the centre of Italy, is well-known for being at the forefront of innovation when it comes to the country's services.

Not long ago, Umbria made the news for its LibreUmbria project, where proprietary software was swapped out for LibreOffice across the region's biggest local government organisations.

Recently, Umbria's local government took another important step towards becoming a more efficient and technologically-evolved administration when it approve the Regional Law n. 9, which came into force at the beginning of May.

The law contains many significant elements, among them is the creation of a "single datacentre" where the infrastructure for all the region's local public sector organisations will converge, with the aim of saving money and avoiding duplication.

"We have already a regional datacentre that houses the regional government and the regional health authority's servers," the regional coordinator for technological innovation Annalisa Doria told ZDNet. "The new law stipulates that all the other regional public sector agencies' servers must migrate to the DCRU [Data center regionale unico or single regional datacentre] within 18 months."

Umbria's government has invested €1.5m in the program, known as #consolidamento, to upgrade and strengthen the DRCU's infrastructure. The reasons for the move are not merely financial, but have also a lot to do with the regional government's overall digital strategy.

"A single datacentre is an essential component in the transformation of the regional administration into a 'digital administration'. In the past, there have been many different approaches to setting up and building IT systems in the region, at both the central and local level — something that did not allow the various organisations' databases to interoperate. That's why this process of consolidation is fundamental to guarantee the right performance for public sector digital services."

The reorganisation will not just involve improving the region's technical infrastructure but also streamlining of the region's ICT-related government agencies as well, with the creation of a single consortium, Umbria Digitale, which will oversee the work previously undertaken by five organisations.

"Umbria Digitale will come from the aggregation of Centralcom Spa, Webred Spa, Webred Servizi Scarl, Umbria Servizi Innovativi Spa, and the SIR Umbria consortium. This reorganisation, beside helping to save money (at least €240,000 per year, thanks to a reduction in the number of members of the board of governors) will allow economies of scale and improvements in performance and security," regional commissioner for innovation and information system Fabio Paparelli said.

It will also have an effect on the civil servants involved, as the SIR consortium will be dissolved and all of its duties undertaken by the regional government. Most staff will be transferred, however; all employees that have been working for three years or more for the region will be moved to other departments.  

The region has also announced the creation of a Center for Openness, to promote the adoption of open source, the re-use of data published in open formats, and to support open government initiatives across all the regional public sector infrastructure, universities and schools included. A special fund will be set up to finance initiatives by schools, local public sector bodies and other organisations involving open source, open data, and open government every year.

"It's not just a matter of transparency. That's the minimum goal, but it's also about giving citizens and companies the chance to exploit data and information belonging to local government organisations, taking advantage of a knowledge that, if well used, can generate even more value," said Giovanni Gentili, who's in charge of Umbria's Digital Agenda project.

The new law will force all regional government organisations to draw up a plan within the next six months on how to collect and release its data to the public. All the material will then be published on the website Dati.umbria.it. The data will be anonymised when necessary, to protect the privacy of people involved (for example, in the case of healthcare-related information), and it will give priority to the publication of datasets on topics that citizens involved in determining the regional Digital Agenda have shown most interest in. 

It's interesting to note that, in this respect, many of the points contained in the new legislation spring up from citizens' participation.

The idea of a single, unified datacentre, for instance, was first mentioned in the when the Agenda was unveiled in a meeting at the Department of Mathematics of the University of Perugia. It was subsequently opened up to public consultation in the 'Ideario' — a kind of online notebook to collect and organise ideas related to the use of digital technologies and residents' quality of life, and an online community where the ideas can be voted up and commented on by users. Suggestions with more votes top the list, in a Reddit-like way.

"During 2013, we took into account the suggestions gathered through the Ideario to design and approve a three-year regional Digital Plan, covering five strategic areas: digital infrastructure, citizenship, digital skills and e-inclusion, competitiveness, quality of life and healthcare — and 55 specific projects. This provided the basis for the general reorganisation envisaged in the new law," Paparelli says.

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