Route-to-PA is a Horizon 2020 research project aiming to stimulate citizen involvement in jointly and effectively using open data, thereby increasing transparency and participation.
The main deliverable of the project is a social platform that helps citizens build purposeful and personalised relationships with public administrations and their data. Networks of citizens will be able to collectively attribute meanings to open data.
The main objectives of the project are to:
Route-to-PA stands for Raising Open and User-friendly Transparency-Enabling Technologies fOr Public Administrations. It is a Horizon 2020 research project initiated by over a dozen partners from Italy, France, the Netherlands, Ireland, Poland and the UK. The project started in February 2015. It runs for three years and is expected to finish in January 2018.
The research consortium aims to improve engagement by allowing citizens to interact socially around open data, forming new online communities or join existing ones to share common interests and discuss common issues.
The aim of our project is to increase transparency, explains Vittorio Scarano, Associate Professor at Università degli Studi Salerno and Route-to-PA coordinator.
The main problem we are tackling is that citizens are having trouble making sense of the open data that is available out there. We want to provide tools and methods that involve citizens in using open data jointly and effectively, thereby increasing their active participation.
We have identified two main barriers to transparency, Scarano continues.
The first is inherent to open data: complexity. Life is complex and the same appears to be true of the information that we generate about activities in our society. Furthermore, this holds not only for the data itself, but also for relationships between the datasets. Open data is often made available in such a way that it is not clear how to interpret and use it. Good will and eagerness turn out to be not enough to allow easy understanding and sharing with citizens.
The second barrier is the limited awareness — from citizens, but also surprisingly from public administrations — of the role, importance and significance of open data. Active citizens, although they show effort and passion, often individually lack the multidisciplinary skills required to see the bigger picture of what is described by the data, and they often have a limited amount of time to devote to such tasks. This makes their work very hard, and over time even frustrating, if they are working individually and without support.
Limited awareness also exists on the other side, in public administrations, Scarano says.
As a matter of fact, open data provided by administrations often reflects a lack of understanding and vision of its role and usage. What kind of solutions can open data provide? How can it be helpful in the everyday life of citizens? Once these questions are answered, providing datasets will be far more effective and useful to the citizens.
Our social and personalised tools allow the community to work together in order to make sense of open data and co-create value through active participation. These tools are specifically designed with this idea in mind. So, where a single individual may fail to grasp how open data can address a specific problem, a community may be more effective, bringing together people with different interests and skills.
The main deliverable of the Route-to-PA project is a social platform that helps citizens build purposeful and personalised relationships with public administrations and their data. Networks of citizens will be able to collectively attribute meanings to open data. The information provided by Route-to-PA is shared, interpreted, personalised, made easier to understand, and discussed to assess its meanings.
The main objectives of the project are to:
We are trying to overcome the barriers I mentioned with two tools and three principles, Scarano says.
The first tool, the Social Platform for Open Data (SPOD), aims to facilitate social interactions for citizens and public administrations, providing instruments for discussions about and with open data, thereby involving the community.
The second tool aims to improve holistic understanding of the data. The Transparency-Enhancing Toolset (TET) provides customisations to citizens in an environment where datasets are not only published but are also increased in quality (using semantically rich metadata), made easier to access, and where data can be personalised. SPOD and TET respectively represent Route-to-PA's instruments to improve the citizen-government relationship as a community and for individuals.
The development of the tools is based on three principles.
The first is well-known in the world of public administration and eGovernment, Scarano says.
It's called 'doing more with less'. We are building our tools on existing open-source platforms: the Oxwall social network and the well-known CKAN open data portal. Our development adds a significant layer on top of these packages, providing some of the features that are missing, both from a tools point of view and with regard to easy accessibility and a useful interface for citizens. This approach allows us to produce prototypes in a short period of time — ready for testing by the end of the first year.
The second principle we follow is to tackle heterogeneity, instead of avoiding it, Scarano continues.
We are developing platforms for interaction around datasets where the data comes from different sources, from different kinds of software, at different levels of quality, and to serve different purposes. The same is true for the audience we are targeting, ranging from activists to the 'average' citizens, from data journalists to administrators and domain experts.
This heterogeneity is reflected in our multidisciplinary team. Our research partners cover many different areas: from computer science to eGovernment, from political science to psychology, and from economics to the science of learning. Heterogeneity is also infused through the pilots — three of our partners are public administrations — and through the companies — a large one and an SME.
In technical terms, heterogeneity means that our interface is strongly based on interoperability with different kinds of open data platforms. SPOD is already interoperable with TET, (ordinary) CKAN, OpenDataSoft, and UltraClarity. In the future we will go further in this direction.
The third and final overall principle of our design is inspired by the acronym of our project: involvement of citizens and public administrations in the design phase, Scarano says.
We strongly believe that the tools we are building present a route between citizens and public administrations. This route will work both ways: citizens will have a chance to understand, participate in and co-create using open data, while public administrations will be able to improve transparency and open government towards their citizens.
The involvement principle in Route-to-PA works bottom up. Workshops involving citizens have been held in five pilots (in the cities of Prato, Dublin, The Hague, Issy-les-Moulineaux and Groningen) since month two of the project, gathering requirements and scenarios. The public administrations are heavily involved in the pilots as well, currently (in the second year) providing the foundations for experiments with the tools in their context.
The initial target audience for the Route-to-PA platforms is civil society, although the scientists expect the software to be used by specialists as well. For example, in the second year of this project SPOD will be made available in a closed environment for discussions amongst small groups.
That can be useful to experts who want to collaborate on datasets remotely, Scarano says.
In addition, TET will be providing high-value metadata that are of great interest when evaluating the quality, relevance and significance of datasets.
The Route-to-PA platform and toolset build on open source software.
SPOD is based on Oxwall, and TET is based on CKAN, Scarano explains.
The two systems are already interoperable. We provide an additional architecture where a single authentication gives access to both tools, switching seamlessly from one to the other as far as the user is concerned. For example, a citizen suing TET will be able to see discussions on SPOD about the dataset he or she is visiting. While on SPOD, it is possible to change from a visualisation of a dataset to the information about it that appears on TET. More interactions are planned.
All applications will be web-based. We adhere strongly to the current architectural trend to have most of the work done on the client side, using state-of-the-art technology such as Web Components.
Furthermore, we have developed re-usable, shared, self-consistent Web Components called 'datalets', Scarano says.
When embedded in an HTML page these components are able to retrieve data from an open data portal, perform some simple manipulations on it, and then visualise it in a highly interactive manner.
The datalets are the base of the SPOD visualisation system, but they will be an important technological value-adding outcome of the project. Since they represent items that can be embedded in any HTML page, we can bring the visualisation of open datasets as an item into e-mail, blogs, and basically everywhere on the web.
The Route-to-PA consortium has just finished its first year.
We have already released the alpha versions of SPOD and TET, and are now starting a round of testing in the pilots, Scarano says.
SPOD is a social environment with a meeting place consisting of public rooms where discussions take place, as in other social networks. In this case, however, synthetic information about the structure of the discussion appears on the right-hand side of the screen. For example, one can see a graph of users showing who has interacted with whom, or a graph of all the visualisations (datalets) created and used in the discussions. There is also a personal space where each user can store datalets, URLs, text notes and such like, readily available for easy re-use in discussions. TET already offers personalised access and categorisation of datasets. It also allows advanced analysis techniques like support for pivot tables.
We strongly believe in the value of open source, Scarano says,
and we are quite serious about it. We are developing on top of existing open source software, and the alpha version of SPOD is already available as open source from the project website, including the Datalet provider environment (DEEP) project. TET will follow soon.
The advantage of releasing the software as open source at an early stage is that we can stimulate contributions and collaborations, and try to ignite the innovation ecosystem around it. We already have received significant interest from other research projects, companies and public administrations who see SPOD and TET as an opportunity to add social and personalised dimensions to their open data.
It is not yet clear whether the platform will be provided as a service and maintained by the consortium partners after this project ends.
We are still discussing the exploitation model with the partners, Scarano says.
The software will be released as open source and will be available to everyone under an open source license. Some companies are likely to offer SPOD as a service, though I doubt that our current partners will do this, at least not on a large scale. It is possible that there will be interest in this platform at a national level, though. For example, Ancitel, one of the partners in the project, already offers ICT services to more than 4000 city councils in Italy. They are considering the deployment of SPOD very seriously.
In addition to the SPOD and TET tools, at the end of the project we plan to release a guide containing best practices and experience from the project, Scarano says.
That will be especially of interest to public administrations, since it basically will be a manual on how to enter the world of open data and transparency in an effective way. It will help those public administrations that are a little behind with practical suggestions and 'recipes' to stimulate effective participation through open data.