April 20, 2006

Italian provinces seek international FOSS partners

Author: Marco Fioretti

The province of Rome is engaged in several free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) related activities of international interest.

Italy has three main levels of local administration: cities are grouped in provinces, which in turn are grouped in regions. The 110 provinces provide services such as road planning, employment offices, and environmental management. They also support and coordinate, both economically and technically, the smaller cities.

The national scenario

In 2003, Italy's Ministry for Innovation and Technologies issued a directive that states that public administrations (PA) should prefer IT solutions that can export data and documents to at least one open format, such as the Open Document Format.

In the same year, the Code of Electronic Communications charged local administrations with the promotion of minimum levels of Internet connectivity. Several regions have since passed laws that mandate a preference for non-proprietary IT solutions.

The Italian Code of Digital Administration, which became effective on January 1, 2006, requires that any software developed by one PA must be made available at no cost, with complete source code and documentation, to any other PA that can adapt it to its own needs.

Such policies have both economic and ethical rationales. Promoting pluralism in the software field is seen as an excellent way both to save money and to create local jobs and wealth. Universal access to (public) information and knowledge is the other main justification.

The province of Rome's policies for FLOSS

Today, in a city like Rome, the great majority of the households with a computer (slightly more than 50%) also have an Internet connection, but outside the city the number of connected households can drop to less than 20%.

The province of Rome has officially acknowledged the need to promote and reuse FLOSS, and the fact that reducing the digital divide can become a strategic driver for local development. The Province Digital Innovation Plan defines how to reach these goals.

The overall strategy is focused on three main areas. The first is to improve, through ICT, the efficiency of all services provided to citizens and local businesses by the province and all its cities. The main outcome of the first area should be common digital procedures to exchange data, digital signatures, and certified email.

This also means making sure that all the involved offices, which still communicate with one another irregularly and slowly, start using the new systems as soon as they become available. Internal communication should also be improved by building one common public backbone, which should make connections between all local public offices faster and more reliable (when they exist in the first place) than today.

After internal efficiency, the second goal is to improve competitiveness of the whole territory: a broadband diffusion plan should bring the average Internet connection to at least the same levels of similar areas in Europe. This in turn would make all kind of services usable, from jobs databanks to marketing and tourism (cooperating, especially in the last case, with the city of Rome).

All this should make it possible to reach the third official goal of "digital citizenship" -- transparent government, since everything can be done or monitored online, and the ability for Italians to be actively involved in decision-making.

On this front, one of the first things the government needs to accomplish is to make sure, be it with the European Computer Driving License (ECDL) or in another way, that as many people as possible have the minimum skills to use a computer. The second is to actually set up all the Web portals where all this interaction should take place. Last but not least, in compliance with the first directive we mentioned, the province is slowly starting to evaluate and prepare a gradual migration to open source software and, above all, non-proprietary formats like OpenDocument.

The open source Competence Center

A FLOSS Competence Center (CC), supported among others by local FLOSS associations, the Union of Italian Provinces (UPI) and the Italian Center for Informatics in Public Administration, will execute the plan. Besides coordinating all the involved parties, the CC will collect data and organize training activities inside local administrations and small businesses.

Several pro-FLOSS groups in the province have helped the Center to make use of computers donated to high schools. Cooperation goes from software installation to delivery, network setup, and training teachers to use the computers. The members of Lugroma point out how the partnership took off for both idealistic and pragmatic reasons: on one side, schools should teach students how to be good citizens, helping one's neighbors when they need it. At the same time, even in the richest countries, school are always short of money.

Local administration, global cooperation

The plan of the province of Rome is ambitious. Time will tell how much of it will be implemented and become the norm in all of Italy. However, digital innovation has already proved to be a successful factor of local development, which, just like FLOSS, starts small but eventually arrives inside national administrations. Again like FLOSS, direct cooperation among among cities, even of different countries, can lead to far-reaching, unexpected results.

The province of Rome is interested in contacting and working directly with other local administrations, both in Italy and abroad, to exchange ICT knowhow and best practices. To this end, Rome has proposed a twinning program between each Italian province and an equivalent administration of a developing country.

Serious talks at this level are already happening. The Second World Summit of Cities and Local Authorities, for example, recently discussed these issues. Besides sharing experiences and evaluate cooperation, participants defined a common action plan to present at the World Summit of the Information Society in Tunis. The result, called the Declaration of Bilbao, is available online.

Some time ago, I asked a few Italian public employees who were promoting open source about international cooperation. One of the answers was that, to promote FLOSS more effectively, it is time to share all the isolated efforts and build on them, to avoid risky choices and uneven experiences like the one in Munich.

Partnership in development programs can be an excellent way to make this happen. Such programs finally make it easy for non-technical managers, those with the real decision-making power, to understand what is at stake and get involved.

To discuss these programs, contact the province of Rome or Flavia Marzano, the Internet economy professor who is assisting Rome and other provinces with these programs.


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