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In Italy, Online Tool Monitors Aid Money Post-Earthquake

BY Antonella Napolitano | Friday, September 6 2013

The main map on Open Ricostruzione website show the damages in the area and the donations received

On May 20, 2012, I was awakened suddenly at 4 a.m. in my apartment in Milan. It didn't take long for me to find out that most of Northern Italy had experienced the same that night. A 5.9-magnitude earthquake had hit nearby in Emilia-Romagna, the region just below Lombardy, causing severe damages in cities and villages and 27 deaths.

While rescue and emergency efforts went relatively smoothly, rebuilding was entirely another matter. In Italy, the construction industry has often been at the center of corruption scandals and one of the most recent ones had started with an earthquake. But with the help of an online platform, those in Emilia-Romagna were determined not to repeat the mistakes of L'Aquila, where aid money allegedly disappeared into the pockets of corrupt politicians.

Remembering L'Aquila

L'Aquila is a historical city in the center of Italy that was struck by another strong earthquake in 2009. The disaster caused more than 300 deaths, destroyed a huge part of the city, and left thousands homeless. Damages were estimated at around 10 billion euros.

In addition to the tragedy and destruction, there was also another reason to fear earthquakes in Italy: most of the massive amounts of aid money raised for relief and reconstruction never arrived. The money "disappeared," in part, due to the involvement of the mafia in the region but also because of corruption and embezzlement. Top public officials are now under investigation for corruption. As a result, a proper process of reconstruction never started, let alone finished.

While L'Aquila citizens are still suffering from the loss of a beloved one or their home, they also feel betrayed by the institutions that promised a fast reconstruction process. That is why a handful of people and associations decided to create Open Ricostruzione (“Open Reconstruction”), a civic project to monitor the money raised to repair damages and, most of all, to engage citizens in the rebuilding process.

The platform includes a map of the damages, which were mostly sustained by historical buildings and small towns. The tool also allows users to monitor public funding and private donations raised to reconstruct public buildings.

A map of the damages in the area: donations received (green) compared to the total damage (blue)

The platform also provides information on the donors and the kinds of projects that received donations. For example, damage estimates are around 348 million euros. Donations have almost reached 40 million euros. The money is intended to go towards approximately 400 rebuilding projects in 61 towns and the map currently covers around 43 of those towns, including the main problems faced by each.

Left: Areas of rebuilding projects (blue is for schools, red is for public buildings).
Right: Donations show Region Emilia-Romagna is the main donor with more than 66 percent of the total.

Smart Citizens, Not Just Smart Cities

Even if the region gets rebuilt with the help of the platform, technology isn’t enough to “rebuild” democracy. For this reason, Open Ricostruzione is organizing a series of workshops to really get citizens engaged. It will train citizens and activists to monitor the process of reconstruction with the support of legal experts and of Dataninja, an Italian data journalism network.

“Our focus is on re-building citizens’ skills," explained Christian Quintili in a guest post for the Open Knowledge Foundation blog. "Beyond smart cities, we need smart citizens.”

Quintili works for ActionAid, a UK-based NGO that started as a long-distance adoption charity, but has now developed a specific expertise in dealing with natural calamities and getting citizens engaged in the reconstruction process. ActionAid is one of the main partners of the Open Ricostruzione, as well as ANCI, the National Association of Italian Municipalities, which gathered most of the data for the platform. Another partner is Wikitalia, an open government foundation, modeled on the values and activities of MySociety, Code for America, and Open Polis, a major civic organization that promotes transparency and participation.

The workshops began in May 2013, one year after the earthquake, and will be held through May 2014 in five municipalities that were hit by the earthquake. They will provide legal and data journalism skills, as well as tutorials on government regulations in the construction of permits and public procurements. Later, participants will learn how to maintain and develop the platform. The output of the workshop will be a monitoring report created by the participants.

“The goal is to show that transparency builds trust,” wrote Quintili in an email interview.

The workshops will also target Italian youths through storytelling and photography classes.

Pictures of earthquake damage by a 13-year-old student from a photography workshop.

The early success of Open Ricostruzione in Emilia-Romagna can be attributed in part to the fact that the region is one of the richest and most developed in Italy, with a strong tradition of political and civic engagement. Still, Open Ricostruzione wants to start small and spread the word by example.

“We want to create a group of 10 activists in each municipality," tells Quintili. "It's a small number, I know, but we want to be thorough, not oversimplify the issues.”

Quintilli explains that in the future, citizens will take ownership of Open Ricostruzione. He explains, “My dream is that citizens will be able to lead the process on their own, working with the local administration, thus activating a true collaborative process and increased efficiency of policies."

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.