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Monithon, a Government “Monitoring Marathon” in Italy

BY Antonella Napolitano | Wednesday, May 14 2014

One of the layers of the Monithon Map shows government-confiscated real estate that once belonged to the mafia

It's fairly self-explanatory that a healthy democracy requires citizens that engage actively in politics, not just every two, three or four years when there is an election. But does it matter how they engage -- whether they "participate" or "monitor" and is there a difference?

In a post for the MIT Center for Civic Media blog, researcher Erhardt Graeff draws a distinction between participatory democracy and monitorial democracy:

The latter is completely dependent on continued practice of representational democracy, and it's through the identification and critique of legitimate or illegitimate representatives of the people wherever they lie—government, industry, the media, etc.—that monitoring takes place. This is key because we tend to hope that monitorial citizenship can be a kind of participatory democratic practice...

In Italy, an independently developed initiative called "Monithon" is trying to foster online citizen observation and reporting on the development of projects funded by the European Union, a topic of particular interest at the moment given it is only a week from the European Parliamentary elections.

Monithon, which comes from "monitor" and "marathon", promotes citizen monitoring of projects funded by the Cohesion (aka. Regional) Policy in Italy.

The project is related to OpenCoesione, a website developed in 2012 by the Italian Department for Development and Economic Cohesion, that is dedicated to sharing financial data regarding European Union-funded projects in Italy.

Here's how the process works, as explained on the Monithon website:

The Italian government releases the information on the projects funded and on the beneficiaries of the subsidies as open data. All the data is integrated with interactive visualizations on the national portal of OpenCoesione, but the OpenCoesione Monithon initiative takes this transparency further: it asks citizens to actively engage with open government data and to produce valuable information through it.

But there are many monitoring initiatives that have been started by citizens all over the world. How is Monithon different?

First of all, the initiative is not a top-down project, but neither did it begin as a bottom-up effort, says Luigi Reggi, co-founder of Monithon, where he works on a voluntary basis, and a policy analyst at the Department for Development and Economic Cohesion.

This "hybrid" project comes from inside the public administration. It was the idea of a group of civil servants that was then presented to the Italian open data community and which then flourished independently, Reggi tells techPresident in a phone interview.

The other peculiarity of Monithon is that it is focused not only on spending but also on EU Cohesion policy, Reggi continues. Since the programming documents and strategic goals are available, it is not only possible to monitor public spending, but also whether it matches the strategic goals of the public institutions. “Something you won't find on USAspending.gov, where you find data only on public spending,” he notes.

So, You Wanna Be a Monithoner?

Monithon collects the reports on these publicly funded projects through monitoring citizens, who are asked to post the results on a Ushahidi-based map.

On the website, “aspiring monitoring citizens” can download a simple toolkit, a 10-page document that describes the initiative and explains how to pick a project to monitor and set a “monitoring walk”, which involves taking pictures of buildings while they are in construction. Information on how to analyze data are provided, as well as different types of questionnaires, a sort of checklist for the monitoring citizen. A mobile app is also available.

The toolkit also explains the “layers” of the map, which correspond to different types of projects and how to publish monitoring reports. The results are then published on a map, available on the homepage of the website.

A group of Monithon members discussing the monitoring of the renovation of the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy

Users can do monitor individually or in small groups, but the whole activity increases in volume and importance when done collectively, as it happens during the “Monithon Days”.

“During these events, groups of citizens, sometimes under the guide of local organizations,” the Monithon website explains, “set out on real explorations around their area, to gather information on specific projects of local interest. In doing so, not only do the participants collect useful material to evaluate the effectiveness of the funding and generate awareness around these finance plans, but they also experiment with new forms of control over public policies.”

Monithon Days have already taken place in several Italian cities.

Monitoring: “A Powerful Argument for Integration”

Not all monitoring activities have the same starting point nor the same kind of engagement.

“A brand of monitoring uses citizens as sensors,” says Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media. There is another brand of citizens' monitoring, Zuckerman continued, generated by citizen auditing, for example, such as sitting down with the budget and engaging in crowdsourced reporting.

I met Zuckerman in a cafè in Perugia, Italy, during the International Festival of Journalism, held earlier this month. During his stay at the festival, he connected with the people behind Monithon, including Reggi, who was present during our conversation.

Zuckerman says that the second brand of citizen monitoring may be initiated by a type of actor but then conducted by the community (as an example, Zuckerman mentioned Pro Publica' crowdsourced reporting network that worked on a investigative story on the federal stimulus).

With only a week left before the vote for a new European Parliament, the issue of the alienation of citizens from government and EU institutions is especially present on the Old Continent, I noted during our conversation.

In several European countries, populist movements and parties have been gaining traction in the last few years, playing on the so called "euoskepticism" to cast doubt on the value of the European Union.

Zuckerman acknowledges the issue of populism in Europe -- he mentions in particular his worry about Jobbik, the Hungarian extreme-right party, that scored 21 percent of the votes in the national elections held last month.

But, in this gloomy scenario, he sees monitoring as an opportunity: “Monitoring initiatives may be powerful in making an argument for European integration."

Zuckerman explains that monitoring initiatives of EU funds can help show the value it brings to local communities and may serve as a good counterargument to "euroskepticism."

Politics might be a slippery ground, especially during campaigns, however.

Monithon's co-founder Reggi says that a political group in Apulia, a region in the southeast of Italy, recently tried to use Monithon for initiatives related to their campaign for local elections. The group coordinating Monithon does not allow use of the tool by political groups. “We are very careful with politics, we don't want it to compromise the independence of the whole process,” he told me.

“You know what would be interesting? Doing it with open data,” Zuckerman said, smiling. If a particular government administration does work on a certain issue, the next administration won't be able to say that nothing had been done and that they had to start from scratch, he added.

One of the projects Zuckerman and his team are working on is called PromiseTracker, a mobile system that helps the local community to collect data to check if electoral promises were kept. “If the mayor meets her goal,” he explained in a post earlier this year, "Promise Tracker offers proof generated by the community that’s benefitted. If the government is in danger of falling short, Promise Tracker offers an open, freely shared data set that citizens and officials can use to consult on solving the problem.”

Actions can then take many forms, from notifying civic leaders of their concerns to sharing information about unfulfilled promises to journalists, and even recruiting others to help collect data.

A New Kind of Citizen?

Zuckerman and his colleagues at the MIT Center for Civic media have been working on citizens' engagement as enablers of democracy.

Zuckerman says he borrows the notion of monitorial citizenship from journalism scholar Michael Schudson, specifically from his book The Good Citizen. In a post from earlier this year, Zuckerman wrote :

One of the models Schudson suggests to describe our current reality is monitorial democracy, where a responsibility as citizens is to monitor what powerful institutions do (governments, corporations, universities and other large organizations) and demand change when they misbehave [...] new media may broaden the potential for monitorial democracy, allowing vastly more citizens to watch, document and share their reports.

Back in 2008, in Rebooting America, a PDM-curated anthology on redesigning American democracy for the Internet age, political science professor Lance Bennett suggested the notion of digital natives as self-actualizing citizens, focused on a new kind of civic participation that allow them to see a clear impact in a quicker fashion, while considering voting a less meaningful way to engage.

Is this what's happening with Monithon, I ask Reggi.

Apparently not, he replies. Monithon's audience, at the moment, is mostly made up of people that work in the development field, either as a public servant or as recipients of EU-funded projects. There is also a growing number of journalists and members of the Italian open data community.

“We haven't done a proper research yet, but, as far as I can see, Monithon is used by an educated elite, very curious and passionate about these topics and/or are particularly engaged in their local community,” Reggi tells techPresident.

At the moment, there aren't many people that want to use it just to protest against the government, he notes. Rather, they are motivated by helping the public administration and the local community.

It seems that this community, albeit small, has some potential to grow and broaden its scope, if it is able to focus on a specific issue. For example, Monithon has partnered with Libera, a 20-year old network of more than 1,200 associations, groups and schools, committed to fighting the mafia and building a culture of lawfulness. Libera is deeply involved in educational programs, particularly focused on the social use of real estate formerly owned by organized crime rings but confiscated by the government. It is a delicate matter, as in some cases, the mafia attempts to take those properties back.

Mapping those properties is one of the layers of the Monithon map: Libera and Monithon have struck a partnership, where the latter will teach the former how to correctly monitor the process.

This may not make for a new kind of monitoring citizen, but it certainly makes for an engaged one.

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

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