When visitors enter Casa della Cittá, the venue of the Rome Smartathon, the first thing they likely notice is the building’s glass walls, which provide an unimpeded view of the local area. These wall-length windows are more than an aesthetic choice, but rather symbolise the City of Rome’s desire to be transparent with its citizens.

In a sun-lit room, pleasantly warm for late January, city officials gathered with citizens to discuss how the smarticipate platform could be made better.

Rosella Caputo, Manager of the Urban Planning Department of the City of Rome, helped to organise the Smartathon and to ensure that it was useful both for the city and the participants who gave up their Saturday to attend. Ms Caputo is the head of the smarticipate project in Rome and is closely involved with each aspect of the project in the city.

“It was an enjoyable and productive day,” says Ms Caputo. “Over 30 experts, stakeholders from universities and IT enterprises, and politicians took part. The Smartathon was essentially a lab; we analysed the urban zone of Forte Trionfale [the test site for the smarticipate platform in Rome] and the open data related to it. We asked ourselves what are the essential characteristics that smarticipate as an app should have?”

This question was a starting point for smaller groups to discuss. Eventually the discussion turned to how smarticipate will change the current state of play in the city, and what effect citizens having access to urban data will have.

“During the Smartathon we made it clear that the City of Rome wants to experiment with new instruments for implementing urban decisions, listening to the citizens and their needs,” said Ms Caputo. “We decided to start from Forte Trionfale, but if this experiment shows good results, we will extend the platform to other areas of the city.”

The gathered stakeholders were full of ideas to improve the smarticipate platform, with comments ranging from detailed technical suggestions to thoughts on how the project’s logo could be made more attractive.

“We had a lot of suggestions from the participants,” says Ms Caputo. “Many people stressed that the application should be intuitive so that everyone can use it, not only young, technologically savvy users. A young developer present at the Smartathon encouraged the team to model the app on a videogame, ensuring that it is attractive and has a clear interface.

“Everyone agreed that the municipality should make all of the data concerning the entire area around the Forte Trionfale available to the public, such as data on local services, schools, and so on. Interestingly, at the same time there was a level of mistrust regarding the collection and use of open data. This was noted by the local government officials present; it is an area that we will continue to explore.

“Technically, some participants expressed doubt about whether it would be possible to carry out adjustments on a map while using a smart phone screen. Most felt it would be more practical to use a [desktop] computer.”

Citizens have a lot of ideas for the district in which they live; the problem in the past was that they had a huge interest in changing the area but they didn’t have the right information. Now with smarticipate we can go beyond this obstacle.

Ms Caputo stressed that the feedback gained through the Smartathon was invaluable, as it will allow the developers to create an app that is more likely to be accepted and used by locals: “[The participants] will be the final users, so they have a real and great interest in the platform. From the beginning, we were interested in knowing what stakeholders’ needs are, what their expectations are. We asked the public to participate because they are the experts when it comes to the territory, they live in the area and they have an interest in the restoration of the building.

“Citizens have a lot of ideas for the district in which they live; the problem in the past was that they had a huge interest in changing the area but they didn’t have the right information. Now with smarticipate we can go beyond this obstacle. With smarticipate, citizens can be directly involved and propose solutions to the local government; each person can interact with the municipality.”

When inviting opinions from a broad range of people, receiving differing, often conflicting ideas is inevitable. The city is aware that arbitration between competing interests may be part of the smarticipate experience for them. “In Greek, POLIS (city) and POLEMOS (conflict), have the same root,” says Ms Caputo. “Every urban change has a conflict between different interests. The work that we have to do is to create a communication channel between citizens and politicians, be more involved in the urban area transformation, and try and go beyond the conflicts and work together for the best interest of the city.”

Rome is betting on technology as an instrument of transparency, one that can foster the participation of citizens. For this reason, smarticipate, with its bottom up approach, is seen as a good investment.

One of the biggest challenges facing Rome lies in the collection of open data. The city is charting new territory with smarticipate and is still figuring out the best ways to collect and store data.

“The municipality has yet to reach its goal in terms of collecting new open data, expanding the data set and enhancing the instruments used to visualise the data. The IT programme used by Rome is a work in progress, so completing it and collecting all the data before the launch of smarticipate is our challenge.

“Currently, we are not completely satisfied by the data that we have collected. However, we believe that we can improve our system and fill in the gaps. Rome is truly convinced of the potential of data to develop and improve public services. We are certain that open data and ICT can allow citizens to support the urban planning process.

“The new local government in Rome is of the opinion that transparency is not a choice but an obligation. Rome is betting on technology as an instrument of transparency, one that can foster the participation of citizens. For this reason, smarticipate, with its bottom up approach, is seen as a good investment.”

Rome’s second Smartathon will take place on 1 December 2017, and will focus on testing a prototype of the smarticipate platform.

“I hope that for the second Smartathon there will still be a space to hear advice and doubts from participants,” says Ms Caputo. “Ultimately, we want smarticipate, and all new public services, to align with the will of citizens.”