Planning a Smartathon in a changing city

An interview with Patricia Hernandez, international relations expert with the City of Rome
December, 2016

Romans went to the polls in June 2016, electing Virginia Raggi, a member of the Five Star Movement, as their Mayor. As Patricia Hernandez explains, the new administration was soon supportive of the project: “When you have a change of political panorama in the city, of course you must update the new comers about what’s been going on and what you’re working on. So naturally we needed to take some time to inform the new councillors. I’m happy to say that the new urban planning councillor, Mr Paolo Berdini, is very enthusiastic about the smarticipate project.”

Work on smarticipate is continuing as per usual, with the city’s first Smartathon scheduled for 21st January.

Preparing for a Smartathon

To give Smartathon participants a better understanding of what the event will involve, the city has held two pre-meetings – a move unique among the smarticipate city partners.

“The second meeting was a simulation of the Smartathon,” says Patricia. “We showed participants how the London and Hamburg editions were held, screening the video and pictures and so on, and giving them a hint of the type of data they will be dealing with in January.”

These “pre-Smartathons” have the advantage of not only engaging stakeholders at an early stage, but in tearing down the cultural barriers that may inhibit the Smartathon format from being a success.

“Citizens can be a bit inhibited when the time comes to interact in a public event, or express themselves in front of a panel. So in this case, it can help to break the ice! In terms of methodology of work, they are much more used to plenary sessions, so it gives them a chance to prepare for this more interactive format. By showing them the previous Smartathons we can show them that they will run the show,” explains Patricia.

Finding the right mix of participants

In inviting participants, the city has reached out to a broad section of society. The idea, says Patricia, is to gather different viewpoints to create a more lively discussion.

“Stakeholders include associations of citizens, some involved in providing social services, some in providing open systems, some who run youth centres, and so on. What’s particularly interesting is that we have quite a number of representatives from start-ups. We got in contact with those start-ups we thought were most suited for the Smartathon – those involved in data collection, mapping, surveying, and so on. So we have quite a nice range of stakeholders.”

Already, a sizeable number have registered to take part in January’s Smartathon. How did the city encourage them to join the event?

“We told them that they would be pioneers in the design of a new platform,” says Patricia. “They’re going to help analyse what kind of data is needed to achieve the smarticipate platform. We also told them that they would have the opportunity to interact with other actors from the city of Rome, and with foreign partners, and that they could have their say on how such a platform could be designed.”

“We expect some criticism”

One challenge that Rome is facing is that expectations among stakeholders are particularly high. “The previous Administration had already started a participatory process and had created some expectations. So we expect some criticism from stakeholders but we will take on board the critical interventions raised. That is why we have participatory processes,” says Patricia.

In preparing for the technical side of the platform, smarticipate is having a positive knock-on effect within the City of Rome. As Patricia explains, discussing the technical requirements has led to greater inter-departmental cooperation:

“One of the challenges that we face is defining the open data that we need for the Smartathon and then of course for the platform itself – do we have the right data for the app today, or will we have to capture new data? I put the smarticipate technical partners in touch with the IT departments within the City of Rome, and they are discussing among themselves.

“What’s rewarding for me is to see how the different departments within the city are talking and working with one another. When we last spoke this was just beginning, but now they are in touch almost daily!”

Rome also faces a challenge that the London and Hamburg Smartathons did not: providing translation. While the technical smarticipate project partners are generally comfortable speaking both English and German, addressing the audience in Italian is an issue.

“We were clear that the event has to be held in Italian, as it is addressed to Italian stakeholders,” says Patricia. “The project partners will speak in English, and their interventions will be translated. We are aiming for this to be done simultaneously, as otherwise it will take too much time!”

What will the Smartathon achieve?

While giving citizens a voice is vital, it is also necessary to sensitise city employees to the importance of providing open data, Patricia believes.

“I hope the Smartathon will show city administrators the huge importance of open data, not only for apps for smarticipate, but for any kind of app that we wish to develop in the future, as well as for an open process of participation for citizens.

“A truly open participatory process can only be achieved through open data. If you want a citizen to feel part of a city, and to feel that they have a say in how the city is run, you have to give them free access to data. Data is, after all, what’s going on in the city.”