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Digital Transformation – Creating an Institutional Digital Platform

General architecture of the Open Data Trentino. Various data streams, at the bottom, are unified through a common ontology (catalogue) that in turns is interfaced by a semantic layer. This latter, using a variety of software algorithms produces data that are exposed to applications. These latter are both embedded in the platform and provided by industry (aziende). The platforms complies with a set of regulations (Diritto), is structured to support operation processes (Organizzazione) and is intended to serve the whole citizenship (Comunità). Source: Provincia Autonoma di Trento

What about starting from scratch to create a Digital Platform that could succeed?  As stated it has to have the following characteristics:

  • it needs to have storage capabilities
  • it needs to have processing capabilities
  • it needs to have embedded connectivity
  • it needs to be open to let third parties develop on it
  • it needs to affirm a standard to decrease the cost of interfacing
  • it needs to support scaling to accommodate more users and features
  • it needs to aggregate investment creating an attraction point

Let’s take, as example, the Open Data Initiative set up by the Provincia Autonoma di Trento back in 2013. Six years have now gone by so we can also see its evolution in from the point of view of results (disclaimer: this is my personal take on that initiative, my personal opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the Trento Province, nor I am writing on their behalf).

The Trento Province had accumulated over the last 30 years a significant number of data bases, recording data on a variety of societal, economical and operational aspects in Trentino. Over 120 data bases spanning from agriculture data (apple and strawberry), traffic data (vehicular flow on all Trentino roads, geo-located accidents reports…), health care,… you name it.

Each of these data bases had different characteristics required different access permission and was designed to meet specific objective. The first step was to recognise that all these data shall be made available. That required the publication of the ontology and the design of a framework of access rules.
This led to the Open Data Trentino: a platform was developed to integrate the access to all the Province data bases, ensuring that use can be tracked, proper ownership maintained and privacy assured. This latter is particularly tricky since individual data may be stripped of identification but by correlating several data identification may emerge. The solution was to open the access to data not as access to the raw data but through date services where a data service function would return the desired (permissible) information emerging from a data set, yet hiding the raw data.

This was the starting step. The next one was to foster an open data mind-set on players, both providers and users. To pursue that the Province required that all service providers under a Province contract would have to open the data, in accordance to the Trentino Open Data Framework, for the part that was involved in the contract execution. This was a crucial step since the Province is a main player and it is investing on citizens’ services. By enforcing their suppliers to adopt an open data framework they not just increased the data pool, they also created a culture.

Furthermore, the Province assured a regulatory framework that protected those commercial enterprises that would on their own open their data, based on the Trentino Open Data Framework. This was a crucial step since it allowed companies to create data ecosystems for their products and services, initiating a Digital Transformation in their sector (and basically forcing others to follow suit).

Notice how these steps fulfilled the set of characteristics I previously listed for a successful digital platform:

  • it needs to have storage capabilities
  • it needs to have processing capabilities
  • it needs to have embedded connectivity

These first three were actually present in the IT infrastructure of the Province, pre-dating the initiative. There was for some time some discussion on setting up a data centre for Trentino but the scale was not just large enough to make it economically sustainable. Much better to rely to existing Data Centres.

  • it needs to be open to let third parties develop on it – achieved by providing the Open Data framework and the regulatory framework;
  • it needs to affirm a standard to decrease the cost of interfacing – achieved by publishing the ontology and the application interface;
  • it needs to support scaling to accommodate more users and features – the choice of a mixed architecture with a distributed set of interconnected data bases and with apps (services) that may be hosted on different servers plus local processing at the edges (smartphones) ensure graceful scalability;
  • it needs to aggregate investment creating an attraction point – the feature of tracking usage thus protecting ownership is crucial to the establishment of a sustainable business for all parties involved and the set up of the regulatory framework created the attraction point.

It should be noted that the shift towards a Digital Platform is not a downhill path. It requires effort to overcome resistance from incumbent players who over the years have carved their business space and that may see the shift as a loss of control and value (which it is).

Creating a momentum is very important and this requires involving players, creating a critical mass. It requires proving that the creation of services (hence value) on the new platform is possible and attractive to business (not necessarily to the existing ones!). Several actions, including hackathons to stimulate service creation leveraging on the Open Data, have been put in place. Main players, like FBK, Engineering and TIM have provided commitment and support.

The roadmap followed by Trentino Region in the development of their Digital Platform, starting from the Open Data. Source: Trentino Region

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.