At EXPO 2015, Milan Italy, the Municipality of Milan and Lombardy Region had the objective of creating a digital ecosystem (E015) where all data related to the EXPO could be shared in an open way and leveraged by third parties, in addition to the EXPO 2015 organisation. Several streams of data, including private and public transportation, events, restaurants and hotels were available, however each stream had different owner(s) and structure.
The task of creating an ad hoc digital platform was given to CEFRIEL, an innovation fostering company active in helping organisations to master the Digital Transformation.
The first step was to create a solid, and open, data infrastructure with a well defined set of application programming interfaces (API). Once done all data were opened to third parties. Training courses were prepared and various forms to attract business interest were put in place.
EIT Digital decided to participate to EXPO and to leverage the E015 data platform focussing on the creation of tourist services leveraging data provided by E015. The result was 3cixty, an advanced recommendation systems able to guide in a personalised ways a multitude of tourists. Now 3cixty has been become a digital platform to support tourist oriented service creation. At the same time E015 has evolved and in 2018 it has been morphed into a digital platform serving as a smart “brain” to aggregate and ease the access to data in the Lombardy Region and is now being managed by the Region IT department.
Some of the lessons learnt were:
- starting with a very focussed objective works well but … as soon as you start using the platform you realise that there are other data streams that would be of use and that are not in the platform. 3cixty had to work out a way to integrate additional data streams and that proved quite complex (tourists going to the EXPO in Milan in 2015 were also interested to take the opportunity of visiting nearby towns, like Bologna, Florence, Venice) but data of those towns were not part of the E015. Hence the need to integrate them moving from a homogeneous to an heterogeneous system;
- the effort required in the build up of a digital platform is not trivial (it cost quite a bit in resources of different kind). Focus streamlines the effort but also reduces the revenues and the life time of the platform. EXPO 2015 was over after 6 months and clearly the cost of developing the platform was not recouped over that short period of time. Being able to re-use (by re-adaptation) the platform in a broader context was important. It clearly required some more investment but at the same time it leveraged on a culture that was created by the original platform.
- The openness of the platform may backfire. What the end users really like is a consistent look and feel. Openness should not necessarily mean “do whatever you want”. A framework that ensures, mandates, uniformity in the end can win the users (as it happens in the “closed garden” of the Apple development environment and to similar extent with Android).
Even thought to a lesser extent the E015 Digital Platform conforms to the requirement I stated previously (the first three –storage, processing connectivity- being ensured by the Lombardy Province servers):
- it needs to be open to let third parties develop on it – achieved by providing the Open Data 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 an architecture 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 drive of the Lombardy Region to aggregate the digital asset and the commitment to the Digital Transformation with two main focus (Citizens’ services and Industry 4.0) result in an attraction point for third party business.
I posted my comments (again personal ones not necessarily representing the view of the Lombardy Region nor the ones of CEFRIEL, the technical driving force behind it) because it provides a very good example of a Digital Platform that was designed to meet a very specific goal (supporting EXPO 2015 service creation) and that has been able to evolve to become a more general Digital Platform. As I mentioned this evolution has been crucial in moving from a “cost” deemed necessary to support EXPO 2015 to a revenue generator, expanding its scope and its useful life time.