Tag Archives: ritalia

On the impossible BarCampization (*) of Universities and other lessons learned from rItaliaCamp

I’ve been at RitaliaCamp at University Bicocca in Milan Saturday. I surely want to thank the organizers who spent countless hours in the permanent SkypeSwarm, dealing with all the details. RitaliaCamp was an interesting event, not interesting because of the topics that emerged but because of the social dynamics involved. In fact I must admit I’m not satisfied with how RitaliaCamp developed. This is not a criticism of whom organized because, as usual, in a doacracy I could have just helped more. What I hope to contribute here is a description of what I perceived as problematic and possibly some lessons we can learn from the suboptimal development of rItaliaCamp, for future events.

The first, simplest and most important is: Never ever organize a BarCamp in a University.
Spaces shape social interactions and Universities are not designed to enable conversations between peers. The “No spectator, only participants” BarCamp rule is precisely the opposite of the default Universities rule (at least Italian Universities) “There is only one actor, the professor; all the others are spectators, don’t even try to be an active participant for one second, you know nothing.” I might say that Universities are not barcampizables (*). I created a page on the bzaar wiki Luoghi ideali per Barcamp (in Italian) in order to collectively discuss what are the ideal characteristics of a Barcamp location. Add your opinions there, if you like (strangely enough, I didn’t find a similar page in English in barcamp.org).
Moreover the WiFi connection didn’t work: in this case the problem was an error in communication with the responsible of the network: there is an antiterrorism law in Italy (idiotic law!) that requires you to make a copy of the identity document of everyone you give Internet connection to and provide an individual login/password. One more reason to avoid in future Universities which are sinking in their mad burocratization.

The second lesson learned can be: When there are many noobies, rules and goals have to be precisely conveyed the days before the Barcamp and at the beginning of the Barcamp.
There were around 150 (or 200) people at RitaliaCamp and for half of them it was the first barcamp. I think they received a bunch of contradicting messages.
1) the organizers correctly explained that “barcamp is a conversation among peers” but the model and size of the room in which we started suggested quite the opposite. It was a 450-seats frontal university room with a huge projecting screen and the organizers had to introduce the day using a microphone. And in fact the first social dynamics were all centralized around the speaker standing in front of all the others and holding the microphone: quite the opposite of a barcamp.
2) after an introduction, we were told we were going to start a collective brainstorming session but what followed was not a brainstorming at all. We received a predigested mind map explained verbosely and in all the details, and with the microphone. This was not a brainstorming session and it is actually quite impossible to brainstorm in this kind of frontal rooms and if you need to ask the microphone in order to throw your idea. Ideas should fly in the air at the velocity at which they occur in the mind of anyone. Second contradictory message.
3) then the brainstorming was ended quite abruptly (someone also complained about this) because we were in fact already at least 90 minutes late and we were going nowhere anyway, and people were invited to go in the corridor and to propose a talk attaching a post-it with the title in the preferred time slot in one of the 3 available rooms. Because for many it was the first Barcamp, because of the contradictory messages we earlier received, and because it was not clear what we should have spoken about, there were few proposed talks and everyone seemed in a “let’s see what is going to happen” mode. Eventually the first 3 slots were filled, but there were still some problems. One talk was about exchanging turistic information via proximity hot spots (by Stefano Vitta) and was scheduled in the 450-seats room, and basically the speaker was so down and far away from the entrance that everybody was perceiving the room as empty and the talk as not starting and hence keeping wandering in the corridor. At the end Stefano had to start the talk with around 5 people in this 450-seats room. Another talk was very technical about a 3D engine and so the people interested were not too many too. The third and last talk in the first time frame was from Marco Ottolini, the ex-director of italia.it (!) so you can easily imagine how basically all the 150 people wanted to attend his talk and listen what he has to say, expecting a sort of insider view I guess. I didn’t attend that talk (I wanted to move some people in other rooms) so I might be wrong but I’ve heard comments stating that he presented his complete vision for the Web promotion of Italy as turistic destination and that the talk was very long (almost one hour?) while the time slot should have been 15 minutes talk and 10 minutes discussion. This situation (all the people in one room listening the ex director of italia.it speaking in detail about his vision) led some people to think that this first talk was in fact the official position of RitaliaCamp organizers and that all the people (as “spectators”) had just to say yes and contribute. Of course this was not the reality, of course there was no official position of organizers but this was one additional contradictory message people (especially noobies at their first barcamp) received.
4) in general, it was not perceived as clear if this event was just for sharing ideas for future, or for starting working around something already predefined by the organizers. Some of the comments in the corridors and during talks were precisely about this. Again, I lurked the organizational SkypeSwarm the weeks before the event and I have to reckon it is not easy to define a clear goal and get everyone agree on it, while also dealing with thousands of other strategic and low-level but urgent things, such as “where shall the sponsor send the shirts?” So the lesson here might be define a one-line-goal and write it down as first sentence in the wiki and in the blog, separated from the rest of the text. Could I have suggested this myself before the event? Sure, and in fact, one more, these are not criticisms to the organizers.

Another point I heard (from Roberta if I’m not wrong) is that the conversation was led by geeks and hence turist marketers who were present didn’t understand their possible role and didn’t feel the barcamp inclusive for them and for their opinions and ideas.
There were also some people from IBM, the company who got from Italians some of the millions of euros for the highly criticized italia.it Web portal and so probably some people perceived the “money/power” aspect as well. I’m not sure about this, surely IBM presence didn’t affect me, besides the fact it was odd to see people with ties at a barcamp.

Going back to the barcamp as an instrument, I’m not sure how much a barcamp modality can be used for events with a focus (such as rethinking Italian turism strategy on the Web in our case, or improving Toronto transportation system in the Toronto TransitCamp case), I need to see more evidence.
Something that seemed to have been approciated was the add-your-idea post-it wall (that is currently going to be organized into an online mind map).
Speaking of things that were great, how not to mention the gorgeous products offered by San Lorenzo? Barolo-drunk cheese (?!?) was simply great! Actually my only proposal of the day was “let’s italia.it be just a redirect to www.san-lorenzo.com”. Not too much I reckon but if you taste San Lorenzo products you will agree with me, I think ;-)

Summary. There are some lessons we can learn from RitaliaCamp, the simplest one is “never ever organize a barcamp in an University, and surely not in frontal rooms with non-movable chairs”. In fact, best conversations happened in the corridor or on the back of the huge 450-seats rooms where we move some of the free chairs and had presentations there.

Anyway, besides these problems, 90% of which caused by the University setting I think, the event was worth the long trip from Trento to Milan because I had a chance to meet friends and know some new great people. It was great to meet again my friends Bru, Folletto (great presentation “ask the way” mashing up also on CouchSurfing) and Jtheo and to meet for the first time my other Bzaar pals Gianandrea e Simbul. It was a chance for meeting again Bonaria, and for meeting for the first time some of the people I spoke with in the permanent organizational SkypeSwarm such as Tara Kelly and David Orban.
It was also very interesting to discuss with Frieda Brioschi, President of Wikipedia Italy which offered some interesting points about the possible role Wikipedia content and model can play in Ritalia. Later we took the train together and discussed a bit also about what does it mean to be a girl on the Internet and why there are so few women at barcamp and similar events and of language and culture facets on wikipedia. It was also great to meet for the first time some blogger I’m following since some time: Orientalia4all, Luca Conti, Robin Good, Lele Dainesi and Nicola Mattina.

Again, let me be clear, it would have been possible to better organize this RitaliaCamp (it is always possible!) but I totally and deeply appreciate the organizational work of all the volunteers. I could have helped more myself and I didn’t. I could have forecasted some of the problems days earlier and warn about them and suggest something and I didn’t. So the intention of this critiques is to learn from the development of this event in order to possibly organize future events in a better way.
I really want to thank all the organizers for donating efforts and ideas for what they believe in. It is now time for everyone of us to make ritalia a success.
Contribute on the blog, the wiki and in the Bzaar Swarm. This evening there is going to be a SkypeCast.

(*) Barcampization (verb: to barcampize) is constructed in the same way as balcanization and finlandization. I like to propose new words, I would have loved to be the proposer of the word “podcast” and don’t worry I’m sure this one is not going to make it in Wikipedia too ;-)

rItaliaCamp: on March 31st in Milan Italian Citizens Unite to Propose an Alternative to Italia.it

I’ll be in Milan on March 31st at the University of Milan-Bicocca. More than 200 Italians Internet Citizens will gather to Propose an Alternative to Italia.it. Read the press release and join us!

Ritalia (http://www.ritalia.eu) has officially launched today in an effort to breathe new life into Italy’s tourism portal, www.italia.it. The initiative serves as a focal point for anyone interested in discussing, developing and defining the guidelines to evolve the national tourism site. Ritalia has quickly developed into a web phenomenon in Italy, growing spontaneously through word of mouth, as more volunteers offer their professional services.

This is an entirely grass root event: in a purely hacker spirit, Italians will unite to contribute their love, passion, knowledge and skills for the country they love. It is fresh news that Marco Ottolini, the previous “Project Director” of Italia.it recently resigned and he will be at rItaliaCamp as well! I cannot at all forecast what we all will be able to accomplish but I can already feel the power and the passion. Join us, it will be unforgettable!
Read also Robin Good’s Crowdsourcing Italy’s Tourism Portal: Italian Independents Get Together To Rethink Italy’s Institutional Web Site – RItalia which explains in detail the history and how this mad crowd gathered online. I see you in Milan on March 31st then. It will be fun. And passion.

What can we XSS inject into the new 40 millions Euros portal Italia.it? Better help in redoing it: rItaliaCamp

Since it is possible to inject every possible HTML just prefixing one double quotation mark () into the search text field of Italia.it, possibilities are endless.
Click on this link http://www.italia.it/it/scout/text/5,en,SCH………. to see what I quickly come up with (credit: I saw the XSS vulnerability on mentedigitale). Or check the video embedded here below (I made the video because I hope someone will fix this very soon and so the link will work nomore). I just inserted few divs, few paragraphs, and opened some windows, nothing disruptive. You can try it yourself, just copy the following HTML code and paste it into the search text field of Italia.it

Italia.it is the new Web portal for Italy, whose goal should be to emphasize and show to every surfer how freaking gorgeous Italy is. Italy is really a wonderful place, we could probably just live out of light tourism, enjoying our life, meeting and chatting in a friendly and hyper-relaxed way with all the tourists coming to Italy and willing to, how can i say?, subsidize Italians just as friendly keepers of this small and wonderful country that really belongs to the entire world and should be enjoyed by everyone. I’m not joking.
Anyway Italia.it was launched few days ago and I’m very sad to say that reactions have not been good. You can judge by yourself but keep in mind that Italia.it was paid by Italians 40 millions Euros and it took 3 years to complete. After 3 years and 40 millions Euros, everyone was expecting something a bit better. Let me also clarify and explicitly state that Berlusconi government started this shame 3 years ago, Berlusconi government allocated that 40 millions Euro amount of money and that Berlusconi government was not able to produce anything; the current Prodi government (which might not be the best in the world but it is as least 40 millions times better than the Berlusconi one) just quickly concluded the long gestation and presented the work so it should be thanked and cannot be taken as responsible: the entire responsibility of this waste of money and time is on Berlusconi’s ineptitude. About the Web portal, I don’t even want to start to comment on all the big problems the portal has from dozens of different points of view, you can check comments on technorati (822 blog posts at the moment) if you like. And don’t even try to imagine how much we paid for the shity logo.

I guess now you might start saying “it is too easy to criticize” or “why are you making additional noise, helping in destroying the image of Italy in the blogosphere?”. In fact, I love Italy, I terribly love Italy, few years ago I was very foreign-phile but I now think that Italy is the best place in the world to live (no, I have not seen all the places in the world, so I’m totally open to change my mind in future, don’t worry).
So why I’m posting a critique entry also showing a trivial XSS vulnerability affecting Italia.it? Because I think Italia.it was an error (made by Berlusconi by the way) and we must learn from errors, so that in future we don’t redo them. Next time Italian government has to do a Web portal, it can benefit from the current discussion.
So in which sense I think Italia.it was an error and how would I do it? Of course I don’t have the magic wander and also it is not my job designing strategies for national tourist Web portals, but some suggestions could be the following ones.
Surely the development could have been more open, trying to exploit the wisdom of the crowds and the passion of people. For example, post on a dedicated wiki the requirements specification you came up with, let people see it, discuss it and suggest changes. Of course this requires time and attention but it can be helpful in avoiding errors and getting insights. Moreover, leverage on people’s love for Italy (and for technology too): I think that if they would launched a competition for ideas such as “how would you want Italia.it portal?” or “how would you create Italia.it portal?”, there would have been thousands of people having a say, and maybe providing ideas or even actual working systems and prototypes. If there would have been a prize that would have been even more successful: maybe just a visibility prize (like “Your name and photo and URL will be in the Credits section of Italia.it, reachable from the homepage”) or a monetary one (even a small one, well actually in relation with 40.000.000 Euros the prize could be not so small, in fact).
About content in the portal, Italy has so many natural and cultural wonders that just making a catalogue of all of them is very hard. So the government allocated a large part of these 40.000.000 Euros, for provinces so that they pay someone for entering the content related to that province. Did Wikipedia teach nothing at all to us? Or Wikitravel? Is it possible to think that maybe some content can be added, modified and improved by normal Italians? Just because they like to show the world that in their city there is a wonderful monument? I’m not saying a simple and open installation of MediaWiki will succeed by itself and after 2 months we would have the biggest best catalogue about Italian wonders online, but just that creative solutions (not so innovative actually, since Wikipedia is already there to prove the point) can be thought and maybe 20.000.000 Euros can be used for something else?
In which directions my suggestions are going? Well, they are based on the conviction that for this kind of projects, actually for any creative activity (especially on the Web), Hacker ethic (of work) can be superior to Protestant ethic (of work). [I think Hacker ethic is what we should try always to tend to, as society, because it is what makes human life more human but anyway here the point is that for some tasks Hacker ethic is already more efficient and preferable]. If you have not read yet The Hacker Ethic. And the Spirit of the Information Age by Pekka Himanen, you should, it is a wonderful book that might shed a new light on why we (and you) do stuff during our life (you can start from the very simple “why do you work?” and “are there alternatives?”). In a nutshell, Hacker ethic means you work on what you love, Protestant ethic means you work because you have to. Protestant ethic comes from Max Weber’s famous essay “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1904-1905): Weber starts out by describing how the notion of work as a duty lies at the core of the capitalist spirit that arose in the sixteenth century: “This peculiar idea, so familiar to us today, but in reality so little a matter of course, of one’s duty in a calling, is what is most characteristic of the social ethic of capitalistic culture, and is in a sense the fundamental basis of it” (from nytimes).
The Hacker ethic instead is very different: The spirit behind other hackers’ creations is very similar to this. Torvalds is not alone in describing his work with statements like “Linux hackers do something because they find it to be very interesting.” For example, Vinton Cerf, who is sometimes called “the father of the Internet,” comments on the fascination programming exerts: “There was something amazingly enticing about programming.” Steve Wozniak, the person who built the first real personal computer, says forthrightly about his discovery of the wonders of programming: “It was just the most intriguing world.” This is a general spirit: hackers program because programming challenges are of intrinsic interest to them. Problems related to programming arouse genuine curiosity in the hacker and make him eager to learn more.
The hacker is also enthusiastic about this interesting thing; it energizes him. From the MIT of the sixties onward, the classic hacker has emerged from sleep in the early afternoon to start programming with enthusiasm and has continued his efforts, deeply immersed in coding, into the wee hours of the morning. A good example of this is the way sixteen-year-old Irish hacker Sarah Flannery describes her work on the so-called Cayley-Purser encryption algorithm: “I had a great feeling of excitement. . . . worked constantly for whole days on end, and it was exhilarating. There were times when I never wanted to stop.
Hacker activity is also joyful. It often has its roots in playful explorations. Torvalds has described, in messages on the Net, how Linux began to expand from small experiments with the computer he had just acquired. In the same messages, he has explained his motivation for developing Linux by simply stating that “it was/is fun working on it.” Tim Berners-Lee, the man behind the Web, also describes how this creation began with experiments in linking what he called “play programs.” Woznick relates how many characteristics of the Apple computer “came from a game, and the fun features that were built in were only to do one pet project, which was to program . . . [a game called] Breakout and show it off at the club.”
(from nytimes).
So what is the message here? Next time, we have to design Italia.it, maybe we might try to rely a bit more on the Hacker ethic and a bit less on the Protestant ethic. By the way, even if this is quite obvious, note that hacker ethics does not mean that hackers work for free just because they are passionate about what they do and they will feed themselves with this passion.

Ok, going to conclude this post. Why people participate to BarCamps? Because they are hackers (“Hackers can do almost anything and be a hacker. You can be a hacker carpenter. It’s not necessarily high tech. I think it has to do with craftsmanship and caring about what you’re doing.”), they like to be intellectually engaged with other people (incidentally, this should also be the reason for people doing academic research but sadly this is not always the case).

So, do you want to be a hacker for Italy? Then join a bunch of other hackers that will meet for a special BarCamp: the rItaliaCamp, a BarCamp whose goal is to put our passion, curiosity and enthusiam in creating a better Italia.it which all Italians can be proud of.
In the dedicated wiki, we are trying to organize our passions and ideas. Is it easy? No. It is not easy to coordinate and do in few weeks, unpaid, geographically distributed, what was valued as 40 million Euros, 3 years work. Will we be successful? We don’t know. Shall we try? You bet!
So Join the rItaliaCamp! I see you on March 31, 2007. Bring your passion.