Affittopoli, an Italian scandal easily avoidable with open data

Among the Italian scandals of 2011 there is one called “Affittopoli”, a word translatable more or less with “rent-town scandal”. Here is a brief summary of the story.

Pio Albergo Trivulzio (PAT) is “a public non-profit organization whose objectives are realized in social protection and social and health education”, that owns lots of real estate properties and it’s supposed to use them to realize its mission for the common good. In January 2011 the Italian media reported that PAT may have rented many of its apartments at very low rates, but both the actual import of those rates and the names of the beneficiaries where unknown. The 2011 affittopoli in Milan also involved other public organizations.

Only after two months after “operation transparency”, which included an official request for publication of names of all tenants, the City of Milan finally got … “A sealed envelope containing the names of the beneficiaries of the real estate properties of Pio Albergo Trivulzio”.

Four days later they the top officials of PAT were dismissed and the mayor of Milan announced that PAT would be managed by a special commissioner / P46985. On March 1, 2011 judges in Milan started an investigation for “abuse of office and serious fraud against public bodies on the events concerning the rents of houses of Pio Albergo Trivulzio, Policlinico, Institute Golgi Radaelli and Aler “ (the other public organizations mentioned at the beginning).

A few days later, RAI Channel 1 (RAI is the Italian state TV) broadcast a report on “900 properties put up for sale in Rome between 2001 and 2007, when Walter Veltroni was mayor, at prices far below their real value, or rented at fees ridiculously low and unpaid for decades”. On March 4th 2011, the mayor of Rome Gianni Alemanno signed an ordinance that created an inquiry committee with the task of “checking if proper procedures were followed in the sale and lease of municipal real estate … with special attention to the selling prices fixed in 2007..” (that is in a different, later period than the one covered by RAI report).

The problem that could have never been existed

Scandals, burned careers, ruined reputations, hundreds of pages written and dozens of hours in radio and TV filled with more or less indignant declarations, and above all, a truckload of public money that will now have to be spent for absolutely necessary public investigation of these cases and another even greater truckload of public money not earned thanks to rents way too low, or never even claimed: this is what it already cost and will cost in the future this 2011 edition of Affittopoli. The funny, or tragic thing is that, unlike many other Italian problems, this would have been very easy to avoid, at a null or almost null cost.

What’s really tragic here, that is the thing that actually caused the whole Affittopoli 2011 scandal, is not the fact that Pio Albergo Trivulzio has, say, rented a penthouse in downtown Milan at 200 Euros or whatever it was. It is the fact that we did not know what the canon was, regardless of its amount. What’s tragic is not just the fact that not only it is still necessary to ask explicitly if you want to have some informations, but that those who have those information can basically answer “no way” for two months, instead of providing them two seconds later, while quickly apologizing for having made that request necessary.

The resale or rental price for a public property should always be public data always available on the Internet. And the same should apply to maintenance costs, service times and names of responsible employees, and to the names of buyers or tenants of those properties (privacy? If, thanks to a public service I pay for a house much less than others, why is it an offense to ask me to give up that part of my privacy in return?). If PAT and other institutions in Milan, as well as the administrations of both political sides in Rome, had been always obliged to do so, all this mess and these wastes would have not even started, at least not in this way.

If all those PUBLIC data had been always open and online, some citizens would have surely noticed abnormally low fees or other irregularities immediately, every time, in a few days after the fact and using their own money. More importantly, knowing all this, certainly the managers of the apartments would have not managed them in that way and their organizations would have made more money. All without spending public money in investigations or designating official city controllers for those properties.

In short, at this point all these efforts and expenses are needed, but they could have been avoided by setting up one cheap public website full of the right public data and opening it to the many citizens who have a computer connected to the Internet and a few minutes of spare time. This is the advantage of opening up public data, and it applies not only to public real estate but also to public health, maps, public works and all the other cases described in the Open Data, Open Society report.

For the record, such a proposal was also made a few days ago Mario Staderini, in connection with other public data: “In past years the accounts in your pocket to the Parliament we’ve made them ourselves, almost always alone, we have published in open format and accessible, according to the Open Data principle, the list unpublished consultants and suppliers of the Senate … Last year abnormal emerged as the € 561 million in 13 years …”. In contrast to the PAT and Rome, that data already online are: better start to control them all, rather than leave them to rot for years, right?

PS: if you live in an EU-15 country and want more transparency from your city or region, please demand that they fill out the online survey data on public open data which is the second phase of this research project funded by the ' European Union.