The World Wide Web was created to communicate and make scientific information readily available between researchers. Around 88% of students in Italy have access to it at home, in line with the OECD average, but this does not mean the same is true about digital skills. At the same time, a considerable amount of information is scattered around multiple institutions, each of which has its data warehouse, with its own rules and specifications. Basing decisions on data and evidence might be futilely hard in such an environment. What can be, and is being, done to improve the situation? Why does it matter?
ICT competencies and their importance
The internet, or the world wide web, was originally created to allow for communication and make scientific information readily available between researchers. Today, it is mainly used for accessing social networks and entertainment channels, and many have a distorted opinion of this incredible instrument. Parents see it as a distraction; consequently, schools invest little to no time in teaching how to use the internet. Obviously, this does not apply to all contexts, and the perception, even in Italy, about technological competencies has profoundly changed because of COVID-19. Investments in reducing the digital divide (that is, to make available a reliable and fast internet connection and the necessary tools to use it) are also being increased, thanks to the Next Generation EU Fund. Curricula are now required to devote more and more time in teaching the competencies mentioned earlier. At the same time, resources for educators on how to do it are being brought up to date.
Furthermore, according to an analysis by the OECD based on data from the latest PISA test (2018), knowing how to use the internet, i.e. to locate, browse, and access different resources increases academic performance and overall grades (one might ask if we are not switching consequence with cause, but this is not part of the scope of this piece). The issue has (fortunately) switched in the last few years from one of digital divide to one of digital illiteracy — not being able to make the most of the web. Around 88% of students in Italy have access to a computer and internet at home, in line with the OECD average, while less than 48% (a negative delta of 6% from the OECD average) were taught how to detect whether information is subjective or biased. Tout-court, having access to the internet does not mean that the same is true about digital skills, something of which the current Italian Ministry of Technological Innovation and Digital Transition, Mr. Vittorio Colao, is aware, so much so that in the first paragraph of one of his parliamentary hearings he mentions digital education (verbatim “educazione dei cittadini alla vita digitale”) as something that must be incentivized.
The abundance of data, disorganisation, and possible solution to it in the Italian case
On the other hand, the framework established by the mentioned ministry, in concert with the needs created by the COVID-19 health emergency, seem to have produced some effects on how citizens and the State interact. Last November, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, together with the Ministry of the Interior and more than eight thousand municipalities, made available 14 different types of certificates online (something that we talked about in this article). Truth be told, this is not the first time Italy has tried to modernise its institutions. Founded in 2012 by the Monti government, Agenzia per l’Italia Digitale (Agency for a digital Italy) has worked since then to innovate the Italian public administration and at the same time make it more transparent. One of its most outstanding achievements is the site reachable at dati.gov.it, where around 82% of all Italian open data is accessible. This resource can be useful to someone who already knows what to search for — not for the ordinary citizen, especially one who is not even (yet) provided with the bare minimum training to use the web.
At the same time, a considerable amount of information, including the remaining 18% of Italian open data said by the EDP (European Data Portal) to be inaccessible, is scattered around multiple institutions, each of which has its data warehouse, with its own rules and specifications. A situation that per se would not be problematic if there were not so many different standards, at times even in conflict. Basing decisions on data and evidence might be futilely hard in such an environment. Two strategies could be implemented in the Italian case to resolve the issue, besides improving the digital competencies of the Italian citizen. The first and most complex would be to adopt the same system used in the United Kingdom, where one can do everything through a single site. Somewhat easier, the second would require implementing a page on each institution site from where to reach the others, a method employed by the Japanese State.
Searching for sources online
There’s clearly a problem with how information is shared by the Italian State, especially if one does not enjoy passing hours upon hours in understanding systems that weren’t built to be user-friendly, but there are many ways this task of “searching” can be made easier. With more than 2 trillion visits since 2016 and around 6.5 million pages, Wikipedia is considered by many as the main source of information on the most diverse matters. Thanks to the generally well-developed bibliography, a lot more in-depth sources can be easily (which is to say, free of charge) accessed from there. Other important, reliable, and credible sources are international organisations such as the OECD (used in this article for the report regarding access to the internet and digital literacy), IMF (International Monetary Fund), or ISI (International Statistical Institute). As Bocconi students, searching for information is then even easier thanks to the numerous sources available through the library, such as, for example, the Journal of Economic History, published by Cambridge University Press, and even more through SpringerLink. Hopefully next generations will know better about educating themselves on the resources out there, but in the meantime these are some of the alternatives we have available to do so ourselves.