Tech by VICE

A Database to Fight the Mafia

Hacktivists in Italy are building the first 2.0 tools to fight organized crime in Italy.

by Alberto Mucci
Nov 28 2014, 3:00pm

Image: ​​Richard Jones/Flickr

A group of determined activists, hackers, engineers and front end-developers coupled with a few sleepless nights was all it took to finally bring data into Italy's fight against the Mafia.

Spaghetti Op​en Data is a loose collective of data activists that is today one of the Italy's most important and determined groups in the 2.0 fight against the country's organized crime networks.

Data is part of a realm that the Italian authorities seem unable to fully grasp—just take a look at the we​bsite for the institution in charge of dealing with the 10 thousand buildings and business the Italian state has confiscated from the Mafia over the years (ANBSC).

Besides having a website with the design and user friendliness worthy of a North​ Korean government agency page, ANBSC has other issues.

Last year Spaghetti Open Data and Data​Ninja, another group of Italian data enthusiasts, found out that the agency won a 7.5 million euro grant from the EU—six million of which were paid in advance—to develop the first national database of properties seized by Italian authorities from the Mafia.

However, three years later the database still has not been delivered. Nobody seems to know if it will ever be.

Thankfully, Spagetti Open Data was willing to fill the gap. Last spring the collective met in Bologna for a four day hackathon the at culminated in the "Conf​iscatiBene" (Italian for "seized goods") project: a national database able to gather and organize with clarity and in a single place (this might seem obvious, but it's really not the case in Italy) a list of all goods confiscated by the Italian authorities from the Mafia.

Before Spaghetti Open Data, accessing such information was nearly impossible

Before Spaghetti Open Data, accessing such information was nearly impossible. I'll use myself as a case study to demonstrate how demoralizing interacting with the Italian authorities can be.

If, for example, I decided I wanted to know what type of seized goods existed in a certain region of Sicily, I would have quickly discovered that the data I am looking for is dispersed in scattered regional, provincial and ministerial websites that are nearly impossible to read for anyone without the patience of a saint and a degree in IT from Stanford.

Let's say that after a week of scraping, I got fed up with the databases and decided to pick up the phone. The results would be similar. The Italian institutions fighting against the Mafia usually don't share the database among each other; rather they operate independently (moved at times by petty jealousies, and internal power struggles) and create situations where the work of different departments overlaps and everything ends up becoming more confusing that it should be.

"Sometime you have this paradoxical situation where, for example, the anti-Mafia police (DIA) in Palermo donot have immediate access to the information they need on another part of the country," Andrea B​orruso, a member of Spaghetti Open Data, tells me during a Skype interview. "It's ridiculous and totally inefficient."

Why is this so important? Because easy and efficient access to data is key in the fight against the increasingly powerful networks of the Mafia.

Having a central database would also help in the effort to revitalize former Mafia strongholds by granting former Mafia-owned buildings to entrepreneurs, artists, and activists.

Take Radio Sia​ni, a radio station born in the heart of a marginalized area of Naples that found a home in one of the buildings formerly owned by the local Mafia organization. The State decided to assign the space to the broadcasters for free. Thanks to this concession, today the radio station is able to engage the local population with news, music and activities that offer an alternative narrative of hope in a neighbourhood where involvement with organized crime is one of the most common choices.

"To fight the Mafia we need as many of these initiatives as possible," Borruso said. But it's difficult to reassign these buildings when the state doesn't have a complete picture of where they are, he says. "Because of this situation, most decisions are improvised and there is little long-term vision, a status quo that indirectly helps the Mafia gain ground."

Map of property confiscated from the mafia. Image: ​ConfiscatiBene

But there is more to ConfiscatiBene than the efficient mapping of data. "The interesting part of our work becomes obvious once you disaggregate the results and start raising questions in relation to the findings," Andrea ​Nelson Mauro, another member of Spaghetti Open Data, told me.

One of the most surprising results scrolling through the data is that the second city for number of seized properties after Palermo, Sicily's capital, is Turin.

Turoin is the most important city of a region that most Italians—the general public as well as the political class—believe to lie outside of the influence of the organized crime networks of the South. Yet, as it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. Convincing Italians of this is crucial in the fight to label the Mafia situation a national emergency.

"Northern Italy has always been reluctant to admit the presence of the Mafia despite the fact thatsignals of its infiltration have been increasingly clear over the last two decades," said Ilaria Mieli, a researcher at Mil​an's CROSS. "Just to give you an example on how deniedthe problem is, as recently as 2010 one of Milan's local administrators declared that the Mafia does not exist in Milan."

It's on the economic front that Stefano Gu​rciullo, a Phd student at London's UCL originally from Sicily, is focusing his research efforts. Using data to map out the economy of Porto Empedocle, a small town in Sicily's southern part, Gurciullo used network theory to successfully predict which of Porto Empedocle's businesses were affiliated with the Mafia and which were not.

Gurgiullo first step was to map out Porto Empedocle's 1,380 companies and their economic interactions in order to establish the who's who of the system.

After having identified the major players ("nodes" in network theory) Gurciullo's second step was to confront what he found with investigations by the local anti-Mafia police (DIA). He discovered that the correlation between the nodes of the map and the firms suspected of having relationships with the Mafia was almost perfect.

"Correlation of course does not imply causation, but the system could be used by the anti-Mafia police to identify the nodes of a system and keep a close watch on them," Gurciullo said. "I only used this method to analyse a small area, but it could be used for the whole of Sicily for example and it would be an incredibly useful tool."

The top tiers of the anti-Mafia police are still bound to and convinced of their old methods

Unfortunately, this simple and precise method is currently not in use. Gurciullo tried to approach the anti-Mafia police with the idea, but despite talk of possible collaborations,little has been done. The top tiers of the anti-Mafia are still bound to and convinced of their old methods.

The fight these activists, hackers and engineers have embarked on is enormous. According to recent estimates, the Mafia's net worth is about 170 billi​on Euros, about 7 to 8 percent of the Italian economy. When it comes to people opposing their interests, threats are the mildest of reactions.

Back in the Nineties two of Italy's most important anti-Mafia judges—Giova​nni Falcone and Paolo B​orsellino—were respectively shot and blown up once their investigations started to breach into the secrets of the Mafia's power network.

Yet, when asked if they ever feel afraid for their personal safety, Gurciullo says, "I never really think about it. There are a lot of people doing more dangerous things than I am." Borruso and Mauro replied, "Maybe, but we have no intention to stop. On the contrary: we are just getting started." The hope is while continuing their fight, the state will finally see the potential of data, Gurciullo's work and Spaghetti Open Data's efforts, and enter the 2.0 world.