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After the seismic events of May 2012 that struck the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, a disaster relief operation was set in motion. Governmental institutions provided the immediate on-site interventions; media syndicated news items in real-time; associations and individuals campaigned for money, while charities and volunteers also joined the relief response. For us, as a mixed design-and science practice the question was simple: How can we contribute to these efforts?

This was the beginning, a first visualisation of the schools affected by the earthquakes in May 2012.

A first visualization of the schools affected by the earthquakes, May 2012


The earthquakes, which stroke the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna measured 5.9 and 5.8 on the Richter scale. They destroyed public structures and private homes, caused 27 victims, and an economic damage of 2 billion euros.

Due to the seismic events, 223 schools in Emilia-Romagna got totally or partially destroyed.

There were many clouds on the sky of Emilia-Romagna on those days and all we knew was that designing a series of fundraising posters wouldn’t be enough for helping people and institutions.

schools back 2 normal poster


We tried to imagine what it means, for such a small territory, to have 223 schools destroyed at once. What kind of problems would come up for schools in the 2-5 years to come? And we started collecting data. Any kind of data we could find on the Web. We collected numbers, articles, pictures, videos and  posts, which reported about the affected schools. And we asked questions about those data, in order to identify a problem-area out of the schools’ problem, where we could help through design and technology. 

At the time of the earthquakes we were exploring an open data-set published in January 2012 by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research. The set contained a lot of information about each state schools of all levels in Italy and was released in order to be reused und built on by any private or public subject. We were enthusiastic about this sudden effort towards transparency.

On the wave of enthusiasm we got in contact with the Regional School Office of Emilia-Romagna and requested the official data about the damaged schools. We got the data and they eventually got published in an open format, as we suggested the Regional School Office to do. At the same time the damaged schools were drumming loudly through all possible media, newspapers, tv, social media, blogs and websites. They reported about the damage, posted pictures and videos, and asked for help, help, help, as they saw the beginning of a new school year just a couple of months ahead, and they were reduced to a pile of debris.

In the controlled, slow flow of information provided by government and the spontaneous outburst made by schools we saw a contradiction. Schools were engaging actively in order to help themselves and were quickly producing first-hand data about their situation. Government was doing things in the classical way, and because it was operating according to protocols, it was already behind. In this contradiction we spotted an opportunity to intervene through design and to help both, the schools and the governmental institutions, which functioned as a support to them.

Data about schols in Jan-May 2012

About one month after the major May-earthquake we interviewed six headmasters of schools, which had been very badly affected. They were either hosted at some other schools’ offices, or they had been already supplied with a modular office near their damaged school. We let them talk freely about their situation, worries and hopes. We directed the interviews just in their final part, as we wanted to find out how they felt about being actively involved in their schools’ reconstruction.

We wanted to find out if ‘participation to reconstruction’ was a priority to them and the way they understood it. It turned out that ‘participation’ was primarily intended as ‘being promptly communicated what is going to happen’ by governmental agencies, rather than owning active participation to the decision-making process, together with their teachers, pupils and school’s community. Interviews to schools of Emilia Romagna

Considering the schools’ complex situation and the fact that teachers and pupils didn’t seem to have the power to take an active role in reconstruction, we decided to focus on what they could easily do and were already doing. They could tell stories. As stories have always served as a knowledge source for the present and for the future, we thought of creating a big database of all schools’ stories about reconstruction. A database made of drawings, films, photographs, maps, poems, essays, songs, and any other documentation. Our vision was to develop an application, which would dynamically collect stories from different sources in just one single space.


A natural catastrophe upsets the equilibrium of a whole ecosystem. What happens when the basic infrastructure has been put back into functioning? Do all involved subjects have to quietly watch and assist to reconstruction? Or do they all have an interest in an active participation?

stakeholders in a catastrophe

It is an unfortunate fact that natural catastrophes are likely to happen again. Earthquakes, floods, and landslides are a recurrent problem in Italy. Every time these occur, a disaster relief operation is set in motion. And every time a lot of data is produced by governmental agencies and institutions, media, charities, volunteers, and individuals. These data represent a valuable heritage and become an important resource for the solution of future similar cases.

data produced in case of a catastrophe

If all data related to an event, in our case the reconstruction of a schools’ network after an earthquake, were collected in one single space, they could get filtered, organized and visualized in different ways. Moreover, recovery would get a great boost in the immediate and on the long term, if all involved subjects could access and reuse these data freely.

schools back 2 normal application

The process of recovery after a catastrophe can’t be merely reduced to the reconstruction of the infrastructure, but it must be considered as the identity reconstruction of a whole territory. All involved subjects have an interest in monitoring the correspondence between the resources invested in reconstruction and the return on investment. Data-transparency is a way to maintain a proactive and trusty relationship between governments on one side, and businesses and citizens on the other side. The circulation of data is a way to produce better democracies.

value of schools back 2 normal

In September 2012 we submitted this project to the Regional School Office of Emilia-Romagna. Over several months, and more specifically until January 2013, we had a polite and intense exchange via email and phone with them, but unfortunately we never got invited to personally present our project. Unfortunately, we never got an answer from them.

By coincidence, in February 2013 the Ministry of Education University and Research, in collaboration with the Regional School Offices of Emilia-Romagna, Calabria and Abruzzo, published a national contest addressed to schools, ‘LA SCUOLA STUDIA E RACCONTA IL TERREMOTO’ (Schools study and narrate the earthquake). Teachers and pupils were called to narrate the changes they experienced after an earthquake, through the submission of artworks, essays, poems, videos, etc…

This call for submissions, , didn’t mention if and how the schools’ production would be analysed, organised, processed, archived, etc., and if it would be of any future use to schools, government, society and economy.

Despite of the coincidence, we still have a hope that we functioned as inspiration Muses to the Ministry and to the Regional School Offices, and that some of our ideas flowed into their contest. However, we don’t consider this as a ‘happy’ ending, and we would have preferred an OPEN ending.

Finally, we would like to thank the friends and colleagues, who supported us with enthusiasm in pursuing our ideas and dreams. There is no need to name them here, as the opinions expressed in this story are only ours, but they should know that they were of great help to us.

Livegreenblog reported on this project

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