New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer recently released a new digital “Affordability Index” to track the rising cost of housing, transportation, healthcare and other necessities for households in New York City.
An article by Caroline Spivack digs into the data revealed by the index, including incomes by household type, housing costs, and cost of food and taxes. The story remains the same throughout: it’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet in New York City.
The 8th edition World Water Forum, the world largest event on water in the world, is taking place in Brasilia from 18 to 23 March, gathering a high number of delegates involved on the water and sanitation management at all levels. The mission of this year’s edition is to promote awareness, build political commitment and trigger action on critical water issues at all levels especially considering the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.
In the framework of the World Water Forum, the International Conference of Local and Regional Authorities, co-organised by UCLG, the World Water Council (WWC), the Global Water Operators’ Partnerships Alliance (GWOPA), the National Confederation of Municipalities of Brazil (CNM), the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) and the Secretariat of Federal Affairs of Brazil gathered 400 leaders and practitioners to reach recommendations on how to intensify action at all levels in order to leave no one behind in water and sanitation goals.
High participation from Latin America and Africa
UCLG, as co-organiser of the International Conference, mobilised a delegation of 40 mayors and governors, co-lead by Iván Arciénega, Mayor of Sucre, President of FLACMA and Vice-President of UCLG, and Rose Christiane Ossouka Raponda, Mayor of Libreville and Vice-President of UCLG.
“Our mobilization, that of cities, municipalities and regions, must not weaken in order to achieve SDG6 and SDG11.” Rose Christine Ossouka Raponda, Mayor of Libreville and Vice-President of UCLG for Africa
“We must recall the national and international communities that access to water is a fundamental human right and must be the basis for rebuilding our collective action“, Iván Arciénega, Mayor of Sucre and Vice-President of UCLG for Latin America
Many municipalities face tremendous challenges regarding water management, water scarcity, and the impact of climate change on water resources as well as in providing clean water and sanitation services to all citizens and the Forum counted with a high participation from local and regional elected officials from Latin America, particularly Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Africa, especially Kenya, Benin, Gabon, Botswana, Malawi, Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco and Sao Tomé who conveyed that message of alert to the world.
Local governance, capacity-building and water scarcity on the agenda
Throughout the Forum, local and regional leaders recalled that local and regional authorities are the central actors regarding management of water and sanitation. The issue of municipalisation of water and sanitation services was put on the table and had a central role in the discussion. In order to ensure that the needs of the communities are met, local and regional governments should have a stronger role regarding decisions on water management.
During the plenary sessions of the Conference, mayors and governors underlined the need to promote decentralized cooperation between local governments as well partnerships between all levels of governments. International and regional support should be provided to training centres and programmes to strengthen capacities of local governments and service providers and improve provision on water and sanitation.
Participants all agreed that climate change will have an impact on the entire water cycle and on the citizens of our communities: it will make water scarcer, increase the risk of extreme natural events such as floods and droughts, limit the renewal of groundwater reserves, cause rising sea levels and temperatures and make rainfall patterns and the regimes of rivers more unpredictable.
In this respect, the responsibility for SDG6 on access to water and sanitation for all falls principally to local authorities and cannot be achieved without good local governance, the sustainable management of natural resources and effective urbanization. Mayors and governors recalled that effective local-level water management is critical to the achievement of all global goals.
A call for immediate action
The International Conference of Local and Regional Authorities committed globally by agreeing on a “Brasilia Local and Regional Governments Call for Action on Water”, encouraging actors to apply 10 recommendations resulting in experiences and lessons learned.
The 10 recommendations include, among others, the promotion of urban water resilience, capacity building in water governance, and equity access to balancing quality and quantity for marginalised population.
With more than 90,000 governments — think state, county, city — making up the U.S. government, it makes no sense that so many of them operate as silos. A new project wants to address this where issues of operational efficiency are concerned.
The Operational Excellence in Government project, from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center, “identifies operational efficiency themes across state and local governments” by pulling from over 200 state and local reports on efficiency — and allowing officials to see them side-by-side, or search them by topic. According to the project’s website, it aims to pinpoint cost saving opportunities, recommend proven efficiencies and provide implementation guidance. In short, it’s a kind of meta-report — about a bunch of reports.
On the front end, though, it also provides a searchable database, where officials can use keywords to see research that’s been done on any given topic, or search umbrella topics. Click on “Operations,” for example, and you’ll see related research about federal procurement and contractor team formation. Go to “Workforce Management” and you’ll get studies addressing things like public employee labor-management relations and public sector pension plans.
“No one argues against operational excellence and yet it is seldom the subject of headlines — there is typically a lot more attention paid to the ‘what’ of government than the ‘how,” an intro to a report on the project reads. “The opportunity is significant — a study by the consulting firm Accenture estimates that $995 billion in value could be created by 2025 if government in the US achieved a 1 percent annual efficiency gain in operations.”
The project was led by Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Innovations in American Government Awards program and a professor at Harvard Kennedy School. The full report can be viewed here, and the database is available to explore here.
Few have been more at the centre of the rising global discussion around cities and data than Patricia McCarney, the president and chief executive of the World Council on City Data.
McCarney created the council, housed at the University of Toronto, almost three years ago in order to shepherd an indisputably ambitious project: To create a definitive set of 100 data indicators that would allow for point-by-point comparisons of cities around the world. The result is a framework that allows Buenos Aires, for example, to see how it stacks up against Boston or Barcelona on measures of energy, finance, health and many other dimensions.
Officially these data standards are known as ISO 37120 — it’s a collaboration with the International Organization for Standardization, the Geneva-based agency that develops global standards on products, processes and services. As dozens of cities pilot the new ISO framework for cities, two more standards are under development on “smart” cities and urban resilience.
So what are cities doing with all of this new data? This week, WCCD is convening a summit in Dubai to look in depth at this question for the first time. Representatives from many of the cities using the ISO standard will share their experiences. Citiscope will be covering the event.
In this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, McCarney is joined by WCCD Executive Vice President Helen Ng and Director of Communications James Patava.
Carey L. Biron: Where are we now in the story of data and urban development?
Patricia McCarney: This idea of a data revolution in sustainable urban development — we’re at an amazing point. When we started talking about city-level data, it really wasn’t that popular two years back. But what we’re finding now is that the increasing recognition of city-level data — for cities to use, for national governments to use, but also increasingly now on the global agendas by U. N. organizations and others — there’s this really strong data revolution going on for city-level data, which we hadn’t seen.
When we started, there was some interest. The cities understood that we need standardized, comparative data for cities to talk to each other and have peer-to-peer learning. But we didn’t have the same feeling coming from senior levels of government and global [bodies] around city-level data. But now, there’s this movement. You might call it a data revolution, but it’s a city-level revolution, I would suggest, whereby all of those bodies, all of those levels of government — local, national, global — are all now seeing the importance of city-level data.
Q: What are some of the most important conversations coming out of that process right now?
Patricia McCarney: Just about a month ago, the United Nations Office of the Secretary General held a meeting. There were only about 25 people in the room. It was a small group, but it was around the importance of cities for all of the different global agendas the various United Nations organizations are examining. WCCD — we were the voice of city-level data, but everyone else was talking about the city-level agenda to drive the 2030 Agenda. So we were the data voice in the room, and there was so much traction and interest and support. Two years ago, we would have never seen this, so this is an example where our work on city-level data can actually start to drive and inform and provide support to these global agendas, whether it’s the climate agenda or the Sustainable Development Goals.
Q: The U. N. also held a first-ever summit on data in January in Cape Town. Did anything come out of that event and the related Action Plan that you feel you’ll be able to build on and that cities will be able to build on?
Patricia McCarney: Yes, absolutely. The WCCD was invited to be part of a major panel there, and we were represented by James. I think he was the single voice for data at the city level, and what we’re seeing is that now, with good data, cities can take up a position on the global stage to say, “Here’s our target. Here’s our monitoring system in terms of the SDGs.” So it’s not just nations — cities can be positioning around the targets for the SDGs, and that hadn’t happened before.
James Patava: For the first time, you actually see local levels of government mentioned in the [outcome] document. I’m not sure the [U. N. Statistics Division] necessarily knows exactly where they’re going to go with that, but the fact that we were there, and there was so much interest in what I was saying around cities, makes it clear to me that these statistical agencies are starting to think about it, and so is the U. N. That really marks a turning point, where the local is starting to factor into some of the national and international decision-making and thought processes.
Q: Let’s turn to the WCCD. What’s been the council’s scope of work?
Patricia McCarney: We published ISO 37120 in 2014, and the same day, we established the World Council on City Data. We then invited 20 ‘foundation cities’ to pilot the certification protocol for ISO 37120, and then to start reporting on 100 indicators under that standard. ISO 37120 is the first and only standard that has been published with ISO indicators for sustainable cities.
So that was the beginning, and then we’ve been testing it and rolling it out to cities. We’ve moved now from 20 to about 50 or 60 in the certification pipeline. As we tested it with the 20 foundation cities, we knew there would be a need to revise and tweak, and add and subtract some of those indicators in the 100. So, that’s what we started in the revision process.
We also opened two new ISO standards. One is 37122, Indicators for Smart Cities. The other is ISO 37123, Indicators for Resilient Cities. That is what we call the family of standardized indicators for cities. They should all be published within this year.
Q: What did you learn in working with those 20 initial cities about what was and wasn’t working?
Patricia McCarney: One of the major parts of the revision was coming, especially from Germany and other European countries, around some of the indicators on energy for cities. They were asking for a few more indicators, so it wasn’t just electricity but other sources, and it wasn’t a particular delivery system but different options. They wanted a deeper dive on energy because it was so front and centre for their cities in the European system.
Helen Ng: We added a few more on social housing, which was very important to many of the European cities. We also added some on affordable housing and commute times. We also added a bit on culture — there was a bit of debate on this, because culture was kind of difficult to measure for a lot of cities and difficult to standardize. But we felt it was needed, so a couple of indicators were added on that. In addition, some of the indicators’ definitions were fine-tuned.
Q: We hear so much about data-related capacity concerns, particularly at the city level in developing countries. What have you found in this regard while working on the 37120 project?
Patricia McCarney: One of the biggest parts of our next steps is to start to consider how best to support cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America that require training and support to get their data up to the same high calibre that we’re seeing across all the other cities reporting off 37120. We’re now actively reaching out to global partners to help support cities in Africa and other regions, so that they’re in the same discussion zone as a Toronto or a Los Angeles.
Q: Could interventions like that offer a lasting capacity boost for city officials?
Patricia McCarney: Yes, we’re already actually testing that, and we’re seeing that it can be replicated. But not only is it replicable, it’s also enormously possible — which we weren’t sure about, but we can say with really strong conviction now.
We just went through a process in India with three cities. So this can be scaled now in Indian cities, and I can’t think of a better place to test it because we know that there were real challenges on the city data front in India. But we had all three cities certified. In fact, Pune was certified platinum —- the highest level of certification that WCCD offers. This means that Pune is able to report on between 90 and 100 of the indicators, and have that third-party verified to our audit program here. And this happened in only about three months.
Q: So how are ISO cities using this new data?
Helen Ng: That’s going to be the focus on a panel at the event in Dubai. We’re calling this the city panel, and it is really the first time where we’re bringing together our cities to have this universal conversation around the data — the actions behind the data. So what are cities doing in terms of achieving, say, a high recycling rate? In this, Toronto is very interested in learning from the city of L.A — to learn about their initiatives and innovative processes around recycling.
James Patava: In Johannesburg, under former mayor Parks Tau, they built the ISO 37120 indicators into their 2030 development plan. They took those indicators and embedded them into their city-wide plan, and that was something that we thought was absolutely incredible. It’s really taking those indicators and driving them home, and making them useful for a city. It’s my understanding that there’s an interest in replicating this idea across South Africa.
Q: Let’s talk about the other two ISO projects that WCCD is spearheading on smart cities and resilience. Why did you feel these were necessary — and are these three the ones you feel are most important right now?
Patricia McCarney: Right now, these are the three most important because they have actually evolved from cities asking for these other indicators. We take our lead from the cities telling us what’s important to them, as opposed to what might be coming down from on high from different levels of interest. Over the course of the ISO 37120 discussions, the main questions coming from our cities were, ‘Well, what about indicators on how resilient we are to a Hurricane Sandy?’ Or, ‘What about questions around ICT and smart-city lighting and all of these other issues? We’re under a lot of pressure to start to monitor and measure and make decisions on quite important investments around smart cities, so can you help us to think about how to measure that?’
As a result, even before we finished 37120, we started to draft definitions and methodologies around resilience and smart cities. On resilience, we started gathering suggestions, and within two weeks we already had 690 indicators from all of the participating cities! We would say, ‘What are the risks? Is it mostly climate?’ But many of them were saying it’s not just climate — it’s also economic resiliency. When things collapse, what happens to us? How do we measure and better prepare for economic resilience? Then there were questions around cyber security. So, we started to build out a framework for 37123 on indicators for resilient cities at the table while we were still publishing 37120.
Q: So what happens now in terms of vetting these proposals — how do they become accepted standards?
Patricia McCarney: This year they will go out for international ballot. There will be questions on definitions. There will be questions on methodology. Requests for revisions from Brazil, from South Africa. All of the member countries and voting countries will send comments, and we will disposition those comments every three months. Then we go out for a final vote, and hopefully we get clear majority, and then it goes for publication in Geneva as the final draft.
Q: Are you expecting that process to be contentious at all?
Patricia McCarney: You know, it’s so technical, that it doesn’t really become a solidified discussion to the degree that it is outside of ISO. It’s less political and highly technical, and as a result you actually get very workable indicator sets that cities can answer — and will answer, because they’ve been driving what’s in and what’s out of that standard. And sometimes, what’s out of that standard is as important as what’s in it, because if cities are saying, ‘This indicator will not work. It is not possible to report on this indicator,’ then the ISO takes that seriously. It’s not being developed by the senior level, by the government or international organizations — it’s being developed by city leaders.
Patricia McCarney: Absolutely — we spend a lot of time every day thinking about this. We really, really do hope the ISO standards will help to support those global agendas. We’ve just mapped the ISO 37120 definitions and methodologies of all 100 indicators to each and every one of the SDGs. That mapping was just presented to the United Nations Sustainable Statistics Division — it was global, national, local all in the room for the first time. So we’ll be producing a report showcasing the first 30 to 50 ISO 37120-certified cities, showcasing the alignment of ISO 37120 to the SDGs. This is where we’re moving right now — the alignment of data, and this mapping exercise is the first step in that.
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King Abdullah Economic City
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Kathleen Webster lived on Forsyth Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late 1970s, when her neighbors started organizing around Sara D. Roosevelt Park. Everything around it was boarded up and closed.
“This community got on bicycles, did a whistle campaign. They organized themselves to take the park back from pimps and drug dealers,” she says.
The police, and eventually the parks department, were more than happy to work closely with the community, Webster remembers. “At the time, they were happy actually to have anybody take it on, because nobody else wanted to be here,” she says. “As one person told me, a parks employee threw the keys at him for a back gate, and said ‘do you want to take care of this?’”
Take care of it they did, Webster and her neighbors. They focused their initial energies on one section of the narrow but long park and transformed it into the BRC Senior Center, which is now surrounded by the Elizabeth Hubbard Memorial Garden (named for one of the original volunteers). The site became the anchor to gradually wrest the park back to healthy, productive community use. Webster, who still lives in the neighborhood, became president of the Sara D. Roosevelt Park Community Coalition, which continues to organize around the park.
But times have changed. The Lower East Side is now one of the hottest real estate markets in Manhattan. Public assets, including parks, park buildings, former schools, library buildings whether they’re in use or not, community gardens and city-owned vacant lots are suddenly in the crosshairs of developers who once wouldn’t touch the neighborhood. Now the volunteers who worked to make the area safe are left wondering: How can they get the attention of public officials when people with deep pockets are drawing up plans and proposing shiny designs for repurposing public assets that seem otherwise underutilized?
“If you think of development as a race, with a starting line and a finish line, in too many communities, government starts at or slightly ahead of the starting line, the developer’s usually way down the road, and the communities aren’t even at the starting line,” says Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, the state chapter of the national civic engagement and government accountability organization.
Common Cause New York has been collaborating with the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center and 596 Acres on the NYCommons initiative to build a modern set of organizing tools to help grassroots groups compete with private real estate developers when it comes to determining the future of publicly owned assets across the city. One of those tools is a new online map and database of all the public assets that, while hard to define, essentially provide some type of potential real estate development opportunity — something a city agency could potentially sell or lease to someone else.
“The baseline thing we need to do is figure out what the set of things is that we’re trying to include in this conversation,” says attorney Paula Segal, founder of 596 Acres, which supports grassroots organizing around vacant publicly owned lots in NYC. “The truth is, we’re in a city, most of our infrastructure and our assets are shared — the subways, the roads, the sidewalks, the water, something like 30, 40 percent of all housing in the city is some form of cooperatively owned. The list goes on and on to the point where privately owned property can start to seem like the real outlier.”
“It seemed as if each one of these particular issues was being attacked as if it was a free-standing issue, and the people working on it were thinking of it as ‘this is a parks issue, this is a libraries issue,’” Lerner says. “We started thinking about the fact that all of these separate challenges had similar underlying policy issues that have to do with how does government think about commonly owned, shared assets.”
Residents were spending huge amounts of time and energy, often to no avail for some of these larger proposals and projects involving public assets.
Meanwhile, when it came to vacant lots, over nearly the same two-year period, grassroots groups in four of the five boroughs successfully organized around 36 former publicly owned vacant lots, which were officially declared permanent public parks at the end of 2015. 596 Acres supported 17 of those grassroots groups.
“We were able to get new parks created by getting people involved very early on before anybody talked about flipping anything in vacant, publicly owned real estate assets in their own neighborhoods, transforming them into community resources that maybe weren’t recognized as permanent when they were created, but they became permanent,” says Segal.
596 Acres has developed a number of tools and found or created resources specifically around city-owned vacant land, including its own online map and database, Living Lots NYC, that provides a useful platform for organizers to connect and maintain records of organizing activity around each lot. NYCommons hopes to create an expanded tool set to serve grassroots organizing around the broader universe of public assets in NYC.
They started by asking. NYCommons went to 10 neighborhoods over the spring and summer where they knew people were organizing. Lerner says they found “a tremendous amount of energy in all five boroughs” for sharing best practices and connecting with others doing similar work.
NYCommons picked three neighborhoods for pilots, and provided them documentation, workshop facilitation and other resources to begin developing a tool kit. Many resources already existed, thanks to groups like the Center for Urban Pedagogy or New Yorkers for Parks. The Sara D. Roosevelt Park Community Coalition was one of the pilot sites.
“Movement happens in funny ways, but the NYCommons materials were very helpful as a draft basis from which to go,” says Webster.
The coalition’s current focus is a former recreation center, currently used as a systemwide parks storage facility, smack dab in the middle of a well-used area of the park. “We’ve been having a conversation about this building since 1994,” says Webster.
The group had already successfully lobbied local Council Member Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to earmark $1 million for renovations to the building, but the parks department has yet to propose a new purpose for the building. Webster credits NYCommons for helping get through this most recent round of community visioning for the site. Chin testified at a recent hearing that she supported one of the coalition’s ideas to turn the facility into a daytime drop-in center for the homeless.
Efforts by Webster and the other pilot sites around the city will continue to shape the final NYCommons tool kit and the online platform. Many sites already have data from recent years’ organizing efforts that need to be uploaded. The organizing track records themselves provide vital talking points for future hearings and op-eds and community meetings.
“There’s a real hunger for this in neighborhoods of all different backgrounds,” says Lerner. “Hopefully NYCommons can provide an entrée into a fairly sophisticated, experienced, citywide network of groups who are all thinking along the same lines, putting pressure on government to be responsive, with a similar vocabulary and set of expectations about public assets serving the public.”
Oscar is a Next City 2015-2016 equitable cities fellow. A New York City-based journalist with a background in global development and social enterprise, he has written about impact investing, microfinance, fair trade, entrepreneurship and more for publications such as Fast Company and NextBillion.net. He has a B.A. in Economics from Villanova University.
In the midst of the signal failure known as the US electoral season, here’s something to be inspired about: a true story about rational deliberation on a national scale.
In April 2014, I walked through Taiwan’s massive Sunflower Demonstration, a student-led movement in opposition to the government’s attempt to ram through a new trade deal with Beijing that erupted into a weeks-long occupation of the country’s parliament. I watched as groups of strangers armed with post-it notes intensely deliberated policy points and DIY antenna-wielding tech crews broadcast those street deliberations to millions. Amidst the hand-painted banners, giant puppets, and stacked bedrolls were weather-proofed racks of servers, broadcast equipment, and dishes powered by thick electrical cables running out of the open windows of the occupied legislative building.
I came to a stop amid a quietly buzzing expanse of self-organized civil society tents: every non-roadway open space for three city blocks was neatly yet completely packed. People explained to me that, at the beginning, environmentalists, unionists, reformists, separatists did not really have a consensus, so they each picked their own place in the occupied area, but because it was peaceful, people started to cross-pollinate, and by the end of the movement, a stronger consensus emerged. Formally, on the last day, the students explicitly declared that bringing deliberation in the street to home/school/community was the movement’s aim—so it was a large part of the agenda if not the only one.
Overall, the occupation was operating as a new model of democracy at scale by 1) demonstrating (double entendre intended) scalable listening, empathy-building, and consensus-making on the Cross-Strait Service & Trade Agreement among thousands of people in the street, and 2) broadcasting the events to a nation of remotely participating citizens. (For more on the Sunflower Movement in English, see @jmichaelcole1‘s Black Island.)
In late April 2014, after the Sunflower Movement had ended, the same “deliberation in the street” (dstreet) team held another round of public deliberations on nuclear energy, and yet another set on constitutional reform.
By May 2016, when I was back in Taiwan to speak at Summit.g0v.tw, I discovered that ever since the Sunflower Movement, members of the open source community and Taiwan’s government had been collaboratively developing a novel, effective conglomeration of civic technologies, government commitments, and mass media dedicated to the public conversation needs of a nation’s democratic process. They call it vTaiwan. Taiwan—a 30-year old democracy that just went through its 3rd change of power by election this May—is on the way to creating something new under the sun. If the rule, born of hard experience, is that all the code written for deliberative democracy will never find traction in formal government, here finally is an example that disproves that rule.
The vTaiwan process now routinely leads to passage of laws by Taiwan’s national legislature. And it’s gaining momentum: on July 26, Taiwan’s new premier declared in a cross-ministry meeting that “all substantial national issues should go through a vTaiwan-like process.” There are many reasons why Parliament has been willing to embrace this process, but the primary one is that it had been occupied for 22 days in 2014, and the government had lost its credibility as a governing body to an occupation who had outperformed it at demonstrating democracy. Legislators wanted to show goodwill.
Other democracies, prick up your ears.
What is vTaiwan and how it works
Originally vTaiwan — v is for “virtual” — was used only for developing cyberpolicy (e.g. sharing economy apps, telework, crowdfunding, etc) but it is now being expanded into other domains. Over its two years of development, vTaiwan has matured into a four phase process with a set of methods that integrate technology, media, and facilitation:
First, an artificial-intelligence facilitated conversation tool called pol.is is distributed through Facebook ads and stakeholder networks;
Then a public meeting is broadcast where scholars and officials respond to issues that emerged in the conversation;
This is followed by an in-person stakeholder meeting co-facilitated by civil society and the government, and broadcast to remote participants;
Finally, the Government agrees to bind its action to points that reached consensus, or provides a point-by-point explanation of why those consensus points are not (yet) feasible.
The first issue tackled by vTaiwan, how to regulate “closed companies” (similar to Delaware LLCs), took three months and involved about 2000 viewers on livestream, about 200 suggestions, and about 20 face-to-face contributors. Public consultation began February 1, 2015 and on May 1, 2015, the consensus position was signed into law by parliament.
vTaiwan’s first stakeholder meeting was facilitated according to Cornell’s RegulationRoom methodology. RegulationRoom offered important insights even to a group already well-versed in facilitation: a process for stakeholder discovery, lexicons to avoid pointless wars over definitions, and a dedicated moderation team. To this, the Taiwanese cyber democracy activists added working groups composed of stakeholders, and made sure that the participants themselves wrote the final synthesis document. They even experimented with IETF-style “humming” for non-verbal signaling. A multimodal livestream+transcription+chat format was used to bring in-person and remote participants into the same conversation; mixed-reality is currently the most active development area for the vTaiwan team.
This first version of vTaiwan used Discourse, a forum-based technology that emerged in 2011. Each ministry had its own @username and agreed to reply within seven days when cued by moderators. Ministries could cue other ministries, enabling direct cross-ministry conversation. To operate Discourse’s discussion board on the scale of Taiwan (23 million people), three volunteers worked fulltime to moderate new posts and responses. Despite that investment, results were mixed: the number of people being consulted averaged in the tens (10s) and the complexity of topics about which public opinion could be gathered was limited.
Above: the Discourse accounts of Taiwan’s various ministries https://talk.vtaiwan.tw/badges/101/-
While vTaiwan was finding its legs, open-source conference organizers in Taiwan were dealing with a divisive issue within their own community. Chia-Liang Kao, a co-founder of the g0v.tw community, introduced pol.is and found that it visually defined and gave space to divergent opinion groups and broke the community’s deadlock by identifying the points of consensus.
Based on that success, the second and current version of vTaiwan now uses pol.is. Pol.is is a survey technology where the user clicks “agree,” “disagree,” or “pass” in response to statements others have contributed. The user can also enter their own statement for others to take positions on. Pol.is clusters users who voted similarly into opinion groups using realtime machine learning (artificial intelligence), and visualizes those groups in real time. Once vTaiwan deployed pol.is, participation scaled a hundredfold, the complexity of issues grappled with increased, and the volunteer moderators were no longer needed during the “crowd-sourced agenda setting” phase. After years of closely iterating with the vTaiwan team, pol.is was recently open sourced, greenlighting its longterm integration into governing processes.
The Fourth Estate has also gotten involved in the cause. Talk to Taiwan is a sibling project of vTaiwan, a broadcast talk show where government ministers, mayors and scholars show up to respond to citizen ideas and concerns expressed via pol.is. It’s another project born out of a g0v hackathon, with its own governance structure but many principles and project contributors that overlap with vTaiwan. Media continues to be a site of experimentation; so far six shows have been broadcast in virtual reality. For instance, here’s an episode with Mayor Ko Wen-Je that the viewer can rotate with a phone.
Above: Monocle’s coverage of the show in April https://monocle.com/minute/2016/04/27/#3
Combined, vTaiwan and Talk to Taiwan are hearing from an average of 1,000 people per issue as a result of distributing Pol.is surveys to a couple thousand people through Facebook ads on the Talk to Taiwan page (20,000+ members) and through other groups. The survey outcomes are then deliberated through live video broadcasts, attended by around 20,000 participants per issue. There’s a cohort from g0v who participates in most polls, continuously evaluating the system.
vTaiwan couldn’t have emerged without the prior development of the g0v community, which describes itself as a “civic movement by informed netizens toward participatory self-government, borne out of frustration at the government’s blithe lack of transparency at the end of 2012.”
Attendees of the biennial Summit.g0v.tw include a wide age range of mid-career technology and creative professionals with a high level of technical proficiency. This excerpt from a 2013 report reveals that Taiwanese civic hacking has long taken an all-terrain approach toward supporting rational public discourse, including crowdsourced browser plugins for identifying erroneous news, gorgeous (and revealing) interactive visualizations of government economic data, and iterations on leaderless public deliberation processes (Loomio, airesis, occupy.here, and other liquid democracy platforms). As of August 2016, there are almost 2,000 members in g0v.tw’s Slack channel.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sunflower Movement, this civic technology community had higher public credibility than the government itself due to its having successfully demonstrating how to conduct transparent democratic process at scale. (Public opinion polls showed that confidence in Taiwan’s president was barely above single digits, by contrast.)
Taiwanese g0v activists such as Audrey Tang, who grew up among Tiananmen exiles in Germany, view governance failures as a “noisy signal” problem. She has been working with active listening and leaderless groups since 1989, e-facilitation since 2008, and psychoanalysis since 2011. A key collaborator, Chia-Hua Lü, has been working as a f2f facilitator since Taiwan’s 2002 national healthcare deliberation. In Tang’s recent manifesto published in France’s national paper Le Monde “Une expérience pionnière de démocratie numérique » à Taïwan” (and in English on Medium), she expresses how in Taiwan, “internet and democracy evolved together, spread together, and integrated with each other.” She continues:
The year 1988 brought freedom of the press and personal computers.
The year 1996 brought the first presidential election and dot-com websites.
There are so many civic hackers in Taiwan volunteering to work on democracy […] because our generation is the first to speak out freely—free speech was banned for 40 years during Martial Law under the Chiang dictatorship.
Tang worked with the community to welcome government officials to participate in these improved modes. But she and her g0v colleagues wouldn’t be succeeding as much as they are without enlightened partners inside government like Minister Jaclyn Tsai, who has led the government’s ongoing participation with the community. Previously Minister Tsai was a lawyer—General Counsel of IBM Greater China Group (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan)—and had joined the Taiwanese government as “Minister without Portfolio of the Executive Yuan” to manage national government policy around tech. Crucially, she also was charged with coordinating cross-ministry issues, meaning she saw that even for the government to successfully talk to itself there was a need to organize processes for rational deliberation.
At a December 2014 g0v.tw hackathon, Minister Tsai upped the ante with a big ask: “Could g0v.tw create a platform for rational discussion and deliberation of policy issues that the entire nation could participate in?” In return, she offered binding consultation—that government decisions on issues discussed on the platform would be bound by the popular will expressed there. Dozens of volunteers at the hackathon accepted the challenge, and vTaiwan was born.
“We should say, vTaiwan is something of an experiment.” – Minister Jaclyn Tsai
We should say, vTaiwan is something of an experiment. Because at the time—if you remember the post-Sunflower days—the entire society was very chaotic.
When I worked on cyberspace regulations, often I heard people saying “Minister, this is impossible, you need at least 3 years or 5 years to make progress.” But in the business world, because I’ve been in the technology industry, technology moves much faster. We are in a world of rapid change. How is it possible that each policy always takes 3 to 5 years? That’s just not workable. When we think about today’s Taiwan, we are a pluralistic society; it’s almost certain that there will be different voices for any policy issue. So when there are so many different voices, how can we efficiently reach all the stakeholders, so that we can quickly draw a consensus? We need to have a mechanism.
So I went to the g0v hackathon and proposed this project. I said I’m working on these bills and I think we need to have a platform to allow the entire society to engage in rational discussion. Luckily, Audrey Tang and many volunteers felt this idea was worthwhile, so the platform was set up in just a few weeks.
Minister Tsai continues with details on the government process:
So how do we make a platform for rational discussions? Our consensus is that all discussion procedures are to be determined and maintained by g0v volunteers; they have their own rules of the game, all of this is developed in g0v.
On behalf of the government side, I make sure that whenever anyone raises a question, the relevant ministries must respond within 7 days.
If a consensus forms online, then the issue is settled. If there is no consensus, we hold livestreamed consultation meetings. The consultation meeting invites various related ministries and commissions, government representatives, academics, all stakeholder representatives from industries, and participants from the online community. The entire meeting is live online. Everyone voices their opinions, but they are all recorded, open and transparent. Friends in g0v set up a transcription infrastructure, so 2–3 hours later, a stenographic transcript is available to everyone online.
We worked with this platform on closely-held company law, equity-based crowdfunding, selling medical material over internet . . . . All these things were deliberated on the platform, with different views recorded at the same time.
To us policymakers, what are the benefits? For each policy, I post all background material I have online. So if you want to delve into this issue, you can see the same data as I do. When everyone is on the same page, we can have a real discussion. Otherwise, the dialogue would be out of focus.
So if we can all take the time to understand the problem, read the data, while also listening to the views of the people—and enter a discussion, we are much more likely to reach a consensus.
vTaiwan’s recent successes
A year ago, vTaiwan started tackling its 12th topic: how to regulate the entry of Uber into Taiwan. The process played out—people offered statements for others to agree or disagree on, government ministers addressed the points of consensus on television, co-facilitators from the government and g0v held mixed-reality stakeholder meetings, and the government pledged to ratify the consensus points:
Taxis no longer need to be painted yellow.
High-end app-based Taxis are free to operate, as long as they don’t undercut existing meters.
App-based dispatch systems must display car and driver identification, estimated fare, and customer rating.
Per-ride taxation is required to report to the Ministry of Finance.
With city-level pilots expected in August 2016, the new regulation would allow other Uber-like apps as well as some created by the civil society to enter the market. Full story here.
Above: vTaiwan’s pol.is conversation on online sale of alcohol
This success in regulating Uber was followed by another success in March 2016, when vTaiwan’s consensus building methods overcame a six-year deadlock on online alcohol sales. The constituents had been yelling at each other across the divide; using pol.is, the vTaiwan was able to break the deadlock in 3 to 5 months.
How Occupy Wall Street led to Pol.is
In 2011, I spent some time in Zuccotti Park. Back then, public conversation tech in OccupyWallStreet utilized classic forums with topics and replies (see Nycga.net and Occupywallst.org/forum). There was some prototype location-specific anonymous messaging, a preface to what FireChat would become in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Briefly, an anonymous txt2projection installation “Our Wall,” sought to “amplify thoughts and ideas in and around the park […] without actually being loud.”
The iconic technology of Occupy was the People’s Mic, by which the crowd turns themselves into a speaker system to have a conversation at scale: Mic Check! + twinkling fingers to indicate agreement. The modes of interaction in Occupy amplified individual voices into a cacophony, and out of that noise, the loudest discernable voices were the ones jockeying to speak on behalf of everyone else. Not a big difference from US speech-making personalities. Fewer provisions were made to pick up signals from a broader base of quieter folks, or to identify points of consensus within complex, divisive issues.
Colin Megill, one of the founders of Pol.is, has said that watching the People’s Mic in action, as well as the communication challenges faced by Arab Spring organizers in Egypt and Iran, inspired the creation of Pol.is. As he says,
We wanted a comment system to be able to handle large populations and stay coherent, while preserving minority opinions and producing insights automatically. AI made that possible. We wanted people to feel safe, listened to and be able to jump in and out as they please. Overall, we wanted to make it easier to successfully decentralize power in organizations of all kinds.
Public participation methods that scale
Pol.is is a way to gather open-ended feedback from large groups of people. The polls can be anonymous or linked with social media accounts. A graphic interface shows how opinion clusters emerge, cluster, respond, divide, and recombine; this is possible because pol.is creates and analyzes a matrix comprising what each person thinks about every comment. Minority opinions are as well-defined as the majority opinions are, “dissent is data.” Check this illustrated blog post about the evolution of their user interface.
This technology only became possible in the past 5 years or so with the advent of near ubiquitous mobile connectivity, the real-time web, web-based data visualization, and neural networks (where the computer learns the rules itself instead of being hand-coded by software engineers; recommender engines like Netflix/Spotify and machine vision both use these kinds of algorithms).
Because anyone can enter a new statement, the agenda-setting power is held by the people, a critical advance on a very sticky sticking point for mass decision making. I think of this interface as the online counterpart of paper-tech methods of “open space technology”—you may have experienced a more popular but watered-down version called “unconference,” which maximizes the number of presenter-audience relationships, but does not attempt to support group decision-making.
Above: open space technology “marketplace” of people generating and clustering topics
In the 40-odd-year tradition of open space technology, individuals write the topics they want to address on pieces of paper, then the group works together to cluster the topics and place them into a schedule for dedicated discussion time. This analog method is in wide use today by groups self-organizing meetings, and should be given credit for being able to scale to many hundreds of people with a single ream of printer paper, some markers, and a bit of tape. Pol.is, however, is made for the masses.
Implications for democratic process
Here’s a mic drop quote from Audrey Tang: “vTaiwan and pol.is mean a rethink of the political system at the constitutional level.”
Sadly, that road is littered with failures. Most efforts at collaborative legislation drafting have failed either because the power-holding body wasn’t involved, or because it decided to reject the recommendations of the people—see for example Iceland’s experience with its crowdsourced Constitution. Only occasionally have legislators embraced crowdsourcing of legislative commenting (see Utah’s experiment in Politicopia or US Senator Durbin’s Legislation 2.0).
The fact that these methods are working at a national scale in Taiwan suggests that, in an age of mass digital participation, we can reclaim the democratic process for including the people’s voice in creating laws. Any permanent change in the way that laws get made—who has responsibility and the power for making decisions—would refer to the constitution. The ambiguous space that opens when consultation begins to function more efficiently and politicians voluntarily agree to abide by the will of the public is where new patterns can emerge.
In early May, an interviewer on Talk to Taiwan asked Minister Tsai if vTaiwan could continue into the new administration:
Tsai: This is my hope, of course. I think this is a solid platform for civil collaboration with the government. The platform has operated for a period of time. People generally trust this process of policy formulation—early-stage communication and transparency really helps. I think it should continue. I really hope g0v friends can work with the new administration after May 20 .
Three days later, the very first political move made by Taiwan’s new administration was to withdraw criminal charges filed by the previous Cabinet against the 2014 Sunflower organizers.
On June 19, 2016, Audrey Tang sent this update: “The use of pol.is at the national level is sufficiently convincing that an MP just asked the current premier and minister of economy whether substantial rulemaking—like the reworking of the joint-stock company law—should be deliberated on vTaiwan.”
Above: @twccly is a bot posting all video feeds from the parliament, made by the http://www.whomakelaws.org/ project
On July 26, as mentioned at the top of this piece, Taiwan’s new premier declared in a cross-ministry internal meeting that “all substantial national issues should go through a vTaiwan-like process.”
Now with plans to include non-net-enabled citizens, the process is spreading to other levels of the Taiwanese political system, including the city of Taipei, and multiple countries outside of Asia. Audrey Tang says she has been “non-stop running training camps for public servants. We—the 3 civil society advisors to the National Development Council’s civic participation team …—trained 37 ‘seed’ trainers as a joint effort between the academic Taiwan E-Governance Research Center (TEG) and the NDC operation team. Then we work with the seeds on another wave of 6 training classes, after which they can hold their own training camps.” Public servants describe this experience as “eye-opening” and/or “revolutionary,” with a 97.2% satisfaction rating in post-class surveys. Here’s the whole curriculum .
The vTaiwan project is focused on scaling human facilitation skills as a critical component of this massive democratic participation. In the early days, they went through several generations of electronic whiteboards—first with eBeam, eventually re-training folks who facilitated with whiteboard-and-paper to use iPad Pro + Apple Pencil + GoodNotes (taking photos; splicing them on a virtual wall for remote participants to more clearly see). Now they are onto VR and wearables. They are experimenting with 360° recording to possibly replace the labor-intensive livestreaming of stakeholder meetings that currently requires a crew of volunteers. Here’s TonyQ in April testingHugVR (WebRTC) before YouTube 360° was available. In the past couple stakeholder meetings, Audrey has tested a POV shoulder-mounted Theta S and also a PixPro 4K to stream her facilitation to YouTube VR-360 “all in the name of science, to some day train a robotic in-person facilitator guidance system—not to replace facilitators, to augment them.”
Above: Audrey Tang wearing the facilitator’s kit.
Meanwhile, the team behind the consensus-building technology inside vTaiwan—Pol.is—has been approached by academics working with the municipal government of Rome and multiple US agencies at the state and federal level have demonstrated interest. Colin Megill, one of the founders of Pol.is, says:
We’re working to change the relationship between citizens and governments in all levels in all places by making feedback something that happens automatically, not something governments have to “go get.” We’ve worked to make it so simple to deploy on a daily or weekly basis that there’s no excuse to not find out what a given population thinks. That’s been really time consuming and labor intensive until now, but leveraging AI will dramatically change the calculation for robust social research.
Getting high dimensional, organic feedback from the population during a problem identification phase—as early as possible in the formation of rules—is categorically different from voting. In voting the cake is baked, and there are literally hundreds of issues at stake. The goal is to engage citizens far earlier, when everyone is arguing over the ingredients. At that point, it’s not legalese yet. It gives citizens much more leverage in shaping policy, and involves them at the phase the process is most accessible, and their input is most valuable as well.
As the complexity of our economy increases, it’s critical to increase the speed with which governments are able to respond to regulatory demands in a collaborative, transparent, and sophisticated way. We’re working to help governments move faster and with more confidence to meet complex challenges posed by new technologies, while embracing diversity of thought and balancing interest groups.
Watch Colin’s presentation at Summit.g0v.tw or read the transcript here.
Thanks to the rise of the internet, many people around the world are today sending many signals to many other people and/or governments with many tools, most of which were never designed for diverse constituencies to democratically govern themselves at scale. The tools we’re using at scale generally accentuate polarization and conflict (see work by Stanford’s Emma Pierson, 1 & 2, as well as Egyptian democracy activist Wael Ghonim’s talk at Personal Democracy Forum 2016). Taken as a whole, the process vTaiwan has created amounts to a rethinking of how citizens send signals on complex issues, and how government listens and decisions result. Consensus-building combined with facilitation to derive “coherent, blended volition,” (as worded by Audrey Tang) can renew the value of public discourse, and leverage the true strengths of diversity in a civil society.
The bit about bringing agenda setting to the public brought back some fond memories for me personally. Flashback to 2002 when I sat next to a sign that said Talk to Me, and once a year my friend and I would hold “Talk to Me” parties so that all of the strangers we met could meet everyone else. Our method was to fill Bryant Park (if you’re reading this, Bryant Park BID, thank you again!) with an assortment of questions and invite thousands of strangers to self-organize into talking about whatever they wanted. We had some light-hearted DIY moderation in the style of Antanus Mockus, and one key rule: no one on mic. Our goals were multiple, but chief among them was a sincere desire to use the potential offered by this incredibly diverse, international city to rekindle the “talk of the town” without status or pre-determined agenda.
The internet is everywhere-ish, yes, but it’s geographically-organized public conversation that generate political impact. Our sense of place is inextricable from politics. I admit I am guilty of musing about what is possible in democracies at the scale of island or “island-like” internet-enabled city-states like Taiwan, Hong Kong, ancient Greece, Iceland, even the tri-state area.
This vision, however, only makes what’s currently happening in Hong Kong all the more painful. In a region where the stakes for these young democracies are so high, freedoms are being revoked: this month, in contrast to the pardons received by Taiwan’s pro-democracy Sunflower organizers, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella organizers—who were advocating for their right to nominate their own candidates and vote them into the top position—were found guilty on illegal assembly charges stemming from the 2014 occupation. It is no coincidence that new innovations for democracy are coming from Hong Kong and Taiwan, polities feeling the real possibility of losing theirs.
I say this as someone committed to face-to-face organizing and the offline (you might say, vernacular) technologies that make it possible: while I don’t think any one piece of technology could save democracy, I do think this one solves a big problem with it—which is to say, what happens when we disagree? How do we live with—or live as—the losers? Consensus building reduces the losing-ness of democracy by finding the points we all agree on without erasing the camps we stand in. Consensus building technology that works at large scale could be the internet’s missing link—the app we need to help us past just yelling ‘stop’ and figure out how we get to ‘go.’ Arguably, Taiwan’s more homogenous population makes the vTaiwan process more viable. Could it work in a setting like the United States, where people seem to have completely different versions of reality?
I am looking forward to voting in the US presidential election this fall, but I just can’t call that single opportunity to signal—especially when it’s merely to choose a representative, not to make any particular decision—democratic. Especially not since encountering a functioning set of tools that we could be using instead of listening to speeches. So, as surprised as I am to hear myself utter this rather unlikely phrase, if massive mixed-reality facilitated deliberations built on top of a consensus-building neural network can help us all talk to each other—I’m in.
The author wishes to thank Audrey Tang, Colin Megill, Christine Cupaiuolo, and Greg Bloom for their assistance on this article. To join the g0v community on Slack, go to join.g0v.today. To learn more about Pol.is for governments, sign up here: pol.is/gov. And for informal vTaiwan updates, follow Audrey Tang’s (mostly English) Twitter handle twitter.com/audreyt.