The Kosovar capital of Pristina. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.
Blerta Thaci, Executive Director of Open Data Kosovo (ODK) and founder of Girls Coding Kosovo recently spoke with Hazwany Jamaluddin for an in-depth interview about the Republic of Kosovo’s open data and civic tech scene. Kosovo is a young republic, and faces a number of development challenges, including low government transparency, high youth unemployment, and issues of gender equality.
Since its founding in 2014, ODK has not shirked from those challenges, and has created a staggering number of projects to strengthen Kosovar civil society and democracy: 1. They built the country’s first open data portal 2. They created a popular app to report sexual harassment 3. And in order to expand education resources in the country, they’re compiling a database of online courses translated into Albanian.
Thaci says ODK’s biggest mission is to help institutions “build capacity for young people,” so that they “can all be part of this movement.”
In response to the Trump administration’s decision to separate children from parents at the US-Mexico border, a programmer has scrapped publicly available personnel data about US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — the agency responsible for dividing families.
New York-based programmer Sam Lavigne recently published a dataset of 1,595 people who identified as ICE workers on LinkedIn with the hopes of naming and shaming the workers responsible for carrying out Trump’s directives. However, the database was soon taken down by Medium. Similar data compiling exercises were carried out by the civic-hacking group Transparency Toolkit in 2015.
The Hong Kong skyline. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.
Taiwan’s “g0v” (pronounced gov-zero) not only holds the title of largest civic hacking community in East Asia, it’s also a vocal supporter for democracy and human rights. Now, a group of civic hackers in Hong Kong are putting their own spin on the g0v platform, and have recently held their first hackathon this June.
The group’s establishment comes as Beijing peels away the vestiges of Hong Kong’s semi-democratic system under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework. g0v Hong Kong — or “g0vhk.io” — plans to monitor Hong Kong’s Legislative Council sessions, and provide insight to Hong Kong citizens on how their city is changing.
Let’s face it, the internet isn’t great at answering tough questions. Sure, a Google search can tell you the capital of Uruguay is Montevideo, but things get complicated when you need to find the best shampoo for dandruff or the best resort in the Azores. But a website called “Answer Bot” seeks to use the wisdom of the crowds to help the public make better decisions.
The site collates answers on tough questions, and adds helpful side-notes when there are major disagreements on a certain issue. For example, asking the AnswerBot “what car should I buy?” will aggregate hundreds of answers, and then point out areas of disagreement on ‘best fuel efficiency’ or ‘best safety record.’
The advent of the Internet, the ICTs and the collective intelligence enabled by them point to the rise of a networked democracy that promises, among other things, the protagonism of the common citizen in relation to the State and to the distribution of power. In recent years, there have been a number of initiatives in this area that, somehow, advanced towards this goal, but the promise remains unanswered.
One reason may be the fact that, advocating for a leading role to the ordinary citizen and the distribution of power, one is severely threatening the interests of politicians, political parties and companies that have been benefiting from an autocratic and centralized paradigm for hundreds or maybe thousands of years. So, we are aware that the mission we have before us is one that will take some time and effort to be accomplished, as it is inscribed in the great transition we are all going through.
Believing in the digital culture statement that “technology is everywhere, the people is what matters” seems adequate to avoid the fetish of technology itself and the creation of solutions that do not realize the potential of a distributed network, responding to the challenge of consolidating autonomous collective action processes that would ultimately lead to the distribution of power.
Still, in our perspective, the social participation ecosystem as a whole is far from delivering initiatives that significantly advance into the construction of this networked democracy. In this post, some of the lessons learned in recent years are presented to help us understand the complexity of obtaining some of the necessary elements for this answer: scale without intermediation, financial sustainability for ICD from a hard to measure value created, debate quality without exclusion, permanent changes in state institutions and building commons.
The answer to the above issues seems to reside between softwares’ interaction architectures, initiatives’ business models and projects’ impact and the likelihood of social participation technology ecosystem initiatives to engage in collective impact. Below are some of our latter reflections. We hope that you enjoy and that our learnings will help you work better and make the promise to come true.
1) Audience success is good for democracy?
The widespread use of social media platforms brought the promise of horizontal communication from many to many and the possibility of mobilization without media control. Groups organized around communications and campaigning tools would be able to spread their messages, becoming strong actors to influence the course of action towards their interests.
This promise has given rise to initiatives that select ‘relevant’ agendas through content curation to be offered to the ordinary citizens, producing incidence masses that act via automated systems (e-mail, phone calls or social media publications) to urge decision makers to act towards these initiatives intermediaries’ interests. Together with leading social media algorithms, this strategy only strengthens the logic of audience competition, increasing the chances of the chosen agendas to get attention and be adopted by decision makers.
The above-mentioned initiatives, almost always based on proprietary software and nontransparent algorithms, have shown to be effective at putting messages through targeted audiences, sometimes achieving positive political results and, most often, producing promising return on advertising investment. Products’ campaigns (political or non-political) are benefiting from new and effective tools to influence the public, allowing new combinations of feelings and emotions with products and messages. On the other hand, those tools are definitely not suited for the political debate. For this purpose, the strategy must include interaction architectures and algorithms that value cultural and democratic dynamics, are transparent and efficient in identifying noise and establishing minimum consensus.
That is why we keep wondering: where will this audience success lead us in the long run? Must we conform to a refashioned logic, able to mobilize ordinary citizens through impactful messages, as the next step towards a networked democracy?
Our answer is no and, therefore, we have been working on a more adequate change theory to respond to common citizen protagonism and distribution of power, stimulating autonomous collective action to surpass the limits of audience oriented social participation and enabling arrangements that strengthen each one willing to participate in the decisions on the common good. We will talk about this in the end of this post.
2) Qualifying the debate leads to exclusion?
As summarized in the previous section, this issue is not new. Several organizations, governments and open source communities have been developing and using applications based on interaction architectures and algorithms that foster informed and autonomous debate between different ideas. Some examples are: Liquid Feedback (Pirate Party), collaborative public consultations based on Dialoga and Delibera (Marco Civil da Internet, Pensando o Direito, Participa.br), Cidade Democrática (contests of ideas, Webcidadania Xingu), Decide Madrid (Cónsul), Decidim Barcelona(Dedicim), DemocracIT (Greece). Our close analysis of those initiatives shows that there is a clear desire of governmental and civil society organizations to offer alternatives for democratic dialogue based on the collective intelligence and network intelligence, but these experiences have been having difficulty in scaling or generating the desired impact.
Why, to date were these initiatives unable to scale or impact? Our opinion is that it is because of the engagement limit represented by architectures that required the user-activist to have cognitive resources, time, motivation and training to be able to use these platforms properly. In other words, the unfitted way these solutions were developed requires empowered citizens — a social ‘category’ that has grown very slowly in times when politics and consumer markets still operate in the old autocratic logic of media and political power centralization. These citizens must be able to jump on a discussion with resources and willingness to hold long conversations, often requiring a lot of prior knowledge that are not widely distributed in society. It’s possible to say that we are reaching a kind of “participation elite”, ie people who already have pre-disposition and time to participate.
Moreover, even for those who have mobilized themselves to participate in the traditional tree process, the incentives (proposals/ discussions resulting on improvements in their lives) are far from encouraging: often there is no clear decision-making process that takes advantage of all that information made available by the participants leading participants to feel disempowered. Some examples of tree or mixed mode architectures that present clearer processes of deliberation (Loomio, Cidade Democrática, Decide Madrid, Application of Brazilian Youth Conference, Liquid Feedbackor even the proprietary ConsiderIT) do so at the cost of significant increase to the process complexity, setting stages, rules and obligations which ultimately reduce the engagement potential, despite of the increased effectiveness for those who pass the barrier.
To respond to this barrier that prevents more people to participate, we believe that the design of collective deliberation should take into consideration the pedagogical aspect of interaction. A good example of digital tool with minimalistic and dynamic interface is the one of collective deliberation that we will name here as ‘crowdsourced discussion’ architectures — able to gradually increase the amount of energy that participants need to offer at every step of the engagement process. These kind of applications are able to gather data from different ways in which people participate, almost no information is lost and all is put to good use in the final result.
This research of architectures that allow mass participation in a pedagogical way and facilitate the generation of autonomous collective action motivated us to choose the Pol.is open source software for the challenges of collective deliberation. In the current state, this application can provide a simple interaction architecture and uses advanced machine learning algorithms to foster the creation of groups of people based on how they participate in the proposals. Though Pol.is is very good at identifying these affinity groups, currently it only shows this information and do not progress towards helping these people to organize around autonomous collective action. In our opinion, there are improvements to be made in the application precisely to carry out this type of action.
Media-Lab Prado (Madrid, Spain) selected our proposal for a prototype that incorporates the feature mentioned above in the call for Collective Intelligence for Democracy to be developed together with the creators and main developers of this community in November 2016.
3) Autonomous collective action is enough to change policies?
In the previous reflections we have presented some of the pitfalls of opting for interaction algorithms and architectures that bet on audience as a mean to scale and that operate through events, maintaining broadcast standards, reinforcing a passive form of participation, with strong intermediation structures, maintaining the dominant political culture and stimulating content and agenda consumption instead of autonomous collective action.
To build an effective networked democracy, we must be able to encourage autonomous collective actions as the ones that express singular interests and hyperlocal contexts, stimulating the role of agenda promoter that each one can perform. In the current context, however, there are few chances for these proposals to be highlighted and outreach because they end up being overwhelmed by strong intermediation structures or, also, they do not prevail against evidence brought by social indicators and the inescapable finitude of resources.
So, besides being limited by the small audience provided only by the singularly qualified citizens, proposals created through autonomous processes have an additional risk to be taken off from the agenda setting process as they are the expression of interests of small groups with little chances of being highlighted in the deliberation, planning and prioritizing processes of political institutions. Thus it seems necessary to have some kind of ‘magnet’ for societal agendas arising from autonomous collective action to adhere to State agendas for which there are available public resources (public budget) and which respond to the most critical demands (weak social indicators). When the autonomous collective action consider these two diagnoses in its strategy, it increases the likelihood of its actions to have greater impact and it also leads the State to better plan and execute the public budget and policies in the areas where it is most needed.
To our knowledge, to date, there are no social participation processes implemented by the State or civil society taking into account such evidences. That could be one of the reasons why social participation initiatives have been lacking impact. Designing participatory processes to foster autonomous collective action around the intersection between popular needs/ desires, existing public resources and deficient social indicators seem to be the way to address this problem. This also provides a strong incentive for participants to engage around proposals that, besides of being critical, have better chances of being implemented.
For this to happen, that is, for the autonomous processes of participation to join (magnet) the issues where there is public funds (and also private as far as there are records of the availability of companies and private foundations resources for public affairs) and weak social indicators, we argue towards the articulation of current social participation initiatives with initiatives that map public resources and social indicators (e.g. IPS Amazônia) and present them through data visualization and open data. Thus, open and accessible provision of information on public resources and social indicators will increase the effectiveness of autonomous collective social participation actions.
4) Are society and State ready for joint efforts to build common digital resources?
Another barrier for the common citizen to play a protagonist role and the distribution of power is the dispute between public and societal parties to command the way through which social participation should occur, a matter that can be translated as: who decides which process and application will be adopted. And the quality and effectiveness of the process, as said before, depend on the characteristics (architecture, implicit process and features) of the applications used.
We believe that a plausible way out of this impasse is to join efforts from State and civil society to build common digital resources, with the State participating by adherence to the work of open source software development communities. This has happened to a part of the governmental social participation policies in Brazil, over the last 7 years, benefiting from the efforts invested by Brazilian civil society to build technologies for collaborative social participation on the Internet.
The first of these experiences took place in Marco Civil da Internet consultation that had its technology based on the work of an open source community from digital culture agenda, led by the Ministry of Culture. As an extension of this experience, a number of other public consultations used the same technology or articulated other open source communities developing collective deliberation technologies. This was the case of Participa.br and Pensando o Direito who adhered to at least three different open source communities: Noosfero, Delibera (WordPress) and Allourideas (Pairwise). The common trace of these initiatives is that they were all based on the use and adherence to open source software development communities who had already been working on the creation of innovative technologies for collective deliberation.
Beyond bringing innovative technology into the governmental processes, State’s relationship with those open source communities was also an opportunity for State and society to work together in the construction of shared common digital resources. We believe that the knowledge to build and maintain relationships with open source communities and manage the development and use of software as a common good is a capacity for the State to acquire and incorporate into its formal processes.
This would be a way for the State to develop public policies from the standpoint of the common goods (technologies/ digital resources), ensuring State’s sovereignty (often dependent on isolated processes and proprietary technologies) and, at the same time, preserving the autonomy of society. These institutional changes would significantly reduce the information asymmetry and produce sustainable and democratic policies’ designs. We see this as a clear way of building the bridge to a networked democracy.
In this post we have tried to present a synthesis of our recent reflections on the limits faced by the social participation technologies ecosystem. We have analyzed event based advocacy models and other models of qualified deliberation in terms of advantages and disadvantages of each kind. We have put both models on stage starting from a discussion that has, as the background, the promise of achieving a networked democracy that enables autonomous collective actions and distributes power.
Designing engagement processes aiming at the building of a networked democracy seems like the most promising strategy to be taken on days strongly marked by transitions in politics, economy, climate, health, education and other systems that governs our lives. In our perspective, these engagement processes will derive from open source commons arrangements capable of building crowdsourced and easy to use interaction architectures, connected with state resources mapping and public indicators dataviz solutions.
This is a fairly good description of Instituto Cidade Democrática’s change theory, built from our project’s experience in the recent years. This is the result of a wide-ranging reflection, motivated by the burden of perceiving the social participation technologies ecosystem to have low capacity to scale and impact towards a networked democracy. This theory was the basis for the shaping of our next products and prototypes, and sharing it with all of you who follow us and other stakeholders as an invitation to jointly address the challenges posed here, is a contribution that we are proud to offer to the our field of work. We hope that you enjoy it and we encourage you to share your thoughts with us.
Today’s challenges, from the flight from war-refugees to the management of the commons, and the environmental crisis, are being tackled at the local level from some City Councils across Europe. Some cities are proving to be spaces with an outstanding capacity to confront and face reality with reachable solutions.
While the European Commission is set soon to examine Poland’s response to its recommendation of December 2016, regarding the rule of law in this Member State, a number of NGOs have submitted an open letter to the European Commission demanding to take action against Poland for its “complete disregard and undermine” for the rule of law. The Polish democratic crisis is only one of the many examples of states where national political institutions are not longer responding nor dealing with the global trends affecting the rule of law in their countries. Today’s challenges, from the flight from war-refugees to the management of the commons, and the environmental crisis, are being tackled at the local level from some City Councils across Europe. Some cities are proving to be spaces with an outstanding capacity to confront and face reality with reachable solutions. It is in the city where dynamic and organic transformations of social struggles are happening thanks to citizens-led measures and new forms of political participation. Barcelona, Madrid or A Coruna, are some of the most cited cases of successful municipalists governments in Europe. But these are not the only existing examples. In the Polish case, in a country accused of systemic threats to the rule of law, the city of Lublin is successfully translating the political struggles at the national level into political participation and re-appropriation of the public space for its citizens. Lublin is the ninth largest city in Poland and the capital of Lublin Voivodeship with a population of 349,103 people. In 2010, Mr Krzysztof Źuk was elected the Mayor of the City of Lublin and he was re-elected for the second term securing a majority of 60.13% in the first round of the local government elections held at the end of 2014. We spoke to Piotr Choroś, political scientist and head of social participation office in Lublin’s Municipal Office. He is specialist in the field of cooperation with local government, intercultural competence and anti-discrimination policies, and in the Lublin municipal office, he is responsible for the use and development of new technologies in communication with the residents.
Anna Bergren Miller: When the City Council of Barcelona asked democracy activist and researcher Mayo Fuster Morell for policy recommendations regarding the sharing economy, she suggested that the City Council take a different approach: Rather than relying on an expert to dictate policy from the top down, why not use a collaborative process to build a sustainable set of institutions and practices that would draw strength from the grassroots?
Fuster Morell crowdsourced a sharing economy policy framework through a series of in-person and online interactions with a range of stakeholders, including city residents, representatives of sharing economy initiatives, and municipal authorities. From the 120 policy recommendations initially drafted, Barcelona’s city council has since developed a collaborative economy action plan and provided funding to specific projects. Meanwhile, the broader conversation on the sharing economy in Barcelona continues through organizations including Procomuns, which started in March 2016 as a policy brainstorming forum.
I spoke to Fuster Morell recently about the process behind and the prospects for the Barcelona policy recommendations. We talked through what Fuster Morell calls Barcelona’s collaborative economy “ecosystem,” the status of the collaborative economy plan, and the replicability of the Catalan capital’s particular approach to sharing.
Anna Bergren Miller: You were instrumental in helping craft a series of policy recommendations regarding the sharing economy in the city of Barcelona. How did the policy recommendations come to be? Specifically, how did you involve city residents in the process?
Mayo Fuster Morell: Barcelona City Council asked me to advise them about what to do regarding the collaborative economy. I suggested that we build an ecosystem of public policies involving the different stakeholders. This way, even if there is a change of government in the next election, the city will have a structure of actors and relationships already in place.
At the City Council of Barcelona there is a lack of expertise in this matter. They don’t know about the technologies, or the companies involved because it’s pretty new. We have an historical tradition of commons production in the city. But until this government, there hasn’t been an institutional interest in supporting collaboration.
We built the stakeholder ecosystem in layers. The first layer is BarCola, a coworking group between the city council and the sector. To join BarCola as an initiative, you have to be active in Barcelona. We privilege organizations that take a commons approach, which means that they are based on cooperatives, foundations, or enterprises that have a democratic government system. We prioritize projects that are based on open source or open data, that are connected to social challenges in the city, and that have socially inclusive policies.
BarCola meets every month or month and a half. We also communicate frequently on a mailing list and Telegram. Our main concern is promotion. For example, we are not so much about penalizing Airbnb, as about how we build an incubating system and funding for new initiatives, to promote the modalities that we are more in favor of. The second layer of the ecosystem is Procomuns, which started as an event in March to open the proposals for policy recommendations for the city council. Four hundred people participated, and spent three days discussing how the city council can do support a commons development, and a collaborative economy. The event resulted in the Procomuns declaration with 120 policy recommendations. We sent it to Barcelona City Council, obviously, but also to European Commission and other organizations.
Now Procomuns is a monthly Meetup. At each meeting, we address different issues. We are going to do another big event at the end of June, in Barcelona. Out of the initial 120 policy recommendations emerged the third layer of the ecosystem, which is Decidem Barcelona. Decidem Barcelona is a participatory democracy platform for citizens to provide feedback on municipal policies in every area. Using Decidem Barcelona, we selected the policies that were more supported by Barcelona residents. With that, we defined the Barcelona collaborative economy plan, which has 80 percent of the 120 policies generated by Procomuns. It doesn’t have them all, because there are some areas that are not under the competency of Barcelona City Council.
Now we have a final layer of the ecosystem. We created an inter-area body inside of the city council, which coordinates what we are doing regarding transport, housing, tourism, and labor. This layer operates solely within the municipal government.
Tell me more about the city council’s response. Was creating a collaborative economy plan something that they were encouraging you to do, or did you bring it to them? How receptive were they, and where have they taken it since?
The current Barcelona government started 18 months ago as a citizens’ candidature with many non-professional politicians. For example, our mayor Ada Colau was very active in the housing movement. All of them were very much in support the idea of injecting the citizens into the policy process. There was not resistance.
But some of the city council, when they think about the collaborative economy, they only think about Uber or Airbnb. They are not aware of the other movements. So the first step actually was a bit hard. We had to say, okay, the collaborative economy is not only the big for-profit actors.
What is the current status of the Barcelona policies?
The city now has a collaborative economy plan and budget. The plan is not available online, but to give you some examples of the measures involved: We created a program of entrepreneurship on the collaborative economy. We did a call for new initiatives, and we selected 30, to which we will provide mentorship, legal advice, and match funding. Like with BarCola, we prioritize the initiatives that are more connected to the commons. We have also been mapping the city council’s underutilized infrastructure resources, starting with computers, in order to put them to collaborative uses by the citizens. We have also begun a €100,000 match funding program, and are designing a collaborative economy incubator.
We support a lot of events. We provide funding for OuiShare; we provide funding for the local annual meeting of the social economy. We support the annual meeting of the city’s cooperatives. We also supported an event about do-it-yourself technology. We have a study underway on the level of participation in the collaborative economy within Barcelona. We are also developing a framework for understanding its impact.
What’s the timeline for the study?
The study will be ready in July.
A lot of what you’ve been able to do seems specific to Barcelona, to the political climate and the history and culture there. But have you heard from other cities that have wanted to model your process? Or were you looking at other cities as examples?
I think it’s very unique to Barcelona, this element of believing that collaborative economy policy should be built collaboratively. We also have a very clear position regarding which initiatives are the best models to promote. But we are not unique in providing some programs of support. For example, Seoul has put a lot of resources into promoting the collaborative economy. Also, Amsterdam is providing a lot of resources, but with a different perspective.
The geographer David Harvey has recently written and spoken about so-called “Rebel Cities.” Barcelona has been identified as part of a nascent network of Rebel Cities. What is a Rebel City? Why do they matter now? And what evidence is there that they are beginning to work together?
In the context of Spain, “Rebel Cities” refers to the cities that are governed by citizens’ candidatures as of the last municipal elections. In each case, a unique coalition won power — so they have their independence. But, recognizing the affinities between then, we built a network of Rebel Cities in order to exchange experiences and learn from each other. We recently suggested a similar process, building on Spain’s experience, for Rebel Cities in the United States.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNJM8py9-X4] This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Header photo of the city of Barcelona by Bert Kaufmannvia Flickr.