Tag Archives: participation

Walking the wire: network science, online communities and democracy

Last Saturday I took part in TEDx Bologna. Rather than play safe talking about the topics I developed in my book Wikicrazia, I talked about a connection that I am still exploring, and find absolutely fascinating. I am wondering whether we can:

  1. using network science to herd the social dynamics in open online communities (how?). Get them to look at issues care about; and to accept certain rules of mutual engagement, like basing your argument on evidence. Can we use online communities as tools for analysis and solution design to collective problems, as if they were computers composed of people?
  2. embed these online communities in a framework of democratic legitimacy, using them as open spaces for citizens to participate in taking apart societal problems and designing solutions. Legitimacy here means that such communities must be participated, and so somehow led, by democratically elected institutions.

Participants to these communities sign off to a deal: they accept interaction to be directed, rather than totally free (for example, these places are not the right ones to post pictures of cats). In exchange, they get to participate in a discussion which is close to, and participated by, public decision makers. So, such communities can make credible promises – carefully ringfenced and realistic – of the kind: “the gift of your time and effort will be reciprocated with influence on the decision we make in the name of the people and in the common interest”.

I realize this is a long shot: from network science to participatory democracy, through online communities. I hope my aim is true. The talk’s video will take about a month to get through post-production. The image below is just an appetizer.

The computers of the excluded. When digital divide helps fighting inequalities

Try proposing to use the Internet to extend the space for democratic dialog: everyone will agree with you. Extending the space of democratic dialog can’t be wrong. Or can it? Even as they agree in principle, I’ll bet you that someone will be frowning: yeah, sure, but… not everybody is comfortable around computers. What are we going to do about the elderly? The less educated? The disabled? All around, others will be nodding sagely. We need to be careful, to proceed with caution. If the spaces for electronic democracy are too broad, we risk giving extra political clout to the connected élites, and to marginalize further the marginal.

I understand where these doubts are coming from. And yet, how come they have not been cleared away? Competent technicians and visionary political leaders have been experimenting for years with computer network as a space for political discourse and public governance. What have we learned in those years?

The first democratic institution to open a space for citizen participation based on a computer network is, to the best of my knowledge, the city of Santa Monica, California. Its Public Electronic Network (PEN) launches in February 1989. Not the Internet: PEN was a local network. At its core is a Hewlett-Packard minicomputer. Citizens connect via modem (if they own one – not very common in 1989) or using terminals located in the city’s library.

In 1993 the city presents an evaluation report on PEN’s first four years. The main points are:

  • More than 80% of system usage is accounted for by user-to-user interaction, via email (20%) and above all on the public forum (60%+).
  • Most of the 85,000 residents don’t use PEN, that has 3,000 registered users. Most users don’t take part in the discussion: only 5-600 log into PEN every month, and the hardcore users, who wrote the bulk of the contributions, are only 50-150.
  • PEN users are on average richer, more educated and more interested in politics than Santa Monica average residents.
  • some homeless resident take part in the online discussion in an active an visible fashion. This participation gives PEN it’s main political success, so it’s worth telling the whole story.

Since the start, the homeless PENners manage to get across their main problem. If you live on the street, it’s difficult to look presentable; and if you don’t, no one will give you even the lowliest job, so you can’t afford a place to live. In August a PEN Action Group kicks off, led by a university professor. Homed and homeless residents, together, design a new service they call SHWASHLOCK: public showers open since early morning to wash before taking on the new day; washing machines to wash clothes; and lockers to guard the homeless’ possessions. No public agency or NGO in town supplies the service, despite the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce’s declaration that homelessness is “the number one problem in town”.

The Action group raises funds; convince a city agency to administer a system of laundry vouchers; approaches a locker manufacturer, that agreed to donate some to the city. In July 1990, rising to the opportunity, the city hall launches SHWASHLOCK. Meanwhile, the city’s help center for the homeless is equipped with a PEN terminal, to facilitate access to the service.

The 1993 report is signed by Ken Phillips, the City Hall’s director of information; Joseph Schmitz, university researcher and co-designer of PEN; his colleague Everett Rogers; and Donald Paschal, a homeless resident. Paschal writes: “PEN is a great equalizer. No one on PEN knew that I was homeless until I told them. After I told them, I was still treated like a human being… the most remarkable thing about the PEN community is that a City Council member and a pauper can coexist, albeit not always in perfect harmony, but on an equal basis.” (Source: Wired).

What’s going on here? How to reconcile the high income and university education of most PEN users with the feeling of fairness and equality reported by Paschal and other homeless residents?

There is a simple explanation: the digital divide does not coincide with the traditional social exclusion rift. Consider an old guard politician: degree in law or medicine, reads five newspapers a day, local network of voters based on physical presence (“manning the post”). Not much technology: he was probably given an iPhone, and uses it to actually make calls. This person is fully included in his society, even influential, but is digitally excluded. Now consider, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a twentysomething in precarious employment, with a nontechnical degree from a second-tier university, living hand-to-mouth with little or no hope of long-term employment, hyperactive on several social media. This person is digitally included, but risks overall exclusion. Opening an online space for citizen participation to decision making increases the political clout of the young underemployed and reduces that of the old guard local heavyweight. Digital inequality interferes with pre-digital inequality. The net effect is a reduction of overall inequality. We saw this clearly in Egderyders, that aggregated people generally good around technology… but some of whom are definitely poor. I know of at least four of them who practice dumpster diving for discarded perfectly good food. Three of them are computer programmers. Are they underdogs or members of the élite?

The other cause for the reduced visibility of the median elector on the Net is the high commitment required to be a protagonist. You are not talking about casting vote every few years: people here need to discuss, stay on top of the main threads, make convincing case, research. Most people are simply not interested enough; those who are tend to be more educated than average (and also richer, since income end education correlate well).

These two effects combine to produce the environment typical of online platforms for civic participation – with an overrepresentation of the intellectual élite, but also of the marginal groups. In my experience the interaction between socially diverse people is exactly what makes online participation so interesting. There’s a reason for that: diversity produces innovation. SHWASHLOCK was so refreshingly no-nonsense, and it worked so well, because it incorporated both the first-hand knowledge that the homeless have of their situation and the access to resources and political capital of wealthier residents. These conditions are difficult to reproduce in traditional political arenas, which tend to treat the excluded as a problem category rather than potential problem solvers – with the results that they get discouraged and withdraw, or take on a passive stance.

So, do Internet-based political participation arenas increase equality among citizens? It depends. If we look at equality as diversity, extending access to political influence to a broader range of citizen categories, the answer is yes. It is no chance that the first-ever public policy designed online by citizens zeroed in on improving the life of the most vulnerable among them. If we look at equality as statistical representativeness, then the answer is no. We have known this since 1993 – that’s twenty years ago. The discussion is over, and it is unacceptable to use it to block a broader access to public decision to citizens other than the usual suspects of traditional policy.

Some have proposed to tweak online participation to make it more representative of the electorate. My experience suggests this would be a very. Bad. Mistake. Far better to listen to the median elector’s voice through traditional participation channels, and use the Internet to make the most of the innovative solutions and challenges that might come – rather, that have always come – from the underprivileged: the homeless, the poor, the disabled, the young, the lifestyle hackers, the sexual, ethnic, religious minorities. Their voices are precious because, let’s all remember, diversity is fertile ground for innovation, and because we have so few spaces in which we can really talk to each other from an equal footing. The Internet enables us to build such spaces: let’s not waste the opportunity.

Area C in Milan: the converging conversation

Area C is the name of a City of Milan initiative, not unlike London’s congestion charge: you pay to enter the city center in a car. The back story is this: a previous city administration had introduced an experimental congestion charge. When the experimentation period was over, municipal elections were coming up, and the mayor of the time put off the decision of whether to scrap it or keep it. The 2011 elections ousted the incumbent mayor; the new one had already promised it would keep the congestion charge, with redesign.

The city administration opened an official Area C group on Facebook. While unusual, the move made a lot of sense: when almost everybody is a driver, any limitation to car circulation is going to stir controversy. The idea was probably to do damage control, channeling discontent in a controlled space where moderation could be exerted and the city authorities could make their voice heard. About a thousand people joined the group.

And then something unexpected happened.

First, quite a lot of people started to voice in no uncertain term in favour of Area C. There is even a hardliner group that is clamoring to extend the policy to the rest of the inner city: why should just the rich people in the center enjoy the good life with far fewer cars? We want it too. Makes sense: traditional (offline) participatory processes are expensive and exhausting: you have to cross the city, during business hours, to sit in boring meetings. You are not going to do it unless your financial interests are at stake – and even then, you are likely to hire lobbyists to do it for you. So, of course, every time it tried to pedestrianize a city center, an administration would in principle involve its citizens, but in fact it would end up talking to the shopkeepers lobbies. But this, man, is the Internet: an entirely new ballgame. It’s always on, you can participate from your home at midnight if you want to. The threshold of participation for Area C is so much lower than it was for its forerunner initiative that suddenly you are hearing the voice of pedestrians, cyclists, mothers of small children, the minority of shopkeepers who are actually in favor of it. The city administration (represented in the Area C group by a clearly identifiable user called “Moderatore Area C”) redressed its role accordingly: it is not in the business of selling the policy to its citizens anymore, because the citizens themselves are doing that. No, the city is now playing arbiter: asking questions (“has anybody used such and such service payment? How did you find the first car-free Sunday?”), enforcing netiquette, providing links with factual knowledge (“here you can see the data: the average speed of public transport has gone up 22% in the first month”).

Second, the quality of the debate soared. Mutual aggressions between fanboys and haters rarefied; factual contributions seemed to be rewarded by far more Likes and comments, and that nudged the emerging Area C community towards a square meter-by-square meter monitoring of the policy. Traffic has thinned out in street X; it has become impossible to park in square Y, just at the border of Area C; and on it goes. People take pictures with phones and upload them to prove their point. The conversation is still tense: a popular activity is to upload pictures of cars damaged after a crash, with accompanying status updates like “see, this is what car culture does to you and your children”. But it hardly ever crosses the border to insult (moderators had to kick out a few trolls in the early days to get it across that they were serious about enforcing netiquette). People who make meaningful points and share factual information are popular: one of the stars of Area C is Davide Davs, who likes to download air pollution data from the Milano environmental agency’s website and use them to plot charts comparing how Area C is doing with respect to its predecessor initiative for various pollutants. Davide is a twentysomething from the South of the country who works in Milano. He is the typical citizen expert that emerges from a well run online community around a public policy – and that would never get invited to an offline stakeholders meeting, simply because there is no way to know he exists before creating a self-selecting community on the matter.

In weeks, the group had gone from confrontation between citizens and the city to confrontation between citizens and citizens to informed assessment of the policy. The next step was obvious: proposals. And proposals came. So many came that the administration decided to organize an event, Traffic Camp, where citizens could present their ideas without asking for permission (to get on the list of speakers, you just write your name and the title of your presentation on the event’s wiki). A whopping 47 talks were given at Traffic Camp, parading online journey planners for cyclists, car sharing schemes, bicycle-only delivery services and much more. The first speaker was Pierfrancesco Maran, the young alderman responsible for Area C, who gave fellow citizens a progress report. From the accounts I read, Traffic Camp was hugely popular: lots of ideas, good vibrations, packed rooms.

Third, it became clear that the question about the merits of the Area C congestion charge had been the wrong one all along. At this point the conversation is not even so much about Area C anymore: it has moved on. Everybody is talking about mobility. Everybody agrees that any viable solution for Milan’s mobility problems is going to need to deploy a variety of instruments, and both induce and rest on significant behavioral change. Everybody agrees that bicycles are going to be a big part of any such solutions. Area C is likely to be short-lived: as that solution emerges, my guess is that it will need be redesigned, probably beyond recognition, to fit and support that solution. The question was wrong, but the only way to get at the right question was to ask the wrong one, structure an open, knowledge-oriented, institutionally backed interaction environment and let citizens work it out.

In my book Wikicrazia I have argued that online conversations converge: given the right values and the right rules of engagement, a shared conclusion will be reached. Decision makers considering using the Internet as a channel for citizen participation are worried that their participation initiatives will be maimed by trolling and flame wars, that the constructive citizens will flee and they will be stuck with the haters. I have tried to convince them that the mechanism of a well-structured online conversation rewards good contributors like Davide Davs with attention and reputation effects. It is always nice to see somebody proving you right.

Also, consider the costs and the time scale of the process: all of this involved no more than three months and a lot of attention by skillful community manager Pietro Pannone and strategists Alessio Baù and Paola Bonini, all with Hagakure. Another couple of projects like this one and traditional offline participation processes will become an unviable proposition. As far as I am concerned, good riddance: participation will be much easier for those who can’t afford to hire professional lobbyists. That is, at the end of the day, for all of us.