Tag Archives: youth

The credibility singularity of institutions

So, I care about democracy, and dream about fixing it. For years, and in many different contexts, I have been weaving narratives of collaboration between citizens and their institutions towards the common good. These narratives have provided ideological scaffolding for creatives, radical changemakers and civil servants to work together, reaping the benefits of diversity and discovering that they can get stuff done.

This, however, is getting harder and harder. Global problems press humanity on (take your pick: climate change, feral finance, loss of biodiversity, mounting inequalities); a globally connected citizenry, fueled by the Steve Jobs-Obama ideology of change as desirable, possible, a moral imperative even, has raised their expectations levels. Institutions, while probably not moving any slower than they did twenty years ago, have failed to keep up with the acceleration. The result is a sort of (negative) credibility singularity: you can feel people getting more impatient by the week. And not without reason: the failure to take serious action on climate change after decades of talk is very hard to justify outside the institutions’ corporate walls. What could any government agency answer to Anjali Appadurai’s passionate call to action in the video above? “Give us ten years!” to which her answer is “You just wasted twenty”. “We must not be too radical”, to which her answer is “Long term thinking is not radical”. What is there to say? She’s right.

The singularity point itself is the place where people decide democratic institutions are not delivering, and route around them to get things done. I am not looking forward to it. In fact, I happen to think democratic government institutions are still humanity’s best asset towards cooking up a coordinated, global response to global threats. But if this is to happen, a lot more radical thinking needs to take roots in Brussels (and Rome, and London, and Washington D.C. etc.). And to do it fast, while credibility can still be restored.

(Thanks: Vinay Gupta and Jay Springett)

Unpacking #LOTE: how institutions learn new ways

With the Living On The Edge (aka #LOTE) conference, the Edgeryders team at the Council of Europe was trying to kill several birds with the same stone. Bird number one: starting to boil down the staggering amount of ethnographic data on the transition of European youth collected alongside the project to a synthesis that could act as a common ground. Even before the conference started we had collected over 400 transition stories with 3,000 comments from over 1,000 registered users: an overarching big picture to parse them is a must if we are to make sense of it. Bird number two:experimenting offline with the delicate interface between online communities and institutions. Can we design a format that Europe’s most radical and bright trailblazers and its civil servants can both find meaningful and fulfilling? Bird number three: gauge the potential for contagion of cutting-edge projects like Edgeryders with the institutions that promote them – but then need to give up some control over them to their community of users if they are to be successful at all. Will institutions experience some kind of anaphylactic shock and reject the transplant? Ignore it? Be inspired by it?

Killing bird number one was comparatively easy: we had aimed very carefully. We designed Edgeryders with native support for scientific inquiry. The legal infrastructure is such that all deliverables from the project are licensed in Creative Commons-BY, and therefore can be shared and re-used legally and safely. A volunteer Privacy Manager from the community, neodynos (thanks!), watches that we do this without compromising the sense of safety that a public space like Edgeryders should have. We extract data from the network analysis directly from the database, via a Drupal module called Views and an extraction script (thanks Luca Mearelli, my collaborator at the Dragon Trainer project, for writing it!). Both the script and the anonymized data are on github. We are proudly doing open science here. So, the rest is really just implementation.

Bird number two was hard. As we designed the conference program, I will freely admit it did feel contrived at times. Luckily my colleagues at the Council of Europe – and especially Gilda Farrell, the head of the division I report to – were patient if tough negotiators, and explained to us that yes, we do need opening remarks, and three closing speeches. And it is important that we make sure that several institutions are represented, as well as respect the balance of gender and nationality of speakers. This is about legitimacy, and a conference with insufficient visibility of the institutions would have sent the wrong signal that we were just playing around while the grownups were doing the real policy work.

It did work, though. It worked almost too well. Turnout was huge, with some people coming in from all over Europe, but also from places like South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. The online buzz was just insane – I don’t think any Council of Europe event had ever become trending topic on Twitter before. The Twitter wall backchannel worked like a charm. There was some disagreement and a lot of frank talk, but all of it was respectful. Everybody I talked to – both from the community side and from the institutional side – absolutely loved at least some parts, and learned a lot from what he or she did not like so much. The community went home incredibly energized, and got down to doing the most advanced stuff I have yet seen done within a government project. Check out DemSoc leading a collaborative “letter to the funders” to start a negotiation with the funding agencies about rewriting funding rules for increased effectiveness and fairness (I do hope the European Commission reads that one); or Nadia trying on herself the “life without using money” way of living, guided by moneyless sensei Elf Pavlik. The Council of Europe behaved magnificently, showing care and appreciation for the young Europeans who had made the effort to get to Strasbourg. When the security staff agreed to let into the building Elf – who does not believe in states and refuses to use national ID – I knew the cultural battle had been won. I learned two things: that a fruitful, inspiring offline conversation can be had between institutions and a self-selected group of citizens; and that prior socializing online is critical to that conversation not disintegrating into squabbling about rules of engagement and what is meant by what.

As for the third bird, I have neither full information nor the authority to speak for the Council of Europe, or any other institution. I do know that Edgeryders, that started as a completely peripheral project – just a little money and a couple of lowly temps at the margins of the organization – has now gotten the attention of the most senior decision makers; and that a prototype is being designed for using Edgeryders-style engagement to elicit input into ministerial conferences on the most diverse subjects. This was before #LOTE: the day after we got two new proposals – one of which is to redeploy Edgeryders as a community of experts advising European cities on how to fight poverty. Funding, it seems, is not an issue. A door has been knocked down, and the Council of Europe is exploring what lies beyond it.

If I were more business smart, this would be where I tell you how hard it was, and how we heroically overcame massive obstacles. The gist of it would be that I am a very smart guy, and you might want to consider giving me a lot of money to work with you. But I am famously not business smart, and the truth is that doing all this has been embarassingly easy. Of course we had to work very hard, but even that is more a consequence of the grueling timeline (seven months from launch to #LOTE) than the actual content. It did not take new regulation. It did not require a change in leadership. It did not require innovation, other than some tweaking of Drupal and a few lines of Rails. It did not require flawless execution: we made plenty of mistakes, and I more than anyone. All it took was integrity, a respectful, inclusive stance, and careful deployment of existing Council of Europe administrative plumbing. I could do it again, and so could you.

This is cause for cautious optimism. All in all, I could not have asked for more to my year as a eurocrat, which has now come to an end.

Augmented ethnography: processing qualitative data from massive conversations

I am working on a project called Edgeryders, a massively collaborative exercise to reassess and redesign public policy towards youth. The idea is to get participants to share their experiences on policy-relevant topics, like how we make a living or how we participate in public life. As the project starts to pick up speed it does what crowdsourcing exercises do: it spews up a torrent of experiential data. In my book and elsewhere I have claimed that respectful conversations converge: a consensus is achieved, and we can just move on. I still think that’s true, and fairly obvious to the participants. The problem is how you convey it in a verifiable form to external observers – European governments and the European Commission in the case in question. Demanding that they go through even a small part of the raw data is simply not realistic. So what do we do?

My best guess is ethnography. Ethnographic methods are particularly well suited to this kind of investigation, because they are designed to embed the point of view of the people they study. For the same reason, I would argue that they are well suited to Internet ethics: we are not the lab rats, we are the lab itself, just as we are not the users, but the protagonists of our online meeting places. Modern ethnography employs software like Atlas.ti or its open source counterpart Weft QDA to annotate interview transcripts.

The advantage of social networks-based data collection methods like Edgeryders is twofold.

  • The data come already in written form. A major cost of ethnographic analysis, trascription of interviews (in 2006 they were talking about €100 per hour of recording), is therefore avoided.
  • Crucially, the data are really fragments of a conversation. Participants comment, contradict, praise each other. What might appear like different “interviews” (see this great example) are really linked to each other by a web of social ties, which are encoded into a database, and amenable to quantitative analysis.

In order to take advantage of these features, we are trying to develop a methodology that I have been calling augmented ethnography. It should work more or less like this:

  1. first, organize the material by participant. In Edgeryders, this means gathering all of my mission reports (a sort of blog posts), my user profile, and my comments, and filing them under my online identity. This produces a sort of uber-interview of a participant (me), that extends over several topics. Repeat over all participants. Annotate this material with Weft or Atlas.it.
  2. next, specify a network to represent the conversation. To a first approximation, I would start by considering the all participants are nodes of the same network. A link is created between participants Alice and Bob according to some interaction encoded in the database: the most intuitive one in Edgeryders is that Alice and Bob are connected if at least one of them has commented one of the other’s mission reports, or if both have commented a third participant’s. Edgeryders was intentionally designed with redundance in the relationship modes, so that different relationships could, in principle, evolve by exaptation to signify different things.
  3. crunch the network data and look for structure that could help you. One of the first things I would try is to compute measures of network centrality for each individual. This would help solve the classic ethnographers’s problem: the researcher arrives in some remote island to investigate a community whose culture he does not yet understand. A person sits with her and provides a lot of information. How can the researcher use it? That depends whether she has been talking to a respected member of that community or to the village idiot – and the researcher may have no easy way of knowing that. Network analysis can help: in respectful, fact-oriented conversation, the village idiot will almost never enjoy a high degree of centrality.

Of course, this is only a rough sketch. I don’t doubt that many clever tricks can be devised that will work on ethnography-on-a-database. Now, the problem is finding researchers that can take full advantage of that: competent ethnoghraphers that can take in the results of network analysys too. Readers: do you know any? Is there anyone interested in picking up this conversation, and maybe give my team and myself a hand?