Category Archives: Other

Social media are changing the world

Social networks are changing democracy! In 2016 we have witnessed how the “unthinkable” became reality – how UK decided to part ways with European Union and how against almost all predictions Donald Trump, a property tycoon and reality television star, was elected US commander-in-chief. In 2016 the “war for votes” was raging on not only in the conventional battle ground, but also in the digital environment – especially in social networks and social media. Although many digital tools have significantly contributed to strengthening democratic values by empowering individuals and likeminded groups, some aspects of these technologies may be bringing more harm than good. We are only starting to understand the effect that social networks and other new forms of media can have on democracy and politics, but even now it is clear that we don’t have time to waste.

It has been a common knowledge already for a while that social networks can have a significant impact – they can give voice and power for people who have neither. For example, according to Deen Freelon of the American University in Washington, DC, social networks played a crucial role in getting the Black Lives Matter – a movement fighting police violence against African-Americans, off the ground.[1] Maybe even more important was the role social media and networks played in shaping political debates in Arab Spring.[2] It wouldn’t be that difficult to find countless other positive examples of how social media and social networks have empowered change and social progress, for example, social media facilitated political mobilization in civil unrest in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, the Maidan protests in Ukraine and the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, all in 2013 or 2014.[3] But looking only at the positive examples can leave an overly positive and quite possibly misleading impression about the impact of social networks. Unfortunately, there are some reasons to be if not skeptical, then at least to realistically assess the impact social media has on democracy.

Echo chambers and fake news

One of the problematic aspects of social media and social networks in relation to healthy democracy might be the echo chambers they are creating. And it is not a problem affecting only social media and social networks, but a problem affecting internet in general. As elegantly formulated by Mostafa M. El-Bermawy from WIRED: “the internet that was used during Arab spring in 2011 is different from the internet that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump”.[4]  An echo chamber describes a situation when ideas, information and/or beliefs are amplified by repetition inside an enclosed system. For some of us that perfectly sums up our digital existence in social networks – the algorithm shows us only the content we are likely to like, in other words, the content similar to the one we have consumed before. This in turn leads to another connected problem – the confirmation bias – the psychological tendency for people to embrace new information as affirming their pre-existing beliefs and to ignore evidence that doesn’t.[5]

These problems are exacerbated by the ease of which fake media content can be created and distributed in digital environment. According to the BuzzFeed News, in the final three months of US presidential campaign, the top performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement then the top news stories from major news outlets.[6] The 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook, while the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites lagged behind with only 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments.[7] The most popular of the false news stories were a story claiming Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and a hoax claiming the pope endorsed Trump.[8] But the fake news were not popular only among the Trump supporters, e.g., the viral Trump quote calling Republicans ‘the dumbest group of voters’ was definitely fake as well[9] and Ireland was not and still isn’t planning to accept ‘Trump immigrants’.[10]

Tech or media company

Democrats did not hesitate with blaming Facebook and their fake news problem for their defeat in presidential election.[11] Initially Zuckerberg was quick in dismissing any effect fake news could have on election results, stating that overwhelming majority (~99 %) of content is authentic and the fake content was not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics.[12] After couple of days Facebook did finally recognize the importance of fighting misinformation in their social network and informed about ongoing measures employed to mitigate the problem.[13] Despite these efforts several sources have accused Facebook of doing far too little when it comes to combatting the spread of fake news stories, considering that a majority of US adults – 62 %  – get news on social media.[14] But what Facebook should be doing is partially conditional upon their status. A pressing question is whether Facebook and other social networks should be regarded only as tech companies or as something much more than just that.

In the last few months Facebook has been called in many different names — “a website,” “an internet company,” “a major player in the media universe,” “a strange new class of media outlet,” a “tech behemoth,” and even a “cesspool of nonsense”. Facebook itself has not been too eager in accepting their role as a media outlet and thus taking at least some responsibility that comes with it and persistently continues labelling themselves as only a tech company escaping any additional burden.[15] This reluctance is quite understandable as the status of a media company and a place in the Fourth Estate comes with certain responsibilities when it comes to the content it disseminates. In a democratic society media as a cornerstone of the Fourth Estate is expected to act like watchdog, civic forum, and agenda-setter, holding elected officials to account and bound by longstanding liability laws.[16] Fear of legal hurdles apparently is not the only reason for the reluctance to recognize oneself as a media company, it is also a matter of brand management, talent and revenue.[17]

Moving forward

If everything is so bad with social media and social networks – they are riddled with fake news articles, we are all living in artificial echo chambers and no one has any power or willingness to do something about it – what is the way forward? Firstly, neither the echo chamber problem, fake news, nor the lack of regulatory oversight is a reason enough to dismiss social networks and social media as unfit for healthy democracy. It probably is not a very good idea to label all social networks as media companies and apply the same rules as for traditional journalism, but at the same time Facebook should accept the fact that it is already making billions of editorial decisions every day and should work on how to improve them.[18] Facebook and other social media as a new source of journalism[19], should consider improving the algorithms they use to choose the content users see by reducing the importance of the “engagement” criteria.  Secondly, users of social media and social networks should be more aware of the echo chambers they are living in and approach the available content with slightly more skepticism at the same time urging the networks to embrace their role in the Fourth Estate. Finally, social networks, social media and other influential tech companies should recognize these problems as something serious and deal with them accordingly before many of us have lost any faith in their ability to do so.

[Dainis Pudelis]

[1] Deen Freelon, Beyond the hashtags: #Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the online struggle for offline justice, Available at: http://cmsimpact.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/beyond_the_hashtags_2016.pdf, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[2] Howard, Philip N. and Duffy, Aiden and Freelon, Deen and Hussain, Muzammil M. and Mari, Will and Maziad, Marwa, Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring? (2011). Available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2595096, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[3] The Economist, The signal and the noise, Available at: http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21695198-ever-easier-communications-and-ever-growing-data-mountains-are-transforming-politics, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[4] Mostafa M. El-Bermawy , Your Filter Bubble is Destroying Democracy, Available at: https://www.wired.com/2016/11/filter-bubble-destroying-democracy/, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[5] Scott Bixby, theguardian, ‘The end of Trump’: how Facebook deepens millennials’ confirmation bias, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/01/millennials-facebook-politics-bias-social-media, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[6] Craig Silverman, The BuzzFeed News, This Analysis Shows How Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook, Available at: https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook?utm_term=.luWPbgqrYQ#.pcGYOqeEBx, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Tatianna Amatruda, CNN, That Trump quote calling Republicans ‘the dumbest group of voters’? Fake!, Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/11/10/politics/trump-quote-facebook-trnd/, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[10] Dan MacGuill, thejournal.ie, FactCheck: No, Ireland is NOT “officially accepting Trump refugees”, Available at: http://www.thejournal.ie/ireland-officially-accepting-trump-refugees-inishturk-facts-3074777-Nov2016/, Accessed:  23.11.2016; Craig Silverman, The BuzzFeed News, This Analysis Shows How Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook, Available at: https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook?utm_term=.luWPbgqrYQ#.pcGYOqeEBx, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[11] Nancy Scola, Politico, Clinton digital chief: Democrats to target Facebook’s fake news, Available:  http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/clinton-facebook-fake-news-231365, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[12] Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, Available at: https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10103253901916271, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[13] Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, Available at: https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10103269806149061, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[14] Jeffrey Gottfried and Elisa Shearer, Pew Research Centre, News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016, Available at: http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[15] Catherine Buni, The Verge, Facebook won’t call itself a media company. Is it time to reimagine journalism for the digital age?, Available at: http://www.theverge.com/2016/11/16/13655102/facebook-journalism-ethics-media-company-algorithm-tax, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Timothy B. Lee, VOX, Mark Zuckerberg is in denial about how Facebook is harming our politics, Available at: http://www.vox.com/new-money/2016/11/6/13509854/facebook-politics-news-bad, Accessed:  23.11.2016

[19] Danny Crichton, Journalism in the Digital Age, Available at: http://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs201/projects/2010-11/Journalism/index8192.html?page_id=30, Accessed:  23.11.2016

Deliberative Polling

James Fishkin’s interview with the European Magazine contains probably one of the most exciting views on democracy that I’ve come across lately. It is the perfect antidote for someone who feels equally dissatisfied with over-optimistic expectations of what people should be capable of doing and the resulting cynicism when the unrealistic expectations fall short. It is an incredibly refreshing experience to read how Fishkin reframes the standard issue of what to do with an uninformed and seemingly disinterested public in a democracy.

Below Fishkin sets out the bog-standard way of approaching the issue:

“The choice seems to be between politically equal and uninformed masses, or politically unequal and more informed elites. The latter undermines the idea of popular involvement in politics, and the former involves people only under conditions where they cannot think very much about the choices they make.”

I’d say it’s a fair judgment that most people overestimate their own (and other’s) capacity for staying informed. To actually sit down and read the news we need to have enough energy left over after performing our daily chores. Here it may help to remember the concept of ‘ego depletion’ that refers to the phenomenon of our willpower being an exhaustible resource. After strenuous mental tasks we are less able to make considered decisions, or simply put, most people will agree that after a long and stressful day it’s much more tempting to sit down with a sitcom rather than read complicated current affairs articles. Therefore, instead of expecting people to overcome this inherent laziness by relying only on their inner calling for civic life, deliberative polling aims to create controlled conditions that would allow anyone for to come up with informed opinions.

What they do is the following. An initial poll is performed on a random sample of citizens (usually from around 200). Following the initial poll, the citizens are gathered together for a weekend of deliberation – they are given reading materials on all sides of the issue at hand, they are given the opportunity to discuss the issue with experts or politicians as well as to take part in moderated group discussions. All of the activities are recorded and translated live or edited on television. Afterwards the participants are polled again on the same issue or issues, which allows to observe what kind of opinions the public might form given the opportunity to fully engage with the policies being tackled by the government. Stanford University’s Centre for Deliberative Democracy gives a clear summary (that I’ve relied on above) as well as outlines a couple of selected results from deliberative polling exercises in Korea, UK, and Poland.

I could go on for quite a while listing all the reasons why deliberative polling is a great idea. My inner social scientist is delighted by Fishkin‘s belief that ‘democratic reform should be based on evidence,’ and not just observational data but data derived from experiments. Their approach is also praiseworthy for using sample sizes which can be used for sufficiently accurate statistical estimates while engaging with the participants qualitatively at the level of discussion groups (it must be noted that this is an expensive undertaking, not available to everyone who shares their scientific ethos). At the same time, it’s not just a social science experiment, but also a learning tool for the participants and the wider public given that the process can be broadcast on television or online as well.

Further on, the practice can be used for gathering public opinion in the initial stages of policy design or as an alternative to referenda. It would be difficult to argue against referenda as such, but deliberative polling is a better tool for an egalitarian democracy in a non-trivial way. According to Fishkin:

“The problem is that once you open deliberations to everyone, special interests can exert a larger influence than in a randomized sample.”

While active interest groups are a great part of a pluralist society, public referenda can turn into a tool available only to powerful special interest groups instead of empowering all members of a community equally. The example of California is used by Fishkin to illustrate the point – while it is a welcome development that referenda have become an intrinsic part of political life, the resources needed to initiate them and rally supporters around one’s cause favour established and well-financed interest groups. Through deliberative polling a random sample of citizens are inserted in a controlled environment where what matters is what they think not how much influence someone has been able to buy. Admittedly, while I’m writing this it’s hard not to think that it’s impossible to completely isolate such influence or that in many cases there is nothing wrong with the way interest groups advocate their cause. Yet, I’m inclined to think that deliberative polling should constitute a bigger part of civil society activities.

A final half-baked idea that has has been nagging me since reading the interview is the possibility of relying on insights from deliberative polling to transform the way that we use media. Instead of, again, either hoping that everyone will have the willpower and the necessary interest in reading traditional media formats or concluding that our fellow citizens are a lost cause and essentially qualifiable as manipulable automatons, why not consider presenting media content in ways that makes reading current affairs an accessible learning experience. It might include a combination of traditional approaches and the practices developed in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), or it might involve some sort of life-long learning programs.

In any case, it’s worth the time to think over what James Fishkin says in his interview on deliberative polling. The practice has the potential to, pardon the cliche, disrupt our way of understanding democratic participation and help us move beyond dead-end debates. Read it.

[Marta]

The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

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Search for the Common Good: Citizens UK

The Living Wage campaign, started by London Citizens in 2001, is a prime example of what can be achieved when the goal of politics is set to achieving a common ground. The initial campaigners were people working two or more minimum wage jobs yet struggling to keep their families out of poverty (according to latest research on UK done by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, half of those living below the poverty line are actually employed). Instead of digging deeper into partisan trenches, people behind London Citizens created a campaign that aimed to bring working people out of poverty in a way that was appealing to employers. The idea was simple – to calculate a new minimum wage that would actually allow a family to take care of themselves given the actual costs of living in London. Instead of making the new Living Wage a statutory requirement the idea was to encourage those businesses who could afford to pay more to their employees to make the moral choice to do so voluntarily. Since then their campaign has gone nationwide and in 2014 there were already 800 employers who had voluntary signed up to pay the higher Living Wage, including Nestle, Nationwide and Aviva.

The driving force behind this is Citizens UK, an alliance of civil society organisations committed to making a vocation out of community organising. Their professionalism is what is striking when one first encounters their website or reads their 2015 Manifesto. While they do not lack the enthusiasm of activists their goals and strategies for achieving them are meticulously prepared and presented in a cool-headed manner. At the core of what they do is channelling the power of local communities to reach for the common good, which, according to them, can indeed be found despite partisan disagreements and cultural differences. Their intention to work with what community members share in common is reflected in the areas of focus for the coming year – children’s health, social care, as well as employment and training opportunities, most of the intended projects again focusing on reaching cross-party solutions.In addition, their commitment to institutionalise channels of communication between community organisations and the British government indicates that they mean business.

The alliance has received due praise from Michael Sandel, the American political philosopher who has in the past years gained wider popularity through his online edX course on Justice. Sandel commends Citizens UK for creating ‘a sense of civic responsibility’, which in the case of the Living Wage campaign is encouraged not only in local organisers but also among business owners. For Phillip Bond, another philosopher interviewed below by Sandel in a news segment well worth watching, Citizens UK needs to be recognised for their ambition to consider the common good, the universal values of a good life that go beyond the often divisive tactics of contemporary politics.


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

 

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From Nation-states back to City-states

Perhaps we have been focusing on the wrong patient. Instead of looking for remedies to make nation-states more democratic, perhaps we should re-focus on cities as the locus of our political activity?

Benjamin Barber is one of the advocates of such a paradigm shift. In his view cities are the places where most stuff happens. This isn’t anything new given the growing urbanisation levels since the 19th century and the estimates that in low and middle income countries cities will be growing with an unprecedented rate in the next decades. This on its own wouldn’t be that interesting, yet Barber tries to make a bolder point. For him cities are the places where change for the better can be done in a non-partisan way. Because the bulk of what city mayor’s are asked to do does not really involve making moral choices based on our political ideology (unless you are a libertarian who doesn’t support public goods in any form). In addition, there certainly are shared problems, pollution being the most obvious one, where cities could and should learn from one another.

While readers may have some reservations about seizing the opportunity for technocratic rule that cities offer (and it may just be my partisan leanings that suggest this), there are indeed quite a few innovative practices coming from cities which are worth exploring. Another prominent advocate of city power, Michael Bloomberg, has highlighted practices like participatory budgeting, which we have covered before, and bike-sharing, both of which have originated in cities. Institutions like MIT’s Changing Places research hub are focusing exactly on coming up with more effective and greener ways of organising city life, from foldable cars (the project unfortunately seems to have stalled after 2012) to their latest invention RoboWall that aims to make the most use of small living spaces:

(If you are feeling hungry for more techie solutions to urban problems, have a look at this list from Wired – it includes permeable pavements and pothole patrols. Some innovations are somewhat Big Brother-esque though, I’m talking to you Graffiti-busting drones)

Putting robotic walls aside, Barber’s arguments do seem to be gathering support. The already mentioned Bloomberg was able to cut New York City’s carbon footprint by roughly a fifth of its previous volume in a country notorious for political disagreement, to say the least, on whether climate change exists and if something should be done about it. This concentration of power in mayoral positions can go both ways, with mayors having the means to enact ruinous policies, yet mayors like Bloomberg will make the argument that their work comes with greater accountability than for most politicians. Their policies are enacted on a smaller scale with the whole urban community being able to observe the results, while it’s much easier for MPs and Ministers to shirk from being held accountable for long term nation-wide policies that are much harder to keep track of.

The take-away conclusion seems to be that within cities there’s a lot more that can be done in a non-partisan way, even without going as far as giving up on the idea of a nation-state.

 


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

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Participatory Budgeting

We can be quick to judge our fellow citizens’ apathy when it comes to politics. Especially when we have reasonable grounds for being disappointed. It is fair to find fault with someone who never reads the news, never bothers to read up on the politicians for whom she votes, or worse still does not bother to vote at all. It is our responsibility as citizens to check up on the government, to question their proposed policies, and to sack them when they fail to deliver. However, dwelling on our disappointment will do little to help. The constructive thing to do would be to give those who feel disenfranchised a fair chance to participate.

One way to do this is to try participatory budgeting, the phrase is a bit of a mouthful, yet the process itself is quite straightforward. The city sets aside a certain amount of cash for local improvements. Community members gather in an assembly and come up with ideas for improvements, and then the best of those are put to the vote. The winning projects are implemented.

Started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989 the practice first reached Europe around the early 2000s and has become popular in the US in the last five years. The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) is a North American organisation that deserves extra credit for the organisational work it has done to bring participatory budgeting to North America, as well as for the resources and know-how it has accumulated on its website. Here is one of their videos doing more justice to the underlying ideas than I probably did:

To some it may seem irresponsible to allow residents to build lavish parks or water fountains when the city needs essential maintenance. For this reason, it should be stressed that participatory budgeting projects in most cases work with a portion of the budget that is intended for additional improvements. Also the project selection process and the vote itself is likely to do away with the more extravagant projects.

Skeptics may also doubt the content of such proposals – will the community really come up with ideas worth spending our common money on, shouldn’t this be better left to the experts? Participatory budgeting does not aim to get rid of experts, but add another layer to the way our democracy works. It creates the opportunity for locals to propose solutions to those issues that they encounter in their day-to-day lives, but which have been overlooked or underestimated by elected officials.

Moreover, the experience of those involved in participatory budgeting seems to indicate that the right circumstances can create very thoughtful project ideas. As stressed by James Fishkin, who works with deliberative polling, it’s bad institutional design that leads to people making bad decisions. If you stopped someone in the middle of the street after an eight hour work day and asked them what they thought of the latest campaign in their local youth centre, it is very likely that they their answer may not be the considerate one. Yet if you provide an organised event and a comfortable environment the very same people can come up with quite different responses.

Advocates of participatory budgeting usually see it as a means to building trust in state institutions, raising the perceived legitimacy of the state, as well as end in itself – participants get an education in the democratic process as well as a sense of empowerment. It would also be exciting if, in combination with other policies, participatory budgeting could encourage the disconnected citizens to start following the news or start voting again. All of the potential benefits shouldn’t be taken on faith, yet given that participatory budgeting has been around for two decades and, according to PBP estimates, has reached around 1000 cities worldwide, there is scope for testing these ideas.

If you are one of those with excess energy for current affairs, perhaps it’s worthwhile to consider campaigning for participatory budgeting in your city. Your budget might not end up as large as that of Chicago’s 49th Ward (around  $1 million a year), but even on a smaller scale you might be able to reinvigorate local participation in democracy.

[Marta]


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

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Citizenville: a book every politician should read

If there is a book that you should recommend reading to a politician living anywhere in the world in 2013, then it is “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government” by Gavin Newsom.

Most of the ideas described in this book are not “truly new” – if you were previously interested in e-democracy or new methods of engaging people in decision making, then you probably already know most of the examples he lists in the book. It is a bit wordy as well – you have to be a bit patient to get to the good stuff.

But the sheer number of ideas and examples, as well as the fact that Newsom himself has been behind some of the e-innovations, makes this book very much worth your while! It also succeeds in slowly habituating the reader to a new way of thinking about what a state agency can or cannot do: how can those institutions reinvent themselves according to the spirit of the creative age.

Here are some of the main ideas of the book:

1. Let’s gamify government and citizen engagement!

A real life example from the book, ” in 2009, the city launched something called Manor Labs—a platform to encourage people to suggest fixes for city problems. In exchange for participating, people received payment in a made-up currency called innobucks. If you submitted an idea, you got a thousand innobucks. If the city actually implemented your idea, you got a hundred thousand innobucks. You could keep track online of how many innobucks you or your neighbors or the lady down the street were collecting. Why would anyone care about collecting fake money? The City of Manor came up with real rewards you could buy with your innobucks. For varying amounts, you could buy a police ride-along or even be mayor for the day. Local businesses and restaurants also got in on the fun, offering coupons for discounts or free appetizers in exchange for innobucks. It’s not fake currency—it’s civic currency. Once Manor launched innobucks, people got very excited about racking them up. They started suggesting ideas left and right, participating in government as though it were the most fun thing they’d ever done. When people went away on vacation, they’d immediately interact with city government upon returning, trying to make up for lost time and build up their innobucks stashes.”

2. Better use of data can make all the difference

Gavin Newsom offers this example from his own experience, “In the years since we launched Project Homeless Connect, San Francisco’s homeless population has declined, emergency room visits have fallen, and deaths from overdoses have plummeted. The project was so successful, it’s been replicated in at least 260 cities. And Care Not Cash, so bitterly opposed by homeless advocates, helped result in a 28 percent decline in the homeless population in its very first year. Now, nearly a decade later, the number of homeless people receiving assistance is down more than 80 percent from the pre–Care Not Cash days. And our efforts were significantly advanced by that one word: data.”

3. Promote sharing of knowledge throughout an agency or a sector of government! Make it fun!

“In 2008, the federal government launched a networking site called A-Space—“Facebook for spooks.” It’s a highly restricted social-media site where the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other intelligence services can share information—a modern networking tool for a networked world. The government also launched Intellipedia—a Wikipedia-style site for spies that Hirshberg describes as “a mechanism where reports from around the world can be aggregated to build encyclopedic knowledge on a subject.” Both of these sites are crucial to the business of spycraft in the twenty-first century.”

4. Release data in easy to use formats, people will know what to do with it! You might not need costly and inefficient procurement to do something useful.

“If a city releases information about bicycle accidents, dangerous intersections can be identified and made safer. If a city releases information about street crime, people can create mash-ups to pinpoint problem areas and times, and police patrols can be increased. If a city releases information about air and water quality or hospital safety or emergency services efficiency, people can make informed decisions that potentially save lives.

“All these initiatives are not only new, they’re cool. That’s the dirty little secret about opening up city data for apps: People don’t create boring things; they create really fun, exciting things—like the mashup of Yelp restaurant listings with the city’s Health Department ratings. Wouldn’t you like to know, when you’re planning a dinner out, whether the restaurant you’re making a reservation for is rated A, B, or C by the Health Department? Soon you’ll be able to do this. Your phone will even send you a warning if you’re approaching a restaurant with a poor rating.”

“Now let’s imagine that the city of Oakland had decided they wanted to build the Crimespotting tool themselves. They probably don’t have a Stamen-level Web design team on the city payroll, so they’d need to outsource the job. This usually consists of sending out a request for proposals, accepting bids over a period of months, and then choosing a contractor to fulfill the project. The cost might reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the end product may or may not have been as good as what Mike and his colleagues produced. Essentially, Oakland got a free gift from a motivated citizen—one who was uniquely equipped to take available data and make it useful, which is the ideal of the open-data movement.”

“Replicating Apple’s model for the App Store is the antidote: Government doesn’t have to come up with new killer features on its own. It has to step aside and let others come up with them.”

“Because San Francisco’s data wasn’t complete, the team had to find another way to map where all the public art was. So they decided to crowdsource. They called for a public art scavenger hunt, inviting people to walk around the city and take note of where the murals were, then report back to the team so they could be included in the walking-tour app. Can you imagine government doing that? You’d need a team of six! You’d need a project manager! It would cost thousands of dollars and take months, if not years, to make it a reality.”

5. Rather than engaging and costly and inefficient procurement, create prizes and challenges!

“The result was Challenge.gov, a first-of-its-kind Web site where federal agencies can launch and publicize their contests. A quick scroll through Challenge.gov reveals a huge range of contests from agencies across the board, including: Apps Against Abuse, launched by the Department of Health and Human Services to create apps to help young adults to fight back against relationship violence and sexual assault; The Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize, launched by the Department of Energy to speed the shift from inefficient old lighting products to new, high-performance ones”

“Prizes for these particular five contests range from $3,000 to $15 million, but the submissions roll in for all contests, regardless of how big or small the prize is. New ideas, citizen engagement, even the launch of brand-new industries—the US government’s embrace of contests, aided by December 2010 legislation that expressly permitted them, has created a win-win for all involved. “Congress gave us the authority to run challenges and contests,” Chopra told me, referring to the new law. This is good, he continued, because “I tend to think of procurement as evil—a machine unto itself.””

6. Don’t be afraid of experimentation, of changing your initial idea, of engaging people to make it more useful!

“And that, as Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup, told me, “jump-starts a new marketplace. Nobody has a great idea the first time out of the gate. Nobody, ever. You have to iterate and change and pivot,” Ries said when I interviewed him in San Francisco. “The challenge is to have a framework where you can think big.”

“A blue button that downloads your entire medical history. A one-word text to commit money to Haiti. A dashboard that shows you all your interactions with your city. All these are simple solutions, made possible by simple sets of rules for innovating.”

7. Make budgeting participatory

“We can do that by following the example of New York City and Chicago, where a few innovative city officials have implemented participatory budgeting. In 2011, residents of four New York districts were invited to take direct part in deciding how nearly $6 million of their council members’ funds were allocated.”

8. Allow people to fund some projects themselves

“Why not set up a system whereby people can donate $3 or $5 or however much they want—DonorsChoose-style—to help pay for government projects? What if cash-strapped cities and states in need of funding for things like road repairs or providing free public wi-fi or upgrading their DMV’s computer system simply asked citizens to donate specifically toward these projects? Do you think people would give? I do—especially if we could arrange for a tax deduction for the donations.”

 

So if you have any opportunity to get this book into the reading list of a politician you know, do it! 🙂