In this article, we intend to present some of the work done by the Civil Society Organization Cidade Democrática in Brazil. For 8 years, we have been developing and experimenting with open source participation technologies that facilitate public participation in the policy creation process. Primarily, we will discuss lessons learned over the course of this work, and new efforts to incorporate the open source collective deliberation tool pol.is into our change theory and grassroots strategy. Finally, we will talk about how we will contribute to pol.is’ emerging commons community in the short term.
Background: Cidade Democrática (Brazil) — five years using open source software for collective deliberation on public issues
The “Ideas challenge” open source software built by Cidade Democrática has been used to encourage the participation of regular people in the policy process and foster the emergence of collaborative communities around public proposals. Since 2011, this application has been used in 15 cities including two Brazilian states (São Paulo and Pará) and cities with a range of socio-economic profiles and population size.
Composed of different phases (Inspiration, Proposal, Applause, Union and Announce), the Ideas Challenge stimulates the emergence of project proposals based on:
- Collaboration between proposal authors and the population at large (“proposal making stage”)
- Social engagement and search for support (“applause stage”)
- Convergence and dialogue between participants (“union stage”)
The challenge seeks to stimulate social innovation by way of establishing new social connections — that is, promoting the creation of links, relationships and collective identity — as a necessary support for the construction of public solutions. The results serve as a foundation to support the official policy process in the establishment of roundtables, identify engaged citizens to promote participation opportunities (in councils and other spaces) and to be part of a preferences agenda to be fulfilled with public policies and investments, when possible.
Inspired by the experience of Iberoamerican LABIC, we developed a methodology of a Citizen Innovation Lab that connects to the Ideas Challenge. The innovation lab creates connections between creatives, social and political entrepreneurs, ordinary people and communities that emerged from the challenges. The lab’s mandate is to foster the innovation that will respond to the collective intelligence produced by the challenge. This helps articulate knowledge and resources necessary for the prototyping of the community desires. This LABIC model has already been tested in two cities in 2016.
The ideas challenges allow and encourage people to produce policy guidelines together, and to share preferences for these guidelines with each other. This helps create a shared sense of purpose and collective identity.
Local activities like workshops, interviews and mapping, as well as the algorithmic approach to crowd feedback, enable the emerge of agendas typically ignored by the media. However, the software built by Cidade Democrática could not effectively address what happens after producing and sharing ideas: collective action.
Limitations on that experience and possible solutions
With Cidade Democrática’s knowledge about social media architecture’s possibilities and limitations, we were able to use Ideas Challenges to build a process that overcame the habitualized confrontation between Society and Establishment, which are present in debates in the media and on social media platforms whose algorithms prioritize audience discovery (a more detailed discussion about this issue is present in Cidade Democrática change theory).
However, the need for face to face contact, efficiency and more fluid communication required by collective action remained unsolved. Cidade Democrática was quite successful in producing outputs that create dialogue between society and governments and allow the organization of social innovation laboratories, but the participants engagement after the contest results ends up falling short.
The idea of creating and experimenting with new debate architectures and algorithms for mass deliberation, instead of just analyzing social media, is very fundamental for two main reasons First, a desire to be independent from proprietary technology. Social media platforms are not transparent. Second, social media platforms are not focused on enabling collaborations between different factions, or between the government and society to bring about collective impact to communities.
Although it’s obvious that social media aren’t open source and their algorithms aren’t transparent, the second reason is trickier. Many good intentioned people still see social media as a completely free arena where discussions can arise and consensus can be slowly built. But what really happens on social media is the phenomenon of homophily, where like minded groups tend to congregate around hashtags and closed networks, broadcasting the ideas that the group members agree on, and ignoring groups with different ideas. This is the bubble filter explained, and it’s formed when the discussion architecture discourages real conversations between people that don’t agree with each other.
What have we tried? The history of participation technologies in Brazil as a common good
Since 2000's, the Brazilian society has invested some effort in building technologies for collaborative social participation on the Internet. Walking along the way paved by Brazilian digital culture movement, the most significant of these experiences took place in 2009's “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 created other open source communities who were developing collective deliberation technologies on the network. This was the case of initiatives as “Participa.br” and “Pensando o Direito” who adhered to at least three different open source communities: Noosfero, Delibera (Wordpress), Allourideas (Pairwise). The common thread of these initiatives is that they were all based on the use and adherence to software development open source communities who had already been working on the creation of innovative technologies for collective deliberation.
The state’s relationship with those open source communities beyond bringing innovative technology into the governmental processes, also brought the practice to work with the construction of common knowledge goods shared between state and society. Cidade Democrática believes that the knowledge to build and maintain relationships with open source communities and manage the use and development of software as a common good is a state capacity that needs to be present in public institutions, especially to accelerate (or even make possible) institutional transformations (see our change theory). That’s why we keep betting on that, for instance in our more recent grassroots action, “Free Laboratories of Social Participation”.
A sea of tools for participation
Development in the free and open source collective deliberation software ecosystem is becoming more and more vigorous. There are lots of apps (and new being born) addressing the opportunities and challenges of public mass participation and collective intelligence in many different manners, like Loomio, Pairwise, Liquid Feedback, Participa, Agora Delibera, Pol.is, Decidim, Cónsul, DemocracIT, City-R-Us, among others.
At the same time countries, cities and collective movements are trying to understand those technologies and trying to figure out how to invest their budgets in developing their own participation platforms. We think the exploration is a healthy — it could advance to a point where every public or common organization has their own autonomous infrastructure, maintaining what is unique and connecting to APIs on what can be shared, instead of duplicating effort. This would achieve high levels of transparency and participants privacy. We believe that the most effective way of doing that is through the utilization and combination of innovative technologies from free and open source projects that are being developed right now all within communities over the world.
In that context, improving and expanding the functions of existing recognized free and open source apps to solve different aspects of the public mass deliberation problems is the desired path forward. Within this methodology, new tools and algorithms can be easily integrated on ongoing participation and public deliberation platforms that countries, cities and movements use for their own decision making processes. This will generate tons of use cases for those tools and expand the development and commons communities of each. That’s how we intend to work, and one of the reasons we are including pol.is in our collective deliberation design strategy.
The option for pol.is as a participation engine, and the concept of crowdsourced discussion mechanisms
After realizing the limitations of Cidade Democrática's own tool and realizing that we should focus on collective deliberation processes design that engage with existing open source deliberation tools, we opted to incorporate pol.is into our strategy.
In practice, this means that we will experiment with pol.is in our non-profit grassroots work in Brazilian communities (we expect to have at least two different experiments around the beginning of 2017) and we will develop add-ons for collective action, starting on the Madrid’s “Collective Intelligence for Democracy” laboratory next November.
First of all, our decision in adopting and expanding pol.is’ engine is based on the above diagnostic that we need to improve our collective deliberation tools in two main complementary challenging aspects. First, the deliberation tool should achieve higher levels of mass engagement in free (as in freedom) collective deliberation. Second, it should foster collective engagement that overcomes the confrontation logic of social media (swarming and campaigns) and enable collaboration between government and society towards common goods.
The pol.is engine is well suited to address the first challenging aspect of acheiving higher levels of mass engagement because it proposes a seamless and minimalist way of participating. The easiest way people can participate on its engine is just casting a reaction to atweet-size comment (proposal) randomly selected from all comments submitted. This kind of participation can be completed in less than a minute.
In a progressive way, after reacting to a comment, people can keep reacting until they reache the last of the comments or, submit their own perspective as a comment. This new comment will then be part of the comments deck and available for the other participants to cast reactions to.
In the pol.is engine, participants can’t reply to a comment. Its architecture does away with replies in order to formulate a matrix of commentss and reactions. All the information gave by participants is accounted. Good comments and ideas will not be lost on enormous discussions trees but will be presented as an equal to other participants cast reactions. Discussions architecture like pol.is — that we call “Crowdsourced Discussion” — are different from traditional forums — that we call “Threaded Discussion”. In a “Crowdsourced Discussion” all information given is utilized. In a “Threaded Discussion”, as it depends on later systematization, part of the information (sometimes most of it) is discharged by the process. We’re not specifically advocating for abandoning the “Threaded Discussion” architecture, as we think it’s still important for many deliberation experiences, specially for small-medium groups. But we realize that it poses serious mass engagement limitations.
Now, let’s go to the second challenging aspect, that is to foster participants engagement on collective actions. The pol.is engine uses machine learning algorithms to interpret the data matrix built by the comments and people reactions in real-time. That matrix is processed in a way people can be organized in affinity groups based on how they participate on each comment.
The information about those group formations is updated in real-time and is exhibited in a way people can had a sense of moving around in a physical, tactile space towards their tribe. That’s very innovative, as the pol.is interface provides a democratic and transparent dashboard that not only the system administration can see but every participant or viewer. Everybody can understand and download the data about the groups that were formed on the discussion, how each comments performed in each group, what were the majority comment within all groups, which group you are in and who are the other group members. Very well done, pol.is!
On the other hand, though pol.is is very good at identifying these affinity groups, currently it stops on the exhibition of this information, which is not enough to help these people to organize around autonomous collective action.
In our opinion, there are improvements to be developed in the application precisely to carry out this type of action, and that’s how we want to use it on our experiments. Still, that’s how we intend to contribute to the pol.is community, starting in Madrid’s laboratory. Within Madrid’s selected project we intend to develop on top of pol.is some engagement and collective action add-ons, promoting face to face processes based on pol.is’ groups formation that will be organized on the last days of laboratory time. All our work and use cases will be documented so the experiments can be replicated and software reused as a way to contribute to this newborn commons community where we felt very welcome by its members.
For further discussions, take a look on a more detailed analysis on how pol.is connects with our change theory.