Engaging the public in complex issues about the internet — how, when and why?

Our complex, far-reaching technology comes with complex, far-reaching questions. How do we address bias in machine learning? What should a post-work economy look like? When does tech affinity turn into tech addiction? And whose responsibility is it to address the countless issues like these?

Traditional forms of public engagement like focus groups or citizen juries have been around for years — sometimes centuries. But there’s plenty of room for innovation, especially when it comes to asking people about new technologies and how they affect our lives. So over the past few weeks, we’ve been using tech itself as a lens to explore new ways of engaging the public around complex issues.

That doesn’t mean building online budget trackers or naff social media polls. Instead, it starts by thinking about tech holistically — its people, its platforms, its opportunities — and letting that thinking guide our work.

When we think and talk about “tech,” we’re often referring to one (or more) of these three things:

Tools

Products, services, hardware, software, interfaces, objects — anything you can touch, feel, or interact with

Access

Data, reach, computing power — the ability to acquire and synthesise a lot of information quickly and accurately

Culture

Ways of working, thinking, and organising — everything from “Do no evil” to the care and feeding of introverts

We’re using tech’s approach to tools, access, and culture to answer questions like these:

What does 21st century public engagement look like?

  • When are the appropriate times to ask for public opinion?
  • How do we differentiate “want to engage” from “need to engage”?
  • What kind of complexity and scale does the public want to be exposed to?
  • What are “understandable risks” in the context of public engagement and the internet?

How can technology make public engagement more modern?

  • How can we use products, services, and platforms to reach more people more responsibly?
  • What are the cumulative effects of repeatedly engaging the public, and how can we open research or campaign insights up to mitigate these?
  • How is information gathered stored, shared, and accessed by participants?
  • What opportunities are there for misuse of this technology, and how can we help prevent them?

What are the systemic issues 21st century engagement must consider?

  • What are the unintended effects of public engagement (e.g., a change in the relationship between institutions and communities)?
  • Can we design to minimise negative knock-on effects and maximise positive knock-on effects?
  • How do we demonstrate the moral need for more sensitive, complex citizen engagement?

Over the coming weeks (which we’re excited to work with Paper during) we’ll be sharing some of our initial findings and debuting our three prototypes. If you have any questions, or if you’d like to share your feedback on this work, send us a note at hello@doteveryone.org.uk.