Can Technology Improve Democracy? Answers from g0v Summit 2016
Yes, but how?
In g0v Summit 2016, on May 14th-15th in Taipei, more than 900 civic hackers from 17 countries shared how they deconstructed old politics and reconstructed a new civil society by civic tech. In open source spirit, all speeches were live streaming and recorded on Youtube and hackfoldr, edited by the crowd.
Who is g0v?
g0v is a civic tech community in Taiwan, consisting of citizens who urge and promote civil participation and transparency of the government via open source spirit and information technology. Since 2012, g0v participants, including engineers, designers, journalists and government officers, have collaborated to deliver influential projects such as visualization of central government’s budget, crowd-sourcing digitization of political donations and vTaiwan, an online policy-making discussion platform. Held every two months, g0v hackathons welcome every citizen to propose their projects in collaboration with other professions. The motto of g0v is, “Whenever you complain why ‘nobody’ do something, admit that you are ‘nobody’.”
Global Civic Tech Community
In terms of civic tech movement, g0v is not a special case. For example, soon after the devastating earthquake hit Nepal in April 2015, global open source communities marked the damaged area for rescue on Open Street Map by crowd-sourcing identification of satellite imagery.
g0v Summit 2016 depicted a global civic tech community, in which civic hackers share civic tech tools instead of reinventing the wheel. National Democracy Institute provides DemTools for NGOs around the world to manage volunteers. mySociety from UK and Voxe from France also develop open source codes, applied in in more than 10 countries, for comparison of candidate’s policy in the campaigns.
From Activism to Reform of Bureaucracy
With the success in activism, the next challenge of civic hackers is how to change the politics within bureaucracy.
Podemos, the uprising left-wing political party in Spain, is pushing the envelop of online direct democracy. In 15-M Movement in 2011, they shouted, “They can’t represent us,” and developed an online forum to assemble citizen’s fragmented opinions on the square. Now Podemos as the third largest party in the parliament, two speakers form Podemos shared how Podemos implements direct election in party assembly and Decide Madrid, in which citizens could vote to allocate the budget of 60 million Euros.
With supports from the government and civic tech communities, Taiwan is one of the pioneers in open government. In 2015, Taiwan was ranked No. 1 in open data by Open Knowledge Foundation. Taiwan’s outgoing prime minister then, San-Cheng Chang, addressed the key was to inspire civil servants to open data.
In the past two years, some active participants of g0v have entered or cooperated with the Taiwan government, the bureaucracy that works very differently from dynamic civic tech communities. The following are three main points they raised that decide the results of open government.
The first key is trust. From their experience on the budget visualization of Taipei City Government, TonyQ and Saul Peng’s emphasized it was the trust that made government officers take open data as performance instead of troubles, which led government to initiate open data and be willing to accept tech assistance from civic tech communities.
The second determining factor is cost. Assisting Minister of Health and Welfare to response the first petition on join.gov.tw, Peggy Lo pointed out that it was the cost of sustainability and communication that determines whether the government could continue to open data.
The third important foundation is civil participation. From g0v’s cooperation with the parliament, CL Kao, one of the leading figures in g0v, suggested stairs of civil participation from clicktivism to hacktivism. By open data and oversight on congress, g0v has climbed a few stairs. It is crucial to inspire people to take the initiative instead of just clicking online.
Decentralized Direct Democracy
Internet was designed to be decentralized. Does that mean we can approach the ideal of direct democracy via Internet? In practice, the real challenges are to intensify civil participation and to integrate tremendous, real time but fractured opinions.
One extreme demonstration of direct online democracy was Podemos. In Podemos, the resolution agenda are arranged based on the voting in the online forum; there is a big screen in their assembly to show tweets from members in real time. However, such chase of popular will was questioned if it would sacrifices the interests of minority, the permanent dilemma of voting democracy.
Another attempts to integrate fractured public opinions online is Pol.is. On Pol.is, citizens can state their opinions and vote on others’ as agree, disagree or pass. By grouping and visualizing the opinions, citizens could find mutual foundation to discuss further disagreement on the certain issue. Applied by Executive Yuan in Taiwan, Pol.is has been used in vTaiwan to resolve legislative disputes on Uber and Airbnb. Talk to Taiwan, an online political tale show, used statements and voting results on Pol.is to interact with invited guests.
Nevertheless, the biggest challenge of civic tech movements is how to maintain active civil participation.
In the speech titled as “Forking and Legitimacy”, Prof. Clay Shirky suggested the vulnerable nature of democracy since the society can’t be unlimitedly forking as in the open source projects. He said we vote to legitimate an imperfect solution that no one is satisfied to keep us as an united community. Since binding of online communities is much weaker than offline communities, Shirky stated that it is crucial to create the sense of belonging to avoid the online community from falling apart.
In Lightning Talks, Hsiao-hsien Yang responded to the difficulties of civil participation with the concept of the zero marginal cost society. He believed technology and collaborative commons will eventually reduce the marginal cost of participation in politics close to zero, for example, the low barrier of online voting. He indicated that the question should be how to facilitate the paradigm shift not why citizens are unconcerned with politics.
Limitation of Technology in Democracy
Hack the system, not only codes. — Felipe Heusser
Tools are helpful, with people — Peggy Lo
In spite of the optimism on civic tech, many civic hackers raised awareness of the limitation of technology in democracy.
“Hack the system, not only codes,” said Felipe Heusser, a civic lawyer from Chile. He appealed civic hackers not to limit themselves to build solutions only in websites or Apps but to understand how politics works. He stressed the importance to raise the cost of corruption. Without infrastructure of information transparency, any fancy websites can’t eliminate corruption.
“Tools are helpful,” Peggy Lo reminded, “with people.” As a g0v active participant and a non-tech hacker, She observed that g0v community always embraced and pursued new technology, tools that are sometimes hard for civil servants to adapt. In practice, technology is only useful when it can be embedded by civil servants in bureaucracy.
Another crisis of civic tech movement is sustainability. It is relatively easy to create a buzz than to maintain a project. Yantisa Akhadi, working in Open Street Map in Indonesia, chose to collaborate with local universities and village heads, who would continue to improve the quality of Open Street Map for their interests.
Can Technology Improve Democracy?
In the special report of Technology and Politics, The Economist warned that the discussion spread on social media had shrank the public sphere and that technology might only consolidate the oligopoly of governments and large companies, which are really capable to process the tremendous data.
Such conclusions are based on very narrow imagery on civil tech participation. In that special report, they limited technology and politics on social movements and election campaigns and thus failed to acknowledge the agency of civil participation, which allow citizens constantly participate in the process of policy making.
It is no doubts that open government can improve civil participation in democracy. If we achieve information transparency, technology will provide the unprecedented pivot to decrease the information asymmetry between government and citizens. For citizens, Internet opens opportunities for interactive, real time and mass discussion. In the era of Internet, the politics can no longer be how to “govern” but how to “collaborate” to integrate divergent opinions with sustain civil participation.
As civic tech destructs the old politics, the only concern would be how to reconstruct the new one. In g0v Summit 2016, civic hackers around the world demonstrated how citizens deliberated in supervision on ballots, election campaigns and disaster prevention. In Taiwan, a new politics has been gradually developed from passive disclosure of information such as open data, congress live streaming towards citizen-initiated policy discussion on iVoting and vTaiwan etc.
What is next?