“The evolution of decentralised governance”

An interview with Devolution creator Glen Simister

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

One of our community members, Glen, showcased a video a few weeks back where he developed of a non-profit social media platform called Devolution. Here we talk to him about what motivated him, why he chose SAFE as well as glimpse into his future plans.

Thanks for agreeing to speak with me! First off, let’s introduce you properly. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

To cut a very long story short, I have lived a large part of my life out of a suitcase, moving from place to place, doing various different jobs. I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as a traveller, more like an idiot abroad. In terms of my skills, I’m what you might call a “jack of all trades but a master of none”. I started off in life doing mostly industrial work. I later went to university where I studied Music Technology. Several years later, I setup a ZenCart shop selling synthesizer presets and later became a freelance web designer. I moved out to India, in an attempt to cut costs, and continued to drift between the UK and different parts of the world ever since. I’ve spent a lot of time in Thailand — where I worked for a Finnish web design company. In my last role I was sub-contracted to a Hong-Kong-based Bitcoin exchange, where I was mostly required to refactor SASS code, and fix the occasional Javascript bug. I currently work for my brother’s company writing articles about security auditing.

Great, sounds like you’ve had a interesting journey so far! Right, down to business; what is Devolution and how does it work?

DEVOLUTION is a non-profit, open-source, social media platform designed to build communities and give them more political autonomy. It enables communities to vote for officials and finance public services. Revenue comes from voting, adverts and an unofficial Land Value Tax (LVT). The demonstration video that I uploaded included a casino (lottery, bingo, slot machine, etc.). However, as it currently stands, I have decided to omit this feature as I wasn’t able to find a suitable way to verify the age of the participants. Of course, gambling is considered by many as unethical, and in some ways it is. However, one of the main goals of this application is to promote the idea of raising tax revenue through incentives, as opposed to coercion, hence why I thought it was appropriate.

All revenue is redistributed in the form of Social Credits, which are used to finance services and/or top-up Health and Education Credits. The application has sections for healthcare, education, business, and even has an affordable housing section. Using the application community members can collectively buy land and install modular housing units (built using aluminium profile technology), as well as toilets, shower blocks, and anything else they need to live comfortably and be relatively self-sufficient. Community members will then register a section of land and pay an unofficial Land Value Tax (LVT) back into the application, which is distributed to all community members in the form of Social Credits. The application has a motto, and it’s one that everybody knows: “Give a man a fish, he feeds himself for a day, give a man the means to catch a fish, he feeds himself for a lifetime”. I won’t go into any politics right now, but if it were possible to summarise my political views in one sentence, it would be something along those lines.

Who do you imagine would use Devolution, and how will they start to use it?

Theoretically speaking, anyone can use it, and I’m sure that most people would, if the option was presented to them in the right way. I would like to briefly talk about a technology called SOLID (Social Linked Data). SOLID is a project that is being developed by Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web). SOLID enables users to have more control over how their data is accessed and stored. Using SOLID, users can setup a profile, which is associated with unique identifier called a WebID. This profile (referred to as a “pod”) is where their data (posts, photos, friends, etc.) is stored. They can use their WebID to login to various applications, and grant or revoke permissions to their data, as and when they choose. Social Linked Data has many benefits and use cases — especially when used in conjunction with the SAFE network, which provides decentralized storage — amongst other things. Devolution will take advantage of both technologies to deliver a social media platform that is as decentralized as possible. This is relevant because even-though Devolution is focused on building physical communities, SOLID will, by default, connect these communities together, regardless of where they are located. Coincidentally, Devolution is built on what I refer to as “the SOLID foundation”. It is a term that I coined before I was aware of Tim’s project, and stands for (S)ound money, (L)and Value Tax, (D)irect democracy.

NOTE: The following information may be subject to change.

Initially, all users will access the application via single URL, which will look something like this: safe://devolution.int. When they register, they will be asked to enter their country and post/zip code. The application is divided into three sections; International, National and Local. Each of these sections will have different features enabled. However, for the sake of simplicity, I will only explain how the local section works, and I will need to omit certain details.

The local section of application will be customized according to the users post/zip code. The local voting section of the international application will only allow you to elect an IT administrator. When you elect a local IT administrator (or a local IT services company), they will need to clone the application, which will allow the administrator to enable certain features that are only available on the local version. The local version of the application will have its own customized URL, along with it’s own container for the data. This will not only give communities more control over the application, but will also provide greater security. Naturally, you don’t want to trust an administrator that you don’t know, or can’t unelect. The elected administrator will be able customize the application, install updates, authorize plug-ins, and so on. As mentioned previously, all parts of the application that make use of Social Linked Data, will be international by default.

Anybody can login to the application, however, in order to vote or receive Social Credits, users will need a minimum “social rating” — a score that is assigned to them based on the number of likes/dislikes associated with their interactions. On the local application, users will also need a minimum number of connections (friends), which serves as an additional verification procedure. In the demonstration video, I spoke about a “voting weight”, which was based on a number of other factors, such as credits obtained via the education section — but I will omit the voting weight for now.

How do you plan to bridge the gap between what happens online and offline, and how will you verify that the money was used correctly?

Once we have built the first physical community, we will have a consistent revenue going into the application, which we can use to build more communities. It may start off slow, but it could escalate quickly. With regards to ensuring that the money is used correctly; as mentioned previously, every user on the platform will have a social rating, which will serve as a form of trust network. Secondly, I expect registered charities will get involved, as there would be a good reason for them to do so. Actually, given the wide-range of charities that already exist, it would be good to see them take centre stage. We may need to nudge them a bit. Using Devolution there is a way to ask for this. Below the status update input box, there is a select box which allows people to select categories for their post. One of the categories is called “Ideas”, although I will give it a better name — perhaps the old name, GiveMeCredit. Anyway, if you post something in this category, users can vote on which ideas are good and bad, and the most popular ideas can receive Social Credits. So, I could post an idea about setting up a treatment centre, and if that idea is popular, a relevant local charity could step in and apply as a candidate, and if they don’t, we could give them a nudge, or do it ourselves. It also worth noting that people on alcohol or drug rehab programs will likely receive housing benefits, and in some cases this money will go to a private landlord. Hopefully, the community can accept social security payments for the LVT. So instead of our tax money going to a private landlord, it goes back into Devolution, and then back to the treatment centre, and so on. Anyway, this is just one example of how Devolution can deliver tangible, predictable and transparent results.

Brilliant, here has clearly been a lot of thought gone into this as well as all the work you’ve put in . You’ve talked about how the app works, it would be good to know what inspired you to build Devolution?

After initially dismissing Bitcoin as a gimmick, which many unfamiliar with the technology often do, I decided to look a bit deeper into it, and started to realize how disruptive the technology was (in a good way of course!). I then looked into Ethereum, and various other platforms (including Safe Network), and that was where my enthusiasm started to grow. I was posting my ideas on Facebook and various forums about what I thought could be done with the technology. I also posted some ideas about a browser extension called “GiveMeCredit” on the MaidSafe forum approximately 4 years ago (2015). To be honest though, I never actually intended to code anything, instead I just wanted to contribute to the community by throwing down some ideas and perhaps offering to help with some of the design work. Time passed and I started playing around with some designs, then starting adding a bit of code, and things progressed from there.

Naturally, given that Devolution is essentially a political system, there were political reasons why I decided to push forward with this project. However, there’s not really much point in talking about my political views as most of them either are, or will be, included in the design of the application. However, one of my goals was to create a system that catered for everyone, as much as possible at least. Additionally, I wanted something that would complement our existing system, yet at the same time have the scope/potential to become an alternative system, if necessary.

It’s great that you’ve been part of the community so long, is this why did you choose to build on the SAFE Network?

After my initial post on the forum, I exchanged words with happybeing (as you do) and kept an eye on the progress of the network ever since. I would often check the updates, although I still don’t understand the technical stuff about routing/CRUST. I had already done some basic research into some of the key features such as self-encryption, self-authentication, farming, data de-duplication, and of course, SafeCoin.

The promise of scalability was a major factor that retained my interest in the SAFE Network. I’m one of those people who will obsess about whether or not something is scalable/sustainable.

When thinking about whether or not to invest in Bitcoin, I was haunted by the idea of a constantly expanding ledger and a room full of mining rigs burning up electricity. Of course, we now have more eco-friendly non-blockchain cryptocurrencies like Hashgraph which — like PARSEC (Maidsafe’s own consensus algorithm) — uses the gossip protocol and is capable of tolerating asynchronous byzantine faults. I wouldn’t know where to start comparing ABTF consensus algorithms, however, as far as I know, PARSEC does it better, and it’s open source! I’ve already mentioned about SOLID, which was another factor that swayed my decision to build on the SAFE Network. Finally, it helps that the SAFE Network has a welcoming community of loyal enthusiasts, and it’s not unusual to see the core developers interacting with us laymen.

We’re lucky to have such a enthusiastic community. And you say you’re a layman but you impressed us all with your demo. How long have you been working on this?

As mentioned, it started off as a browser extension, which I posted about in 2015. Eventually, due to a number of logical inconsistencies in the design, I decided to scrap the idea. Approximately one year later, I started messing around with what is now Devolution. I first posted some screenshots of the prototype (without the back-end) on the MaidSafe forum in July, 2018. At the time it was called OSDemocracy, although I didn’t like the name much. Most of the initial work was done in Nepal (April 2018). I took a month off work to do a meditation retreat. I couldn’t find an affordable retreat centre that allowed me to stay for one month so I rented a room on a hilltop in a relatively remote location. It didn’t pan out too well as I ended up drinking the local liquor (Raksi), and it went down hill from there — as in I moved off the hilltop and decided to use the free time to develop this application. With regards to the video demonstration that I posted on the forum, I had only downloaded the SAFE Browser approximately two weeks before presenting it, and so even-though It may have looked polished, my knowledge of developing apps with the SAFE API was relatively limited.

And how did you find working with the SAFE API?

After jimmyhacksthings posted a video on the forum about “Developing Dapps for SAFE”, I thought I’d have a go at creating a simple CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) application. It was surprisingly straight forward. After that I decided to re-build the back-end of my application (or what there was of it) using the SAFE API. Again, it was relatively painless. And this is coming from someone whose palms sweat when asked to type “npm install”. Yes, I have commandlineophobia. Is that why web developers love the command line so much? To scare off web designers? Hmmm. Joking aside, having the API available in the browser made life a lot easier. Don’t get me wrong, I have experienced various anomalies when working with the SAFE Browser, such as needing to restart the browser when it hangs, but these issues will no doubt be resolved before the Network goes live. I would like to see a lot more tutorials about developing SAFE apps — particularly with regards to SOLID integration, as I believe this will be a very powerful feature, and will entice a lot of new developers into the scene. I would also like to suggest that any demos and tutorials are written in JQuery/Javascript. I looked at the code for the demo applications but they were written in either React or Vue, which I found difficult to read. Whilst I’m sure that there are many advantages of using a framework, every web developer can read Vanilla JS, and they can easily port the examples to whatever framework they want. I don’t think it’s as easy the other way around.

What are your future plans, how do you see Devolution evolving?

It’s a very ambitious project and it will take a long time to complete if I am to do this alone.

I will continue to do what I can but I would like to find some experienced developers to help me push forward, while I focus on planning and design. If that means crowdfunding the project or raising money through other means, then that’s what I’ll do. I doubt I’ll experience problems finding developers, as I still have a lot of contacts overseas. Of course, my progress will also depend on the progress of SAFE Network, as well as the documentation.

I would like add one final note. I am constantly refining the idea. I may add new features, I may remove some. Simplicity is important to me, as new features can always be added at a later date if required.