The Open Web and Participation

Live blogged by Rahul Bhargava and Matt Stempeck Monday, June 23, 2014 – 3:45pm

The Internet lowers coordination costs, making it easier for groups of people to cooperate and work together. Despite this, it’s often been hard to apply the lessons of online cooperation to the world of civics. A set of exciting new projects and initiatives offers hope for what’s possible and a clearer sense of the challenges of using the web to participate in offline social change.


Live Notes

Ethan introduces the question of what widespread participation online will do to change government. Obama for America used the internet to great effect…to buy more television ads. We were expecting the internet to deliver slightly more significant changes to how we run society. This group of speakers will talk about some more exciting and encouraging cases in this space.

visual notes by Willow Brugh

Carolina Rossini

Carolina Rossini (@carolinarussini) is a Brazilian lawyer working on IP, open knowledge, transportation and other issues. She is the head of international work for Public Knowledge.

Carolina points out how stressful it is to be here right now, because Brazil is playing right now in the World Cup (a national holiday). Marco Civil is considered a Bill of Rights for the internet. It sets a series of principles for a civil framework for the internet. It sets human rights as the core framework for internet regulation. It took more than 5 years to get here, involving online and offline advocacy. The hashtag #marcocivil has been the getting huge attention online. They produced a series of videos to explain to the common folks what net neutrality is, and why it matters.

The online was hand in hand with offline advocacy. There were signs pasted on the clocks in cities – an act of civil disobedience in the real world. This was a strong effort to use new and old media to popularize the debate around the Marco Civil.

That’s the public story. As a strategist for advocacy, Carolina was interested in how to organize and train a new generation of advocates. In the early stages, the had support from a prominent politician. They did a first draft of the bill with a law school. So already there was collaboration even before the outreach was started. Anyone could contribute to the writing of this draft.

Once the draft was done, a second politician (with a strong tech portfolio of legislation) adopted the law into its platform. They used the e-democracia platform to help develop this law, as a platform for public consultation. In addition they held public meetings around Brazil, echoing a core recognition of diversity. Policymakers mapped items in the final bill and within which constituencies they originated.

After 5 years of postponed votes, fighting lobbying by the content and business industries, Dilma got engaged in the Marco Civil negotiations. This was driven by the surveillance of her emails and so on revealed by the Snowden leaks. In fact this was a tipping point for the larger community in Brazil; more and more people were protesting and getting engaged in these issues.

In late March the bill was approved in the House of Representatives. Carolina celebrated appropriately (by getting drunk). A lot of people call the model of this success “horizontal advocacy”, “networked advocacy” and others. Carolina believes all these things happened in the success of passing Marco Civil. A lot of the social media advocacy happened just in the last year. Before that more “vertical” advocacy happened, with legislative drafting and so on.

Another intervention was a meeting to discuss principles for the internet. The outcome document is based on the Marco Civil approach. Dilma signed the bill in April.

So now Brazil is in the moment of “rinse, lather and repeat” – regarding the idea of social participation to draft law. Dilma supports this approach now. Net Neutrality and privacy are the next frontiers of this fight.

This is a case study of using all types of advocacy. However, it needs to consider how to engage the next generation:

“These models needs to encourage participation as a lifestyle, not just a periodic engagement.” @BethNoveck

Renata Avila

Ethan summarizes how important and hopeful the moment of passing the Marco Civil is. Not everyone is into legislation, but there are other wasy to get involved. Renata (@avilarenata) is a human rights lawyer, and head of The Web We Want project.

Renata begins by reminding of Bassel, who is prison in Syria right now (#freebassel). She encourage us to remember all the activists like Bassel and Alaa in similar situations.

She pauses to address the concerns of “womens’” issues. Renata is worried that in a theoretically educated and advanced space like this it still problematic. In the Marco Civil campaign, women were central.

Renata noted a missing component in the design of the internet – it was built without human rights at its core. Now efforts like Marco Civil are trying to add this layer of human rights into the existing infrastructure. The initiative was launched last year at the UN Human Rights day. This was interesting, but tech usually doesn’t come into human rights debate spaces. High-level UN executives were talking about a “world wide human rights web”. Renata saw the 25th anniversary of the web as an opportunity to do effective outreach. But one day, one week isn’t enough.

We still struggle with how to build a movement out of all this attention. How can we create citizen awareness about keeping the web open and free? They struggle with overcoming things like the gender gap. How do we bridge societal and cultural approaches to the web? Marco Civil was a success, but involved less than 0.00001% of the population. How can we open a process that is meaningful enough for people across a country and a globe. These are huge challenges and Renata remains skeptical.

They are building a strong alliance between actors of civil society to address this. One strategy is to nurture similar processes to Marco Civil in strategic countries, where something is already happening. Mozilla is bringing tools and “geeks” to the game. Article19 is bringing expertise, especially in the global south where expertise is needed. This is an “ecosystem of solidarity”, with each member working to help others. In addition, they have formed a large advisory committee.

The Web We Want initiative was a reforming of the constant fire-fighting approach. The reactive approach needs to be changed to a proactive one. Part of the approach is to bring other sectors into the space. Culture and arts, human rights and business, government, etc. They want to move from “opposition to proposition”.

This is a long term proposal. The year of celebration is to get it going. There are three pillars at its core: legal and policy measures, user choice, and an effective movement. They want to start a positive conversation and lead with examples. This needs to include 50% women, and 50% rural population. This priority is expensive, but necessary for a meaningful and inclusive dialogue.

Another crazy idea is the idea of a global internet “Magna Carta”. Web We Want advocates for change in the local to push global change. But now strong voices, like Snowden, are advocating for a global “Internet Magna Carta”. This is where Renata needs help – she asks for ideas and proposals, and invites others to join us.

Alexis Hope, Heather Craig, and Chelsea Barabas

Ethan comes up and asks how things might change with an open and free internet.

Chelsea begins by introducing Promise Tracker – building tools and processes for citizens to track how politicians are holding to promises made while in office. The concept came from a provocation from Ethan – we have free, open, and bad elections. Elections are one of the main mechanisms for citizens to hold politicians accountable. Here, we often think about election fraud – undermining the will of the people. There’s been great progress with citizen groups self-organizing and monitoring this. However, elections still don’t connect well to politicians once they are in office. So how can we extend citizen monitoring to the “in between space” while politicians should be doing what they promised.

In the environmental space, organizations are designing cheap and accessible tools to monitor conditions. The team started by thinking about how to build off these tools with mobile apps. In Brazil, they found two eager partners. First, Rede Nossa Sao Paulo in Sao Paulo has a list of goals to measure and lots of citizen engagement. The second partner is the state government of Minas Gerais.

Heather describes two initial design workshops held in Brazil (one with each partner). Each workshop involved identifying priorities to monitor, collecting data on Android forms, and then presenting data to specific audiences. Day one focused on selecting goals to monitor. In Sao Paulo, they had a set of over 100 government goals the city had committed to. In Minas Gerais this was different – they brainstormed things to monitor for improvement. The Promise Tracker team created custom data collection forms (using Open Data Kit) and loaded them onto the mobile phones. The participants then went out and collected the data, uploaded it, and then printed out maps. Then in groups participants created data presentations for different audiences (building on Rahul Bhargava’s Data Therapy activities).

Alexis continues, describing how folks wanted to monitor concrete things, they also wanted to monitor things like “quality of education”… items that are a harder to measure. Another key insight was that people wanted to interview their neighbors and surface those stories. That leads to a design question of how to integrate into the tools being built. Over the summer they are building a tool to let organizers build forms to collect data. They want to scaffold a process, not just build a form building tool. What data do you collect? Who is on your team? Why are you collecting it? Alexis shares some mock-ups that demonstrate how the scaffolding might take place in the user interface. Things like photo, GPS, video, etc. can be added to basic form questions. Data collected will be sync’ed to the central website, and be exportable to other platforms. Ricardo, one of the partners is here from the government in Minas Gerais.

Ethan reminds us that this is the beginning of a huge, ambitious project. However, the more they dig into it, the more they see the need.

Erhardt Graeff

Erhardt is working on a prototype Android app, and a theoretical model for location-based civic engagement. The scenario is that as you walk around, you might enter geographic hotspots (geo-fences) that might push you a question. You don’t have time to go to a city meeting, but while waiting for the bus you have time to answer a question about, for instance, how they are remodeling your bus stop. Considering these options in the space they are meant to go is what Action Path is meant to do. Two options are shown in the interface, and you could consider the context. Your choice is submitted.

At this point, you’re subscribed to updates so you can engage with it again later. This example is one of 5 actions Erhardt created for an initial prototype with Media Lab community members. He asked how it made user think and feel. They were more curious, and surprised when things were NOT included. Some wanted to “collect” all the actions, like a game. Others felt a sense of agency. The feedback was encouraging for Erhardt; they got the idea right away. There are still lots of bugs, but the core idea seems to resonate with everyone. Not just active citizens, but with cities. Erhardt is talking with many local cities that interested in running ACtion Path. THey want to reach out ot young and new citizens, move outside community meetings, and have good sample sizes to drive informed decision making.

The key theoretical part of Erhardt’s argument is the question of what makes an “Effective Citizen” – something he talks about with Ethan a lot. They cite Schudson’s “monitorial citizenship” model, from The Good Citizen: A History of American City Life. This descends from Jane Jacob’s model of “eyes on the street” – which she used to learn about what worked and didn’t, and more. It was neighbors looking out for each other. Matching this with mobile gives the opportunity for reflection in and on practice. This is necessary for citizenship, otherwise you’re just an extension of a data collection tool.

We need to investigate the key tenants of how to build effective civic technology. There are other tools in this space – virtual town hall services like coUrbanize and MindMixer. There are 311 apps that use smart phones, but emphasize citizen as data collector rather than being more engaged. StreetCred, another local tool, adds a layer of exploration and playfulness. Erhardt sees a of these deisgn principles in textizen.

His research agenda includes questions of how something like Action Path can scale. Can these be rungs on the ladder of engagement, moving citizens towards “thicker” engagement. Erhardt is excited to engage this with folks in the room. Some prototypes will become production tools, others will serve to convince other platforms like Facebook to move their tools more civic. This could make more apps more civic. Civic learning should be practical and playful.

Action Path is about how to improve the world little by little.

Ethan reminds that he is bringing out students because he wants to play with others in the room. Please engage with these folks you heard from.