Open Knowledge Festival

I will soon be in Helsinki for the Open Knowledge Festival to give a keynote lecture. The subjects will be citizen engagement, participatory budgeting and technology. This talk will be on  the topic stream “Open Democracy and Citizen Movements”.

Here’s a summary of the session:

The Open Democracy and Citizen Movements stream explores the recent moves towards a more open and participatory democracy and society. Online tools allow people to speak, be heard, find each other and take collective action in new ways. The stream will showcase and debate the topic starting with the formal means of the new democracy as for instance, the crowdsourced Icelandic constitutional reform, participatory budgeting and European citizens’ initiatives. The theme carries on to to the informal, non-mandated citizen movements that are shaping our societies from the bottom up.

Looking forward to it!

Scaling-up Deliberation to the National Level

This paper takes issue with the question of scaling up deliberation in connection to that of enlarged participation. Its aim is to argue that deliberation can be feasible and effective in wide participatory experiments, and therefore it can scale up to the national level and affect public decisions once the appropriate institutional design is in place. I propose feasibility and effectiveness as two overlapping dimensions of scaling-up deliberation. As for the feasibility dimension, I will argue that the institutional design of large participatory experiments should allow the kind of deliberation found in minipublics to scale up accordingly to three criteria: space, volume and actors. As for the effectiveness dimension, I will argue that large participatory experiments should provide that the deliberation process follows the criteria of transformation and impact in order to scale-up local preferences to the national level and make sure they affect policymaking. Such theoretical framework will be tested against the empirical background provided by the world’s largest participatory experiment known to date, the National Public Policy Conferences in Brazil.

Pogrebinschi, Thamy, The Squared Circle of Participatory Democracy: Scaling-up Deliberation to the National Level (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Ushahidi in (Sobering) Numbers

For a while, the (quite impressive) number of Ushahidi deployments has been repeated in development circles as proof of its scalability, although very little was known about these various deployments. A new report by Internews sheds light on a number of issues on that front, such as number of participants, areas of intervention and geographical coverage.

Below are a few excerpts from this rather sobering report, based on surveys and an analysis of 12,757 Crowdmaps (highlights are my own):

93% of Crowdmaps had fewer than 10 reports.
61% of Crowdmaps had absolutely no customization at all, i.e., they still had the four default categories and the default report.
89% of Crowdmaps had four categories, including those with the four default categories.
13% of Crowdmaps had 5-10 categories.
94% of Crowdmaps had only one user.

(…) while about 61% percent exhibited virtually no activity beyond installation, 93% of Crowdmap instances reported fewer than 10 reports. In short, the power law distribution was far steeper than the Pareto Principle would anticipate.

Our initial processing shows a vast majority of deployments with little to no actionable data with a slight slope toward the minority with a likelihood of effective and active engagement. 

The more reports a Crowdmap project has, the more reports it seems to attract, leading it to a positive feedback loop. In physics, power law relationships often reflect phase transitions. It is possible that there is an analogous process by which a map project reaches critical mass. If confirmed, this may indicate the importance of strategies to get nascent map projects “over the hump.” This is a promising area for future research.

(…) more attention was given to analyzing the 585 Crowdmaps that had between 21 and 10,000 reports.

The results revealed that the vast majority of these(30%) focused on North America while 18% focused on Western Europe and 16% on Africa.On average, these Crowdmaps had 814 reports.The median number of reports for this set of deployments was substantially lower, at 94, which is not surprising considering that the distribution of this set of cases is highly right-skewed 

An even more important question refers to the number of outputs (Crowdmaps created) and outcomes (impact). The report does not go that far.

But still, it is a milestone in the efforts to better understand ICT mediated reporting (or engagement), a field in which policy is rarely backed by good evidence. Even if these results might come across as disappointing to some, kudos should go to the Ushahidi team for sharing their data for an external evaluation. Having said this, and in the spirit of openness, provided security measures were in place, it would be great if this data could be made available to other researchers to conduct their own analysis.

You can find the full report here

(Photo credit: whiteafrican)

I just came across the proceedings of the Conference for e-Democracy and Open Government 2012 [PDF].

Arthur Lupia’s essay “Can Evolving Communication Technologies Increase Civic Competence?” [PDF] makes for great reading. 

It was also excellent to see Emmy Mbera’s paper about the experience of our program (ICT4Gov) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “Towards budget transparency and improvement in the South Kivu Province” [PDF].  Emmy was one of the external evaluators of our mobile participatory budgeting project in South Kivu. In his paper, among other things, Emmy presents some of his preliminary findings with regard to increases in tax collection following the implementation of our project.

In total there are 30 papers, some of which might interest researchers and practitioners in the field. Enjoy. 

Does Democracy Improve the Quality of Life for its Citizens?

In an article published in the Journal of Politics John Gerring, Strom Thacker and Rodrigo Alfaro examine the relationship between democracy and social welfare. Here’s the abstract of Democracy and Human Development [PDF]

Does democracy improve the quality of life for its citizens? Scholars have long assumed that it does, but recent research has called this orthodoxy into question. This article reviews this body of work, develops a series of causal pathways through which democracy might improve social welfare, and tests two hypotheses: (a) that a country’s level of democracy in a given year affects its level of human development and (b) that its stock of democracy over the past century affects its level of human development. Using infant mortality rates as a core measure of human development, we conduct a series of time-series—cross-national statistical tests of these two hypotheses. We find only slight evidence for the first proposition, but substantial support for the second. Thus, we argue that the best way to think about the relationship between democracy and development is as a time-dependent, historical phenomenon.

And a snapshot of the conclusion, which makes a rather timely call for expectation management regarding the short-term effects of democratic transitions:

The practical implications of this argument introduce grounds for both optimism and caution with respect to the ability of developing countries to improve their levels of human development. Realistically, countries should not expect large immediate dividends in human development to result from democratic transitions. On the other hand, given sufficient time, democracy should begin to yield important, tangible benefits to the underprivileged in society. In a world characterized by chronically short time horizons, the substantial political challenge is to allow democratic institutions the time necessary to realize these persistent but distal benefits. 

Such a cautious note should also resonate with some open government advocates who tend to overestimate the effects of reforms in the short term while neglecting long-term perspectives. 

Source: John Gerring, Strom C. Thacker and Rodrigo Alfaro (2012). Democracy and Human Development. The Journal of Politics, 74 , pp 1-17 

Determinants of Emergence and Survival of Democracy

Just found at ABCDemocracy Blog a post about an interesting paper at the Journal of Conflict Resolution, by Martin Gassebner, Michael J. Lamla, and James Raymond Vreeland.

Here’s the abstract of the paper “Extreme Bounds of Democracy”:

What determines the emergence and survival of democracy? The authors apply extreme bounds analysis to test the robustness of fifty-nine factors proposed in the literature, evaluating over three million regressions with data from 165 countries from 1976 to 2002. The most robust determinants of the transition to democracy are gross domestic product (GDP) growth (a negative effect), past transitions (a positive effect), and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development membership (a positive effect). There is some evidence that fuel exporters and Muslim countries are less likely to see democracy emerge, although the latter finding is driven entirely by oil-producing Muslim countries. Regarding the survival of democracy, the most robust determinants are GDP per capita (a positive effect) and past transitions (a negative effect). There is some evidence that having a former military leader as the chief executive has a negative effect, while having other democracies as neighbors has a reinforcing effect.

You can read the full paper here [PDF]. And if you are interested in issues of political theory and democracy, make sure you start reading ABCDemocracy. 

A Design Checklist for Participatory Initiatives

As I’ve mentioned before, my PhD research is concerned withlocal government and paticipatory initiatives.  ‘Participatory initiatives’ meaning the citizens’ panels, area forums, participatory budgeting projects etc etc that aim to give the public someinfluence in the local policy process.  

One of the conceptual issues I face is tying down the precise characteristics of these participatory initiatives as they are all so different and are inevitably implemented in different ways.

For a broad typology I draw on Graham Smith’s excellent Power Beyond the Ballot: 57 Democratic Innovations from Around the World - a report he produced for the Power Inquiry.  You can download it here.

Almost anything that starts with Graham Smith’s work is on the right track. Beyond the Ballot is great reading. Read the full post at the Localopolis Blog.