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. 

How to Reconcile Participation and Representation

In On Revolution and other writings, Arendt advocates the form of political organization known as the council system. This aspect of her thought has been sharply criticized or — more often — simply ignored. How, both sympathizers and detractors wonder, could Arendt in all earnest propose the council system as an alternative to parliamentary democracy? The aim of the present paper is to defend Arendt’s position. I argue that her enthusiasm for the council system is an integral element of her thought and defend it against the criticisms it has provoked. Furthermore, I highlight the relevance of her arguments for the current debate about the idea of deliberative democracy. Her thesis that (top-down) party politics and (bottom-up) deliberative politics are antithetical and hence cannot coexist poses a serious challenge to the idea that parliamentary democracy can be made more deliberative while leaving its basic framework intact.

Totschnig, Wolfhart, How to Reconcile Participation and Representation: A Defense of Arendt’s Argument for the Council System (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Who Participates? Local Participation and the Left Turn in Bolivia

Whereas studies of electoral participation abound, little attention has been paid to non-electoral and non-contentious participation. Latin American countries have recently promoted participatory institutions and become ideal contexts to probe participation questions. Since the mid 1990s, Bolivia has been at the forefront of institutional creation for participation. We analyze the determinants of local community participation through individual survey data spanning from 1998 to 2010. Our contribution is two-fold. First, we ask whether Bolivia’s new participatory regime reproduces the socioeconomic biases prevalent in developed societies. We find no evidence of a high social-class bias in Bolivia’s participatory regime. Second, we analyze whether Bolivia’s left turn has produced changes in the levels or predictors of participation, as expected in the “left turn” literature. Contrary to expectations, the levels of local community participation have not changed, albeit the participants are slightly younger, more indigenous, and rural than before the left turn.

Davies, Emmerich and Falleti, Tulia, Who Participates? Local Community Participation and the Left Turn in Bolivia (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Participatory Budgeting & Technology: Innovation in Open Government

(NB: overly descriptive post with links to initiatives websites / case studies)

Participatory budgeting has been a source of innovation in itself with regards to the use of technologies.

Over two decades ago the city of Porto Alegre started to use the Internet as a means to facilitate citizen monitoring of its budget execution. In 1997, the medium-sized city of Ipatinga [pdf] started to provide online geo-referenced information about its budgetary allocation and status of public works. Noteworthy, both initiatives anticipated practices that years later would become so popular: the use of Internet to foster budget transparency and the mapping of government spending.

In 2001 the use of ICT in participatory budgeting towards increasing citizen participation is put forward, with the municipalities of Ipatinga and Porto Alegre enabling their citizens to submit their demands for budget allocation via the Internet. Although embryonic, these initiatives can be situated at the origin of an entire new field of ICT mediated participation. Since then, the use of ICT to facilitate participatory budgeting processes has gone beyond the Brazilian context, offering a wealth of innovative practices to be explored.

In Europe, for instance, the issue has gained significant traction in the recent years. In Germany, since 2005 Berlin-Lichtenberg combines face-to-face citizen assemblies with online participation. An online platform enables citizens to discuss and elaborate budgetary proposals to, subsequently, prioritize them. In 2008 the city of Freiburg combined online deliberation with the use of a budget simulator, enabling citizens to better assess the impacts of their choices. The results of this deliberative process were then collaboratively aggregated in a wiki and edited by the participants of the process themselves. Similar initiatives have been also conducted in the cities of Bergheim, Cologne, Hamburg and Leipzig.

In Italy, developing upon the combination of online and offline methods adopted earlier on in Brazil, in 2006 the city of Modena allowed its citizens to send by e-mail proposals to be discussed by the PB assemblies. Modena citizens could also watch live video streaming of the PB meetings and be updated about the process via SMS. The use of SMS as a means to reach a broader and younger audience, pioneered by the Brazilian city of Ipatinga in 2004, has also been identified in other Italian PB processes, such as those of Rome, Bergamo and Reggio Emilia. The ability to vote via the Internet for the public works in Italy can be illustrated by the experience of the cities of Vimercate and Parma. For example, through the Parmesan website votes can be case once ID number is provided, allowing the system to identify the eligible participants, that is, Parma residents. Finally, the website provides geo-referenced information, allowing citizens to visualize the location of the projects and to access further information about each of them.

In Spain, I have identified the use of the Internet to support citizens’ participation in the cities of Albacete, Cordoba, Getafe, Jun, Petrer, Malaga and Jerez. For instance, in the city of Getafe in 2008, in one of the districts of the city, citizens were allowed to watch live video streaming of the PB meeting and to cast their vote online. Through the Getafe’s PB website citizens are able to submit individually or collectively proposals for the PB process. In the municipality of Malaga citizens can submit proposals online and subscribe to SMS updates that inform them on the status of public works selected in the. In Lisbon, Portugal, through the Internet citizens can submit proposals for public works online. Once the municipal services analyze the technical feasibility of the public works and estimate their costs, eligible public works are resubmitted online to be voted for by the public. 

The use of ICT in PB processes has not been confined to Brazil and Europe however. In Africa, more precisely in the South-Kivu region in the Democratic Republic of Congo, mobile phones have been used to mobilize citizens to attend PB meetings, to vote on budgetary priorities and to update citizens on the status of public works selected.

The website of the municipality of Miraflores, Peru, apart from providing citizens with in-depth information about the process (e.g. training modules, meeting minutes), also enables citizen to remotely cast their votes for the prioritization of public works.

In the district of Buk-Gu, Korea, citizens provide feedback on the PB process through the Internet since 2004. In 2006, the district launched the “e-Budget Portal”, to provide citizens with detailed budget information and enabling enhanced interactivity amongst the participants in the process.

In Pune, India, citizens submit their priorities for the allocation of budget through the e-Budgeting application, available on the municipality’s website. In Solo, Indonesia, with the support of geographic information systems, an online platform provides residents with interactive and downloadable maps for each of the neighborhoods in the city. The resulting maps and visualizations, geo-referencing and highlighting relevant issues to the population (e.g. health, poverty), are printed and used to inform the PB’s deliberative process.

Needless to say, the cases described above vary amongst themselves in terms of objectives, impacts, prospects and limits. Nevertheless, they are illustrative of the richness of initiatives that are currently taking place in which ICTs are used to support citizens’ participation in the budget allocation process. You can find more about it here