Organ Donation: the Facebook Effect

I just came across a fascinating paper published last June in the Journal of Transplation, Social Media and Organ Donation: the Facebook Effect. Unfortunately I could not find an ungated version of the paper, but the abstract is below:

Despite countless media campaigns, organ donation rates in the United States have remained static while need has risen dramatically. New efforts to increase organ donation through public education are necessary to address the waiting list of over 100,000 patients. On May 1, 2012, the online social network, Facebook, altered its platform to allow members to specify “Organ Donor” as part of their profile. Upon such choice, members were offered a link to their state registry to complete an official designation, and their “friends” in the network were made aware of the new status as a donor. Educational links regarding donation were offered to those considering the new organ donor status. On the first day of the Facebook organ donor initiative, there were 13 054 new online registrations, representing a 21.1-fold increase over the baseline average of 616 registrations. This first-day effect ranged from 6.9× (Michigan) to 108.9× (Georgia). Registration rates remained elevated in the following 12 days. During the same time period, no increase was seen in registrations from the DMV. Novel applications of social media may prove effective in increasing organ donation rates and likewise might be utilized in other refractory public health problems in which communication and education are essential.

The concept, as reported on the John Hopkins University website, was developed by two long–time friends, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg and JHU transplant surgeon Andrew Cameron:

When Harvard University friends Sheryl Sandberg and Andrew M. Cameron, M.D., Ph.D., met up at their 20th college reunion last spring, they got to talking. Sandberg knew that Cameron, a transplant surgeon at Johns Hopkins, was passionate about solving the perennial problem of transplantation: the critical shortage of donated organs in the United States. And he knew that Sandberg, as chief operating officer of Facebook, had a way of easily reaching hundreds of millions of people.

The findings of the study are fascinating and a reminder of the variety of ways in which social media, and particularly Facebook, can be used towards the public good. But when it comes to the issue of citizen engagement, I have reservations about seeing Facebook as a virtual public sphere. Rather than a public square, Facebook resembles the food court of a shopping mall: while it is a social space, it is still a private one and it is still about business. But despite that fact, there’s lots of amazing things that can be done, and we are just scraping the surface. Some of my thoughts on this are in a recent article at TechCrunch.


Like this? Also read about  the foundations of motivation in the age of social media.

The Participatory Turn: Participatory Budgeting Comes to America


So here it is, finally, the much awaited PhD by Hollie Russon-Gilman (Ash Center – Harvard) on Participatory Budgeting in the United States.

Below is the abstract.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) has expanded to over 1,500 municipalities worldwide since
its inception in Porto Alege, Brazil in 1989 by the leftist Partido dos Trabalhadores
(Workers’ Party). While PB has been adopted throughout the world, it has yet to take
hold in the United States. This dissertation examines the introduction of PB to the United
States with the first project in Chicago in 2009, and proceeds with an in-depth case study
of the largest implementation of PB in the United States: Participatory Budgeting in New
York City. I assess the outputs of PB in the United States including deliberations,
governance, and participation.
I argue that PB produces better outcomes than the status quo budget process in New York
City, while also transforming how those who participate understand themselves as
citizens, constituents, Council members, civil society leaders and community
stakeholders. However, there are serious challenges to participation, including high costs
of engagement, process exhaustion, and perils of scalability. I devise a framework for
assessment called “citizenly politics,” focusing on: 1) designing participation 2)
deliberation 3) participation and 4) potential for institutionalization. I argue that while the
material results PB produces are relatively modest, including more innovative projects,
PB delivers more substantial non-material or existential results. Existential citizenly
rewards include: greater civic knowledge, strengthened relationships with elected
officials, and greater community inclusion. Overall, PB provides a viable and
informative democratic innovation for strengthening civic engagement within the United
States that can be streamlined and adopted to scale.

You can read the full dissertation here [PDF].

Like it?  You might also want to read this about who participates in NYC’s PB and this about the effects of PB on infant mortality in Brazil.

Crowdsourcing Off-Road Traffic Legislation in Finland

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A paper by Tanja Aitamurto (Tampere) and Hélène Landemore (Stanford) on an interesting crowdsourcing exercise in Finland.


This paper reports on a pioneering case study of a legislative process open to the direct online participation of the public. The empirical context of the study is a crowdsourced off-road traffic law in Finland. On the basis of our analysis of the user content generated to date and a series of interviews with key participants, we argue that the process qualifies as a promising case of deliberation on a mass-scale. This case study will make an important contribution to the understanding of online methods for participatory and deliberative democracy. The preliminary findings indicate that there is deliberation in the crowdsourcing process, which occurs organically (to a certain degree) among the participants, despite the lack of incentives for it. Second, the findings strongly indicate that there is a strong educative element in crowdsourced lawmaking process, as the participants share information and learn from each other. The peer-learning aspect could be made even stronger through the addition of design elements in the process and on the crowdsourcing software.

The first two things that come to mind when reading this, are:

  1. If there is a “strong educative element” in the crowdsourcing process, we have an argument for large-scale citizen participation. The more citizens take part in a process, the more citizens benefit from the educative element.
  2. If we consider point 1 to be true, there is still a major technical challenge in terms of having appropriate platforms to enable large-scale deliberative processes. For instance, I have some reservations about crowdsourcing efforts that use ideation systems like Ideascale (as is the case for this experience). In my opinion such systems are prone to information cascades and a series of other biases that compromise an exercise in terms of a) deliberative quality and b) final outcomes (i.e. quality of ideas).

There’s still lots to learn on that front, and there is a dire need for more research of this type. Kudos should also go to the proponents of the initiative, who involved the authors in the project from the start.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

Citizen Engagement Improves Access to Public Goods in Mexico

A paper recently published in World Development brings new and fascinating evidence from Mexico of the impact of participatory governance mechanisms on access to services.

Below are a few excerpts from the paper by Diaz-Cayeros, Malagoni, and Ruiz-Euler “Traditional Governance, Citizen Engagement, and Local Public Goods: Evidence from Mexico” (emphasis are mine):

The goal of this paper is to assess the effects of traditional governance on local public good provision. We ask whether poor indigenous communities are better off by choosing to govern themselves through “traditional” customary law and participatory democracy, versus delegating decisions concerning the provision of public goods to “modern” forms of representative government, structured through political parties. This is a crucial question for developing countries seeking to enhance accountability, and a central problem in the theory of participatory democracy.

Our research design takes advantage of an important institutional innovation in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, that in 1995 allowed indigenous communities to choose their forms of governance. The reform gave full legal standing to a form of traditional indigenous governance called usos y costumbres (usos hereafter), which entails electing individuals to leadership positions through customary law in non-partisan elections, making decisions through participatory democracy, and monitoring compliance through a parallel (and often informal) system of law enforcement and community justice. If they did not choose usos, municipalities could opt instead for party governance, which entails the selection of municipal authorities through electoral competition among political parties and the adjudication of conflicts only through the formal institutional channels, namely the state and federal judiciary.


Our results show that electricity provision increased faster in those municipalities governed by usos. They also suggest that traditional governance may improve the provision of education and sewerage. With respect to citizen engagement and elite capture, contrary to existing scholarly work, we find no evidence of entrenchment of local bosses (caciques) associated with the former ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) in places ruled by usos. Our findings suggest that traditional participatory forms of governance do not handicap democratic development. Furthermore, municipalities governed by usos are more likely to hold open council meetings allowing citizens to participate in decisionmaking processes. We attribute better public goods coverage to differences in local governance and collective decisionmaking practices. We suggest three specific channels through which traditional governance affects local public good provision: the social embeddedness of municipal presidents, broader civic engagement in collective-decision making, and credible social sanctions. We argue that traditional governance practices (which include in our setting decision-making through direct participatory practices, the obligation to provide services for the community, and the establishment of a parallel system of justice), allow poor communities to better hold their political leaders accountable, prevent elite capture, and monitor and sanction non-cooperative behavior.


Systems of governance based on electoral competition among political parties differ essentially from usos because decisions are taken by politicians without an ongoing process of consultation with the citizenry. The monitoring and sanctioning dynamics that come into play when citizens gather in public assemblies are usually absent in party-run municipalities, and thus the allocation of resources for public goods seems sub-optimal.


Differences between the two types of governance that we presented in the paper point to a broader discussion of the organization of democracy. The delegated format of decision-making in electoral democracies dominated by political parties seems to bear a higher risk of agency loss than deliberative decision-making of what is often referred to as participatory democracy. (…) there are lessons to be extracted from the fact that, with regard to the provision of some basic services, a non-partisan political arrangement presented some advantages over the widespread electoral and party-based democratic organization. Participation and collective monitoring of authority are hugely important to maximize collective well-being.

Read the full paper here [PDF].


Technology and Citizen Participation in Lawmaking: What’s the Impact?

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In times of open government one can come across many initiatives that claim to enable citizens to participate in the lawmaking process, but much less evidence is available about how effective that participation is. 

This is one of the reasons why I believe the e-Democracia project by the Brazilian House of Representatives is an extremely important experience for those interested in online participatory lawmaking. Besides taking place in one of the worlds’ largest democracies, e-Democracia is one of the few experiences to have shown evidence of actual impact – albeit sometimes limited – of citizens’ participation in the lawmaking process  (full disclosure, I advised the project in its early stages of implementation).

A new paper by Patricia Rossini (UFMG – Brazil) looks at a particular case of e-Democracia, in which citizens provided input for the drafting of the Brazilian Internet Bill of Rights. Below is the abstract of the paper – Is political participation online effective? A case study of the Brazilian Federal Chamber of  Representatives’ e-democracy initiative.


In Brazil, the Federal Chamber of Representatives conducts an e-democracy initiative that enables people to participate in political decisions regarding legislation. There are forums in which people can discuss and propose amendments to draft bills, vote for surveys to decide on the most important issues and speak their minds regarding legislative activities. The goal of this paper is to analyze the effectiveness of citizens’ engagement in the e-democracy initiative through the case study of the discussion of the Internet Civilian Landmark – a bill to regulate Internet use in Brazil. After a brief review of literature on e-democracy, we intend to measure if the platform guaranteed citizens an opportunity to affect decision-making by evaluating if the amendments suggested by users through the initiative were effectively taken into account by the legislative committee.

And a small excerpt from the conclusion:

Even though there are many barriers (social, economical and cultural, to cite some) that need to be transposed in order to reach a greater level of citizenship and deliberation on online public spheres, our case study shows that those who were engaged in the Internet Civilian Landmark’s discussion were able to reach decision-makers and to effectively make amendments to this bill. Although the final decision was top-down, as the representatives had the power to decide on what suggestions they would take into account, they were clearly open to accept amendments proposed.

Download the full paper here [PDF].

Public participation in community and regional planning

picture by jczart on flickr.

Paper by Nicole Peterson, AICP.

Public participation in community and regional planning is both imperative and problematic. The purpose of this paper is to draw attention to the importance of public participation in planning, explain the barriers to implementation, and provide recommendations to improve public involvement in community and regional planning.

Interesting description of how participation in planning processes evolved in the US:

The American civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s brought citizen involvement to the forefront of  planning and politics. The combination of political scandals (e.g. assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate), environmental degradation (e.g. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River fire in 1969) and the sweeping urban renewal of the  early 1900’s sparked citizen engagement in this period. Diane Day writes, “Significant interest [in citizen participation] began in the 1960s and 1970s as North America was in the midst of what appeared to be a countercultural revolution.” (Day, 1997, p. 421) The ‘countercultural revolution’ as Day calls it is a symbol of the unrest and distrust in government that led to citizens exercising their rights to engage in planning and democracy in America.

Read more here [PDF].

Lawrence Lessig on Sortition and Citizen Participation


When designing citizen engagement mechanisms I always consider sortition (or randomization) as a mechanism of participant selection. Nevertheless, and particularly in the #opengov space, my experience is that this idea does not resonate a lot: it sounds less sexy than crowdsourcing and more complicated than over-simplistic mechanisms of “civil society engagement”.

This is why it is always great to see someone like Lawrence Lessig putting forward a system of  “Citizen Conventions” for proposing amendments to the Constitution based upon sortition. In this video below, at a hearing at the U.S. Senate’s Commission of Justice, Lessig explains in a few seconds how such a system would work:

With his unique eloquence, Lessig also makes the best case for ordinary citizens to engage with the Constitution and reforms:

I think to the surprise of many people, you would see that ordinary people deliberating about what the Constitution needs and how the reforms should go forward, would far surpass ninety eight percent of what is commonly discussed in this particular context. And that’s because, frankly, politics is the one sport where the amateur is better for the nation than the professional.

Lessig’s remark on the amateur’s role in politics reminds me of something I read a while ago from the apologue of Protagoras. When charged with taking to humans the art of politics, Mercury asks Jupiter whether it should be distributed like the other arts, to the competent ones only. Jupiter replies that the art of politics should be distributed to all. Otherwise, says Jupiter, the city would not exist.

Can Informed Public Deliberation Overcome Clientelism? Experimental Evidence from Benin

picture by geezaweezer on flickr

Brilliant paper by Leonard Wantchekon

This paper provides experimental evidence on the effect of “informed” town hall meetings on electoral support for programmatic, non-clientelist platforms. The experiment takes place in Benin and involves real candidates running in the first round of the 2006 presidential elections. The treatment is a campaign strategy based exclusively on town hall meetings during which policy proposals made by candidates are “specific” and informed by empirical research. The control is the “standard” strategy based on campaign rallies followed by targeted or clientelist electoral promises. We find that the treatment has a positive effect on self-perceived knowledge about policies and candidates. The data also suggests a positive effect of the treatment on turnout and electoral support for the candidates participating in the experiment. The results suggest that new democracies may contain electoral clientelism by institutionalizing the use of both town hall meetings in electoral campaigns and policy expertise in the design of electoral platforms.

Read the full paper here [PDF]

Democratic Innovation in Open Government

The Oregon Citizen’s Initiative Review is without doubt one of the most interesting recent innovations in the field of citizen engagement.

Here’s an excerpt from Participedia on the initiative:

The Oregon Citizen Initiative Review (Oregon CIR) is a Citizens’ Initiative Review designed to allow citizens of the U.S. state of Oregon to evaluate statewide ballot initiatives. A Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) is a Citizens’ Jury that deliberates about a ballot initiative. The Oregon CIR is intended to give voters clear, useful, and trustworthy evaluations of initiatives on the ballot. (…)

The Oregon CIR involves four categories of participants: panelists, the citizens who deliberate about a ballot initiative; advocates, individuals who are knowledgeable about the ballot initiative and who argue in support of or in opposition to the ballot initiative; stakeholders, individuals who will be affected by the ballot initiative, who also argue in support of or in opposition to the ballot initiative; and background witnesses, individuals who are knowledgeable about issues related to the initiative, and who present neutral background information about those issues to the panelists. (…)

I have written before about different methods of participant selection, and this is one of the strong points of this initiative:

To select the panelists for the 2010 Oregon CIRs, HDO used the following selection process: HDO took a probability sample of 10,000 Oregon voters. All voters in this sample were sent an invitation to participate in the 2010 Oregon CIR and a demographic survey. Three hundred fifty members of the sample responded, for a response rate of 3.5%. From those who responded, HDO, using the demographic data from the sample survey, anonymously chose 24 panelists, and 5 alternate panelists, for each 2010 Oregon CIR. The panelists and alternates for each CIR were chosen using stratification, so that each panel closely matched the Oregon population in terms of place of residence, political partisanship, education, ethnicity/race, gender, and age.

If advocates and policymakers in the open government space are really serious about citizen engagement, this is the sort of institutional innovation they should be looking at. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be happening.

Find out more about it at

My Reading Suggestions (Part One)

Fundação Biblioteca Nacional

Tom Steinberg asked me for a list of my favorite recent reads. So here’s the first part of a rather disorganized list of readings and other resources, with sporadic comments on why I like some of them. The list is heterogeneous in terms of subject, method and quality. In my opinion, the common denominator among the different resources is their relevance for those working at the intersection of participation and technology.


There is definitely a lot of bad reading out there about collective intelligence.   Indeed, many of the discussions and papers out there are nothing more than half-baked re-readings of ideas and concepts well established in the field of epistemic democracy. But there are a few exceptions. Acquainting myself with Hélène’s awesome work in the domain was one of the highlights for me in 2012. Here’s a sample:

Landemore, Hélène E., Democratic Reason: The Mechanisms of Collective Intelligence in Politics (April 1, 2011). COLLECTIVE WISDOM: PRINCIPLES AND MECHANISMS, Hélène Landemore and Jon Elster, eds., Cambridge University Press, Spring 2012.

You can find more of Hélène’s work here

Also, if you are interested in high-level talks and discussions about collective intelligence, the videos of conferences below are some of the best things out there:

Collective Intelligence Conference (Video)

College de France – Collective Intelligence (Video) 

Epistemic Democracy Conference (Video) 


Miller, J & Page, S 2004, ‘The Standing Ovation Problem’, COMPLEXITY, vol. 9, no. 5, pp. 8-16.

Bond, R. M., C. J. Fariss, J. J. Jones, A. D. I. Kramer, C. Marlow, J. E. Settle, and J. H. Fowler.  2012. “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization.”  Nature 489: 295–298.

S. Gonzalez-Bailon, J. Borge-Holthoefer, A. Rivero, and Y. Moreno. The Dynamics of Protest Recruitment through an Online Network. Nature, December 2011.

Margetts, Helen Zerlina, John, Peter, Reissfelder, Stephane and Hale, Scott A., Social Influence and Collective Action: An Experiment Investigating the Effects of Visibility and Social Information Moderated by Personality (April 18, 2012).  

Hale, Scott A. and Margetts, Helen Zerlina, Understanding the Mechanics of Online Collective Action Using ‘Big Data’ (March 22, 2012).


David Lazer is the co-author of two of these papers. If you don’t know it already, Stuart Shulman’s work is definitely worth checking out. Thamy Pogrebinschi is probably one of the people to look out for in the coming years in the field of participatory democracy.

Lazer, David, Sokhey, Anand E., Neblo, Michael A. and Esterling, Kevin M., Deliberative Ripples: The Network Effects of Political Events (August 10, 2010).

Neblo, Michael A., Esterling, Kevin M., Kennedy, Ryan, Lazer, David and Sokhey, Anand E., Who Wants to Deliberate – and Why? (September 15, 2009). HKS Working Paper No. RWP09-027.

Stuart W. Shulman, 2009. “The case against mass e–mails: Perverse incentives and low quality public participation in U.S. federal rulemaking,” Policy & Internet, volume 1, number 1, article 2.

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


Largely unknown even among the most enthusiastic participation advocates, there is a growing body of literature in the field of tax morale that links citizen engagement to reduced tax evasion: one of the best cases for the ROI of Open Government.  Below is one of the best papers in the field.

Frey, Bruno S., and Lars P. Feld (2002) “Deterrence and Morale in Taxation: An Empirical Analysis.” CESifo Working Paper no. 760, August 2002

You can find more references about tax morale here. Alex Howard gives a good account of how this might be happening in the DR Congo, helped by mobile phones (a project I’m part of).

And if the subject is the ROI of open government, here’s a paper that links participatory budgeting to reduced infant mortality (and there’s more to be published on that front soon).


If I were to make any predictions for 2013, I would say we will start to see a growing number of studies using randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to assess the validity of claims for transparency and participation. Indeed, some donors in the open government space have already started to ask for RCT evaluations as a project component. Here are a couple of examples of how good studies on the subject would look (IMHO):

Olken, B. 2010. Direct Democracy and Local Public Goods: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Indonesia. American Political Science Review, 104, pp 243-267

Zhang, K. 2012. “Increasing Citizen Demand for Good Government in Kenya”. Stanford University. 

Of course, scholars, practitioners and donors should take claims about the awesomeness of RCTs with a good grain of salt (and pepper):

Deaton, A. 2008. Instruments of development? Randomization in the tropics, and the hunt for the keys to development. Princeton University mimeo.

Cartwright, N. 2007. “Are RCTs the gold standard?” Biosocieties, 2, 11–20.


Rothschild, David and Justin Wolfers. 2011. “Forecasting Elections: Voter Intentions versus Expectations.” Working paper, University of Pennsylvania.

Gomez, Brad T., Thomas G. Hansford, and George A. Krause. 2007. “The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections.” Journal of Politics 69 (August): 649–63.

This is just the first part of a longer list. I hope to finish a second part soon, focusing – among other things – on the (uneasy) intersection of behavioural economics and participatory democracy.

Happy reading.