Polish activists turn to digital democracy

 in the Financial Times: “Opponents of the Polish government have mounted a series of protests on issues ranging from reform of the judiciary to an attempt to ban abortion. In February, they staged yet another, less public but intensely emotive, battle — to save the country’s trees.

At the beginning of the year, a new law allowed property owners to cut trees on their land without official permission. As a result, hundreds of trees disappeared from the centres of Polish cities as more valuable treeless plots were sold off to developers. In parallel, the government authorised extensive logging of the ancient forest in Bialowieza, a Unesco world heritage site.

“People reacted very emotionally to these practices,” says Wojciech Sanko, a co-ordinator at Code for Poland, a programme run by ePanstwo (eState), the country’s biggest non-governmental organisation in this field.

The group aims to deploy new technology tools designed to explain local and national policies, and to make it easier for citizens to take part in public life. As no one controlled the tree-cutting, for example, Mr Sanko thought technology could at least help to monitor it. First, he wanted to set up a simple digital map of trees cut in Warsaw. But as the controversial liberalisation of tree-cutting was reversed, the NGO together with local activists decided to work on another project — to map trees still standing, along with data about species and their absorption of carbon dioxide associated with climate change.

The group has also started to create an app for activists in Bialowieza forest: an open-source map that will gather all documentation from civic patrols monitoring the site, and will indicate the exact places of logging.

A trend towards recruiting technology for civic projects has been slowly gathering pace in a country that is hard to describe as socially-engaged: only 59 per cent of Poles say they have done volunteer work for the community, according to a 2016 survey by the Centre of Public Opinion Research.

Election turnout barely surpasses 50 per cent. Yet since the election of the rightwing Law and Justice government in 2015, which has introduced rapid and controversial reforms across all domains of public life, citizens have started to take a closer look at politicians and their actions.

In addition to the tree map, Code for Poland has developed a website that aggregates public data, such as tax spending or air pollution.

Mr Sanko underlines, however, that Code for Poland is much more about local communities than national politics. Many of the group’s projects are small scale, ranging from a mobile app for an animal shelter in Gdansk and a tool that shows people where they can take their garbage.

Piotr Micula, board member of Miasto Jest Nasze (The City is Ours), an urban movement in Warsaw, says that increasing access to data is fuelling the development of civic tech. “Even as a small organisation, we try to use big data and visualise it,” he says….(More)”.