Cognitive Democracy


NYU had a LaPietra Dialogue on “Social Media and Political Participation” (#SMaPP_LPD). The purpose of the dialogue:

“We are only beginning to scratch the surface of developing theories linking social media usage to political participation and actually beginning to test causal relationships. At the same time, the data being generated by users of social media represents a completely unprecedented source of data recording how hundreds of millions of people around the globe interact with politics, the likes of which social scientists have never, ever seen; it is not too much of a stretch to say we are at a similar place to the field of biology just as the human genome was first being decoded. Thus the challenges are enormous, but the opportunities – and importance of the task – are just as important….The conference will serve to introduce cutting edge work being conducted in a field that barely existed five years ago to the public and students, to introduce the scholars participating in the conference to each other’s work, and also to play a role in building connections among the scholarly community working in this field.”

Among the presenters was Henry Farrell from George Washington University who drafted a paper with Cosma Shalizi on Cognitive Democracy and the Internet (an earlier version appeared on the Crooked Timber Blog).

In essence, the paper is focused on which social institutions (hierarchies, markets or democracies) are better positioned to solve complex problems (resonating with GovLab Research’s mapping of contemporary problems that drives gov innovation) .

“We start instead with a pragmatist question whether these institutions are useful in helping us solve diifficult social problems. Some political problems are simple: the solutions might not be easy to put into practice, but the problems are easy to analyze. But the most vexing problems are usually ones without any very obvious solutions. How do we change legal rules and social norms in order to mitigate the problems of global warming? How do we regulate financial markets so as to minimize the risk of new crises emerging, and limit the harm of those that happen? How do we best encourage the spread of human rights internationally?

These problems all share two important features. First, they are social. That is, they are problems which involve the interaction of many human beings, with different interests, desires, needs and perspectives. Second, they are complex problems, in the sense that scholars of complexity understand the term. To borrow the defi nition of Page (2011, p. 25), they involve diverse entities that interact in a network or contact structure (italics in the original).”

They subsequently critique the capacity of hierarchies and markets to address these “social problems”. Of particular interest is their assessment of the current “nudge” theories:

“Libertarian paternalism is flawed, not because it restricts peoples’ choices, but because it makes heroic assumptions about choice architects’ ability to figure out what the choices should be, and blocks the architects’ channels for learning better. Libertarian paternalism may still have value where people likely do want, e.g., to save more or take more exercise, but face commitment problems, or when other actors have an incentive to misinform these people or to structure their choices in perverse ways in the absence of a “good” default. However, it will be far less useful, or even actively pernicious, in complex situations, where many actors with different interests make interdependent choices”

The bulk of the paper focuses on the value and potential of democracy to solve problems (where diversity has a high premium). With regard to current state of our democratic institutions the paper observes that

“We have no reason to think that actually-existing democratic structures are as good as they could be, or even close. If nothing else, designing institutions is, itself, a highly complex problem, where even the most able decision-makers have little ability to foresee the consequences of their actions. Even when an institution works well at one time, it does so in a context of other institutions and social and physical conditions, which are all constantly changing. Institutional design and reform, then, is always a matter of more or less ambitious “piecemeal social experiments”, to use the phrase of Popper…As emphasized by Popper, and independently by Knight and Johnson, one of the strengths of democracy is its ability to make, monitor, and learn from such experiments”.

Taking into account current advances in technology, Farrell and Shalizi state:

“One of the great aspects of the current moment, for cognitive democracy, is that it has become (comparatively) very cheap and easy for such experiments to be made online, so that this design space can be explored”

They subsequently conclude emphasizing the need for “cognitive democracy” :

“Democracy, we have argued, has a capacity unmatched among other macro-institutions to actually experiment, and to make use of cognitive diversity in solving complex problems. To realize these potentials, democratic structures must themselves be shaped so that social interaction and cognitive function reinforce each other. But the cleverest institutional design in the world will not help unless the resources | material, social, cultural | needed for participation are actually broadly shared. This is not, or not just, about being nice or equitable; cognitive diversity is not something we can a fford to waste.”

Frameworks for a Location–Enabled Society


Annual CGA Conference “Location-enabled devices are weaving “smart grids” and building “smart cities;” they allow people to discover a friend in a shopping mall, catch a bus at its next stop, check surrounding air quality while walking down a street, or avoid a rain storm on a tourist route – now or in the near future. And increasingly they allow those who provide services to track, whether we are walking past stores on the street or seeking help in a natural disaster.
The Centre for Spatial Law and Policy based in Washington, DC, the Center for Geographic Analysis, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University are co-hosting a two-day program examining the legal and policy issues that will impact geospatial technologies and the development of location-enabled societies. The event will take place at Harvard University on May 2-3, 2013…The goal is to explore the different dimensions of policy and legal concerns in geospatial technology applications, and to begin in creating a policy and legal framework for a location-enabled society. Download the conference program brochure.
Live Webcast:

Stream videos at Ustream

Cities and Data


20130427_USC502The Economist: “Many cities around the country find themselves in a similar position: they are accumulating data faster than they know what to do with. One approach is to give them to the public. For example, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago are or soon will be sharing the grades that health inspectors give to restaurants with an online restaurant directory.
Another way of doing it is simply to publish the raw data and hope that others will figure out how to use them. This has been particularly successful in Chicago, where computer nerds have used open data to create many entirely new services. Applications are now available that show which streets have been cleared after a snowfall, what time a bus or train will arrive and how requests to fix potholes are progressing.
New York and Chicago are bringing together data from departments across their respective cities in order to improve decision-making. When a city holds a parade it can combine data on street closures, bus routes, weather patterns, rubbish trucks and emergency calls in real time.”

Two-Way Citizen Engagement


StuffGovernment Technology: “A couple of years ago, a conversation was brewing among city leaders in the Sacramento, Calif., suburb of Elk Grove — the city realized it could no longer afford to limit interactions with an increasingly smartphone-equipped population to between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m… The city considered several options, including a vendor-built mobile app tailor-made to meet its specific needs. And during this process, the city discovered civic engagement startup PublicStuff. Founded by Forbes’ 30 Under 30 honoree Lily Liu, the company offers a service request platform that lets users report issues of concern to the city.

Liu, who previously held positions with both New York City and Long Beach, Calif., realized that many cities couldn’t afford a full-blown 311 call center system to handle citizen requests. Many need a less expensive way of providing responsive customer service to the community. PublicStuff now fills that need for more than 200 cities across the country.”

Open Data for Agriculture


USDA News Release: “Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, along with Bill Gates, and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, today kicked off a two-day international open data conference, saying that data “is among the most important commodities in agriculture” and sharing it openly increases its value.
Secretary Vilsack, as head of the U.S. Government delegation to the conference, announced the launch of a new “virtual community” as part of a suite of actions, including the release of new data, that the United States is taking to give farmers and ranchers, scientists, policy makers and other members of the public easy access to publicly funded data to help increase food security and nutrition.
“The digital revolution fueled by open data is starting to do for the modern world of agriculture what the industrial revolution did for agricultural productivity over the past century,” said Vilsack. “Open access to data will help combat food insecurity today while laying the groundwork for a sustainable agricultural system to feed a population that is projected to be more than nine billion by 2050.”
The virtual Food, Agriculture, and Rural data community launched today on Data.gov-the U.S. Government’s data sharing website-to catalogue America’s publicly available agricultural data and increase the ability of the public to find, download, and use datasets that are generated and held by the Federal Government. The data community features a collection of more than 300 newly cataloged datasets, databases, and raw data sources related to food, agriculture, and rural issues from agencies across the U.S. Government. In addition to the data catalog, the virtual community shares a number of applications, maps and tools designed to help farmers, scientists and policymakers improve global food security and nutrition….
The conference and the U.S. actions supporting open agricultural data fulfill the Open Data for Agriculture commitment made as part of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which was launched by President Obama and G-8 partners at the 2012 G-8 Leaders Summit last year at Camp David, Maryland.”

G-8 Open Data for Agriculture Conference Aims to Help Feed a Growing Population and Fulfill New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition Commitment
Secretary Vilsack Announces Launch of a Virtual Community to Give Increased Public Access to Food, Agriculture, and Rural Data

Analyzing social media use can help predict, track and map obesity rates


Statement from the Boston Children’s Hospital: “The higher the percentage of people in a city, town or neighborhood with Facebook interests suggesting a healthy, active lifestyle, the lower that area’s obesity rate. At the same time, areas with a large percentage of Facebook users with television-related interests tend to have higher rates of obesity. Such are the conclusions of a study by Boston Children’s Hospital researchers comparing geotagged Facebook user data with data from national and New York City-focused health surveys.
journal.pone.0061373.g002
Together, the conclusions suggest that knowledge of people’s online interests within geographic areas may help public health researchers predict, track and map obesity rates down to the neighborhood level, while offering an opportunity to design geotargeted online interventions aimed at reducing obesity rates.
The study team, led by Rumi Chunara, PhD, and John Brownstein, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Informatics Program (CHIP), published their findings on April 24 in PLOS ONE. The amount of data available from social networks like Facebook makes it possible to efficiently carry out research in cohorts of a size that has until now been impractical.”
 

"Imagery to the Crowd"


Description: “The Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU), a division within the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues at the U.S. Department of State, is working to increase the availability of spatial data in areas experiencing humanitarian emergencies. Built from a crowdsourcing model, the new “Imagery to the Crowd” process publishes high-resolution commercial satellite imagery, purchased by the Unites States Government, in a web-based format that can be easily mapped by volunteers.
The digital map data generated by the volunteers are stored in a database maintained by OpenStreetMap (OSM), a UK-registered non-profit foundation, under a license that ensures the data are freely available and open for a range of uses (http://osm.org). Inspired by the success of the OSM mapping effort after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Imagery to the Crowd process harnesses the combined power of satellite imagery and the volunteer mapping community to help aid agencies provide informed and effective humanitarian assistance, and plan recovery and development activities.
5-minute Ignite Talk about Imagery to the Crowd:

The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism


Paper by NetLab (Toronto University) scholars in the latest issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication: “We review the evidence from a number of surveys in which our NetLab has been involved about the extent to which the Internet is transforming or enhancing community. The studies show that the Internet is used for connectivity locally as well as globally, although the nature of its use varies in different countries. Internet use is adding on to other forms of communication, rather than replacing them. Internet use is reinforcing the pre-existing turn to societies in the developed world that are organized around networked individualism rather than group or local solidarities. The result has important implications for civic involvement.”

Sanitation Hackathon


SanitationNew York Times: “Because of the rapid spread of cellular phones, mobile technology has previously been used to address a variety of problems in the developing world, including access to financial services, health care information and education. But toilets were another matter….Building on a process that had previously been employed to address problems in supplying clean water to people in poor areas, the World Bank turned its attention to sanitation. Over six months last year, it solicited ideas from experts in the field, as well as software developers. The process culminated in early December with the actual hackathon — two days in which more than 1,000 developers gathered in 40 cities worldwide to work on their projects….After the event in Washington, the winners of the hackathon are set to travel to Silicon Valley for meetings with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who are interested in the issue. The World Bank does not plan to invest in the projects, but hopes that others might.”
See also http://www.sanitationhackathon.org/
 

Investigating Terror in the Age of Twitter


Michael Chertoff and Dallas Lawrence in WSJ: “A dozen years ago when the terrorists struck on 9/11, there was no Facebook or Twitter or i-anything on the market. Cellphones were relatively common, but when cell networks collapsed in 2001, many people were left disconnected and wanting for immediate answers. Last week in Boston, when mobile networks became overloaded following the bombings, the social-media-savvy Boston Police Department turned to Twitter, using the platform as a makeshift newsroom to alert media and concerned citizens to breaking news.
Law-enforcement agencies around the world will note how social media played a prominent role both in telling the story and writing its eventual conclusion. Some key lessons have emerged.”