The Unwisdom of Crowds

Anne Applebaum on why people-powered revolutions are overrated in the New Republic: “..Yet a successful street revolution, like any revolution, is never guaranteed to leave anything positive in its aftermath—or anything at all. In the West, we often now associate protests with progress, or at least we assume that big crowds—the March on Washington, Paris in 1968—are the benign face of social change. But street revolutions are not always progressive, positive, or even important. Some replace a corrupt tyranny with violence and a political vacuum, which is what happened in Libya. Ukraine’s own Orange Revolution of 2004–2005 produced a new group of leaders who turned out to be just as incompetent as their predecessors. Crowds can be bullying, they can become violent, and they can give rise to extremists: Think Tehran 1979, or indeed Petrograd 1917.
The crowd may not even represent the majority. Because a street revolution makes good copy, and because it provides great photographs, we often mistakenly confuse “people power” with democracy itself. In fact, the creation of democratic institutions—courts, legal systems, bills of rights—is a long and tedious process that often doesn’t interest foreign journalists at all. Tunisia’s ratification of a new constitution earlier this year represented the most significant achievement of the Arab Spring to date, but the agonizing negotiations that led up to that moment were hard for outsiders to understand—and not remotely telegenic
Equally, it is a dangerous mistake to imagine that “people power” can ever be a substitute for actual elections. On television, a demonstration can loom larger than it should. In both Thailand and Turkey, an educated middle class has recently taken to the streets to protest against democratically elected leaders who have grown increasingly corrupt and autocratic, but who might well be voted back into office tomorrow. In Venezuela, elections are not fair and the media is not free, but the president is supported by many Venezuelans who still have faith in his far-left rhetoric, however much his policies may be damaging the country. Demonstrations might help bring change in some of these countries, but if the change is to be legitimate—and permanent—the electorate will eventually have to endorse it.
As we often forget, some of the most successful transitions to democracy did not involve crowds at all. Chile became a democracy because its dictator, Augusto Pinochet, decided it would become one. In early 1989, well before mass demonstrations in Prague or Berlin, the leaders of the Polish opposition sat down at a large round table with their former jailers and negotiated their way out of communism. There are no spectacular photographs of these transitions, and many people found them unsatisfying, even unjust. But Chile and Poland remain democracies today, not least because their new leaders came to power without any overt opposition from the old regime.
It would be nice if these kinds of transitions were more common, but not every dictator is willing to smooth the path toward change. For that reason, the post-revolutionary moment is often more important than the revolution itself, for this is when the emotion of the mob has to be channeled rapidly—immediately—into legitimate institutions. Not everybody finds this easy. In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, demonstrators found it difficult to abandon Tahrir Square. “We won’t leave because we have to make sure this country is set on the right path,” one protester said at the time. In fact, he should already have been at home, back in his neighborhood, perhaps creating the grassroots political party that might have given Egyptians a real alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood…”

After the Protests

Zeynep Tufekc in the New York Times on why social media is fueling a boom-and-bust cycle of political: “LAST Wednesday, more than 100,000 people showed up in Istanbul for a funeral that turned into a mass demonstration. No formal organization made the call. The news had come from Twitter: Berkin Elvan, 15, had died. He had been hit in the head by a tear-gas canister on his way to buy bread during the Gezi protests last June. During the 269 days he spent in a coma, Berkin’s face had become a symbol of civic resistance shared on social media from Facebook to Instagram, and the response, when his family tweeted “we lost our son” and then a funeral date, was spontaneous.

Protests like this one, fueled by social media and erupting into spectacular mass events, look like powerful statements of opposition against a regime. And whether these take place in Turkey, Egypt or Ukraine, pundits often speculate that the days of a ruling party or government, or at least its unpopular policies, must be numbered. Yet often these huge mobilizations of citizens inexplicably wither away without the impact on policy you might expect from their scale.

This muted effect is not because social media isn’t good at what it does, but, in a way, because it’s very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly, and they greatly lower coordination costs. This seems like a good thing at first, but it often results in an unanticipated weakness: Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment….

But after all that, in the approaching local elections, the ruling party is expected to retain its dominance.

Compare this with what it took to produce and distribute pamphlets announcing the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College, and a few students sneaked into the duplicating room and worked all night to secretly mimeograph 52,000 leaflets to be distributed by hand with the help of 68 African-American political, religious, educational and labor organizations throughout the city. Even mundane tasks like coordinating car pools (in an era before there were spreadsheets) required endless hours of collaborative work.

By the time the United States government was faced with the March on Washington in 1963, the protest amounted to not just 300,000 demonstrators but the committed partnerships and logistics required to get them all there — and to sustain a movement for years against brutally enforced Jim Crow laws. That movement had the capacity to leverage boycotts, strikes and demonstrations to push its cause forward. Recent marches on Washington of similar sizes, including the 50th anniversary march last year, also signaled discontent and a desire for change, but just didn’t pose the same threat to the powers that be.

Social media can provide a huge advantage in assembling the strength in numbers that movements depend on. Those “likes” on Facebook, derided as slacktivism or clicktivism, can have long-term consequences by defining which sentiments are “normal” or “obvious” — perhaps among the most important levers of change. That’s one reason the same-sex marriage movement, which uses online and offline visibility as a key strategy, has been so successful, and it’s also why authoritarian governments try to ban social media.

During the Gezi protests, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Twitter and other social media a “menace to society.” More recently, Turkey’s Parliament passed a law greatly increasing the government’s ability to censor online content and expand surveillance, and Mr. Erdogan said he would consider blocking access to Facebook and YouTube. It’s also telling that one of the first moves by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia before annexing Crimea was to shut down the websites of dissidents in Russia.
Media in the hands of citizens can rattle regimes. It makes it much harder for rulers to maintain legitimacy by controlling the public sphere. But activists, who have made such effective use of technology to rally supporters, still need to figure out how to convert that energy into greater impact. The point isn’t just to challenge power; it’s to change it.”

The intelligent citizen

John Bell in AlJazeera: “A quarter century after the demise of the Soviet Union, is the Western model of government under threat? …. The pressures are coming from several directions.
All states are feeling the pressure from unregulated global flows of capital that create obscene concentrations of wealth, and an inability of the nation-state to respond.Relatedly, citizens either ignore or distrust traditional institutions, and ethnic groups demand greater local autonomy.
A recent Pew survey shows that Americans aged 18-33 mostly identify as political independents and distrust institutions. The classic model is indeed frayed, and new developments have made it feel like very old cloth.
One natural reflex is to assert even greater control, a move suited to the authoritarians, such as China, Russia or General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi‘s Egypt: Strengthen the nation by any means to withstand the pressures. The reality, however, is that all systems, democracies or otherwise, were designed for an industrial age, and the management of an anonymous mass, and cannot cope with globalised economics and the information world of today.
The question remains: What can effectively replace the Western model? The answer may not lie only in the invention of new structures, but in the improvement of a key component found in all: The citizen.
The citizen today is mostly a consumer, focused on the purchase of goods or services, or the insistent consumption of virtual information, often as an ersatz politics. Occasionally, when a threat rises, he or she also becomes a demandeur of absolute security from the state. Indeed, some are using the new technologies for democratic purposes, they are better informed, criticise abuse or corruption, and organise and rally movements.
But, the vast majority is politically disengaged and cynical of political process; many others are too busy trying to survive to even care. A grand apathy has set in, the stage left vacant for a very few extremists, or pied pipers of the old tunes of nationalisms and tribal belonging disguised as leaders. The citizen is either invisible in this circus, an endangered species in the 21st century, or increasingly drawn to dark and polarising forces.
Some see the glass as half full and believe that technology and direct democracy can bridge the gaps. Indeed, the internet provides a plethora of information and a greater sense of empowerment. Lesser-known protests in Bosnia have led to direct democracy plenums, and the Swiss do revert to national referenda. However, whether direct or representative, democracy will still depend on the quality of the citizen, and his or her decisions.
Opinion, dogma and bias
Opinion, dogma and bias remain common political operating system and, as a result, our politics are still an unaffordable game of chance. The optimists may be right, but discussions in social media on issues ranging from Ukraine to gun control reveal more deep bias and the lure of excitement than the pursuit of a constructive answer.
People crave excitement in their politics. Whether it is through asserting their own opinion or in battling others, politics offers a great ground for this high. The cost, however, comes in poor judgment and dangerous decisions. George W. Bush was elected twice, Vladimir Putin has much support, climate change is denied, and an intoxicated Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, may be re-elected.
Few are willing to admit their role in this state of affairs, but they will gladly see the ill in others. Even fewer, including often myself, will admit that they don’t really know how to think through a challenge, political or otherwise. This may seem absurd, thinking feels as natural as walking, but the formation of political opinion is a complex affair, a flawed duet between our minds and outside input. Media, government propaganda, family, culture, and our own unique set of personal experiences, from traumas to chance meetings, all play into the mix. High states of emotion, “excitement”, also weigh in, making us dumb and easily manipulated….
This step may also be a precursor for another that involves the ordinary person. Today being a citizen involves occasional voting, politics as spectator sport, and, among some, being a watchdog against corruption or street activism. What may be required is more citizens’ participation in local democracy, not just in assemblies or casting votes, but in local management and administration.
This will help people understand the complexities of politics, gain greater responsibility, and mitigate some of the vices of centralisation and representative democracy. It may also harmonise with the information age, where everyone, it seems, wishes to be empowered.
Do people have time in their busy lives? A rotational involvement in local affairs can help solve this, and many might even find the engagement enjoyable. This injection of a real citizen into the mix may improve the future of politics while large institutions continue to hum their tune.
In the end, a citizen who has responsibility for his actions can probably make any structure work, while rejecting any that would endanger his independence and dignity. The rise of a more intelligent and committed citizen may clarify politics, improve liberal democracies, and make populism and authoritarianism less appealing and likely paths.”

Social Media as Government Watchdog

Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal: “Two new data points for the debate on whether greater access to the Internet leads to more freedom and fewer authoritarian regimes:

According to reports last week, Facebook plans to buy a company that makes solar-powered drones that can hover for years at high altitudes without refueling, which it would use to bring the Internet to parts of the world not yet on the grid. In contrast to this futuristic vision, Russia evoked land grabs of the analog Soviet era by invading Crimea after Ukrainians forced out Vladimir Putin‘s ally as president.
Internet idealists can point to another triumph in helping bring down Ukraine’s authoritarian government. Ukrainian citizens ignored intimidation including officious text messages: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” Protesters made the most of social media to plan demonstrations and avoid attacks by security forces.
But Mr. Putin quickly delivered the message that social media only goes so far against a fully committed authoritarian. His claim that he had to invade to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea was especially brazen because there had been no loud outcry, on social media or otherwise, among Russian speakers in the region.
A new book reports the state of play on the Internet as a force for freedom. For a decade, Emily Parker, a former Wall Street Journal editorial-page writer and State Department staffer, has researched the role of the Internet in China, Cuba and Russia. The title of her book, “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are,” comes from a blogger in China who explained to Ms. Parker how the Internet helps people discover they are not alone in their views and aspirations for liberty.
Officials in these countries work hard to keep critics isolated and in fear. In Russia, Ms. Parker notes, there is also apathy because the Putin regime seems so entrenched. “Revolutions need a spark, often in the form of a political or economic crisis,” she observes. “Social media alone will not light that spark. What the Internet does create is a new kind of citizen: networked, unafraid, and ready for action.”
Asked about lessons from the invasion of Crimea, Ms. Parker noted that the Internet “chips away at Russia’s control over information.” She added: “Even as Russian state media tries to shape the narrative about Ukraine, ordinary Russians can go online to seek the truth.”
But this same shared awareness may also be accelerating a decline in U.S. influence. In the digital era, U.S. failure to make good on its promises reduces the stature of Washington faster than similar inaction did in the past.
Consider the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the first significant rebellion against Soviet control. The U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, said: “To all those suffering under communist slavery, let us say you can count on us.” Yet no help came as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, tens of thousands were killed, and the leader who tried to secede from the Warsaw Pact, Imre Nagy, was executed.
There were no Facebook posts or YouTube videos instantly showing the result of U.S. fecklessness. In the digital era, scenes of Russian occupation of Crimea are available 24/7. People can watch Mr. Putin’s brazen press conferences and see for themselves what he gets away with.
The U.S. stood by as Syrian civilians were massacred and gassed. There was instant global awareness when President Obama last year backed down from enforcing his “red line” when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. American inaction in Syria sent a green light for Mr. Putin and others around the world to act with impunity.
Just in recent weeks, Iran tried to ship Syrian rockets to Gaza to attack Israel; Moscow announced it would use bases in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua for its navy and bombers; and China budgeted a double-digit increase in military spending as President Obama cut back the U.S. military.
All institutions are more at risk in this era of instant communication and awareness. Reputations get lost quickly, whether it’s a misstep by a company, a gaffe by a politician, or a lack of resolve by an American president.
Over time, the power of the Internet to bring people together will help undermine authoritarian governments. But as Mr. Putin reminds us, in the short term a peaceful world depends more on a U.S. resolute in using its power and influence to deter aggression.”

This algorithm can predict a revolution

Russell Brandom at the Verge: “For students of international conflict, 2013 provided plenty to examine. There was civil war in Syria, ethnic violence in China, and riots to the point of revolution in Ukraine. For those working at Duke University’s Ward Lab, all specialists in predicting conflict, the year looks like a betting sheet, full of predictions that worked and others that didn’t pan out.

Guerrilla campaigns intensified, proving out the prediction

When the lab put out their semiannual predictions in July, they gave Paraguay a 97 percent chance of insurgency, largely based on reports of Marxist rebels. The next month, guerrilla campaigns intensified, proving out the prediction. In the case of China’s armed clashes between Uighurs and Hans, the models showed a 33 percent chance of violence, even as the cause of each individual flare-up was concealed by the country’s state-run media. On the other hand, the unrest in Ukraine didn’t start raising alarms until the action had already started, so the country was left off the report entirely.

According to Ward Lab’s staff, the purpose of the project isn’t to make predictions but to test theories. If a certain theory of geopolitics can predict an uprising in Ukraine, then maybe that theory is onto something. And even if these specialists could predict every conflict, it would only be half the battle. “It’s a success only if it doesn’t come at the cost of predicting a lot of incidents that don’t occur,” says Michael D. Ward, the lab’s founder and chief investigator, who also runs the blog Predictive Heuristics. “But it suggests that we might be on the right track.”

If a certain theory of geopolitics can predict an uprising in Ukraine, maybe that theory is onto something

Forecasting the future of a country wasn’t always done this way. Traditionally, predicting revolution or war has been a secretive project, for the simple reason that any reliable prediction would be too valuable to share. But as predictions lean more on data, they’ve actually become harder to keep secret, ushering in a new generation of open-source prediction models that butt against the siloed status quo.

Will this country’s government face an acute existential threat in the next six months?

The story of automated conflict prediction starts at the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, known as the Pentagon’s R&D wing. In the 1990s, DARPA wanted to try out software-based approaches to anticipating which governments might collapse in the near future. The CIA was already on the case, with section chiefs from every region filing regular forecasts, but DARPA wanted to see if a computerized approach could do better. They looked at a simple question: will this country’s government face an acute existential threat in the next six months? When CIA analysts were put to the test, they averaged roughly 60 percent accuracy, so DARPA’s new system set the bar at 80 percent, looking at 29 different countries in Asia with populations over half a million. It was dubbed ICEWS, the Integrated Conflict Early Warning System, and it succeeded almost immediately, clearing 80 percent with algorithms built on simple regression analysis….

On the data side, researchers at Georgetown University are cataloging every significant political event of the past century into a single database called GDELT, and leaving the whole thing open for public research. Already, projects have used it to map the Syrian civil war and diplomatic gestures between Japan and South Korea, looking at dynamics that had never been mapped before. And then, of course, there’s Ward Lab, releasing a new sheet of predictions every six months and tweaking its algorithms with every development. It’s a mirror of the same open-vs.-closed debate in software — only now, instead of fighting over source code and security audits, it’s a fight over who can see the future the best.”

Report “Big and open data in Europe: A growth engine or a missed opportunity?”

Press Release: “Big data and open data are not just trendy issues, they are the concern of the government institutions at the highest level. On January 29th, 2014 a Conference concerning Big & Open Data in Europe 2020 was held in the European Parliament.
Questions were asked and discussed like: Is Big & Open Data a truly transformative phenomena or just a ‘hot air’? Does it matter for Europe? How big is the economic potential of Big and Open Data for Europe till 2020? How each of the 28 Member States may benefit from it?…
The conference complemented a research project by demosEUROPA – Centre for European Strategy on Big and Open Data in Europe that aims at fostering and facilitating policy debate on the socioeconomic impact of data. The key outcome of the project, a pan-European macroeconomic study titledBig and open data In Europe: A growth engine or a missed opportunity?” carried out by the Warsaw Institute for Economic Studies (WISE) was presented.
We have the pleasure to be one of the first to present some of the findings of the report and offer the report for download.
The report analyses how technologies have the potential to influence various aspects of the European society, about their substantial, long term impact on our wealth and quality of life, but also about the new developmental challenges for the EU as a whole – as well as for its member states and their regions.
You will learn from the report:
–  the resulting economic gains of business applications of big data
– how to structure big data to move from Big Trouble to Big Value
– the costs and benefits of opening data to holders
– 3 challenges that  Europeans face with respect to big and open data
– key areas, growth opportunities and challenges for big and open data in Europe per particular regions.
The study also elaborates on the key principle of open data philosophy, which is open by default.
Europe by 2020. What will happen?
The report contains a prognosis for the 28 countries from the EU about the impact of big and open data from 2020 and its additional output and how it will affect trade, health, manufacturing, information and communication, finance & insurance and public administration in different regions. It foresees that the EU economy will grow by 1.9% by 2020 thanks to big and open data and describes the increase of the general GDP level by countries and sectors.
One of the many interesting findings of the report is that the positive impact of the data revolution will be felt more acutely in Northern Europe, while most of the New Member States and Southern European economies will benefit significantly less, with two notable exceptions being the Czech Republic and Poland. If you would like to have first-hand up-to-date information about the impact of big and open data on the future of Europe – download the report.”

Supporting open government in New Europe

Google Europe Blog: “The “New Europe” countries that joined the European Union over the past decade are moving ahead fast to use the Internet to improve transparency and open government. We recently partnered with Techsoup Global to support online projects driving forward good governance in Romania, the Czech Republic, and most recently, in Slovakia.
Techsoup Global, in partnership with the Slovak Center for Philanthropy, recently held an exciting social-startups awards ceremony Restart Slovakia 2013 in Bratislava. Slovakia’s Deputy Minister of Finance and Digital Champion Peter Pellegrini delivered keynote promoting Internet and Open Data and announced the winners of this year contest. Ambassadors from U.S., Israel and Romania and several distinguished Slovak NGOs also attended the ceremony.
Winning projects included:

  • Vzdy a vsade – Always and Everywhere – a volunteer portal offering online and anonymous psychological advice to internet users via chat.
  • – a portal providing counsel for victims of sexual assaults.
  • Co robim – an educational online library of job careers advising young people how to choose their career paths and dream jobs.
  • Mapa zlocinu – an online map displaying various rates of criminality in different neighbourhoods.
  • – a platform focused on analyzing public statements of politicians and releasing information about politicians and truthfulness of their speeches in a user-friendly format.”

Open Budgets Portal

About: “The Open Budgets Portal is the first effort to create a one-stop shop for budget data worldwide with the hope of bringing visibility to countries’ efforts in this field, facilitating access and promoting use of spending data, and motivating other countries into action.

The portal offers the opportunity to showcase a subset of developing countries and subnational entities (identified by blue markers in the map) that have excelled in the exploration of new frontiers of fiscal transparency by choosing to disseminate their entire public spending datasets in accessible formats (i.e., soft copy), with the expectation that these efforts could motivate other countries into action . Users will be able to download the entire public expenditure landscape of the members of the portal in consolidated files, all of which were rigorously collected, cleaned and verified through the BOOST Initiative.

For each of these countries, the site also includes links to their original open data portals, which provide additional important information (i.e., higher frequencies other than annual, links to output data and other socio economic indicators, etc.). While every effort has been done to certify the quality of these databases according to BOOST approach and methodology, users are encouraged to refer back to the country-owned open data portals to ensure complete consistency of data with published official figures, as well as consult accompanying user manuals for potential caveats on uses of the data.

This portal represents a starting point to build momentum within the growing interest around fiscal transparency and the importance of data for enhanced decision-making processes and improved budget outcomes and accountability. While most initiatives on open budgets rightfully center on availability of key documents, little focus has been given to the quality of data dissemination and to the importance of its analytical use for incorporation into evidence-based decision-making processes.

This Open Budgets Portal aims to fill this gap by providing access to budget data worldwide and particularly to the most disaggregated and comprehensive data collected through the BOOST Initiative. The portal combines this information with a variety of tools, manuals, reports and best practices aimed at stimulating use by intermediaries, as well as easier to interpret visualization for non-experts. Our objective is to encourage all potential uses of this data to unbind the analytical power of such data.

The Open Budgets Portal was launched at the event “Boosting Fiscal Transparency for Better Policy Outcomes,” held on December 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. The following presentations were shown at the event:

Presentation of the Open Budgets Portal by Massimo Mastruzzi, Senior Economist, Open Goverment, World Bank.

Building a Citizen’s Budget Understanding – by Victoria Vlad, Economist of “Expert-Grup” from the Republic of Moldova.”

Selected Readings on Data Visualization

The Living Library’s Selected Readings series seeks to build a knowledge base on innovative approaches for improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of governance. This curated and annotated collection of recommended works on the topic of data visualization was originally published in 2013.

Data visualization is a response to the ever-increasing amount of  information in the world. With big data, informatics and predictive analytics, we have an unprecedented opportunity to revolutionize policy-making. Yet data by itself can be overwhelming. New tools and techniques for visualizing information can help policymakers clearly articulate insights drawn from data. Moreover, the rise of open data is enabling those outside of government to create informative and visually arresting representations of public information that can be used to support decision-making by those inside or outside governing institutions.

Selected Reading List (in alphabetical order)

Annotated Selected Reading List (in alphabetical order)

Duke, D.J., K.W. Brodlie, D.A. Duce and I. Herman. “Do You See What I Mean? [Data Visualization].” IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications 25, no. 3 (2005): 6–9.

  • In this paper, the authors argue that a more systematic ontology for data visualization to ensure the successful communication of meaning. “Visualization begins when someone has data that they wish to explore and interpret; the data are encoded as input to a visualization system, which may in its turn interact with other systems to produce a representation. This is communicated back to the user(s), who have to assess this against their goals and knowledge, possibly leading to further cycles of activity. Each phase of this process involves communication between two parties. For this to succeed, those parties must share a common language with an agreed meaning.”
  • That authors “believe that now is the right time to consider an ontology for visualization,” and “as visualization move from just a private enterprise involving data and tools owned by a research team into a public activity using shared data repositories, computational grids, and distributed collaboration…[m]eaning becomes a shared responsibility and resource. Through the Semantic Web, there is both the means and motivation to develop a shared picture of what we see when we turn and look within our own field.”

Friendly, Michael. “A Brief History of Data Visualization.” In Handbook of Data Visualization, 15–56. Springer Handbooks Comp.Statistics. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2008.

  • In this paper, Friendly explores the “deep roots” of modern data visualization. “These roots reach into the histories of the earliest map making and visual depiction, and later into thematic cartography, statistics and statistical graphics, medicine and other fields. Along the way, developments in technologies (printing, reproduction), mathematical theory and practice, and empirical observation and recording enabled the wider use of graphics and new advances in form and content.”
  • Just as the general the visualization of data is far from a new practice, Friendly shows that the graphical representation of government information has a similarly long history. “The collection, organization and dissemination of official government statistics on population, trade and commerce, social, moral and political issues became widespread in most of the countries of Europe from about 1825 to 1870. Reports containing data graphics were published with some regularity in France, Germany, Hungary and Finland, and with tabular displays in Sweden, Holland, Italy and elsewhere.”

Graves, Alvaro and James Hendler. “Visualization Tools for Open Government Data.” In Proceedings of the 14th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research, 136–145. Dg.o ’13. New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2013.

  • In this paper, the authors argue that, “there is a gap between current Open Data initiatives and an important part of the stakeholders of the Open Government Data Ecosystem.” As it stands, “there is an important portion of the population who could benefit from the use of OGD but who cannot do so because they cannot perform the essential operations needed to collect, process, merge, and make sense of the data. The reasons behind these problems are multiple, the most critical one being a fundamental lack of expertise and technical knowledge. We propose the use of visualizations to alleviate this situation. Visualizations provide a simple mechanism to understand and communicate large amounts of data.”
  • The authors also describe a prototype of a tool to create visualizations based on OGD with the following capabilities:
    • Facilitate visualization creation
    • Exploratory mechanisms
    • Viralization and sharing
    • Repurpose of visualizations

Hidalgo, César A. “Graphical Statistical Methods for the Representation of the Human Development Index and Its Components.” United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports, September 2010.

  • In this paper for the United Nations Human Development Programme, Hidalgo argues that “graphical statistical methods could be used to help communicate complex data and concepts through universal cognitive channels that are heretofore underused in the development literature.”
  • To support his argument, representations are provided that “show how graphical methods can be used to (i) compare changes in the level of development experienced by countries (ii) make it easier to understand how these changes are tied to each one of the components of the Human Development Index (iii) understand the evolution of the distribution of countries according to HDI and its components and (iv) teach and create awareness about human development by using iconographic representations that can be used to graphically narrate the story of countries and regions.”

Stowers, Genie. “The Use of Data Visualization in Government.” IBM Center for The Business of Government, Using Technology Series, 2013.

  • This report seeks “to help public sector managers understand one of the more important areas of data analysis today — data visualization. Data visualizations are more sophisticated, fuller graphic designs than the traditional spreadsheet charts, usually with more than two variables and, typically, incorporating interactive features.”
  • Stowers also offers numerous examples of “visualizations that include geographical and health data, or population and time data, or financial data represented in both absolute and relative terms — and each communicates more than simply the data that underpin it. In addition to these many examples of visualizations, the report discusses the history of this technique, and describes tools that can be used to create visualizations from many different kinds of data sets.”

The Age of Democracy

Xavier Marquez at Abandoned Footnotes: “This is the age of democracy, ideologically speaking. As I noted in an earlier post, almost every state in the world mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” in its constitutional documents today. But the public acknowledgment of the idea of democracy is not something that began just a few years ago; in fact, it goes back much further, all the way back to the nineteenth century in a surprising number of cases.
Here is a figure I’ve been wanting to make for a while that makes this point nicely (based on data graciously made available by the Comparative Constitutions Project). The figure shows all countries that have ever had some kind of identifiable constitutional document (broadly defined) that mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” (in any context – new constitution, amendment, interim constitution, bill of rights, etc.), arranged from earliest to latest mention. Each symbol represents a “constitutional event” – a new constitution adopted, an amendment passed, a constitution suspended, etc. – and colored symbols indicate that the text associated with the constitutional event in question mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic”…
The earliest mentions of the word “democracy” or “democratic” in a constitutional document occurred in Switzerland and France in 1848, as far as I can tell.[1] Participatory Switzerland and revolutionary France look like obvious candidates for being the first countries to embrace the “democratic” self-description; yet the next set of countries to embrace this self-description (until the outbreak of WWI) might seem more surprising: they are all Latin American or Caribbean (Haiti), followed by countries in Eastern Europe (various bits and pieces of the Austro-Hungarian empire), Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain), Russia, and Cuba. Indeed, most “core” countries in the global system did not mention democracy in their constitutions until much later, if at all, despite many of them having long constitutional histories; even French constitutions after the fall of the Second Republic in 1851 did not mention “democracy” until after WWII. In other words, the idea of democracy as a value to be publicly affirmed seems to have caught on first not in the metropolis but in the periphery. Democracy is the post-imperial and post-revolutionary public value par excellence, asserted after national liberation (as in most of the countries that became independent after WWII) or revolutions against hated monarchs (e.g., Egypt 1956, Iran 1979, both of them the first mentions of democracy in these countries but not their first constitutions).

Today only 16 countries have ever failed to mention their “democratic” character in their constitutional documents (Australia, Brunei, Denmark, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Monaco, Nauru, Oman, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Tonga, the United Kingdom, the USA, and Vatican City).[2] And no country that has ever mentioned “democracy” in an earlier constitutional document fails to mention it in its current constitutional documents (though some countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries went back and forth – mentioning democracy in one constitution, not mentioning it in the next). Indeed, after WWII the first mention of democracy in constitutions tended to be contemporaneous with the first post-independence constitution of the country; and with time, even countries with old and settled constitutional traditions seem to be more and more likely to mention “democracy” or “democratic” in some form as amendments or bills of rights accumulate (e.g., Belgium in 2013, New Zealand in 1990, Canada in 1982, Finland in 1995). The probability of a new constitution mentioning “democracy” appears to be asymptotically approaching 1. To use the language of biology, the democratic “meme” has nearly achieved “fixation” in the population, despite short-term fluctuations, and despite the fact that there appears to be no particular correlation between a state calling itself democratic and actually being democratic, either today or in the past.[3]
Though the actual measured level of democracy around the world has trended upwards (with some ups and downs) over the last two centuries, I don’t think this is the reason why the idea of democracy has achieved near-universal recognition in public documents. Countries do not first become democratic and then call themselves democracies; if anything, most mentions of democracy seem to be rather aspirational, if not entirely cynical. (Though many constitutions that mention democracy were also produced by people who seem to have been genuinely committed to some such ideal, even if the regimes that eventually developed under these constitutions were not particularly democratic). What we see, instead, is a broad process in which earlier normative claims about the basis of authority – monarchical, imperial, etc. – get almost completely replaced, regardless of the country’s cultural context, by democratic claims, regardless of the latter’s effectiveness as an actual basis for authority or the existence of working mechanisms for participation or vertical accountability. (These democratic claims to authority also sometimes coexist in uneasy tension with other claims to authority based on divine revelation, ideological knowledge, or tradition, invented or otherwise; consider the Chinese constitution‘s claims about the “people’s democratic dictatorship” led by the CCP).
I thus suspect the conquest of ideological space by “democratic” language did not happen just because democratic claims to authority (especially in the absence of actual democracy) have proved more persuasive than other claims to authority. Rather, I think the same processes that resulted in the emergence of modern national communities – e.g. the rituals associated with nationalism, which tended to “sacralize” a particular kind of imagined community – led to the symbolic production of the nation not only as the proper object of government but also as its proper active agent (the people, actively ruling itself), regardless of whether or not “the people” had any ability to rule or even to exercise minimal control over the rulers.[4] There thus seems to have been a kind of co-evolution of symbols of nationality and symbols of democracy, helped along by the practice/ritual of drafting constitutions and approving them through plebiscites or other forms of mass politics, a ritual that already makes democratic assumptions about “social contracts.” The question is whether the symbolic politics of democracy eventually has any sort of impact on actual institutions. But more on this later….”