There Are Better Ways to Do Democracy


Article by Peter Coy: “The Brexit disaster has stained the reputation of direct democracy. The United Kingdom’s trauma began in 2016, when then-Prime Minister David Cameron miscalculated that he could strengthen Britain’s attachment to the European Union by calling a referendum on it. The Leave campaign made unkeepable promises about Brexit’s benefits. Voters spent little time studying the facts because there was a vanishingly small chance that any given vote would make the difference by breaking a tie. Leave won—and Google searches for “What is the EU” spiked after the polls closed.

Brexit is only one manifestation of a global problem. Citizens want elected officials to be as responsive as Uber drivers, but they don’t always take their own responsibilities seriously. This problem isn’t new. America’s Founding Fathers worried that democracy would devolve into mob rule; the word “democracy” appears nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

While fears about democratic dysfunction are understandable, there are ways to make voters into real participants in the democratic process without giving in to mobocracy. Instead of referendums, which often become lightning rods for extremism, political scientists say it’s better to make voters think like jurors, whose decisions affect the lives and fortunes of others.

Guided deliberation, also known as deliberative democracy, is one way to achieve that. Ireland used it in 2016 and 2017 to help decide whether to repeal a constitutional amendment that banned abortion in most cases. A 99-person Citizens’ Assembly was selected to mirror the Irish population. It met over five weekends to evaluate input from lawyers and obstetricians, pro-life and pro-choice groups, and more than 13,000 written submissions from the public, guided by a chairperson from the Irish supreme court. Together they concluded that the legislature should have the power to allow abortion under a broader set of conditions, a recommendation that voters approved in a 2018 referendum; abortion in Ireland became legal in January 2019.

Done right, deliberative democracy brings out the best in citizens. “My experience shows that some of the most polarising issues can be tackled in this manner,” Louise Caldwell, an Irish assembly member, wrote in a column for the Guardian in January. India’s village assemblies, which involve all the adults in local decision-making, are a form of deliberative democracy on a grand scale. A March article in the journal Science says that “evidence from places such as Colombia, Belgium, Northern Ireland, and Bosnia shows that properly structured deliberation can promote recognition, understanding, and learning.” Even French President Emmanuel Macron has used it, convening a three-month “great debate” to solicit the public’s views on some of the issues raised by the sometimes-violent Yellow Vest movement. On April 8, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presented one key finding: The French have “zero tolerance” for new taxes…(More)”.

Predictive Big Data Analytics using the UK Biobank Data


Paper by Ivo D Dinov et al: “The UK Biobank is a rich national health resource that provides enormous opportunities for international researchers to examine, model, and analyze census-like multisource healthcare data. The archive presents several challenges related to aggregation and harmonization of complex data elements, feature heterogeneity and salience, and health analytics. Using 7,614 imaging, clinical, and phenotypic features of 9,914 subjects we performed deep computed phenotyping using unsupervised clustering and derived two distinct sub-cohorts. Using parametric and nonparametric tests, we determined the top 20 most salient features contributing to the cluster separation. Our approach generated decision rules to predict the presence and progression of depression or other mental illnesses by jointly representing and modeling the significant clinical and demographic variables along with the derived salient neuroimaging features. We reported consistency and reliability measures of the derived computed phenotypes and the top salient imaging biomarkers that contributed to the unsupervised clustering. This clinical decision support system identified and utilized holistically the most critical biomarkers for predicting mental health, e.g., depression. External validation of this technique on different populations may lead to reducing healthcare expenses and improving the processes of diagnosis, forecasting, and tracking of normal and pathological aging….(More)”.

Statistics Estonia to coordinate data governance


Article by Miriam van der Sangen at CBS: “In 2018, Statistics Estonia launched a new strategy for the period 2018-2022. This strategy addresses the organisation’s aim to produce statistics more quickly while minimising the response burden on both businesses and citizens. Another element in the strategy is addressing the high expectations in Estonian society regarding the use of data. ‘We aim to transform Statistics Estonia into a national data agency,’ says Director General Mägi. ‘This means our role as a producer of official statistics will be enlarged by data governance responsibilities in the public sector. Taking on such responsibilities requires a clear vision of the whole public data ecosystem and also agreement to establish data stewards in most public sector institutions.’…

the Estonian Parliament passed new legislation that effectively expanded the number of official tasks for Statistics Estonia. Mägi elaborates: ‘Most importantly, we shall be responsible for coordinating data governance. The detailed requirements and conditions of data governance will be specified further in the coming period.’ Under the new Act, Statistics Estonia will also have more possibilities to share data with other parties….

Statistics Estonia is fully committed to producing statistics which are based on big data. Mägi explains: ‘At the moment, we are actively working on two big data projects. One project involves the use of smart electricity meters. In this project, we are looking into ways to visualise business and household electricity consumption information. The second project involves web scraping of prices and enterprise characteristics. This project is still in an initial phase, but we can already see that the use of web scraping can improve the efficiency of our production process.’ We are aiming to extend the web scraping project by also identifying e-commerce and innovation activities of enterprises.’

Yet another ambitious goal for Statistics Estonia lies in the field of data science. ‘Similarly to Statistics Netherlands, we established experimental statistics and data mining activities years ago. Last year, we developed a so-called think-tank service, providing insights from data into all aspects of our lives. Think of birth, education, employment, et cetera. Our key clients are the various ministries, municipalities and the private sector. The main aim in the coming years is to speed up service time thanks to visualisations and data lake solutions.’ …(More)”.

Open Justice: Public Entrepreneurs Learn to Use New Technology to Increase the Efficiency, Legitimacy, and Effectiveness of the Judiciary


The GovLab: “Open justice is a growing movement to leverage new technologies – including big data, digital platforms, blockchain and more – to improve legal systems by making the workings of courts easier to understand, scrutinize and improve. Through the use of new technology, open justice innovators are enabling greater efficiency, fairness, accountability and a reduction in corruption in the third branch of government. For example, the open data portal ‘Atviras Teismas’ Lithuania (translated ‘open court’ Lithuania) is a platform for monitoring courts and judges through performance metrics’. This portal serves to make the courts of Lithuania transparent and benefits both courts and citizens by presenting comparative data on the Lithuanian Judiciary.

To promote more Open Justice projects, the GovLab in partnership with the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary (TEPJF) of Mexico, launched an historic, first of its kind, online course on Open Justice. Designed primarily for lawyers, judges, and public officials – but also intended to appeal to technologists, and members of the public – the Spanish-language course consists of 10 modules.

Each of the ten modules comprises:

  1. A short video-based lecture
  2. An original Open Justice reader
  3. Associated additional readings
  4. A self-assessment quiz
  5. A demonstration of a platform or tool
  6. An interview with a global practitioner

Among those featured in the interviews are Felipe Moreno of Jusbrasil, Justin Erlich of OpenJustice California, Liam Hayes of Aurecon, UK, Steve Ghiassi of Legaler, Australia, and Sara Castillo of Poder Judicial, Chile….(More)”.

Building Trust in Human Centric Artificial Intelligence


Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: “Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to transform our world for the better: it can improve healthcare, reduce energy consumption, make cars safer, and enable farmers to use water and natural resources more efficiently. AI can be used to predict environmental and climate change, improve financial risk management and provides the tools to manufacture, with less waste, products tailored to our needs. AI can also help to detect fraud and cybersecurity threats, and enables law enforcement agencies to fight crime more efficiently.

AI can benefit the whole of society and the economy. It is a strategic technology that is now being developed and used at a rapid pace across the world. Nevertheless, AI also brings with it new challenges for the future of work, and raises legal and ethical questions.

To address these challenges and make the most of the opportunities which AI offers, the Commission published a European strategy in April 2018. The strategy places people at the centre of the development of AI — human-centric AI. It is a three-pronged approach to boost the EU’s technological and industrial capacity and AI uptake across the economy, prepare for socio-economic changes, and ensure an appropriate ethical and legal framework.

To deliver on the AI strategy, the Commission developed together with Member States a coordinated plan on AI, which it presented in December 2018, to create synergies, pool data — the raw material for many AI applications — and increase joint investments. The aim is to foster cross-border cooperation and mobilise all players to increase public and private investments to at least EUR 20 billion annually over the next decade.

The Commission doubled its investments in AI in Horizon 2020 and plans to invest EUR 1 billion annually from Horizon Europe and the Digital Europe Programme, in support notably of common data spaces in health, transport and manufacturing, and large experimentation facilities such as smart hospitals and infrastructures for automated vehicles and a strategic research agenda.

To implement such a common strategic research, innovation and deployment agenda the Commission has intensified its dialogue with all relevant stakeholders from industry, research institutes and public authorities. The new Digital Europe programme will also be crucial in helping to make AI available to small and medium-size enterprises across all Member States through digital innovation hubs, strengthened testing and experimentation facilities, data spaces and training programmes.

Building on its reputation for safe and high-quality products, Europe’s ethical approach to AI strengthens citizens’ trust in the digital development and aims at building a competitive advantage for European AI companies. The purpose of this Communication is to launch a comprehensive piloting phase involving stakeholders on the widest scale in order to test the practical implementation of ethical guidance for AI development and use…(More)”.

Filling a gap: the clandestine gang fixing Rome illegally


Giorgio Ghiglione in The Guardian: “It is 6am on a Sunday and the streets of the Ostiense neighbourhood in southern Rome are empty. The metro has just opened and nearby cafes still await their first customers.

Seven men and women are working hard, their faces obscured by scarves and hoodies as they unload bags of cement and sand from a car near the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls.

They are not criminals. Members of the secret Gap organisation, they hide their identities because what they are doing – fixing a broken pavement without official permission – is technically illegal.

City maintenance – or the lack of it – has long been a hot-button issue in Italy’s capital. There are an estimated 10,000 potholesin the city – a source of frustration for the many Romans who travel by scooter. Garbage collection has also become a major problem since the city’s landfill was closed in 2013, with periodic “waste crises” where trash piles up in the streets. Cases of exploding buses and the collapse of a metro escalatormade international headlines.

The seven clandestine pavement-fixers are part of a network of about 20 activists quietly doing the work that the city authorities have failed to do. Gap stands for Gruppi Artigiani Pronto Intervento, (“groups of artisan emergency services”) but is also a tribute to the partisans of Gruppi di Azione Patriottica, who fought the fascists during the second world war.

“We chose this name because many of our parents or grandparents were partisans and we liked the idea of honouring their memory,” says one of the activists, a fiftysomething architect who goes by the pseudonym Renato. While the modern-day Gap aren’t risking their lives, their modus operandi is inspired by resistance saboteurs: they identify a target, strike and disappear unseen into the city streets.

Gap have been busy over the past few months. In December they repaired the fountain, built in the 1940s, of the Principe di Piemonte primary school. In January they painted a pedestrian crossing on a dangerous major road. Their latest work, the pavement fixing in Ostiense, involved filling a deep hole that regularly filled with water when it rained….(More)”.

Rethink government with AI


Helen Margetts and Cosmina Dorobantu at Nature: “People produce more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day. Businesses are harnessing these riches using artificial intelligence (AI) to add trillions of dollars in value to goods and services each year. Amazon dispatches items it anticipates customers will buy to regional hubs before they are purchased. Thanks to the vast extractive might of Google and Facebook, every bakery and bicycle shop is the beneficiary of personalized targeted advertising.

But governments have been slow to apply AI to hone their policies and services. The reams of data that governments collect about citizens could, in theory, be used to tailor education to the needs of each child or to fit health care to the genetics and lifestyle of each patient. They could help to predict and prevent traffic deaths, street crime or the necessity of taking children into care. Huge costs of floods, disease outbreaks and financial crises could be alleviated using state-of-the-art modelling. All of these services could become cheaper and more effective.

This dream seems rather distant. Governments have long struggled with much simpler technologies. Flagship policies that rely on information technology (IT) regularly flounder. The Affordable Care Act of former US president Barack Obama nearly crumbled in 2013 when HealthCare.gov, the website enabling Americans to enrol in health insurance plans, kept crashing. Universal Credit, the biggest reform to the UK welfare state since the 1940s, is widely regarded as a disaster because of its failure to pay claimants properly. It has also wasted £837 million (US$1.1 billion) on developing one component of its digital system that was swiftly decommissioned. Canada’s Phoenix pay system, introduced in 2016 to overhaul the federal government’s payroll process, has remunerated 62% of employees incorrectly in each fiscal year since its launch. And My Health Record, Australia’s digital health-records system, saw more than 2.5 million people opt out by the end of January this year over privacy, security and efficacy concerns — roughly 1 in 10 of those who were eligible.

Such failures matter. Technological innovation is essential for the state to maintain its position of authority in a data-intensive world. The digital realm is where citizens live and work, shop and play, meet and fight. Prices for goods are increasingly set by software. Work is mediated through online platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo. Voters receive targeted information — and disinformation — through social media.

Thus the core tasks of governments, such as enforcing regulation, setting employment rights and ensuring fair elections require an understanding of data and algorithms. Here we highlight the main priorities, drawn from our experience of working with policymakers at The Alan Turing Institute in London….(More)”.

Ethics guidelines for trustworthy AI


European Commission: “Following the publication of the draft ethics guidelines in December 2018 to which more than 500 comments were received, the independent expert group presents today their ethics guidelines for trustworthy artificial intelligence.

Trustworthy AI should respect all applicable laws and regulations, as well as a series of requirements; specific assessment lists aim to help verify the application of each of the key requirements:

  • Human agency and oversight: AI systems should enable equitable societies by supporting human agency and fundamental rights, and not decrease, limit or misguide human autonomy.
  • Robustness and safety: Trustworthy AI requires algorithms to be secure, reliable and robust enough to deal with errors or inconsistencies during all life cycle phases of AI systems.
  • Privacy and data governance: Citizens should have full control over their own data, while data concerning them will not be used to harm or discriminate against them.
  • Transparency: The traceability of AI systems should be ensured.
  • Diversity, non-discrimination and fairness: AI systems should consider the whole range of human abilities, skills and requirements, and ensure accessibility.
  • Societal and environmental well-being: AI systems should be used to enhance positive social change and enhance sustainability and ecological responsibility.
  • Accountability: Mechanisms should be put in place to ensure responsibility and accountability for AI systems and their outcomes.

In summer 2019, the Commission will launch a pilot phase involving a wide range of stakeholders. Already today, companies, public administrations and organisations can sign up to the European AI Alliance and receive a notification when the pilot starts.

Following the pilot phase, in early 2020, the AI expert group will review the assessment lists for the key requirements, building on the feedback received. Building on this review, the Commission will evaluate the outcome and propose any next steps….(More)”.

The Politics of Referendum Use in European Democracies


Book by Saskia Hollander: “This book demonstrates that the generally assumed dichotomy between referendums and representative democracy does not do justice to the great diversity of referendum types and of how referendums are used in European democracies. Although in all referendums citizens vote directly on issues rather than letting their political representatives do this for them, some referendums are more direct than others.

Rather than reflecting the direct power of the People, most referendums in EU countries are held by, and serve the interests of, the political elites, most notably the executive. The book shows that these interests rarely match the justifications given in the public debate. Instead of being driven by the need to compensate for the deficiency of political parties, decision-makers use referendums primarily to protect the position of their party. In unravelling the strategic role played by national referendums in decision-making, this book makes an unconventional contribution to the debate on the impact of referendums on democracy….(More)”

Does increased ‘participation’ equal a new-found enthusiasm for democracy?


Blog by Stephen King and Paige Nicol: “With a few months under our belts, 2019 looks unlikely to be the year of a great global turnaround for democracy. The decade of democratic ‘recession’ that Larry Diamond declared in 2015 has dragged on and deepened, and may now be teetering on the edge of becoming a full-blown depression. 

The start of each calendar year is marked by the release of annual indices, rankings, and reports on how democracy is faring around the world. 2018 reports from Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) highlighted precipitous declines in civil liberties in long-standing democracies as well as authoritarian states. Some groups, including migrants, women, ethnic and other minorities, opposition politicians, and journalists have been particularly affected by these setbacks. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of journalists murdered nearly doubled last year, while the number imprisoned remained above 250 for the third consecutive year. 

Yet, the EIU also found a considerable increase in political participation worldwide. Levels of participation (including voting, protesting, and running for elected office, among other dimensions) increased substantially enough last year to offset falling scores in the other four categories of the index. Based on the methodology used, the rise in political participation was significant enough to prevent a decline in the global overall score for democracy for the first time in three years.

Though this development could give cause for optimism we believe it could also raise new concerns. 

In Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Venezuela we see people who, through desperation and frustration, have taken to the streets – a form of participation which has been met with brutal crackdowns. Time has yet to tell what the ultimate outcome of these protests will be, but it is clear that governments with autocratic tendencies have more – and cheaper – tools to monitor, direct, control, and suppress participation than ever before. 

Elsewhere, we see a danger of people becoming dislocated and disenchanted with democracy, as their representatives fail to take meaningful action on the issues that matter to them. In the UK Parliament, as Brexit discussions have become increasingly polarised and fractured along party political and ideological lines, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned that there was a threat of social unrest if Parliament was seen to be frustrating the ‘will of the people.’ 

While we see enhanced participation as crucial to just and fair societies, it alone will not be the silver bullet that saves democracy. Whether this trend becomes a cause for hope or concern will depend on three factors: who is participating, what form does participation take, and how is participation received by those with power?…(More)”.