How Belgium is Giving Citizens a Say on AI

Article by Graham Wetherall-Grujić: “A few weeks before the European Parliament’s final debate on the AI Act, 60 randomly selected members of the Belgian public convened in Brussels for a discussion of their own. The aim was not to debate a particular piece of legislation, but to help shape a European vision on the future of AI, drawing on the views, concerns, and ideas of the public. 

They were taking part in a citizens’ assembly on AI, held as part of Belgium’s presidency of the European Council. When Belgium assumed the presidency for six months beginning in January 2024, they announced they would be placing “special focus” on citizens’ participation. The citizen panel on AI is the largest of the scheduled participation projects. Over a total of three weekends, participants are deliberating on a range of topics including the impact of AI on work, education, and democracy. 

The assembly comes at a point in time with rising calls for more public inputs on the topic of AI. Some big tech firms have begun to respond with participation projects of their own. But this is the first time an EU institution has launched a consultation on the topic. The organisers hope it will pave the way for more to come…(More)”.

Could artificial intelligence benefit democracy?

Article by Brian Wheeler: “Each week sees a new set of warnings about the potential impact of AI-generated deepfakes – realistic video and audio of politicians saying things they never said – spreading confusion and mistrust among the voting public.

And in the UK, regulators, security services and government are battling to protect this year’s general election from malign foreign interference.

Less attention has been given to the possible benefits of AI.

But a lot of work is going on, often below the radar, to try to harness its power in ways that might enhance democracy rather than destroy it.

“While this technology does pose some important risks in terms of disinformation, it also offers some significant opportunities for campaigns, which we can’t ignore,” Hannah O’Rourke, co-founder of Campaign Lab, a left-leaning network of tech volunteers, says.

“Like all technology, what matters is how AI is actually implemented. “Its impact will be felt in the way campaigners actually use it.”

Among other things, Campaign Lab runs training courses for Labour and Liberal Democrat campaigners on how to use ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer) to create the first draft of election leaflets.

It reminds them to edit the final product carefully, though, as large language models (LLMs) such as ChatGPT have a worrying tendency to “hallucinate” or make things up.

The group is also experimenting with chatbots to help train canvassers to have more engaging conversations on the doorstep.

AI is already embedded in everyday programs, from Microsoft Outlook to Adobe Photoshop, Ms O’Rourke says, so why not use it in a responsible way to free up time for more face-to-face campaigning?…

Conservative-supporting AI expert Joe Reeve is another young political campaigner convinced the new technology can transform things for the better.

He runs Future London, a community of “techno optimists” who use AI to seek answers to big questions such as “Why can’t I buy a house?” and, crucially, “Where’s my robot butler?”

In 2020, Mr Reeve founded Tory Techs, partly as a right-wing response to Campaign Lab.

The group has run programming sessions and explored how to use AI to hone Tory campaign messages but, Mr Reeve says, it now “mostly focuses on speaking with MPs in more private and safe spaces to help coach politicians on what AI means and how it can be a positive force”.

“Technology has an opportunity to make the world a lot better for a lot of people and that is regardless of politics,” he tells BBC News…(More)”.

Evidence Ecosystems and the Challenge of Humanising and Normalising Evidence

Article by Geoff Mulgan: “It is reasonable to assume that the work of governments, businesses and civil society goes better if the people making decisions are well-informed, using reliable facts and strong evidence rather than only hunch and anecdote.  The term ‘evidence ecosystem’1  is a useful shorthand for the results of systematic attempts to make this easier, enabling decision makers, particularly in governments, to access the best available evidence, in easily digestible forms and when it’s needed.  

…This sounds simple.  But these ecosystems are as varied as ecosystems in nature.  How they work depends on many factors, including how political or technical the issues are; the presence or absence of confident, well-organised professions; the availability of good quality evidence; whether there is a political culture that values research; and much more.

In particular, the paper argues that the next generation of evidence ecosystems need a sharper understanding of how the supply of evidence meets demand, and the human dimension of evidence.  That means cultivating lasting relationships rather than relying too much on a linear flow of evidence from researchers to decision-makers; it means using conversation as much as prose reports to ensure evidence is understood and acted on; and it means making use of stories as well as dry analysis.  It depends, in other words, on recognising that the users of evidence are humans.

In terms of prescription the paper emphasises:

  • Sustainability/normalisation: the best approaches are embedded, part of the daily life of decision-making rather than depending on one-off projects and programmes.  This applies both to evidence and to data.  Yet embeddedness is the exception rather than the rule.
  • Multiplicity: multiple types of knowledge, and logics, are relevant to decisions, which is why people and institutions that understand these different logics are so vital.  
  • Credibility and relationships: the intermediaries who connect the supply and demand of knowledge need to be credible, with both depth of knowledge and an ability to interpret it for diverse audiences, and they need to be able to create and maintain relationships, which will usually be either place or topic based, and will take time to develop, with the communication of evidence often done best in conversation.
  • Stories: influencing decision-makers depends on indirect as well as direct communication, since the media in all their forms play a crucial role in validating evidence and evidence travels best with stories, vignettes and anecdotes.

In short, while evidence is founded on rigorous analysis, good data and robust methods, it also needs to be humanised – embedded in relationships, brought alive in conversations and vivid, human stories – and normalised, becoming part of everyday work…(More)”.

Mechanisms for Researcher Access to Online Platform Data

Status Report by the EU/USA: “Academic and civil society research on prominent online platforms has become a crucial way to understand the information environment and its impact on our societies. Scholars across the globe have leveraged application programming interfaces (APIs) and web crawlers to collect public user-generated content and advertising content on online platforms to study societal issues ranging from technology-facilitated gender-based violence, to the impact of media on mental health for children and youth. Yet, a changing landscape of platforms’ data access mechanisms and policies has created uncertainty and difficulty for critical research projects.

The United States and the European Union have a shared commitment to advance data access for researchers, in line with the high-level principles on access to data from online platforms for researchers announced at the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council (TTC) Ministerial Meeting in May 2023.1 Since the launch of the TTC, the EU Digital Services Act (DSA) has gone into effect, requiring providers of Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) and Very Large Online Search Engines (VLOSEs) to provide increased transparency into their services. The DSA includes provisions on transparency reports, terms and conditions, and explanations for content moderation decisions. Among those, two provisions provide important access to publicly available content on platforms:

• DSA Article 40.12 requires providers of VLOPs/VLOSEs to provide academic and civil society researchers with data that is “publicly accessible in their online interface.”
• DSA Article 39 requires providers of VLOPs/VLOSEs to maintain a public repository of advertisements.

The announcements related to new researcher access mechanisms mark an important development and opportunity to better understand the information environment. This status report summarizes a subset of mechanisms that are available to European and/or United States researchers today, following, in part VLOPs and VLOSEs measures to comply with the DSA. The report aims at showcasing the existing access modalities and encouraging the use of these mechanisms to study the impact of online platform’s design and decisions on society. The list of mechanisms reviewed is included in the Appendix…(More)”

Feminist democratic innovations in policy and politics

Article by Paloma Caravantes and Emanuela Lombardo: “This article examines the potential of feminist democratic innovations in policy and institutional politics. It examines how feminist democratic innovations can be conceptualised and articulated in local institutions. Combining theories on democratic governance, feminist democracy, social movements, municipalism, decentralisation, gender equality policies and state feminism, it conceptualises feminist democratic innovations in policy and politics as innovations oriented at (a) transforming knowledge, (b) transforming policymaking and public funding, (c) transforming institutions, and (d) transforming actors’ coalitions. Through analysis of municipal plans and interviews with key actors, the article examines feminist democratic innovations in the policy and politics of Barcelona’s local government from 2015 to 2023. Emerging from the mobilisation of progressive social movements after the 2008 economic crisis, the findings uncover a laboratory of feminist municipal politics, following the election of a new government and self-proclaimed feminist mayor. Critical actors and an enabling political context play a pivotal role in the adoption of this feminist institutional politics. The article concludes by arguing that feminist institutional politics at the local level contribute to democratising policy and politics in innovative ways, in particular encouraging inclusive intersectionality and participatory discourses and practices…(More)”.and 

This City Pilots Web3 Quadratic Funding for Public Infrastructure

Article by Makoto Takahiro: “The city of Split, Croatia is piloting an innovative new system for deciding how to fund municipal infrastructure projects. Called “quadratic funding,” the mechanism aims to fairly account for both public and private preferences when allocating limited budget resources.

A coalition of organizations including BlockSplit, Funding the Commons, Gitcoin, and the City of Split launched the Municipal Quadratic Funding Initiative in September 2023. The project goals include implementing quadratic funding for prioritizing public spending, utilizing web3 tools to increase transparency and participation, and demonstrating the potential of these technologies to improve legacy processes.

If successful, the model could scale to other towns and cities or inspire additional quadratic funding experiments.

The partners believe that the transparency and configurability of blockchain systems make them well-suited to quadratic funding applications.

Quadratic funding mathematically accounts for the intensity of demand for public goods. Groups can create projects which individuals can support financially. The amount of money ultimately directed to each proposal is based on the square of support received. This means that projects attracting larger numbers of smaller contributions can compete with those receiving fewer large donations.

In this way, quadratic funding aims to reflect both willingness to pay and breadth of support in funding decisions. It attempts to break tendency towards corruption where influential groups lobby for their niche interests. The goal is a fairer allocation suited to the whole community’s preferences.

The initiative will build on open source quadratic funding infrastructure already deployed for other uses like funding public goods on Ethereum. Practical web3 tools can help teadministration manage funding rounds and disburse awards…(More)”.

Designing an instrument for scaling public sector innovations

Paper by Mirte A R van Hout, Rik B Braams, Paul Meijer, and Albert J Meijer: “Governments worldwide invest in developing and diffusing innovations to deal with wicked problems. While experiments and pilots flourish, governments struggle to successfully scale innovations. Public sector scaling remains understudied, and scholarly suggestions for scaling trajectories are lacking. Following a design approach, this research develops an academically grounded, practice-oriented scaling instrument for planning and reflecting on the scaling of public sector innovations. We design this instrument based on the academic literature, an empirical analysis of three scaling projects at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, and six focus groups with practitioners. This research proposes a context-specific and iterative understanding of scaling processes and contributes a typology of scaling barriers and an additional scaling strategy to the literature. The presented instrument increases our academic understanding of scaling and enables teams of policymakers, in cooperation with stakeholders, to plan and reflect on a context-specific scaling pathway for public sector innovations…(More)”.

Digital transformation of public services

Policy Brief by Interreg Europe: “In a world of digital advancements, the public sector must undergo a comprehensive digital transformation to enhance service delivery efficiency, improve governance, foster innovation and increase citizen satisfaction.

The European Union is playing a leading role and has been actively developing policy frameworks for the digitalisation of the public sector. This policy brief provides a general overview of the most relevant initiatives, regulations, and strategies of the European Union, which are shaping Europe’s digital future.

The European Union’s strategy for the digital transformation of public services is centred on enhancing accessibility, efficiency, and user-centricity. This strategy also promotes interoperability among Member States, fostering seamless cross-border interactions. Privacy and security measures are integral to building trust in digital public services, with a focus on data protection and cybersecurity. Ultimately, the goal is to create a cohesive, digitally advanced public service ecosystem throughout the EU, with the active participation of the private sector (GovTech).

This policy brief outlines key policy improvements, good practices and recommendations, stemming from the Interreg Europe projects BEST DIHBETTERENAIBLERNext2MetDigital RegionsDigitourismInno ProvementERUDITE, iBuy and Carpe Digem, to inform and guide policymakers to embark upon digital transformation processes successfully, as well as encouraging greater interregional cooperation…(More)”.

Objectivity vs affect: how competing forms of legitimacy can polarize public debate in data-driven public consultation

Paper by Alison Powell: “How do data and objectivity become politicized? How do processes intended to include citizen voices instead push them into social media that intensify negative expression? This paper examines the possibility and limits of ‘agonistic data practices’ (Crooks & Currie, 2021) examining how data-driven consultation practices create competing forms of legitimacy for quantifiable knowledge and affective lived experience. Drawing on a two-year study of a private Facebook group self-presenting as a supportive space for working-class people critical of the development of ‘low-traffic neighbourhoods’ (LTNs), the paper reveals how the dynamics of ‘affective polarization’ associated the use of data with elite and exclusionary politics. Participants addressed this by framing their online contributions as ‘vernacular data’ and also by associating numerical data with exclusion and inequality. Over time the strong statements of feeling began to support content of a conspiratorial nature, reflected at the social level of discourse in the broader media environment where stories of strong feeling gain legitimacy in right-wing sources. The paper concludes that ideologies of dataism and practices of datafication may create conditions for political extremism to develop when the potential conditions of ‘agonistic data practices’ are not met, and that consultation processes must avoid overly valorizing data and calculable knowledge if they wish to retain democratic accountability…(More)”.

EBP+: Integrating science into policy evaluation using Evidential Pluralism

Article by Joe Jones, Alexandra Trofimov, Michael Wilde & Jon Williamson: “…While the need to integrate scientific evidence in policymaking is clear, there isn’t a universally accepted framework for doing so in practice. Orthodox evidence-based approaches take Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) as the gold standard of evidence. Others argue that social policy issues require theory-based methods to understand the complexities of policy interventions. These divisions may only further decrease trust in science at this critical time.

EBP+ offers a broader framework within which both orthodox and theory-based methods can sit. EBP+ also provides a systematic account of how to integrate and evaluate these different types of evidence. EBP+ can offer consistency and objectivity in policy evaluation, and could yield a unified approach that increases public trust in scientifically-informed policy…

EBP+ is motivated by Evidential Pluralism, a philosophical theory of causal enquiry that has been developed over the last 15 years. Evidential Pluralism encompasses two key claims. The first, object pluralism, says that establishing that A is a cause of B (e.g., that a policy intervention causes a specific outcome) requires establishing both that and B are appropriately correlated and that there is some mechanism which links the two and which can account for the extent of the correlation. The second claim, study pluralism, maintains that assessing whether is a cause of B requires assessing both association studies (studies that repeatedly measure and B, together with potential confounders, to measure their association) and mechanistic studies (studies of features of the mechanisms linking A to B), where available…(More)”.

A diagrammatic representation of Evidential Pluralism
Evidential Pluralism (© Jon Williamson)