Inside Avaaz – can online activism really change the world?


The Guardian: “With 30 million members, Avaaz is an organisation with ambitions to save us all through technology. Carole Cadwalladr meets its founder Ricken Patel to find out what it has achieved…But then, this is the reality of 21st century protest: it’s a beauty parade. A competition for the thing that we all seem to have less of: attention. The TV cameras do show up, though, and a young Rohingya woman from Burma’s Muslim minority gives moving interviews to journalists about the terrible human rights abuses her family have endured. And a dozen or so mostly fresh-faced young people show up to offer their support. The protest has been organised by Avaaz, an online activist organisation, and these are Avaazers. They may have just signed an online petition, or “liked” a cause on Facebook, or donated to a campaign – to save Europe’s bees from pesticides, or to defend Masai land rights in Tanzania, or to “stand by” Edward Snowden. And, depending on who you believe, they’re either inventing a new type of 21st-century protest or they’re a bunch of idle slacktivists who are about as likely to start a revolution as they are to renounce their iPhones and give up Facebook.
In just six years, Avaaz – which means “voice” in various languages – has become a global pressure group to be reckoned with. It’s a new kind of activism that isn’t issue-led, it’s issues-led. It’s human rights abuses in Burma, or it’s the Syrian civil war, or it’s threats against the Great Barrier Reef or it’s homophobia in Costa Rica. It’s whatever its supporters, guided by the Avaaz team, choose to click on most this month. And if you hadn’t heard of Avaaz before, it’s probably only a matter of time….
“We’re like a laboratory for virality. For every campaign we test perhaps 20 different versions of it to see what people want.” It tweaks and it tweaks and it tweaks, changing the wording, pictures, call for action, and only then does it send it out on public release. Sam Barratt, Avaaz’s head of press, shows me the previous versions of its email about the Burma campaign. “Changing the meme at the top, or the photograph, massively affects the number of clicks. Eighteen versions were tested. People think we just chuck it out there, but there’s a huge amount of data sophistry into how we design the campaigns.” And, just as Amazon and Google try to predict our behaviour, and adjust their offerings based on our past preferences, so does Avaaz. It uses algorithms to detect things we perhaps don’t even know about ourselves.
“It’s a tremendously evolving science, internet engagement,” says Patel. “But we develop a picture of someone from their previous engagements with us. So, for example, we can see that a certain set of people, based on their previous behaviour, might be interested in starting a campaign, and another set won’t be, but may be interested in signing something. We can tailor it to the individual.”
Everything is viral now, says Patel, “from financial crises to health epidemics to ideas”. And learning the lessons of that and of how to garner attention from some of the most attention-deficient people on the planet – young people with electronic devices – has been Avaaz’s masterstroke….
A crisistunity is another Avaaz-ism. “Though I think we originally got it from The Simpsons,” says Patel. “It’s a mixture of crisis and opportunity. We’re at this extraordinary moment in history. We have the power to wipe out our species. But at the same time, we’ve had tremendous progress in the past 30 years. We have more than halved global poverty. We’ve radically increased the status of women. There are tremendous reasons for hope and optimism.”
There is something very Avaazian about the crisistunity, I come to think, in that it’s borrowed something slick and witty from popular culture and re-purposed it for something which used to be called the Greater Good. And then given it a thick dollop of added earnestness.”

Why We Engage: How Theories of Human Behavior Contribute to Our Understanding of Civic Engagement in a Digital Era


New paper by Gordon, Eric and Baldwin-Philippi, Jessica and Balestra, Martina: “…Just as the rapidly evolving landscape of connectivity and communications technology is transforming the individual’s experience of the social sphere, what it means to participate in civic life is also changing, both in how people do it and how it is measured. Civic engagement includes all the ways in which individuals attend to the concerns of public life, how one learns about and participates in all of the issues and contexts beyond one’s immediate private or intimate sphere. New technologies and corresponding social practices, from social media to mobile reporting, are providing different ways to record, share, and amplify that attentiveness. Media objects or tools that impact civic life can be understood within two broad types: those designed specifically with the purpose of community engagement in mind (for instance, a digital game for local planning or an app to give feedback to city council) or generic tools that are subsequently appropriated for engaging a community (such as Twitter or Facebook’s role in the Arab Spring or London riots). Moreover, these tools can mediate any number of relationships between or among citizens, local organizations, or government institutions. Digitally mediated civic engagement runs the gamut of phenomena from organizing physical protests using social media (e.g., Occupy), to using digital tools to hack institutions (e.g., Anonymous), to using city-produced mobile applications to access and coproduce government services, to using digital platforms for deliberating. Rather than try to identify what civic media tools look like in the midst of such an array of possibilities (by focusing on in depth examples or case studies), going forward we will instead focus on how digital tools expand the context of civic life and motivations for engagement, and what participating in civic life looks like in a digital era.
We present this literature review as a means of exploring the intersection of theories of human behavior with the motivations for and benefits of engaging in civic life. We bring together literature from behavioral economics, sociology, psychology and communication studies to reveal how civic actors, institutions, and decision-making processes have been traditionally understood, and how emerging media tools and practices are forcing their reconsideration.

Privacy in the 21st Century: From the “Dark Ages” to “Enlightenment”?


Paper by P. Kitsos and A. Yannoukakou in the International Journal of E-Politics (IJEP): “The events of 9/11 along with the bombarding in Madrid and London forced governments to resort to new structures of privacy safeguarding and electronic surveillance under the common denominator of terrorism and transnational crime fighting. Legislation as US PATRIOT Act and EU Data Retention Directive altered fundamentally the collection, processing and sharing methods of personal data, while it granted increased powers to police and law enforcement authorities concerning their jurisdiction in obtaining and processing personal information to an excessive degree. As an aftermath of the resulted opacity and the public outcry, a shift is recorded during the last years towards a more open governance by the implementation of open data and cloud computing practices in order to enhance transparency and accountability from the side of governments, restore the trust between the State and the citizens, and amplify the citizens’ participation to the decision-making procedures. However, privacy and personal data protection are major issues in all occasions and, thus, must be safeguarded without sacrificing national security and public interest on one hand, but without crossing the thin line between protection and infringement on the other. Where this delicate balance stands, is the focal point of this paper trying to demonstrate that it is better to be cautious with open practices than hostage of clandestine practices.”

Crisis response needs to be a science, not an art


Jimmy Whitworth in the Financial Times:”…It is an imperative to offer shelter, nutrition, sanitation and medical care to those suddenly bereft of it. Without aid, humanitarian crises would cause still greater suffering. Yet admiration for the agencies that deliver relief should not blind us to the need to ensure that it is well delivered. Humanitarian responses must be founded on good evidence.
The evidence base, unfortunately, is weak. We know that storms, earthquakes and conflicts have devastating consequences for health and wellbeing, and that not responding is not an option, but we know surprisingly little about how best to go about it. Not only is evidence-based practice rare in humanitarian relief operations, it is often impossible.
Questions about how best to deliver clean water or adequate shelter, and even about which health needs should be prioritised as the most pressing, have often been barely researched. Indeed, the evidence gap is so great that the Humanitarian Practice Network has highlighted a “dire lack of credible data to help us understand just how much populations in crisis suffer, and to what extent relief operations are able to relieve that suffering”. No wonder aid responses are often characterised as messy.
Good practice often rests on past practice rather than research. The Bible of humanitarian relief is a document called the Sphere handbook, an important initiative to set minimum standards for provision of health, nutrition, sanitation and shelter. Yet analysis of the 2004 handbook has revealed that just 13 per cent of its 346 standards were supported by good evidence of relevance to health. The handbook, for example, recommended that refugee camps should prioritise measles vaccination – a worthwhile goal, but not one that should clearly be favoured over control of other infectious diseases.

Also under-researched is the question of how best to provide types of relief that everybody agrees meet essential needs. Access to clean water is a clear priority for almost all populations in crisis but little is understood about how this is most efficiently delivered. Is it best to ship bottled water to stricken areas? Are tankers of clean water more effective? Or can water purification tablets do the job? The summer floods in northern India made it clear that there is little good evidence one way or another.

Adequate shelter, too, is a human essential in all but the most benign environments but, once again, the evidence base about how best to provide it is limited. There is a school of thought that building transitional shelter from locally available materials is better in the long run than housing people under tents, tarpaulins and plastic, which if accurate would have far-reaching consequences for standard practice. But too little research has been done…
Researchers also face significant challenges to building a better evidence base. They can struggle to secure access to disaster zones when getting relief in is the priority. The timescales involved in applying for funding and ethical approval, too, make it difficult for them to move quickly enough to set up a study in the critical post-disaster period.
It is to address this that Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance, with the support of the Wellcome Trust and the UK Department for International Development, recently launched an £8m research programme that investigates these issues.”

Transparency in Politics and the Media: Accountability and Open Government


New report from The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism by Nigel Bowles, James T. Hamilton, and David A. L. Levy: “Increasingly governments around the world are experimenting with initiatives in transparency or ‘open government’.
These involve a variety of measures including the announcement of more user-friendly government websites, greater access to government data, the extension of freedom of information legislation and broader attempts to involve the public in government decision making.
However, the role of the media in these initiatives has not hitherto been examined.  This new RISJ edited volume analyses the challenges and opportunities presented to journalists as they attempt to hold governments accountable in an era of professed transparency.
In examining how transparency and open government initiatives have affected the accountability role of the press in the US and the UK, it also explores how policies in these two countries could change in the future to help journalists hold governments more accountable.
This volume will be essential reading for all practising journalists, for students of journalism or politics, and for policymakers. This publication can be bought from I. B. Tauris
Download the Executive Summary and First Chapter”

13 ways to unlock the potential of open government


The Guardian: “Nine experts offer their thoughts on making open data initiatives work for all citizens…
Tiago Peixoto, open government specialist, The World Bank, Washington DC, US. @participatory
Open data is an enabler – not a guarantee – of good participation: Participation implies creating legitimate channels of communication between citizens and governments, and opening up data does not create that channel. We need to consider which structures enable us to know about citizens’ needs and preferences.
Both governments and civil society are responsible for connecting governments to the people: If we assume institutional or regulatory reforms are needed, then clearly governments (at both the legislative and executive level) should take a big part of the responsibility. After that, it is civil society’s role (and individual citizens) to further promote and strengthen those institutions….
Ben Taylor, open data consultant, Twaweza, UK and Tanzania. @mtega
We need to put people before data: The OGP Summit raised some interesting questions on open data and open government in developing countries. In a particular session discussing how to harness data to drive citizens engagement, the consensus was that this was the wrong way around. It should instead be reversed, putting the real, everyday needs of citizens first, and then asking how can we use data to help meet these.
Open government is not all about technology: Often people assume that open government means technology, but I think that’s wrong. For me, open government is a simple idea: it’s about making the nuts and bolts of how government works visible to citizens. Even open data isn’t always just about technology, for example postings on noticeboards and in newspapers are also valuable. Technology has a lot to offer, but it has limitations as well…
Juan M Casanueva, director, SocialTIC, Mexico City, Mexico. @jm_casanueva
Closed working cultures stifle open government initiatives: It is interesting to think about why governments struggle to open up. While closed systems tend to foster corruption and other perverse practices, most government officials also follow a pre-established closed culture that has become ingrained in their working practices. There are sometimes few incentives and high risks for government officials that want to make career in the public service and some also lack capacities to handle technology and citizen involvement. It is very interesting to see government officials that overcome these challenges actually benefiting politically for doing innovative citizen-centered actions. Unfortunately, that is too much of a risk at higher levels of government.
NGOs in Mexico are leading the way with access to information and citizen involvement: Sonora Ciudana recently opened the state’s health payroll and approached the public staff so that they could compare what they earn with the state expense reports. Pacto por Juarez has created grassroots transparency and accountability schools and even have a bus tour that goes around the city explaining the city’s budget and how it is being spent….”

Selected Readings on Crowdsourcing Opinions and Ideas


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 crowdsourcing was originally published in 2013.

As technological advances give individuals greater ability to share their opinions and ideas with the world, citizens are increasingly expecting government to consult with them and factor their input into the policy-making process. Moving away from the representative democracy system created in a less connected time, e-petitions; participatory budgeting (PB), a collaborative, community-based system for budget allocation; open innovation initiatives; and Liquid Democracy, a hybrid of direct and indirect democracy, are allowing citizens to make their voices heard between trips to the ballot box.

Selected Reading List (in alphabetical order)

Annotated Selected Reading List (in alphabetical order)

Bergmann, Eirikur. “Reconstituting Iceland – Constitutional Reform Caught in a New Critical Order in the Wake of Crisis.” in Academia.edu, (presented at the Political Legitimacy and the Paradox of Regulation, Leiden University, 2013). http://bit.ly/1aaTVYP.
  •  This paper explores the tumultuous history of Iceland’s “Crowdsourced Constitution.” The since-abandoned document was built upon three principles: distribution of power, transparency and responsibility.
  •  Even prior to the draft being dismantled through political processes, Bergmann argues that an overenthusiastic public viewed the constitution as a stronger example of citizen participation than it really was: “Perhaps with the delusion of distance the international media was branding the production as the world’s first ‘crowdsourced’ constitution, drafted by the interested public in clear view for the world to follow…This was however never a realistic description of the drafting. Despite this extraordinary open access, the Council was not able to systematically plough through all the extensive input as [it] only had four months to complete the task.”
  • Bergmann’s paper illustrates the transition Iceland’s constitution has undertaken in recent years: moving form a paradigmatic example of crowdsourcing opinions to a demonstration of the challenges inherent in bringing more voices into a realm dominated by bureaucracy and political concerns.
Gassmann, Oliver, Ellen Enkel, and Henry Chesbrough. “The Future of Open Innovation.” R&D Management 40, no. 3 (2010): 213– 221. http://bit.ly/1bk4YeN.
  • In this paper – an introduction to a special issue on the topic – Gassmann, Enkel and Chesbrough discuss the evolving trends in open innovation. They define the concept, referencing previous work by Chesbrough et al., as “…the purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation, and expand the markets for external use of innovation, respectively.”
  • In addition to examining the existing literature for the field, the authors identify nine trends that they believe will define the future of open innovation for businesses, many of which can also be applied to governing insitutions:
    • Industry penetration: from pioneers to mainstream
    • R&D intensity: from high to low tech
    • Size: from large firms to SMEs
    • Processes: from stage gate to probe-and-learn
    • Structure: from standalone to alliances
    • Universities: from ivory towers to knowledge brokers  Processes: from amateurs to professionals
    • Content: from products to services
    • Intellectual property: from protection to a tradable good
Gilman, Hollie Russon. “The Participatory Turn: Participatory Budgeting Comes to America.” Harvard University, 2012. https://bit.ly/2BhaeVv.
  •  In this dissertation, Gilman argues that participatory budgeting (PB) produces better outcomes than the status quo budget process in New York, while also transforming how those who participate understand themselves as citizens, constituents, Council members, civil society leaders and community stakeholders.
  • The dissertation also highlights challenges to participation drawing from experience and lessons learned from PB’s inception in Porto Alege, Brazil in 1989. While recognizing a diversity of challenges, Gilman ultimately argues that, “PB provides a viable and informative democratic innovation for strengthening civic engagement within the United States that can be streamlined and adopted to scale.”
Kasdan, Alexa, and Cattell, Lindsay. “New Report on NYC Participatory Budgeting.” Practical Visionaries. Accessed October 21, 2013. https://bit.ly/2Ek8bTu.
  • This research and evaluation report is the result of surveys, in-depth interviews and observations collected at key points during the 2011 participatory budgeting (PB) process in New York City, in which “[o]ver 2,000 community members were the ones to propose capital project ideas in neighborhood assemblies and town hall meetings.”
  • The PBNYC project progressed through six main steps:
    •  First Round of Neighborhood Assemblies
    • Delegate Orientations
    • Delegate Meetings
    • Second Round of Neighborhood Assemblies
    • Voting
    • Evaluation, Implementation & Monitoring
  •  The authors also discuss the varied roles and responsibilities for the divers stakeholders involved in the process:
    • Community Stakeholders
    • Budget Delegates
    • District Committees
    • City-wide Steering Committee  Council Member Offices
Masser, Kai. “Participatory Budgeting as Its Critics See It.” Burgerhaushalt, April 30, 2013. http://bit.ly/1dppSxW.
  • This report is a critique of the participatory budgeting (PB) process, focusing on lessons learned from the outcomes of a pilot initiative in Germany.
  • The reports focuses on three main criticisms leveled against PB:
    • Participatory Budgeting can be a time consuming process that is barely comprehensive to the people it seeks to engage, as a result there is need for information about the budget, and a strong willingness to participate in preparing it.
    • Differences in the social structure of the participants inevitably affect the outcome – the process must be designed to avoid low participation or over-representation of one group.
    • PB cannot be sustained over a prolonged period and should therefore focus on one aspect of the budgeting process. The article points to outcomes that show that citizens may find it considerably more attractive to make proposals on how to spend money than on how to save it, which may not always result in the best outcomes.
OECD. “Citizens as Partners: Information, Consultation and Public Participation in Policy-making.” The IT Law Wiki. http://bit.ly/1aIGquc.
  • This OECD policy report features discussion on the concept of crowdsourcing as a new form or representation and public participation in OECD countries, with the understanding that it creates avenues for citizens to participate in public policy-making within the overall framework of representative democracy.
  • The report provides a wealth of comparative information on measures adopted in OECD countries to strengthen citizens’ access to information, to enhance consultation and encourage their active participation in policy-making.

Tchorbadjiiski, Angel. “Liquid Democracy.” Rheinisch-Westf alische Technische Hochschule Aachen Informatik 4 ComSy, 2012. http://bit.ly/1eOsbIH.

  • This thesis presents discusses how Liquid Democracy (LD) makes it for citizens participating in an election to “either take part directly or delegate [their] own voting rights to a representative/expert. This way the voters are not limited to taking one decision for legislative period as opposed to indirect (representative) democracy, but are able to actively and continuously take part in the decision-making process.”
  • Tchorbadjiiski argues that, “LD provides great flexibility. You do not have to decide yourself on the program of a political party, which only suits some aspects of your opinion.” Through LD, “all voters can choose between direct and indirect democracy creating a hybrid government form suiting their own views.”
  • In addition to describing the potential benefits of Liquid Democracy, Tchorbadjiiski focuses on the challenge of maintaining privacy and security in such a system. He proposes a platform that “allows for secure and anonymous voting in such a way that it is not possible, even for the system operator, to find out the identity of a voter or to prevent certain voters (for example minority groups) from casting a ballot.”

Candy Crush-style game helps scientists fight tree disease


Springwise: “The Sainsbury Laboratory has turned genome research into a game called Fraxinus, which could help find a cure for the Chalara ash dieback disease. Crowdsourcing science research isn’t a new thing — we’ve already seen Cancer Research UK enable anyone to help out by identifying cells through its ClicktoCure site. Now the Sainsbury Laboratory has turned genome research into a game called Fraxinus, which could help find a cure for the Chalara ash dieback disease.
Developed as a Facebook app, the game presents players with a number of colored, diamond-shaped blocks that represent the nucleotides that make up the DNA of ash trees. In each round, they have to try to match a particular string of nucleotides as best they can. Users with the nearest match get to ‘claim’ that pattern, but it can be stolen by others with a better sequence. Each sequence gives scientists insight into which genes may be immune from the disease and gives them a better shot at replenishing ash woodland.
According to the creators, Fraxinus has proved an addictive hit with young players, who are helping a good cause while playing. Are there other ways to gamify crowdsourced science research? Website: www.tsl.ac.uk

Organizational Innovation in Public Services: Forms and Governance


New edited book by Pekka Valkama, Stephen James Bailey, Ari-Veikko Anttiroiko: “Reforming public services has become an integral part of instituting austerity measures as governments around the world struggle to balance the books in the wake of the financial crisis. Vital public services and government departments have been given the seemingly impossible task of delivering better services to the public while receiving less funding. This excellent and highly original collection brings together contributors from across the globe to explore and analyse innovational methods aimed at helping overburdened and under-funded public services cope with the demands of austerity and continue to deliver high quality services to the public. In the process this book develops new theoretical models and analyses case studies to provide an important and timely insight into how to reform public services across the globe…
Table of Contents:
1. Contexts and Challenges of Organisational Innovation in Public Services
2. Supporting Organisational Innovation in the Public Sector: Creative Councils in England
3. Analysis Organisational Innovation in Public Services: Conceptual and Theoretical Issues
4. Agentifcation Processes and Agency Governance: Organisational Innovation at a Global Scale?
5. Corporatisation as Organisational Innovation
6. Mutulatisation and Public Services
7. Organisational Innovation in Public Procurement in Scotland: The Scottish Futures Trust (SFT)
8. Outsourcing Public Services: Process Innovation in Dutch Municipalities
9. Governance of Public Service Companies: Australian Cases and Examples
10. Governance of Social Enterprises as Producers of Public Services
11. Championing and Governing UK Public Service Mutuals
12. Improving Governance Arrangements for Academic Entrepreneurships
13. Governance and Accountability of Joint Ventures: A Swedish Case Study
14. Contractual Governance: A Social Learning Perspective
15. Lessons for the Governance of Organisational Innovations”

What future do you want? Commission invites votes on what Europe could look like in 2050 to help steer future policy and research planning


European Commission – MEMO: “Vice-President Neelie Kroes, responsible for the Digital Agenda, is inviting people to join a voting and ranking process on 11 visions of what the world could look like in 20-40 years. The Commission is seeking views on living and learning, leisure and working in Europe in 2050, to steer long-term policy or research planning.
The visions have been gathered over the past year through the Futurium, an online debate platform that allows policymakers to not only consult citizens, but to collaborate and “co-create” with them, and at events throughout Europe. Thousands of thinkers – from high school students, to the Erasmus Students Network; from entrepreneurs and internet pioneers to philosophers and university professors, have engaged in a collective inquiry – a means of crowd-sourcing what our future world could look like.
Eleven over-arching themes have been drawn together from more than 200 ideas for the future. From today, everyone is invited to join the debate and offer their rating and rankings of the various ideas. The results of the feedback will help the European Commission make better decisions about how to fund projects and ideas that both shape the future and get Europe ready for that future….
The Futurium is a foresight project run by DG CONNECT, based on an open source approach. It develops visions of society, technologies, attitudes and trends in 2040-2050 and use these, for example as potential blueprints for future policy choices or EU research and innovation funding priorities.
It is an online platform developed to capture emerging trends and enable interested citizens to co-create compelling visions of the futures that matter to them.

This crowd-sourcing approach provides useful insights on:

  1. vision: where people want to go, how desirable and likely are the visions posted on the platform;
  2. policy ideas: what should ideally be done to realise the futures; the possible impacts and plausibility of policy ideas;
  3. evidence: scientific and other evidence to support the visions and policy ideas.

….
Connecting policy making to people: in an increasingly connected society, online outreach and engagement is an essential response to the growing demand for participation, helping to capture new ideas and to broaden the legitimacy of the policy making process (IP/10/1296). The Futurium is an early prototype of a more general policy-making model described in the paper “The Futurium—a Foresight Platform for Evidence-Based and Participatory Policymaking“.

The Futurium was developed to lay the groundwork for future policy proposals which could be considered by the European Parliament and the European Commission under their new mandates as of 2014. But the Futurium’s open, flexible architecture makes it easily adaptable to any policy-making context, where thinking ahead, stakeholder participation and scientific evidence are needed.”