Learning from The Wealth of the Commons

Paper by Mae Shaw in Special issue of the Community Development Journal on “Commons Sense New thinking about an old idea: “We are poised between an old world that no longer works and a new one struggling to be born. Surrounded by centralized hierarchies on the one hand and predatory markets on the other, people around the world are searching for alternatives’.

This is the starting point for what David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, the editors of The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State (2012), describe as ‘an extended global exercise in commoning’ – Peter Linebaugh’s term for ‘the self-determination of commoners in managing their shared resources’ (p. 396). In other words, the book itself is offered as an active process of ‘making the path’ by presenting ‘some of the most promising new paths now being developed’. It is intended to be ‘rigorous enough for academic readers yet accessible enough for the layperson’. In this, it more than achieves its ambitions. The Wealth of the Commons is an edited collection of seventy-three short papers from thirty countries: ‘a collective venture of sharing, collaboration, negotiation and creative production among some of the most diverse commons scholars, activists and projects leaders imaginable’. This rich and diverse source of knowledge and inspiration could be described as ‘polyvocal’ in the sense that it presents a multiplicity of voices improvising around a single theme – sometimes in harmony, sometimes discordant, but always interesting.

The book brings together an impressive collection of contributors from different places, backgrounds and interests to explore the meaning of the commons and to advocate for it ‘as a new paradigm’ for the organization of public and private life. In this sense, it represents a project rather than an analysis: essentially espousing a cause with imperative urgency. This is not necessarily a weakness, but it does raise specific questions about what is included and what is absent or marginalized in this particular selection of accounts, and what might be lost along the way. What counts as ‘commons’ or ‘the commons’ or ‘the common’ (all used in the text) is a subject of discussion and contestation here, as elsewhere. The effort to ‘name and claim’ is an integral aspect of the project. As Jeffrey et al. (2012, p. 10) comment, ‘the struggle for the commons has never been without its own politics of separation and division’, raising valid questions about the prospects for a coherent paradigm at this stage. At the very least, however, this rich resource may prove seminal in countering those dominant paradigms of growth and development in which structural and cultural adjustments ‘serve as a justifying rhetoric for continuity in plunder’ of common resources (Mattei, p. 41).

The contributions fall into three general categories: those offering a critique of existing ‘increasingly dysfunctional’ market/state relations; those that ‘enlarge theoretical understandings of the commons as a way to change the world’; and those that ‘describe innovative working projects which demonstrate the feasibility’ of the commons.

What counts as the commons?

As acknowledged in many of the chapters, defining the commons in any consistent and convincing way can be deeply problematic. Like ‘community’ itself, it can be regarded to some degree as an ideological portmanteau which contains a variety of meanings. Nonetheless, there is a general commitment to confront such difficulties in an open way, and to be as clear as possible about what the commons might represent, what it might replace, and what it should not be confused with. Put most simply, the commons refers to what human beings share in nature and society that should be cherished for all now and for the future: ‘the term … provides the binding element between the natural and the social or cultural worlds’ (Weber p.11). Its profound challenge to the logic of competitive capitalist relations, therefore, is to ‘validate new schemes of human relations, production and governance … commonance’ (Bollier and Helfrich, p. xiv) that penetrate all levels of public and private life. This idea is explored in detail in many of the contributions.

The commons, then, claims to represent a philosophical stance, an intellectual framework, a moral and economic imperative, a set of organizing principles and commitments, a movement, and an emerging ‘global community of practice’ (O’Connell, 2012). It has also developed an increasingly shared discourse, which is designed to unsettle institutionalized norms and values and to reclaim or remake the language of co-operation, fairness and social justice. As the editorial points out, the language of capitalism is one that becomes ‘encoded into the epistemology of our language and internalized by people’. In community development, and elsewhere, we have become sensitized to the way in which progressive language can be appropriated to support individualistic market values. When empowerment can mean facilitated asset-stripping of local communities, and solidarity targets can be set by government (e.g. Scottish Government, 2007), then we must be wary about assuming proprietorial closure on the term ‘commons’ itself.

As Federici, in a particularly persuasive chapter, warns: ‘… capital is learning about the virtues of the common good’ (p. 46). She argues that, ‘since at least the 1990s, the language of the commons has been appropriated … by the World Bank and put at the service of privatization’. For this reason, it is important to think of the commons as a ‘quality of relations, a principle of co-operation and of responsibility to each other and to the earth, the forests, the seas, the animals’ (p. 50). This produces a different operational logic, which is explored in depth across the collection.

Deficiencies in the commons framework

To advance the commons as ‘a new paradigm’, it is necessary to locate it historically and to show the ways in which it has been colonized and compromised, as some of these pieces do. It may seem ironic that the meaning of ‘the commons’ to many people in the UK, for example, is that bear pit of parliamentary business, the House of Commons, in which adversarial rather than consensual politics is the order of the day. Reclaiming such foundational ideas is a lengthy and demanding process, as David Graeber shows in The Democracy Project, his recent account of the Occupy Movement, which for a time commanded considerable international interest. Drawing on Linebaugh, Federici contends that ‘commons have been the thread that has connected the history of the class struggle into our time’.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the volume fails to address the relationship between organized labour and the commons, as highlighted in the introduction, because there is a distinctive contribution to be made here. As Harvey (2012) argues, decentralization and autonomy are also primary vehicles for reinforcing neoliberal class strategies of social reproduction and producing greater inequality. For example, in urban environments in particular, ‘the better the common qualities a social group creates, the more likely it is to be raided and appropriated by private profit-maximising interests’ leading inexorably to economic cleansing of whole areas. Gentrification and tourism are the clearest examples. The salience of class in general is an underdeveloped line of argument. If this authoritative collection is anything to go by, this may be a significant deficiency in the commons framework.

Without historical continuity – honouring the contribution of those ‘commoners’ who came before in various guises and places – there is a danger of falling into the contemporary trap of regarding ‘innovation’ as a way of separating us from our past. History in the past as well as in the making is as essential a part of our commons as is the present and the future – material, temporal and spiritual….”

#BringBackOurGirls: Can Hashtag Activism Spur Social Change?

Nancy Ngo at TechChange: “In our modern times of media cycles fighting for our short attention spans, it is easy to ride the momentum of a highly visible campaign that can quickly fizzle out once another competing story emerges. Since the kidnappings of approximately 300 Nigerian girls by militant Islamist group Boko Haram last month, the international community has embraced the hashtag, “#BringBackOurGirls”, in a very vocal and visible social media campaign demanding action to rescue the Chibok girls. But one month since the mass kidnapping without the rescue of the girls, do we need to take a different approach? Will #BringBackOurGirls be just another campaign we forget about once the next celebrity scandal becomes breaking news?

#BringBackOurGirls goes global starting in Nigeria

Most of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign activity has been highly visible on Twitter, Facebook, and international media outlets. In this fascinating Twitter heat map created using the tool, CartoDB, featured in TIME Magazine, we can see a time-lapsed digital map of how the hashtag, “#BringBackOurGirls” spread globally, starting organically from within Nigeria in mid April.

The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag has been embraced widely by many public figures and has garnered wide support across the world. Michelle Obama, David Cameron, and Malala Yusafzai have posted images with the hashtag, along with celebrities such as Ellen Degeneres, Angelina Jolie, and Dwayne Johnson. To date, nearly 1 million people signed the Change.org petition. Countries including the USA, UK, China, Israel have pledged to join the rescue efforts, and other human rights campaigns have joined the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter momentum, as seen on this Hashtagify map.

Is #BringBackOurGirls repeating the mistakes of #KONY2012?


A great example of a past campaign where this happened was with the KONY2012 campaign, which brought some albeit short-lived urgency to addressing the child soldiers recruited by Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Michael Poffenberger, who worked on that campaign, will join us a guest expert in TC110: Social Media for Social Change online course in June 2013 and compare it the current #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Many have drawn parallels to both campaigns and warned of the false optimism that hyped social media messages can bring when context is not fully considered and understood.

According to Lauren Wolfe of Foreign Policy magazine, “Understanding what has happened to the Nigerian girls and how to rescue them means beginning to face what has happened to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of girls over years in global armed conflict.” To some critics, this hashtag trivializes the weaknesses of Nigerian democracy that have been exposed. Critics of using social media in advocacy campaigns have used the term “slacktivism” to describe the passive, minimal effort needed to participate in these movements. Others have cited such media waves being exploited for individual gain, as opposed to genuinely benefiting the girls. Florida State University Political Science professor, Will H. Moore, argues that this hashtag activism is not only hurting the larger cause of rescuing the kidnapped girls, but actually helping Boko Haram. Jumoke Balogun, Co-Founder of CompareAfrique, also highlights the limits of the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag impact.

Hashtag activism, alone, is not enough

With all this social media activity and international press, what actual progress has been made in rescuing the kidnapped girls? If the objective is raising awareness of the issue, yes, the hashtag has been successful. If the objective is to rescue the girls, we still have a long way to go, even if the hashtag campaign has been part of a multi-pronged approach to galvanize resources into action.

The bottom line: social media can be a powerful tool to bring visibility and awareness to a cause, but a hashtag alone is not enough to bring about social change. There are a myriad of resources that must be coordinated to effectively implement this rescue mission, which will only become more difficult as more time passes. However, prioritizing and shining a sustained light on the problem, instead getting distracted by competing media cycles on celebrities getting into petty fights, is the first step toward a solution…”

Civic Crowdfunding: Participatory Communities, Entrepreneurs and the Political Economy of Place

Rodrigo Davis: “Today I’m capping two years of studying the emergence of civic crowdfunding by submitting my master’s thesis to the MIT archives…You can read Civic Crowdfunding: Participatory Communities, Entrepreneurs and the Political Economy of Place in its entirety (173 pages) now,…
Crowdfunding is everywhere. People are using it to fund watches, comic books, even famous film directors are doing it. In what is now a $6 billion industry globally, I think the most interesting, disruptive and exciting work that’s happening is in donation-based crowdfunding. That’s worth, very roughly, $1.2 billion a year worldwide per year. Within that subset, I’ve been looking at civic projects, people who are producing shared goods for a community or broader public. These projects build on histories of community fundraising and resource pooling that long predate the Internet; what’s changed is that we’ve created a scalable, portable platform model to carry out these existing practices.
So how is civic crowdfunding doing? When I started this project very few people were using that term. No one had done any aggregated data collection and published it. So I decided to take on that task. I collected data on 1224 projects between 2010 and March 2014, which raised $10.74 million in just over three years. I focused on seven platforms: Catarse (Brazil), Citizinvestor (US), Goteo (Spain), IOBY (US), Kickstarter (US), Neighbor.ly (US) and Spacehive (UK). I didn’t collect everything. …
Here are four things I found out about civic crowdfunding.

  1. Civic crowdfunding is small-scale but relatively successful, and it has big ambitions.Currently the average civic crowdfunding project is small in scale: $6,357 is the median amount raised. But these civic projects seem to be doing pretty well. Projects tagged ‘civic’ on Kickstarter, for instance, succeed 81% of the time. If Civic were a separate category, it would be Kickstarter’s most successful category. Meanwhile, most platform owners and some incumbent institutions see civic crowdfunding as a new mechanism for public-private partnerships capable of realizing large-scale projects. In a small minority of cases, such as the three edge-case projects I explored in Chapter 3 of my thesis, civic crowdfunding has begun to fulfill some of those ambitions. For the center of gravity to shift further in the direction of these potential outcomes, though, existing institutions, including government, large non-profits and the for-profit sector, will need to engage more comprehensively with the process.
  2. Civic crowdfunding started as a hobby for green space projects by local non-profits, but larger organizations are getting involved. Almost a third of campaigners are using civic crowdfunding platforms for park and garden-related projects (29%). Event-based projects, and education and training are also popular. Sports and mobility projects are pretty uncommon. The frequency of garden and park projects is partly because these projects are not capital intensive, and they’re uncontroversial. That’s also changing. Organizations from governments to corporations and large foundations, are exploring ways to support crowdfunding for a much wider range of community-facing activities. Their modes of engagement include publicizing campaigns, match-funding campaigns on an ad-hoc basis, running their own campaigns and even building new platforms from the ground up.
  3. Civic crowdfunding is concentrated in cities (especially those where platforms are based). The genre is too new to have spread very effectively, it seems. Five states account for 80% of the projects, and this is partly a function of where the platforms are located. New York, California are our top two, followed by Illinois and Oregon. We know there’s a strong trend towards big cities. It’s hard work for communities to use crowdfunding to get projects off the ground, especially when it’s an unfamiliar process. The platforms have played a critical role in building participants’ understanding of crowdfunding and supporting them through the process.
  4. Civic crowdfunding has the same highly unequal distributional tendencies as other crowd markets. When we look at the size distribution of projects, the first thing we notice is something close to a Pareto distribution, or Long Tail. Most projects are small-scale, but a small number of high-value projects have taken a large share of the total revenue raised by civic crowdfunding. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. On Kickstarter most successful projects are between 5 and 10k, and 47% of civic projects I studied are in the same bracket. The problem is that we tend to remember the outliers, such as Veronica Mars and Spike Lee – because they show what’s possible. But they are still the outliers.

Now, here are two things we don’t know.

  1. Will civic crowdfunding deter public investment or encourage it?
  2. Will civic crowdfunding widen wealth gaps?”

Conceptualizing Open Data ecosystems: A timeline analysis of Open Data development in the UK

New paper by Tom Heath et al: “In this paper, we conceptualize Open Data ecosystems by analysing the major stakeholders in the UK. The conceptualization is based on a review of popular Open Data definitions and business ecosystem theories, which we applied to empirical data using a timeline analysis. Our work is informed by a combination of discourse analysis and in-depth interviews, undertaken during the summer of 2013. Drawing on the UK as a best practice example, we identify a set of structural business ecosystem properties: circular flow of resources, sustainability, demand that encourages supply, and dependence developing between suppliers, intermediaries, and users. However, significant gaps and shortcomings are found to remain. Most prominently, demand is not yet fully encouraging supply and actors have yet to experience fully mutual interdependence.”

Believe the hype: Big data can have a big social impact

Annika Small at the Guardian: “Given all the hype around so called big data at the moment, it would be easy to dismiss it as nothing more than the latest technology buzzword. This would be a mistake, given that the application and interpretation of huge – often publicly available – data sets is already supporting new models of creativity, innovation and engagement.
To date, stories of big data’s progress and successes have tended to come from government and the private sector, but we’ve heard little about its relevance to social organisations. Yet big data can fuel big social change.
It’s already playing a vital role in the charitable sector. Some social organisations are using existing open government data to better target their services, to improve advocacy and fundraising, and to support knowledge sharing and collaboration between different charities and agencies. Crowdsourcing of open data also offers a new way for not-for-profits to gather intelligence, and there is a wide range of freely available online tools to help them analyse the information.
However, realising the potential of big and open data presents a number of technical and organisational challenges for social organisations. Many don’t have the required skills, awareness and investment to turn big data to their advantage. They also tend to lack the access to examples that might help demystify the technicalities and focus on achievable results.
Overcoming these challenges can be surprisingly simple: Keyfund, for example, gained insight into what made for a successful application to their scheme through using a free, online tool to create word clouds out of all the text in their application forms. Many social organisations could use this same technique to better understand the large volume of unstructured text that they accumulate – in doing so, they would be “doing big data” (albeit in a small way). At the other end of the scale, Global Giving has developed its own sophisticated set of analytical tools to better understand the 57,000+ “stories” gathered from its network.
Innovation often happens when different disciplines collide and it’s becoming apparent that most value – certainly most social value – is likely to be created at the intersection of government, private and social sector data. That could be the combination of data from different sectors, or better “data collaboration” within sectors.
The Housing Association Charitable Trust (HACT) has produced two original tools that demonstrate this. Its Community Insight tool combines data from different sectors, allowing housing providers easily to match information about their stock to a large store of well-maintained open government figures. Meanwhile, its Housing Big Data programme is building a huge dataset by combining stats from 16 different housing providers across the UK. While Community Insight allows each organisation to gain better individual understanding of their communities (measuring well-being and deprivation levels, tracking changes over time, identifying hotspots of acute need), Housing Big Data is making progress towards a much richer network of understanding, providing a foundation for the sector to collaboratively identify challenges and quantify the impact of their interventions.
Alongside this specific initiative from HACT, it’s also exciting to see programmes such as 360giving, which forge connections between a range of private and social enterprises, and lays foundations for UK social investors to be a significant source of information over the next decade. Certainly, The Big Lottery Fund’s publication of open data late last year is a milestone which also highlights how far we have to travel as a sector before we are truly “data-rich”.
At Nominet Trust, we have produced the Social Tech Guide to demonstrate the scale and diversity of social value being generated internationally – much of which is achieved through harnessing the power of big data. From Knewton creating personally tailored learning programmes, to Cellslider using the power of the crowd to advance cancer research, there is no shortage of inspiration. The UN’s Global Pulse programme is another great example, with its focus on how we can combine private and public sources to pin down the size and shape of a social challenge, and calibrate our collective response.
These examples of data-driven social change demonstrate the huge opportunities for social enterprises to harness technology to generate insights, to drive more effective action and to fuel social change. If we are to realise this potential, we need to continue to stretch ourselves as social enterprises and social investors.”

How Helsinki Became the Most Successful Open-Data City in the World

Olli Sulopuisto in Atlantic Cities:  “If there’s something you’d like to know about Helsinki, someone in the city administration most likely has the answer. For more than a century, this city has funded its own statistics bureaus to keep data on the population, businesses, building permits, and most other things you can think of. Today, that information is stored and freely available on the internet by an appropriately named agency, City of Helsinki Urban Facts.
There’s a potential problem, though. Helsinki may be Finland’s capital and largest city, with 620,000 people. But it’s only one of more than a dozen municipalities in a metropolitan area of almost 1.5 million. So in terms of urban data, if you’re only looking at Helsinki, you’re missing out on more than half of the picture.
Helsinki and three of its neighboring cities are now banding together to solve that problem. Through an entity called Helsinki Region Infoshare, they are bringing together their data so that a fuller picture of the metro area can come into view.
That’s not all. At the same time these datasets are going regional, they’re also going “open.” Helsinki Region Infoshare publishes all of its data in formats that make it easy for software developers, researchers, journalists and others to analyze, combine or turn into web-based or mobile applications that citizens may find useful. In four years of operation, the project has produced more than 1,000 “machine-readable” data sources such as a map of traffic noise levels, real-time locations of snow plows, and a database of corporate taxes.
A global leader
All of this has put the Helsinki region at the forefront of the open-data movement that is sweeping cities across much of the world. The concept is that all kinds of good things can come from assembling city data, standardizing it and publishing it for free. Last month, Helsinki Region Infoshare was presented with the European Commission’s prize for innovation in public administration.

The project is creating transparency in government and a new digital commons. It’s also fueling a small industry of third-party application developers who take all this data and turn it into consumer products.
For example, Helsinki’s city council has a paperless system called Ahjo for handling its agenda items, minutes and exhibits that accompany council debates. Recently, the datasets underlying Ahjo were opened up. The city built a web-based interface for browsing the documents, but a software developer who doesn’t even live in Helsinki created a smartphone app for it. Now anyone who wants to keep up with just about any decision Helsinki’s leaders have before them can do so easily.
Another example is a product called BlindSquare, a smartphone app that helps blind people navigate the city. An app developer took the Helsinki region’s data on public transport and services, and mashed it up with location data from the social networking app Foursquare as well as mapping tools and the GPS and artificial voice capabilities of new smartphones. The product now works in dozens of countries and languages and sells for about €17 ($24 U.S.)

Helsinki also runs competitions for developers who create apps with public-sector data. That’s nothing new — BlindSquare won the Apps4Finland and European OpenCities app challenges in 2012. But this year, they’re trying a new approach to the app challenge concept, funded by the European Commission’s prize money and Sitra.
It’s called Datademo. Instead of looking for polished but perhaps random apps to heap fame and prize money on, Datademo is trying to get developers to aim their creative energies toward general goals city leaders think are important. The current competition specifies that apps have to use open data from the Helsinki region or from Finland to make it easier for citizens to find information and participate in democracy. The competition also gives developers seed funding upfront.
Datademo received more than 40 applications in its first round. Of those, the eight best suggestions were given three months and €2,000 ($2,770 U.S) to implement their ideas. The same process will be repeated two times, resulting in dozens of new app ideas that will get a total of €48,000 ($66,000 U.S.) in development subsidies. Keeping with the spirit of transparency, the voting and judging process is open to all who submit an idea for each round….”

How Britain’s Getting Public Policy Down to a Science

in Governing: “Britain has a bold yet simple plan to do something few U.S. governments do: test the effectiveness of multiple policies before rolling them out. But are American lawmakers willing to listen to facts more than money or politics?

In medicine they do clinical trials to determine whether a new drug works. In business they use focus groups to help with product development. In Hollywood they field test various endings for movies in order to pick the one audiences like best. In the world of public policy? Well, to hear members of the United Kingdom’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) characterize it, those making laws and policies in the public sector tend to operate on some well-meaning mix of whim, hunch and dice roll, which all too often leads to expensive and ineffective (if not downright harmful) policy decisions.

….One of the prime BIT examples for why facts and not intuition ought to drive policy hails from the U.S. The much-vaunted “Scared Straight” program that swept the U.S. in the 1990s involved shepherding at-risk youth into maximum security prisons. There, they would be confronted by inmates who, presumably, would do the scaring while the visiting juveniles would do the straightening out. Scared Straight seemed like a good idea — let at-risk youth see up close and personal what was in store for them if they continued their wayward ways. Initially the results reported seemed not just good, but great. Programs were reporting “success rates” as high as 94 percent, which inspired other countries, including the U.K., to adopt Scared Straight-like programs.

The problem was that none of the program evaluations included a control group — a group of kids in similar circumstances with similar backgrounds who didn’t go through a Scared Straight program. There was no way to see how they would fare absent the experience. Eventually, a more scientific analysis of seven U.S. Scared Straight programs was conducted. Half of the at-risk youth in the study were left to their own devices and half were put through the program. This led to an alarming discovery: Kids who went through Scared Straight were more likely to offend than kids who skipped it — or, more precisely, who were spared it. The BIT concluded that “the costs associated with the programme (largely related to the increase in reoffending rates) were over 30 times higher than the benefits, meaning that ‘Scared Straight’ programmes cost the taxpayer a significant amount of money and actively increased crime.”

It was witnessing such random acts of policymaking that in 2010 inspired a small group of political and social scientists to set up the Behavioural Insights Team. Originally a small “skunk works” tucked away in the U.K. Treasury Department, the team gained traction under Prime Minister David Cameron, who took office evincing a keen interest in both “nonregulatory solutions to policy problems” and in spending public money efficiently, Service says. By way of example, he points to a business support program in the U.K. that would give small and medium-sized businesses up to £3,000 to subsidize advice from professionals. “But there was no proven link between receiving that money and improving business. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if you could first test the efficacy of some million-pound program or other, rather than just roll it out?’”

The BIT was set up as something of a policy research lab that would scientifically test multiple approaches to a public policy problem on a limited, controlled basis through “randomized controlled trials.” That is, it would look at multiple ways to skin the cat before writing the final cat-skinning manual. By comparing the results of various approaches — efforts to boost tax compliance, say, or to move people from welfare to work — policymakers could use the results of the trials to actually hone in on the most effective practices before full-scale rollout.

The various program and policy options that are field tested by the BIT aren’t pie-in-the-sky surmises, which is where the “behavioural” piece of the equation comes in. Before settling on what options to test, the BIT takes into account basic human behavior — what motivates us and what turns us off — and then develops several approaches to a policy problem based on actual social science and psychology.

The approach seems to work. Take, for example, the issue of recruiting organ donors. It can be a touchy topic, suggesting one’s own mortality while also conjuring up unsettling images of getting carved up and parceled out by surgeons. It’s no wonder, then, that while nine out of 10 people in England profess to support organ donations, fewer than one in three are officially registered as donors. To increase the U.K.’s ratio, the BIT decided to play around with the standard recruitment message posted on a high-traffic gov.uk website that encourages people to sign up with the national Organ Donor Register (see “‘Please Help Others,’” page 18). Seven different messages that varied in approach and tone were tested, and at the end of the trial, one message emerged clearly as the most effective — so effective, in fact, that the BIT concluded that “if the best-performing message were to be used over the whole year, it would lead to approximately 96,000 extra registrations completed.”

According to the BIT there are nine key steps to a defensible controlled randomized trial, the first and second — and the two most obvious — being that there must be at least two policy interventions to compare and that the outcome that the policies they’re meant to influence must be clear. But the “randomized” factor in the equation is critical, and it’s not necessarily easy to achieve.

In BIT-speak, “randomization units” can range from individuals (randomly chosen clients) entering the same welfare office but experiencing different interventions, to different groups of clientele or even different institutions like schools or congregate care facilities. The important point is to be sure that the groups or institutions chosen for comparison are operating in circumstances and with clientele similar enough so that researchers can confidently say that any differences in outcomes are due to different policy interventions and not other socioeconomic or cultural exigencies. There are also minimum sampling sizes that ensure legitimacy — essentially, the more the merrier.

As a matter of popular political culture, the BIT’s approach is known as “nudge theory,” a strand of behavioral economics based on the notion that the economic decisions that human beings make are just that — human — and that by tuning into what motivates and appeals to people we can much better understand why those economic decisions are made. In market economics, of course, nudge theory helps businesses tune into customer motivation. In public policy, nudge theory involves figuring out ways to motivate people to do what’s best for themselves, their families, their neighborhoods and society.

When the BIT started playing around with ways to improve tax compliance, for example, the group discovered a range of strategies to do that, from the very obvious approach — make compliance easy — to the more behaviorally complex. The idea was to key in on the sorts of messages to send to taxpayers that will resonate and improve voluntary compliance. The results can be impressive. “If you just tell taxpayers that the majority of folks in their area pay their taxes on time [versus sending out dunning letters],” says the BIT’s Service, “that adds 3 percent more people who pay, bringing in millions of pounds.” Another randomized controlled trial showed that in pestering citizens to pay various fines, personal text messages were more effective than letters.

There has been pushback on using randomized controlled trials to develop policy. Some see it as a nefarious attempt at mind control on the part of government. “Nudge” to some seems to mean “manipulate.” Service bridles at the criticism. “We’re sometimes referred to as ‘the Nudge Team,’ but we’re the ‘Behavioural Insights Team’ because we’re interested in human behavior, not mind control.”

The essence of the philosophy, Service adds, is “leading people to do the right thing.” For those interested in launching BIT-like efforts without engendering immediate ideological resistance, he suggests focusing first on “non-headline-grabbing” policy areas such as tax collection or organ donation that can be launched through administrative fiat.”

The advent of crowdfunding innovations for development

SciDevNet: “FundaGeek, TechMoola and RocketHub have more in common than just their curious names. These are all the monikers of crowdsourcing websites that are dedicated to raising money for science and technology projects. As the coffers that were traditionally used to fund research and development have been squeezed in recent years, several such sites have sprouted up.
In 2013, general crowdsourcing site Kickstarter saw a total of US$480 million pledged to its projects by three million backers. That’s up from US$320 million in 2012, US$99 million in 2011 and just US$28million in 2010. Kickstarter expects the figures to climb further this year, and not just for popular projects such as films and books.
Science and technology projects — particularly those involving simple designs — are starting to make waves on these sites. And new sites, such as those bizarrely named ones, are now catering specifically for scientific projects, widening the choice of platforms on offer and raising crowdsourcing’s profile among the global scientific community online.
All this means that crowdsourcing is fast becoming one of the most significant innovations in funding the development of technology that can aid poor communities….
A good example of how crowdsourcing can help the developing world is the GravityLight, a product launched on Indiegogo over a year ago that uses gravity to create light. Not only did UK design company Therefore massively exceed its initial funding target — ultimately raising $US400,000 instead of a planned US$55,000 — it amassed a global network of investors and distributors that has allowed the light to be trialled in 26 countries as of last December.
The light was developed in-house after Therefore was given a brief to produce a cheap solar-powered lamp by private clients. Although this project faltered, the team independently set out to produce a lamp to replace the ubiquitous and dangerous kerosene lamps widely used in remote areas in Africa. After several months of development, Therefore had designed a product that is powered by a rope with a heavy weight on its end being slowly drawn through the light’s gears (see video)…
Crowdfunding is not always related to a specific product. Earlier this year, Indiegogo hosted a project hoping to build a clean energy store in a Ugandan village. The idea is to create an ongoing supply chain for technologies such as cleaner-burning stoves, water filters and solar lights that will improve or save lives, according to ENVenture, the project’s creators. [1] The US$2,000 target was comfortably exceeded…”

#Bring back our girls

The Guardian: “The abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria has lead to campaigns calling for their rescue, on social media and offline all around the world.
After Nigerian protestors marched on parliament in the capital Abuja calling for action on April 30, people in cities around the world have followed suit and organised their own marches.
A social media campaign under the hashtag #Bringbackourgirls started trending in Nigeria two weeks ago and has now been tweeted more than one million times. It was first used on April 23 at the opening ceremony for a UNESCO event honouring the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt as the 2014 World Book Capital City. A Nigerian lawyer in Abuja, Ibrahim M. Abdullahi, tweeted the call in a speech by Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, Vice President of the World Bank for Africa to “Bring Back the Girls!”

Another mass demonstration took place outside the Nigerian Defence Headquarters in Abuja on May 6 and many other protests have been organised in response to a social media campaign asking for people around the world to march and wear red in solidarity. People came out in protest at the Nigerian embassy in London, in Los Angeles and New York.

A global “social media march” has also been organised asking supporters to use their networks to promote the campaign for 200 minutes on May 8.
A petition started on Change.org by a Nigerian woman in solidarity with the schoolgirls has now been signed by more than 300,000 supporters.
Amnesty International and UNICEF have backed the campaign, as well as world leaders and celebrities, including Hilary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai and rappers Wyclef Jean and Chris Brown, whose mention of the campaign was retweeted more than 10,000 times.

After three weeks of silence the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan vowed to find the schoolgirls on April 3, stating: “wherever these girls are, we’ll get them out”. On the same day, John Kerry pledged assistance from the US.”

The "Accessibility Map"

Webby 2014 Nominee: “Project Goal is to make information about accessible venues accessible to people.

About venues where people with disabilities can engage in sports and recreational activities, and live full lives without any barriers or stereotypes.

The Solution

To develop a website where everyone can not only find accessible venues in each city, but also add new venues to the website’s database.
Creating the accessibility rating list for russian cities to get an idea how accessible a particular city is, will draw the local governement’ s attention to this problem.
The foundation of the website is an interactive map of accessible venues in Russia, which can help people with disabilities find locations where they can participate in sports, take classes or recreate.
All you need to do is choose the necessary city and street, and the map will show all the accessible venues in the city.

The Result

After a few months of operation:
over 14 000 venues
over 600 cities
millions of people with disabilities have become able to live full lives

Project’s Website: kartadostupnosti.ru