Civic tech, Data and Demos: exploring the interaction between democracy and technology


IAPP: “The French data protection authority, the CNIL, has published a report that explores emerging issues of data protection and freedoms in democracy, technology and citizen participation. The report discusses the emergence of civic technologies and data protection issues associated. The CNIL also uses the report to propose its recommendations for creating “an environment of trust” with civic tech “that allows everyone to exercise their citizenship while respecting their rights and freedoms.” Those recommendations include more implementation of EU General Data Protection Regulation principles and considerations for improved digital communication and participation….(More)”.

Exploring digital government transformation in the EU


Analysis of the state of the art and review of literature by Gianluca Misuraca et al: “This report presents the… results of the review of literature, based on almost 500 academic and grey literature sources, as well as the analysis of digital government policies in the EU Member States provide a synthetic overview of the main themes and topics of the digital government discourse.

The report depicts the variety of existing conceptualisations and definitions of the digital government phenomenon, measured and expected effects of the application of more disruptive innovations and emerging technologies in government, as well as key drivers and barriers for transforming the public sector. Overall, the literature review shows that many sources appear overly optimistic with regard to the impact of digital government transformation, although the majority of them are based on normative views or expectations, rather than empirically tested insights.

The authors therefore caution that digital government transformation should be researched empirically and with a due differentiation between evidence and hope. In this respect, the report paves the way to in-depth analysis of the effects that can be generated by digital innovation in public sector organisations. A digital transformation that implies the redesign of the tools and methods used in the machinery of government will require in fact a significant change in the institutional frameworks that regulate and help coordinate the governance systems in which such changing processes are implemented…(More)”.

Between Truth and Power The Legal Constructions of Informational Capitalism


Book by Julie Cohen: “Our current legal system is to a great extent the product of an earlier period of social and economic transformation. From the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, as accountability for industrial-age harms became a pervasive source of conflict, the U.S. legal system underwent profound, tectonic shifts. Today, ownership of information-age resources and accountability for information-age harms have become pervasive sources of conflict, and different kinds of change are emerging.

In Between Truth and Power, Julie E. Cohen explores the relationships between legal institutions and political and economic transformation. Systematically examining struggles over the conditions of information flow and the design of information architectures and business models, she argues that as law is enlisted to help produce the profound economic and socio-technical shifts that have accompanied the emergence of the informational economy, it is too is transforming in fundamental ways. Drawing on elements from legal theory, science and technology studies, information studies, communication studies and organization studies to develop a complex theory of institutional change, Cohen develops an account of the gradual emergence of legal institutions adapted to the information age and of the power relationships that such institutions reflect and reproduce….(More)”.

The Pledging Puzzle: How Can Revocable Promises Increase Charitable Giving


Paper by James Andreoni and Marta Serra-Garcia: “What is the value of pledges if they are often reneged upon? In this paper we show – both theoretically and experimentally – that pledges can be used to screen donors and to better understand their motives for giving. In return, nonprofit managers can use the information they glean from pledges to better target future charitable giving appeals and interventions to donors, such as expressions of gratitude. In an experiment, we find that offering the option to pledge gifts induces self-selection. If expressions of gratitude are then targeted to individuals who select into pledges, reneging can be significantly reduced. Our findings provide an explanation for the potential usefulness of pledges….(More)”.

How randomised trials became big in development economics


Seán Mfundza Muller, Grieve Chelwa, and Nimi Hoffmann at the Conversation: “…One view of the challenge of development is that it is fundamentally about answering causal questions. If a country adopts a particular policy, will that cause an increase in economic growth, a reduction in poverty or some other improvement in the well-being of citizens?

In recent decades economists have been concerned about the reliability of previously used methods for identifying causal relationships. In addition to those methodological concerns, some have argued that “grand theories of development” are either incorrect or at least have failed to yield meaningful improvements in many developing countries.

Two notable examples are the idea that developing countries may be caught in a poverty trap that requires a “big push” to escape and the view that institutions are key for growth and development.

These concerns about methods and policies provided a fertile ground for randomised experiments in development economics. The surge of interest in experimental approaches in economics began in the early 1990s. Researchers began to use “natural experiments”, where for example random variation was part of a policy rather than decided by a researcher, to look at causation.

But it really gathered momentum in the 2000s, with researchers such as the Nobel awardees designing and implementing experiments to study a wide range of microeconomic questions.

Randomised trials

Proponents of these methods argued that a focus on “small” problems was more likely to succeed. They also argued that randomised experiments would bring credibility to economic analysis by providing a simple solution to causal questions.

These experiments randomly allocate a treatment to some members of a group and compare the outcomes against the other members who did not receive treatment. For example, to test whether providing credit helps to grow small firms or increase their likelihood of success, a researcher might partner with a financial institution and randomly allocate credit to applicants that meet certain basic requirements. Then a year later the researcher would compare changes in sales or employment in small firms that received the credit to those that did not.

Randomised trials are not a new research method. They are best known for their use in testing new medicines. The first medical experiment to use controlled randomisation occurred in the aftermath of the second world war. The British government used it to assess the effectiveness of a drug for tuberculosis treatment.

In the early 20th century and mid-20th century American researchers had used experiments like this to examine the effects of various social policies. Examples included income protection and social housing.

The introduction of these methods into development economics also followed an increase in their use in other areas of economics. One example was the study of labour markets.

Randomised control trials in economics are now mostly used to evaluate the impact of social policy interventions in poor and middle-income countries. Work by the 2019 Nobel awardees – Michael Kremer, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo – includes experiments in Kenya and India on teacher attendancetextbook provisionmonitoring of nurse attendance and the provision of microcredit.

The popularity, among academics and policymakers, of the approach is not only due to its seeming ability to solve methodological and policy concerns. It is also due to very deliberate, well-funded advocacy by its proponents….(More)”.

Quadratic Payments: A Primer


Blogpost by Vitalik Buterin: “If you follow applied mechanism design or decentralized governance at all, you may have recently heard one of a few buzzwords: quadratic votingquadratic funding and quadratic attention purchase. These ideas have been gaining popularity rapidly over the last few years, and small-scale tests have already been deployed: the Taiwanese presidential hackathon used quadratic voting to vote on winning projects, Gitcoin Grants used quadratic funding to fund public goods in the Ethereum ecosystem, and the Colorado Democratic party also experimented with quadratic voting to determine their party platform.

To the proponents of these voting schemes, this is not just another slight improvement to what exists. Rather, it’s an initial foray into a fundamentally new class of social technology which, has the potential to overturn how we make many public decisions, large and small. The ultimate effect of these schemes rolled out in their full form could be as deeply transformative as the industrial-era advent of mostly-free markets and constitutional democracy. But now, you may be thinking: “These are large promises. What do these new governance technologies have that justifies such claims?”…(More)”.

Public Entrepreneurship and Policy Engineering


Essay by Beth Noveck at Communications of the ACM: “Science and technology have progressed exponentially, making it possible for humans to live longer, healthier, more creative lives. The explosion of Internet and mobile phone technologies have increased trade, literacy, and mobility. At the same time, life expectancy for the poor has not increased and is declining.

As science fiction writer William Gibson famously quipped, the future is here, but unevenly distributed. With urgent problems from inequality to climate change, we must train more passionate and innovative people—what I call public entrepreneurs—to learn how to leverage new technology to tackle public problems. Public problems are those compelling and important challenges where neither the problem is well understood nor the solution agreed upon, yet we must devise and implement approaches, often from different disciplines, in an effort to improve people’s lives….(More)”.

The Golden Age of Social Science


Essay by Anastasia Buyalskaya, Marcos Gallo and Colin Camerer: “In this short essay we argue that social science is entering a golden age, marked by explosive growth in new data and analytic methods, interdisciplinarity, and a recognition that both of those ingredients are necessary to solve hard problems. Two examples are given to illustrate these themes, which are behavioral economics and social networks. Numerous other specific study examples are then given. We also address the challenges that accompany the three positive trends, which include informatics, career incentives, and the search for unifying frameworks….(More)”.

Is There a Crisis of Truth?


Essay by Steven Shapin: “…It seems irresponsible or perverse to reject the idea that there is a Crisis of Truth. No time now for judicious reflection; what’s needed is a full-frontal attack on the Truth Deniers. But it’s good to be sure about the identity of the problem before setting out to solve it. Conceiving the problem as a Crisis of Truth, or even as a Crisis of Scientific Authority, is not, I think, the best starting point. There’s no reason for complacency, but there is reason to reassess which bits of our culture are in a critical state and, once they are securely identified, what therapies are in order.

Start with the idea of Truth. What could be more important, especially if the word is used — as it often is in academic writing — as a placeholder for Reality? But there’s a sort of luminous glow around the notion of Truth that prejudges and pre-processes the attitudes proper to entertain about it. The Truth goes marching on. God is Truth. The Truth shall set you free. Who, except the mad and the malevolent, could possibly be against Truth? It was, after all, Pontius Pilate who asked, “What is Truth?” — and then went off to wash his hands.

So here’s an only apparently pedantic hint about how to construe Truth and also about why our current problem might not be described as a Crisis of Truth. In modern common usage, Truth is a notably uncommon term. The natural home of Truth is not in the workaday vernacular but in weekend, even language-gone-on-holiday, scenes. The notion of Truth tends to crop up when statements about “what’s the case” are put under pressure, questioned, or picked out for celebration. Statements about “the case” can then become instances of the Truth, surrounded by an epistemic halo. Truth is invoked when we swear to tell it — “the whole Truth and nothing but” — in legal settings or in the filling-out of official forms when we’re cautioned against departing from it; or in those sorts of school and bureaucratic exams where we’re made to choose between True and False. Truth is brought into play when it’s suspected that something of importance has been willfully obscured — as when Al Gore famously responded to disbelief in climate change by insisting on “an inconvenient truth” or when we demand to be told the Truth about the safety of GMOs. [2]

Truth-talk appears in such special-purpose forums as valedictory statements where scientists say that their calling is a Search for Truth. And it’s worth considering the difference between saying that and saying they’re working to sequence a breast cancer gene or to predict when a specific Indonesian volcano is most likely to erupt. Truth stands to Matters-That-Are-the-Case roughly as incantations, proverbs, and aphorisms stand to ordinary speech. Truth attaches more to some formal intellectual practices than to others — to philosophy, religion, art, and, of course, science, even though in science there is apparent specificity. Compare those sciences that seem good fits with the notion of a Search for Truth to those that seem less good fits: theoretical physics versus seismology, academic brain science versus research on the best flavoring for a soft drink. And, of course, Truth echoes around philosophy classrooms and journals, where theories of what it is are advanced, defended, and endlessly disputed. Philosophers collectively know that Truth is very important, but they don’t collectively know what it is.

I’ve said that Truth figures in worries about the problems of knowledge we’re said to be afflicted with, where saying that we have a Crisis of Truth both intensifies the problem and gives it a moral charge. In May 2019, Angela Merkel gave the commencement speech at Harvard. Prettily noting the significance of Harvard’s motto, Veritas, the German Chancellor described the conditions for academic inquiry, which, she said, requires that “we do not describe lies as truth and truth as lies,” nor that “we accept abuses [Missstände] as normal.” The Harvard audience stood and cheered: they understood the coded political reference to Trump and evidently agreed that the opposite of Truth was a lie — not just a statement that didn’t match reality but an intentional deception. You can, however, think of Truth’s opposite as nonsense, error, or bullshit, but calling it a lie was to position Truth in a moral field. Merkel was not giving Harvard a lesson in philosophy but a lesson in global civic virtue….(More)”.

The Downside of Tech Hype


Jeffrey Funk at Scientific American: “Science and technology have been the largest drivers of economic growth for more than 100 years. But this contribution seems to be declining. Growth in labor productivity has slowed, corporate revenue growth per research dollar has fallen, the value of Nobel Prize–winning research has declined, and the number of researchers needed to develop new molecular entities (e.g., drugs) and same percentage improvements in crop yields and numbers of transistors on a microprocessor chip (commonly known as Moore’s Law) has risen. More recently, the percentage of profitable start-ups at the time of their initial public stock offering has dropped to record lows, not seen since the dot-com bubble and start-ups such as Uber, Lyft and WeWork have accumulated losses much larger than ever seen by start-ups, including Amazon.

Although the reasons for these changes are complex and unclear, one thing is certain: excessive hype about new technologies makes it harder for scientists, engineers and policy makers to objectively analyze and understand these changes, or to make good decisions about new technologies.

One driver of hype is the professional incentives of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, consultants and universities. Venture capitalists have convinced decision makers that venture capitalist funding and start-ups are the new measures of their success. Professional and business service consultants hype technology for both incumbents and start-ups to make potential clients believe that new technologies make existing strategies, business models and worker skills obsolete every few years.

Universities are themselves a major source of hype. Their public relations offices often exaggerate the results of research papers, commonly implying that commercialization is close at hand, even though the researchers know it will take many years if not decades. Science and engineering courses often imply an easy path to commercialization, while misleading and inaccurate forecasts from Technology Review and Scientific American make it easier for business schools and entrepreneurship programs to claim that opportunities are everywhere and that incumbent firms are regularly being disrupted. With a growth in entrepreneurship programs from about 16 in 1970 to more than 2,000 in 2014, many young people now believe that being an entrepreneur is the cool thing to be, regardless of whether they have a good idea.

Hype from these types of experts is exacerbated by the growth of social media, the falling cost of website creation, blogging, posting of slides and videos and the growing number of technology news, investor and consulting websites….(More)”.