Covid-19: a watershed moment for collective approaches to community engagement?


Report by Oliver Lough and Kerrie Holloway: “Effective communication and community engagement (CCE) is a critical component of the response to Covid-19 in humanitarian settings. CCE has a vital role to play in supporting affected people to make informed decisions, manage risk, and highlight their evolving needs and priorities.

Awareness of CCE’s centrality to the Covid-19 pandemic is already leading to a surge in funding and interest in humanitarian settings. However, careful thought is required on how to address the new challenges it poses, including reduced access to affected populations (particularly marginalised groups) and more complex coordination environments.

Collective approaches to CCE can add value in the Covid-19 response by ensuring the right actors are working in the right configuration to deliver the best results, reducing duplication while increasing effectiveness. But, to date, attempts at collective CCE have experienced a number of challenges: CCE is yet to be well-integrated into both humanitarian responses and emergency preparedness, and it is not always easy to determine what configuration of approach is the right ‘fit’ for a given crisis.

To strengthen collective approaches to CCE, this briefing note recommends that they must:

  • have well-defined objectives, a clear relationship to the rest of the response and strong links to key decision-making processes;
  • be well-resourced, supported by dedicated staff and funded in ways that support collective action;
  • be inclusive of a wide range of actors, make space for locally-driven, bottom-up approaches and foster a sense of common ownership to ensure buy-in;
  • ensure that affected populations have multiple channels for two-way dialogue that include the most marginalised….(More)”.

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate


Letter in Harpers Magazine signed by 153 prominent artists and intellectuals,: “Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us….(More)”.

Harnessing the collective intelligence of stakeholders for conservation


Paper by Steven Gray et al: ” Incorporating relevant stakeholder input into conservation decision making is fundamentally challenging yet critical for understanding both the status of, and human pressures on, natural resources. Collective intelligence (CI ), defined as the ability of a group to accomplish difficult tasks more effectively than individuals, is a growing area of investigation, with implications for improving ecological decision making. However, many questions remain about the ways in which emerging internet technologies can be used to apply CI to natural resource management. We examined how synchronous social‐swarming technologies and asynchronous “wisdom of crowds” techniques can be used as potential conservation tools for estimating the status of natural resources exploited by humans.

Using an example from a recreational fishery, we show that the CI of a group of anglers can be harnessed through cyber‐enabled technologies. We demonstrate how such approaches – as compared against empirical data – could provide surprisingly accurate estimates that align with formal scientific estimates. Finally, we offer a practical approach for using resource stakeholders to assist in managing ecosystems, especially in data‐poor situations….(More)”.

Mapping citizen science contributions to the UN sustainable development goals


Paper by Dilek Frais: “The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a vision for achieving a sustainable future. Reliable, timely, comprehensive, and consistent data are critical for measuring progress towards, and ultimately achieving, the SDGs. Data from citizen science represent one new source of data that could be used for SDG reporting and monitoring. However, information is still lacking regarding the current and potential contributions of citizen science to the SDG indicator framework. Through a systematic review of the metadata and work plans of the 244 SDG indicators, as well as the identification of past and ongoing citizen science initiatives that could directly or indirectly provide data for these indicators, this paper presents an overview of where citizen science is already contributing and could contribute data to the SDG indicator framework.

The results demonstrate that citizen science is “already contributing” to the monitoring of 5 SDG indicators, and that citizen science “could contribute” to 76 indicators, which, together, equates to around 33%. Our analysis also shows that the greatest inputs from citizen science to the SDG framework relate to SDG 15 Life on Land, SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities, SDG 3 Good Health and Wellbeing, and SDG 6 Clean Water and Sanitation. Realizing the full potential of citizen science requires demonstrating its value in the global data ecosystem, building partnerships around citizen science data to accelerate SDG progress, and leveraging investments to enhance its use and impact….(More)”.

Are Citizens’ Assemblies the Answer to the Climate Crisis?


Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe: “Mathilde Bouyé associate at the Climate Program Of The World Resources Institute: “…the impact of citizens’ deliberation depends on the link to decisionmaking, which varies with each country’s democratic culture. The UK climate assembly informed powerful parliamentary committees, while the French government created a precedent by committing to send the Citizens’ Convention on Climate’s proposals for adoption “without any filter….”

Jan Eichhorn,  Research Director Of D|Part and Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at The University Of Edinburgh: “The climate crisis is so complex that no single action can be the answer to it. However, because of the complexity, formats that can connect otherwise distant actors meaningfully can play a very helpful role. Citizens’ assemblies fit that bill.

If well designed, such assemblies connect expertise with life realities, broaden the horizon of policymakers on what publics may be willing or even excited to consider, and enable publics to learn about options they did not know about. Rather than stoking divisions between people and businesses or between activists and state officials, they can foster common ground and create shared purpose, which is needed to combat comprehensive challenges like the climate crisis….”

Tim Hughes, Director of Involve: “…they are only one way in which people can be—and need to be—involved in decisionmaking. Underpinning citizens’ assemblies are the principles of participation—people being involved in the decisions that affect their lives—and deliberation—people sharing and testing ideas through inclusive and respectful conversations.

It is these principles that we need to build into decisionmaking at all levels of society in order to develop the ideas, energy, and ownership to answer the crisis.”

Mariann Őry,  Head Of The Foreign Desk And Senior Editor At Magyar Hírlap: “Citizens’ initiatives have proven to be effective in reaching a number of goals, but the pressure they can put on stakeholders is not always enough.

It’s not even the most reliable political force: remember that the enthusiasm and momentum of the climate protests has basically vanished since the start of the coronavirus crisis, as if people simply lost interest—though this is surely not the case. A difference can be made on the level of political leaders and, very importantly, on the level of the biggest actors of industry….(More)”.

Peer-Reviewed Scientific Journals Don’t Really Do Their Job


Article by Simine Vazire: “THE RUSH FOR scientific cures and treatments for Covid-19 has opened the floodgates of direct communication between scientists and the public. Instead of waiting for their work to go through the slow process of peer review at scientific journals, scientists are now often going straight to print themselves, posting write-ups of their work to public servers as soon as they’re complete. This disregard for the traditional gatekeepers has led to grave concerns among both scientists and commentators: Might not shoddy science—and dangerous scientific errors—make its way into the media, and spread before an author’s fellow experts can correct it? As two journalism professors suggested in an op-ed last month for The New York Times, it’s possible the recent spread of so-called preprints has only “sown confusion and discord with a general public not accustomed to the high level of uncertainty inherent in science.”

There’s another way to think about this development, however. Instead of showing (once again) that formal peer review is vital for good science, the last few months could just as well suggest the opposite. To me, at least—someone who’s served as an editor at seven different journals, and editor in chief at two—the recent spate of decisions to bypass traditional peer review gives the lie to a pair of myths that researchers have encouraged the public to believe for years: First, that peer-reviewed journals publish only trustworthy science; and second, that trustworthy science is published only in peer-reviewed journals.

Scientists allowed these myths to spread because it was convenient for us. Peer-reviewed journals came into existence largely to keep government regulators off our backs. Scientists believe that we are the best judges of the validity of each other’s work. That’s very likely true, but it’s a huge leap from that to “peer-reviewed journals publish only good science.” The most selective journals still allow flawed studies—even really terribly flawed ones—to be published all the time. Earlier this month, for instance, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences put out a paper claiming that mandated face coverings are “the determinant in shaping the trends of the pandemic.” PNAS is a very prestigious journal, and their website claims that they are an “authoritative source” that works “to publish only the highest quality scientific research.” However, this paper was quickly and thoroughly criticized on social media; by last Thursday, 45 researchers had signed a letter formally calling for its retraction.

Now the jig is up. Scientists are writing papers that they want to share as quickly as possible, without waiting the months or sometimes years it takes to go through journal peer review. So they’re ditching the pretense that journals are a sure-fire quality control filter, and sharing their papers as self-published PDFs. This might be just the shakeup that peer review needs….(More)”.

A Council of Citizens Should Regulate Algorithms


Federica Carugati at Wired: “…A new report by OpenAI suggests we should create external auditing bodies to evaluate the societal impact of algorithm-based decisions. But the report does not specify what such bodies should look like.

We don’t know how to regulate algorithms, because their application to societal problems involves a fundamental incongruity. Algorithms follow logical rules in order to optimize for a given outcome. Public policy is all a matter of trade-offs: optimizing for some groups in society necessarily makes others worse off.

Resolving social trade-offs requires that many different voices be heard. This may sound radical, but it is in fact the original lesson of democracy: Citizens should have a say. We don’t know how to regulate algorithms, because we have become shockingly bad at citizen governance.

Is citizen governance feasible today? Sure, it is. We know from social scientists that a diverse group of people can make very good decisions. We also know from a number of recent experiments that citizens can be called upon to make decisions on very tough policy issues, including climate change, and even to shape constitutions. Finally, we can draw from the past for inspiration on how to actually build citizen-run institutions.

The ancient Athenians—the citizens of the world’s first large-scale experiment in democracy—built an entire society on the principle of citizen governance. One institution stands out for our purposes: the Council of Five Hundred, a deliberative body in charge of all decisionmaking, from war to state finance to entertainment. Every year, 50 citizens from each of the 10 tribes were selected by lot to serve. Selection occurred among those that had not served the year before and had not already served twice.

These simple organizational rules facilitated broad participation, knowledge aggregation, and citizen learning. First, because the term was limited and could not be iterated more than twice, over time a broad section of the population—rich and poor, educated and not—participated in decisionmaking. Second, because the council represented the whole population (each tribe integrated three different geographic constituencies), it could draw upon the diverse knowledge of its members. Third, at the end of their mandate, councillors returned home with a body of knowledge about the affairs of their city that they could share with their families, friends, and coworkers, some of whom already served and some who soon would. Certainly, the Athenians did not follow through on their commitment to inclusion. As a result, many people’s voices went unheard, including those of women, foreigners, and slaves. But we don’t need to follow the Athenian example on this front.

A citizen council for algorithms modeled on the Athenian example would represent the entire American citizen population. We already do this with juries (although it is possible that, when decisions affect a specific constituency, a better fit with the actual polity might be required). Citizens’ deliberations would be informed by agency self-assessments and algorithmic impact statements for decision systems used by government agencies, and internal auditing reports for industry, as well as reports from investigative journalists and civil society activists, whenever available. Ideally, the council would act as an authoritative body or as an advisory board to an existing regulatory agency….(More)”.

The Data Assembly


Press Release: “The Governance Lab (The GovLab), an action research center at New York University Tandon School of Engineering, with the support of the Henry Luce Foundation, announced the creation of The Data Assembly. Beginning in New York City, the effort will explore how communities perceive the risks and benefits of data re-use for COVID-19. Understanding that policymakers often lack information about the concerns of different stakeholders, The Data Assembly’s deliberations will inform the creation of a responsible data re-use framework to guide the use of data and technology at the city and state level to fight COVID-19’s many consequences.

The Data Assembly will hold deliberations with civil rights organizations, key data holders and policymakers, and the public at large. Consultations with these stakeholders will take place through a series of remote engagements, including surveys and an online town hall meeting. This work will allow the project to consider the perspectives of people from different strata of society and how they might exercise some control over the flow of data.

After the completion of these data re-use deliberations, The Data Assembly will create a path forward for using data responsibly to solve public challenges. The first phases of the project will commence in New York City, seeking to engage with city residents and their leaders on data governance issues. 

“Data is increasingly the primary format for sharing information to understand crises and plan recovery efforts; empowering everyone to better understand how data is collected and how it should be used is paramount,” said Adrienne Schmoeker, Director of Civic Engagement & Strategy and Deputy Chief Analytics Officer at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. “We look forward to learning from the insights gathered by the GovLab through The Data Assembly work they are conducting in New York City.”…(More)”.

The practice of democracy: A selection of civic engagement initiatives


Study by the European Parliament Research Service: “Public powers are currently facing extraordinary challenges, from finding ways to revive economic growth without damaging the environment, to managing a global health crisis, combating inequality and securing peace. In the coming decades, public regulators, and with them academics, civil society actors and corporate powers, will confront another dilemma that is fast becoming a clear and present challenge. This is whether to protect the current structures of democratic governance,despite the widespread perception of their inefficiency,or adapt them to fast-changing scenarios (but, in doing so, take the risk of further weakening democracy).

The picture is blurred, with diverging trends. On the one hand, the classic interest-representation model is under strain. Low voter turnouts, rising populist (or anti-establishment) political movements and widespread discontent towards public institutions are stress-testing the foundations of democratic systems. Democracy, ever-louder voices argue, is a mere chimera, and citizens have little meaningful impact on the public decision-making process. Therefore, critics suggest, alternatives to the democratic model must be considered if countries are to navigate future challenges. However, the reality is more complex. Indeed, the decay of democratic values is unambiguously rejected by the birth of new grassroots movements, evidenced by record-speed civic mobilisation (especially among the young) and sustained by widespread street protest. Examined more closely, these events show that global demand for participation is alive and kicking.

The clash between these two opposing trends raises a number of questions that policy-makers and analysts must answer. First, will new, hybrid, forms of democratic participation replace classic representation systems? Second, amid transformative processes, how will power-roles be redistributed? A third set of questions looks at what is driving the transformation of democratic systems. As the venues of political discussion and interaction move from town halls and meeting rooms to online forums, it becomes critical to understand whether innovative democratic practices will be implemented almost exclusively through impersonal, ascetic, digital platforms; or, whether civic engagement will still be nurtured through in-person, local forums built to encourage debate.

This study begins by looking at the latest developments in the academic and institutional debates on democratic participation and civic engagement. Contributing to the crisis of traditional democratic models are political apathy and declining trust in political institutions, changes in methods of producing and sharing knowledge, and the pervasive nature of technology. How are public institutions reacting to these disruptive changes? The central part of this study examines a sample of initiatives trialled by public administrations (local, national and supranational) to engage citizens in policy-making. These initiatives are categorised by three criteria: first, the depth and complexity of cooperation between public structures and private actors; second, the design of procedures and structures of participation; and,third, the level of politicisation of the consultations, as well as the attractiveness of certain topics compared with others.

This analysis is intended to contribute to the on-going debate on the democratisation of the European Union (EU). The planned Conference on the Future of Europe, the recent reform of the European Citizens’ Initiative, and on-going debates on how to improve the transparency of EU decision-making are all designed to revive the civic spirit of the European public. These efforts notwithstanding, severe political, economic and societal challenges are jeopardising the very ideological foundations of the Union. The on-going coronavirus pandemic has placed the EU’s effectiveness under scrutiny once again. By appraising and applying methods tested by public sector institutions to engage citizens in policy-making, the EU could boost its chances of accomplishing its political mandate with success….(More)”

The people solving mysteries during lockdown


Frank Swain at the BBC: “For almost half a century, Benedictine monks in Herefordshire dutifully logged the readings of a rain gauge on the grounds of Belmont Abbey, recording the quantity of rain that had fallen each month without fail. That is, until 1948, when measurements were suspended while the abbot waited for someone to repair a bullet hole in the gauge funnel.

How the bullet hole came to be there is still a mystery, but it’s just one of the stories uncovered by a team of 16,000 volunteers who have been taking part in Rainfall Rescue, a project to digitise hand-written records of British weather. The documents, held by the Met Office, contain 3.5 million datapoints and stretch as far back as 1820.

Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist at the University of Reading, leads the project. “It launched at the end of March, we realised people would have a lot of spare time on their hands,” he explains. “It was completed in 16 days. I was expecting 16 weeks, not 16 days… the volunteers absolutely blitzed it.” He says the data will be used to improve future weather predictions and climate modelling.

With millions of people trapped at home during the pandemic, citizen science projects are seeing a boom in engagement. Rainfall Rescue uses a platform called Zooniverse, which hosts dozens of projects covering everything from artworks to zebra. While the projects generally have scientific aims, many allow people to also contribute some good to the world. 

Volunteers can scour satellite images for rural houses across Africa so they can be connected to the electricity grid, for example. Another – led by researchers at the University of Nottingham in the UK – is hunting for signs of modern slavery in the shape of brick kilns in South Asia (although the project has faced some criticism for being an over-simplified way of looking at modern slavery).

Others are trying to track the spread of invasive species in the ocean from underwater photographs, or identify earthquakes and tremors by speeding up the seismic signals so they become audible and can be classified by sharp-eared volunteers. “You could type in data on old documents, count penguins, go to the Serengeti and look at track camera images – it’s an incredible array,” says Hawkins. “Whatever you’re interested in there’s something for you.”…(More)”.