The Rise of Urban Commons


Blogpost by Alessandra Quarta and Antonio Vercellone: “In the last ten years, the concept of the commons became popular in social studies and political activism and in some countries domestic lawyers have shared the interest for this notion. Even if an (existing or proposed) statutory definition of the commons is still very rare, lawyers get familiar with the concept of the commons through the filter of property law, where such a concept has been quite discredited. In fact, approaching property law, many students of different legal traditions learn the origins of property rights revolving on the “tragedy of the commons”, the “parable” made famous by Garrett Hardin in the late nineteen-sixties. According to this widespread narrative, the impossibility to avoid the over-exploitation of those resources managed through an open-access regime determines the necessity of allocating private property rights. In this classic argument, the commons appear in a negative light: they represent the impossibility for a community to manage shared resources without concentrating all the decision-making powers in the hand of a single owner or of a central government. Moreover, they represent the wasteful inefficiency of the Feudal World.

This vision has dominated social and economic studies until 1998, when Elinor Ostrom published her famous book Governing the commons, offering the results of her research on resources managed by communities in different parts of the world. Ostrom, awarded with the Nobel Prize in 2009, demonstrated that the commons are not necessarily a tragedy and a place of no-law. In fact, local communities generally define principles for their government and sharing in a resilient way avoiding the tragedy to occur. Moreover, Ostrom defined a set of principles for checking if the commons are managed efficiently and can compete with both private and public arrangements of resource management.

Later on, under an institutional perspective, the commons became the tool of contestation of political and economic mainstream dogmas, including the unquestionable efficiency of both the market and private property in the allocation of resources. The research of new tools for managing resources has been carried out in several experimentations that generally occurs at the local and urban level: scholars and practitioners define these experiences as ‘urban commons’….(More)”.

The Hidden Cost of Using Amazon Mechanical Turk for Research


Paper by Antonios Saravanos: “This work shares unexpected findings obtained from the use of the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform as a source of participants for the study of technology adoption. Expressly, of the 564 participants from the United States, 126 (22.34%) failed at least one of three forms of attention check (logic, honesty, and time). We also examined whether characteristics such as gender, age, education, and income affected participant attention. Amongst all characteristics assessed, only prior experience with the technology being studied was found to be related to attentiveness. We conclude this work by reaffirming the need for multiple forms of attention checks to gauge participant attention. Furthermore, we propose that researchers adjust their budgets accordingly to account for the possibility of having to discard responses from participants determined not to be displaying adequate attention….(More)”.

Switzerland to Hold Referendum on Covid-19 Lockdown


James Hookway at the Wall Street Journal: “Switzerland’s system of direct democracy will be put to the test again later this year, this time with a referendum on whether to roll back the government’s powers to impose lockdowns and other measures to slow the Covid-19 pandemic.

The landlocked Alpine nation of 8.5 million people is unusual in providing its people a say on important policy moves by offering referendums if enough people sign a petition for a vote. Last year, Swiss voted on increasing the stock of low-cost housing, tax allowances for children and hunting wolves.

The idea is to provide citizens a check on the power of the federal government, and it is a throwback to the fiercely independent patchwork of cantons, or districts, that were meshed in the medieval period.

Now, the country is set for a referendum on whether to remove the government’s legal authority to order lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions after campaigners submitted a petition of some 86,000 signatures this week—higher than the 50,000 required—triggering a nationwide vote to repeal last year’s Covid-19 Act….(More)”.

Inaccurate Data, Half-Truths, Disinformation, and Mob Violence


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Image credit: Kayla Velasquez/Unsplash.

Selected Readings by Fiona Cece, Uma Kalkar, and Stefaan Verhulst: “The mob attack on the US Congress was alarming and the result of various efforts to undermine the trust in and legitimacy of longstanding democratic processes and institutions. In particular, the use of inaccurate data, half-truths, and disinformation to spread hate and division is considered a key driver behind last week’s attack. Altering data to support conspiracy theories or challenging and undermining the credibility of trusted data sources to allow for alternative narratives to flourish, if left unchallenged, has consequences — including the increased acceptance and use of violence both off-line and on-line.

Everyone working on data and information needs to be aware of the implications of altering or misusing data (including election results) to support malicious objectives. The January 6th riot is unfortunately not a unique event, nor is it contained to the US. Below, we provide a curation of findings and readings that illustrate the global danger of inaccurate data, half-truths, and willful disinformation….(Readings)”.

The pandemic has pushed citizen panels online


Article by Claudia Chwalisz: “…Until 2020, most assemblies took place in person. We know what they require to produce useful recommendations and gain public trust: time (usually many days over many months), access to broad and varied information, facilitated discussion, and transparency. Successful assemblies take on a pressing public issue, secure politicians’ commitment to respond, have mechanisms to ensure independence, and provide facilities such as stipends and childcare, so all can participate. The diversity of people in the room is what delivers the magic of collective intelligence.

However, the pandemic has forced new approaches. Online discussions might be in real time or asynchronous; facilitators and participants might be identifiable or anonymous. My team at the OECD is exploring how virtual deliberation works best. We have noticed a shift: from text-based interactions to video; from an emphasis on openness to one on representativeness; and from individual to group deliberation.

Some argue that online deliberation is less expensive than in-person processes, but the costs are similar when designed to be as democratic as possible. The new wave pays much more attention to inclusivity. For many online citizens’ assemblies this year (for example, in Belgium, Canada and parts of the United Kingdom), participants without equipment were given computers or smartphones, along with training and support to use them. A digital mediator is now essential for any plans to conduct online deliberation inclusively.

Experiments have also started to transcend national borders. Last October, the German Bertelsmann Stiftung, a private foundation for political reform, and the European Commission ran a Citizens’ Dialogue with 100 randomly selected citizens from Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Lithuania. They spent three days discussing Europe’s democratic, digital and green future. The Global Citizens’ Assembly on Genome Editing will take place in 2021–22, as will the Global Citizens’ Assembly for the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

However, virtual meetings do not replace in-person interactions. Practitioners adapting assemblies to the virtual world warn that online processes could push people into more linear and binary thinking through voting tools, rather than seeking a nuanced understanding of other people’s reasoning and values….(More)”.

Rising to the Challenge: how to get the best value from using prizes to drive innovation for development


Report by Cheryl Brown, Catherine Gould, Clare Stott: “An innovation inducement prize enables funders to pursue development goals without them having to know in advance which approaches or participants are most likely to succeed. Innovation prizes also often directly engage with the intended beneficiaries or those connected with them, in solving the problems.

At a time when development spending is under increasing pressure to show value for money (VFM), innovation prizes are considered as an alternative to mainstream funding options. While costs are likely to have accrued through prize design and management, no cash payments are made until the prize is successfully awarded. The funder may anticipate obtaining more results than those directly paid for through the prize award.

The purpose of this report is to answer two questions: do innovation prizes work for development, and if so, when do they offer value over other forms of funding?

To date, few evaluations have been published that would help funders answer these questions for themselves. DFID commissioned the Ideas to Impact programme, which was delivered by an IMC Worldwide-led consortium and evaluated by Itad, to fill this gap by testing a range of innovation prizes targeted at different development issues and this report synthesises the findings from the evaluations and follow-up reviews of six of these prizes….(More)”.

CommunityClick: Capturing and Reporting Community Feedback from Town Halls to Improve Inclusivity


Paper by Mahmood Jasim: “Local governments still depend on traditional town halls for community consultation, despite problems such as a lack of inclusive participation for attendees and difficulty for civic organizers to capture attendees’ feedback in reports. Building on a formative study with 66 town hall attendees and 20 organizers, we designed and developed CommunityClick, a community sourcing system that captures attendees’ feedback in an inclusive manner and enables organizers to author more comprehensive reports. During the meeting, in addition to recording meeting audio to capture vocal attendees’ feedback, we modify iClickers to give voice to reticent attendees by allowing them to provide real-time feedback beyond a binary signal. This information then automatically feeds into a meeting transcript augmented with attendees’ feedback and organizers’ tags. The augmented transcript along with a feedback-weighted summary of the transcript generated from text analysis methods is incorporated into an interactive authoring tool for organizers to write reports. From a field experiment at a town hall meeting, we demonstrate how CommunityClick can improve inclusivity by providing multiple avenues for attendees to share opinions. Additionally, interviews with eight expert organizers demonstrate CommunityClick’s utility in creating more comprehensive and accurate reports to inform critical civic decision-making. We discuss the possibility of integrating CommunityClick with town hall meetings in the future as well as expanding to other domains….(More)”.

The War on Professionalism


Jonathan Rauch in National Affairs: “…As a child, I asked my father, a lawyer, what the word “professional” meant. He replied, “it means you do something for a living.” He contrasted it with the term “amateur,” meaning someone who works for pleasure.

My father’s definition has merit. I recall it whenever I tell interns that, to me, professionalism means performing a job to the highest standards, even when I don’t feel like doing it at all. One might think of the doctor who shows up for emergency surgery on Christmas Eve, the journalist who takes care to verify every fact mentioned in a report, or the concert pianist who gives the audience the best he is capable of night after night, even on nights when he would much rather be doing anything else.

That concept of professionalism is a good starting point, but we can dig deeper by drawing on the work of the American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin. In his book A Time to Build, Levin explores the role and meaning of institutions. Institutions, he says, are — or, when they function well, should be — forms, training and shaping people to work together toward a larger goal. The military is a classic example, as are churches and schools. These “structures of social life” provide the durable arrangements that frame our perceptions, mold our character, and delineate our social existence.

When institutions do not or cannot perform those shaping functions, they collapse into something more like platforms — stages upon which individuals perform in order to build audiences and self-advertise. He locates the collapse of trust in institutions — and the resulting public sense of anomie and disconnectedness — in the conversion of many institutions from places where people are formed to places where people perform. Thus a self-promoting real-estate magnate can become a self-promoting reality-TV host and then a self-promoting presidential candidate, hopping from one stage to the next, all while putting on pretty much the same show.

As institutions have drifted away from shaping us and toward displaying us, they have lost both efficacy and legitimacy. And we, in turn, have naturally lost confidence in them. Moreover, Levin argues, institutions have been taken for granted for so long, and yet are neglected so generally, that we have lost even the vocabulary for talking about what they are supposed to be doing. We don’t realize what we are missing, although we acutely feel the void.

Something very much like that has happened with professionalism. A combination of institutional absence, lazy thinking, and populist politics has collapsed the idea of professionalism down to the much flatter notion of elitism.

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

That distinction gestures toward a fuller definition of professionalism, one that implies commitment to personal standards, social norms, and expert knowledge in furtherance of a mission or an institution. That is, professionalism defines a right way of doing things — a notion of best practices — that is grounded in dedication to a mission or an institution rather than personal advancement or partisan loyalty. As Levin says, professionalism “tends to yield a strong internal ethos among practitioners. In uncertain situations, a professional asks himself, ‘What should I do here, given my professional responsibilities?’ And his profession will generally have an answer to that question.”

As Levin notices, institutionalism and professionalism are cousins. Both institutions and professions organize individuals to accomplish missions, they seek to inculcate norms and guide behavior, they assemble and transmit knowledge and best practices across generations, they cultivate reputational capital over long spans of time, and they draw and enforce boundaries between insiders and outsiders….(More)”

To Thrive, Our Democracy Needs Digital Public Infrastructure


Article by Eli Pariser and Danielle Allen: “The story of how the internet has become so broken is already familiar. More and more of our public life takes place on big tech platforms optimized for clicks, shares, and virality. The result is that we spend our online time largely in rule-less spaces that reward our worst impulses, trap us in bubbles of like-minded opinion, and leave us susceptible to harassment, lies and misinformation. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube each took first steps to rein in the worst behavior on their platforms in the heat of the election, but none have confronted how their spaces were structured to become ideal venues for outrage and incitement…

The first step in the process is realizing that the problems we’re experiencing in digital life — how to gather strangers together in public in ways that make it so people generally behave themselves — aren’t new. They’re problems that physical communities have wrestled with for centuries. In physical communities, businesses play a critical role — but so do public libraries, schools, parks and roads. These spaces are often the groundwork that private industry builds itself around: Schools teach and train the next generation of workers; new public parks and plazas often spur private real estate development; businesses transport goods on publicly funded roads; and so on. Public spaces and private industry work symbiotically, if sometimes imperfectly.

Beyond their instrumental value for prosperity, we need public spaces and institutions to weave and maintain our social fabric. In physical communities, parks and libraries aren’t just places for exercise or book-borrowing — they also create social connections, a sense of community identity, and a venue in which differences and inequalities can be surfaced and addressed. Public spaces provide access to essential resources for people who couldn’t otherwise access them — whether it’s an outdoor workout station, basketball court, or books in a library — but they are some of the few spaces in a community where we get a glimpse of each other’s lives and help us see ourselves as part of a pluralistic but cohesive society….

If mission, design and governance are important ingredients, the final component is what might be called digital essential workers — professionals like librarians whose job is to manage, steward, and care for the people in these spaces. This care work is one of the pillars of successful physical communities which has been abstracted away by the existing tech platforms. Scholar Joan Donovan has called for 10,000 librarians for the Internet, while Sarah R. Roberts has pointed out that doing curation at scale would be impossible within the current social media business model. At a time when our country is pulling apart and many Americans need work, it’s worth considering whether we need an AmeriCorps for digital space.

How might we pay for this? A two-year project one of us helped lead at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a final report that recommended taxing what’s known as “targeted advertising” — the kind Google and Facebook rely on for their revenue — in order to support the democratic functions social platforms have had a hand in dismantling, like local journalism. The truth is that Facebook, Google, and Twitter have displaced and sucked the revenue out of an entire ecosystem of local journalistic enterprises and other institutions that served some of these public functions. Those three companies alone made nearly $33 billion in profits in the third quarter of 2020 alone — and that profit margin in part comes from not having to pay for the negative externalities they create or the public goods they erode. Using some of those funds to support public digital infrastructure seems eminently reasonable….(More)”.

Why crowdsourcing fails


Paper by Linus Dahlander and Henning Piezunka: ” Crowdsourcing—asking an undefned group of external contributors to work on tasks—allows organizations to tap into the expertise of people around the world. Crowdsourcing is known to increase innovation and loyalty to brands, but many organizations struggle to leverage its potential, as our research shows. Most often this is because organizations fail to properly plan for all the diferent stages of crowd engagement. In this paper, we use several examples to explain these challenges and ofer advice for how organizations can overcome them….(More)”.