Big Data and Dahl’s Challenge of Democratic Governance

Alex Ingrams in the Review of Policy Research: “Big data applications have been acclaimed as potentially transformative for the public sector. But, despite this acclaim, most theory of big data is narrowly focused around technocratic goals. The conceptual frameworks that situate big data within democratic governance systems recognizing the role of citizens are still missing. This paper explores the democratic governance impacts of big data in three policy areas using Robert Dahl’s dimensions of control and autonomy. Key impacts and potential tensions are highlighted. There is evidence of impacts on both dimensions, but the dimensions conflict as well as align in notable ways and focused policy efforts will be needed to find a balance….(More)”.

The Future of Civic Engagement

Report by Hollie Russon Gilman: “The 2018 mid-term voter turnout was the highest in 50 years. While vital, voting can’t sustain civic engagement in the long term. So, how do we channel near-term activism into long-term civic engagement?  In her essay, Gilman paints a picture of how new institutional structures, enabled by new technologies, could lead to a new “civic layer” in society that results in “a more responsive, participatory, collaborative, and adaptive future for civic engagement in governance decision making.”

Creating a New “Civic Layer.” The longer-term future presents an opportunity to set up institutionalized structures for engagement across local, state, and federal levels of government—creating a “civic layer.” Its precise form will evolve, but the basic concept is to establish a centralized interface within a com- munity to engage residents in governance decision making that interweaves digital and in-person engagement. People will earn “civic points” for engagement across a variety of activities—including every time they sign a petition, report a pot hole, or volunteer in their local community.

While creating a civic layer will require new institutional approaches, emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and distributed ledger (e.g., blockchain) will also play a critical enabling role. These technologies will allow new institutional models to expand the concept of citizen coproduction of services in building a more responsive, connected, and engaged citizenry.

The following examples show different collaborative governance and technology components that will comprise the civic layer.  Each could be expanded and become interwoven into the fabric of civic life.

Use Collaborative Policymaking Models to Build a Civic Layer.  While we currently think of elections as a primary mode of citizen engagement with government, in the medium- to long-range future we could see collaborative policy models that become the de facto way people engage to supplement elections. Several of these engagement models are on the local level. However, with the formation of a civic layer these forms of engagement could become integrated into a federated structure enabling more scale, scope, and impact. Following are two promising models.

  • Participatory Budgeting can be broadly defined as the participation of citizens in the decision-making process of how to allocate their community’s budget among different priorities and in the monitoring of public spending. The process first came to the United States in 2009 through the work of the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project. Unlike traditional budget consultations held by some governments—which often amount to “selective listening” exercises—with participatory budgeting, citizens have an actual say in how a portion of a government’s investment budget is spent, with more money often allocated to poorer communities. Experts estimate that up to 2,500 local governments around the world have implemented participatory budgeting,
  • Citizens’Jury is another promising collaborative policymaking engagement model, pioneered in the 1980s and currently advocated by the nonprofit Jefferson Center in Minnesota. Three counties in rural Minnesota use this method as a foundation for Rural Climate Dialogues—regular gatherings where local residents hear from rural experts, work directly with their neighbors to design actionable community and policy recommendations, and share their feedback with public officials at a statewide meeting of rural Minnesota citizens, state agency representatives, and nonprofit organizations….(More)”.

The Datafication of Employment

Report by Sam Adler-Bell and Michelle Miller at the Century Foundation: “We live in a surveillance society. Our every preference, inquiry, whim, desire, relationship, and fear can be seen, recorded, and monetized by thousands of prying corporate eyes. Researchers and policymakers are only just beginning to map the contours of this new economy—and reckon with its implications for equity, democracy, freedom, power, and autonomy.

For consumers, the digital age presents a devil’s bargain: in exchange for basically unfettered access to our personal data, massive corporations like Amazon, Google, and Facebook give us unprecedented connectivity, convenience, personalization, and innovation. Scholars have exposed the dangers and illusions of this bargain: the corrosion of personal liberty, the accumulation of monopoly power, the threat of digital redlining,1 predatory ad-targeting,2 and the reification of class and racial stratification.3 But less well understood is the way data—its collection, aggregation, and use—is changing the balance of power in the workplace.

This report offers some preliminary research and observations on what we call the “datafication of employment.” Our thesis is that data-mining techniques innovated in the consumer realm have moved into the workplace. Firms who’ve made a fortune selling and speculating on data acquired from consumers in the digital economy are now increasingly doing the same with data generated by workers. Not only does this corporate surveillance enable a pernicious form of rent-seeking—in which companies generate huge profits by packaging and selling worker data in marketplace hidden from workers’ eyes—but also, it opens the door to an extreme informational asymmetry in the workplace that threatens to give employers nearly total control over every aspect of employment.

The report begins with an explanation of how a regime of ubiquitous consumer surveillance came about, and how it morphed into worker surveillance and the datafication of employment. The report then offers principles for action for policymakers and advocates seeking to respond to the harmful effects of this new surveillance economy. The final sections concludes with a look forward at where the surveillance economy is going, and how researchers, labor organizers, and privacy advocates should prepare for this changing landscape….(More)”

Advancing Sustainability Together: Launching new report on citizen-generated data and its relevance for the SDGs

Danny Lämmerhirt at Open Knowledge Foundation: “Citizen-generated data (CGD) expands what gets measured, how, and for what purpose. As the collection and engagement with CGD increases in relevance and visibility, public institutions can learn from existing initiatives about what CGD initiatives do, how they enable different forms of sense-making and how this may further progress around the Sustainable Development Goals.

Our report, as well as a guide for governments (find the layouted version here, as well as a living document here) shall help start conversations around the different approaches of doing and organising CGD. When CGD becomes good enough depends on the purpose it is used for but also how CGD is situated in relation to other data.

As our work wishes to be illustrative rather than comprehensive, we started with a list of over 230 projects that were associated with the term “citizen-generated data” on Google Search, using an approach known as “search as research” (Rogers, 2013). Outgoing from this list, we developed case studies on a range of prominent CGD examples.

The report identifies several benefits CGD can bring for implementing and monitoring the SDGs, underlining the importance for public institutions to further support these initiatives.

Figure 1: Illustration of tasks underpinning CGD initiatives and their workflows

Key findings:

  • Dealing with data is usually much more than ‘just producing’ data. CGD initiativesopen up new types of relationships between individuals, civil society and public institutions. This includes local development and educational programmes, community outreach, and collaborative strategies for monitoring, auditing, planning and decision-making.
  • Generating data takes many shapes, from collecting new data in the field, to compiling, annotating, and structuring existing data to enable new ways of seeing things through data. Accessing and working with existing (government) data is often an important enabling condition for CGD initiatives to start in the first place.
  • CGD initiatives can help gathering data in regions otherwise not reachable. Some CGD approaches may provide updated and detailed data at lower costs and faster than official data collections.
  • Beyond filling data gaps, official measurements can be expanded, complemented, or cross-verified. This includes pattern and trend identification and the creation of baseline indicators for further research. CGD can help governments detect anomalies, test the accuracy of existing monitoring processes, understand the context around phenomena, and initiate its own follow-up data collections.
  • CGD can inform several actions to achieve the SDGs. Beyond education, community engagement and community-based problem solving, this includes baseline research, planning and strategy development, allocation and coordination of public and private programs, as well as improvement to public services.
  • CGD must be ‘good enough’ for different (and varying) purposes. Governments already develop pragmatic ways to negotiate and assess the usefulness of data for a specific task. CGD may be particularly useful when agencies have a clear remit or responsibility to manage a problem.  
  • Data quality can be comparable to official data collections, provided tasks are sufficiently easy to conduct, tool quality is high enough, and sufficient training, resources and quality assurance are provided….(More)”.

The role of Ombudsman Institutions in Open Government

Report by K.Zuegel, E. Cantera, and A. Bellantoni: “Ombudsman institutions (OIs) act as the guardians of citizens’ rights and as a mediator between citizens and the public administration. While the very existence of such institutions is rooted in the notion of open government, the role they can play in promoting openness throughout the public administration has not been adequately recognized or exploited. Based on a survey of 94 OIs, this report examines the role they play in open government policies and practices. It also provides recommendations on how, given their privileged contact with both people and governments, OIs can better promote transparency, integrity, accountability, and stakeholder participation; how their role in national open government strategies and initiatives can be strengthened; and how they can be at the heart of a truly open state….(More)”.

New methods help identify what drives sensitive or socially unacceptable behaviors

Mary Guiden at Physorg: “Conservation scientists and statisticians at Colorado State University have teamed up to solve a key problem for the study of sensitive behaviors like poaching, harassment, bribery, and drug use.

Sensitive behaviors—defined as socially unacceptable or not compliant with rules and regulations—are notoriously hard to study, researchers say, because people often do not want to answer direct questions about them.

To overcome this challenge, scientists have developed indirect questioning approaches that protect responders’ identities. However, these methods also make it difficult to predict which sectors of a population are more likely to participate in sensitive behaviors, and which factors, such as knowledge of laws, education, or income, influence the probability that an individual will engage in a sensitive behavior.

Assistant Professor Jennifer Solomon and Associate Professor Michael Gavin of the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at CSU, and Abu Conteh from MacEwan University in Alberta, Canada, have teamed up with Professor Jay Breidt and doctoral student Meng Cao in the CSU Department of Statistics to develop a new method to solve the problem.

The study, “Understanding the drivers of sensitive behavior using Poisson regression from quantitative randomized response technique data,” was published recently in PLOS One.

Conteh, who, as a doctoral student, worked with Gavin in New Zealand, used a specific technique, known as quantitative randomized response, to elicit confidential answers to questions on behaviors related to non-compliance with natural resource regulations from a protected area in Sierra Leone.

In this technique, the researcher conducting interviews has a large container containing pingpong balls, some with numbers and some without numbers. The interviewer asks the respondent to pick a ball at random, without revealing it to the interviewer. If the ball has a number, the respondent tells the interviewer the number. If the ball does not have a number, the respondent reveals how many times he illegaly hunted animals in a given time period….

Armed with the new computer program, the scientists found that people from rural communities with less access to jobs in urban centers were more likely to hunt in the reserve. People in communities with a greater proportion people displaced by Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war were also more likely to hunt illegally….(More)”

The researchers said that collaborating across disciplines was and is key to addressing complex problems like this one. It is commonplace for people to be noncompliant with rules and regulations and equally important for social scientists to analyze these behaviors….(More)”

Time to step away from the ‘bright, shiny things’? Towards a sustainable model of journalism innovation in an era of perpetual change

Paper by Julie Posetti: “The news industry has a focus problem. ‘Shiny Things Syndrome’ –obsessive pursuit of technology in the absence of clear and research-informed strategies – is the diagnosis offered by participants in this research. The cure suggested involves a conscious shift by news publishers from being technology-led, to audience-focused and technology-empowered.

This report presents the first research from the Journalism Innovation Project anchored within the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. It is based on analysis of discussions with 39 leading journalism innovators from around the world, representing 27 different news publishers. The main finding of this research is that relentless, high-speed pursuit of technology-driven innovation could be almost as dangerous as stagnation. While ‘random acts of innovation’, organic experimentation, and willingness to embrace new technology remain valuable features of an innovation culture, there is evidence of an increasingly urgent requirement for the cultivation of sustainable innovation frameworks and clear, longer-term strategies within news organisations.

Such a ‘pivot’ could also address the growing problem of burnout associated with ‘innovation fatigue’. To be effective, such strategies need to be focused on engaging audiences – the ‘end users’ – and they would benefit from research-informed innovation ‘indicators’.

The key themes identified in this report are:
a. The risks of ‘Shiny Things Syndrome’ and the impacts of ‘innovation fatigue’ in an era of perpetual change
b. Audiences: starting (again) with the end user
c. The need for a ‘user-led’ approach to researching journalism innovation and developing foundational frameworks to support it

Additionally, new journalism innovation considerations are noted, such as the implications of digital technologies’ ‘unintended consequences’, and the need to respond innovatively to media freedom threats – such as gendered online harassment, privacy breaches, and orchestrated disinformation campaigns….(More)”.

Digital Technologies for Transparency in Public Investment: New Tools to Empower Citizens and Governments

Paper by Kahn, Theodore; Baron, Alejandro; Vieyra, Juan Cruz: Improving infrastructure and basic services is a central task in the region’s growth and development agenda. Despite the importance of private sector participation, governments will continue to play a defining role in planning, financing, executing, and overseeing key infrastructure projects and service delivery. This reality puts a premium on the efficient and transparent management of public investment, especially in light of the considerable technical, administrative, and political challenges and vulnerability to corruption and rent-seeking associated with large public works.

The recent spate of corruption scandals surrounding public procurement and infrastructure projects in the region underscores the urgency of this agenda. The emergence of new digital technologies offers powerful tools for governments and citizens in the region to improve the transparency and efficiency of public investment. This paper examines the challenges of building transparent public investment management systems, both conceptually and in the specific case of Latin America and the Caribbean, and highlights how a suite of new technological tools can improve the implementation of infrastructure projects and public services. The discussion is informed by the experience of the Inter-American Development Bank in designing and implementing the MapaInversiones platform. The paper concludes with several concrete policy recommendations for the region…. (More)”

Parliament and the people

Report by Rebecca Rumbul, Gemma Moulder, and Alex Parsons at MySociety: “The publication and dissemination of parliamentary information in developed countries has been shown to improve citizen engagement in governance and reduce the distance between the representative and the represented. While it is clear that these channels are being used, it is not clear how they are being used, or why some digital tools achieve greater reach or influence than others.

With the support of the Indigo Trust, mySociety has undertaken research to better understand how digital tools for parliamentary openness and engagement are operating in Sub-Saharan Africa, and how future tools can be better designed and targeted to achieve greater social impact. Read the executive summary of the report’s conclusions.

The report provides an analysis of the data and digital landscapes of four case study countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (KenyaNigeriaSouth Africa and Uganda), and interrogates how digital channels are being used in those countries to create and disseminate information on parliamentary activity. It examines the existing academic and practitioner literature in this field, compares and contrasts the landscape in each case study country, and provides a thematic overview of common and relevant factors in the operation of digital platforms for democratic engagement in parliamentary activity…(More)”.

Public Attitudes Toward Computer Algorithms

Aaron Smith at the Pew Research Center: “Algorithms are all around us, utilizing massive stores of data and complex analytics to make decisions with often significant impacts on humans. They recommend books and movies for us to read and watch, surface news stories they think we might find relevant, estimate the likelihood that a tumor is cancerous and predict whether someone might be a criminal or a worthwhile credit risk. But despite the growing presence of algorithms in many aspects of daily life, a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults finds that the public is frequently skeptical of these tools when used in various real-life situations.

This skepticism spans several dimensions. At a broad level, 58% of Americans feel that computer programs will always reflect some level of human bias – although 40% think these programs can be designed in a way that is bias-free. And in various contexts, the public worries that these tools might violate privacy, fail to capture the nuance of complex situations, or simply put the people they are evaluating in an unfair situation. Public perceptions of algorithmic decision-making are also often highly contextual. The survey shows that otherwise similar technologies can be viewed with support or suspicion depending on the circumstances or on the tasks they are assigned to do….

The following are among the major findings.

The public expresses broad concerns about the fairness and acceptability of using computers for decision-making in situations with important real-world consequences

Majorities of Americans find it unacceptable to use algorithms to make decisions with real-world consequences for humans

By and large, the public views these examples of algorithmic decision-making as unfair to the people the computer-based systems are evaluating. Most notably, only around one-third of Americans think that the video job interview and personal finance score algorithms would be fair to job applicants and consumers. When asked directly whether they think the use of these algorithms is acceptable, a majority of the public says that they are not acceptable. Two-thirds of Americans (68%) find the personal finance score algorithm unacceptable, and 67% say the computer-aided video job analysis algorithm is unacceptable….

Attitudes toward algorithmic decision-making can depend heavily on context

Despite the consistencies in some of these responses, the survey also highlights the ways in which Americans’ attitudes toward algorithmic decision-making can depend heavily on the context of those decisions and the characteristics of the people who might be affected….

When it comes to the algorithms that underpin the social media environment, users’ comfort level with sharing their personal information also depends heavily on how and why their data are being used. A 75% majority of social media users say they would be comfortable sharing their data with those sites if it were used to recommend events they might like to attend. But that share falls to just 37% if their data are being used to deliver messages from political campaigns.

Across age groups, social media users are comfortable with their data being used to recommend events - but wary of that data being used for political messaging

In other instances, different types of users offer divergent views about the collection and use of their personal data. For instance, about two-thirds of social media users younger than 50 find it acceptable for social media platforms to use their personal data to recommend connecting with people they might want to know. But that view is shared by fewer than half of users ages 65 and older….(More)”.