Brussels streets

In Brussels. (PDFs, lobbyists, votes and that pesky democratic deficit.)

Our mini-civic-tech-tour-of-Europe* begins in Brussels, the great beating heart of the bureaucracy.

Of course Brussels is far more than a bureaucratic playground: it’s a genuinely lovely city. It’s easy to skip the European quarter and the Eurocrats — though harder to miss the amazing melange of languages and nationalities that mix in the streets and bars of this cosmopolitan city. Even ignoring the amazing Grand Place, there is beautiful residential architecture scattered throughout the surrounding city. Certain areas reminded me of the oldest parts of Manhattan: narrow brick townhouses, often of varying heights, each in a different style, along long treelined streets ending in quiet gardens. 

Enough travel blogging. What’s happening in civic tech in Brussels? Mainly EU projects, it turns out. I didn’t meet a single Belgian civic technologist; apparently its bigger in the Dutch-speaking cities of Ghent and Antwerp. In this post, I’ll summarise the people and projects I came across — on who’s lobbying, how parliamentarians are voting, how voters are choosing candidates, and how people are engaging outside of elections. I’ll then look at what we might be able to borrow for the UK.

*After the last blog, I received plenty of suggestions of interesting people and projects to visit across Europe. From the south of France to see Politizr, to the Greek islands to see some tech responses to the refugee crisis: the magic of twitter worked well. The good news is that there’s loads happening and that ‘civic tech’ is working as an umbrella term across Europe. The bad news is that I can only see so much. Really this is a kind of civic-tech-tour-of-bits-of-mainly-Northern-Europe. And without a Pokemon in sight.

1. Who’s lobbying the European Commission?

My first visit was to Transparency International-Europe for some joint commiserating (the first of much to follow) about getting data from PDFs. TI have built integritywatch.eu, designed to help make lobbying more transparent. They’ve taken data from the official meeting lists published by Director-Generals (Directors-General?) of the European Commission, the head honchos of each department, then matched it up with data from the European lobbying register, giving an overview of who’s meeting who. It gives instantly interesting little nuggets. For example, the NGOs are all over the DG Climate Change & Energy, but rarely meeting the DG Digital Economy, who meets mostly corporations. Of course all this information has to be extracted from PDFs — including those PDFs where the work was published as a .doc file, then printed, scanned and uploaded to create the PDF. Glorious.

Integrity Watch

This is far beyond anything we have in the UK. There was WhosLobbying, which was a good start at this — but it died in 2012. The UK does technically now have an official lobbyist register (something Cameron long promised) — but it’s basically a failure (check out the amazing statement in the blue box on its website). Transparency UK want to look again at this issue and it would be a fun one. Not a core Democracy Club project, but I’m sure there are some civic techies who might fancy working at it.

2. How are members of the European Parliament voting?

VoteWatch.eu has existed since 2009 to monitor the parliament, producing data and analysis to help journalists and citizens understand what’s happening. This is useful because the official EuroParl website is mainly an educational tool, though it does have some vote data available (in PDF). More entertainingly, sometimes the parliament doesn’t always record how MEPs vote — a show of hands is enough — which makes accountability a little tricky. Part of VoteWatch’s method — and its impact — has involved convincing parliament to take more ‘roll calls’. 

VoteWatch.eu

VoteWatch doesn’t stop at monitoring and publishing data. Instead, the team writes — and invites external experts to write — regularly, combining their data with some qualitative analysis. This is unusual in civic tech projects, where for some reason I assume we try not to do this and to stand back from the data for neutrality’s sake. But if the goal is to actually help people understand what is going on, then writing analysis has certainly allowed VoteWatch to reach more people in a more useful way. It’s the most followed ‘thinktank’ by MEPs themselves — and it counts 30,000 monthly users. 

VoteWatch is also interesting because it has a (small) full-time team and has existed for seven years. By civic tech standards, that’s impressive longevity. And it’s done this without ‘finding a business model’: it is 90% funded by grants and donations. They also have a small line in doing private analysis and education for young people. So it can be done.

Oh, and they want to do everything they do in 20+ languages.

One interesting side effect of VoteWatch’s work is that their data has been used by news media to rank politicians by attendance and speaking record. I was told that this resulted in some upset politicians who reasonably believe that it over-simplifies and misdirects attention. A measure like this doesn’t include work being done for constituencies: the ranking unfairly rewarded some of the far-right parties, who could subsequently claim that they were working ‘harder’ than others.

3. How do voters choose between candidates at elections?

VoteWatch, clearly not having enough else to do, also built a ‘voter advice application’ (one of those quizzes that matches you to a candidate or party) for the 2014 European elections, again in 20+ languages. To judge the candidates, they used information on actual votes that took place in parliament. So where a candidate for election was an MEP in the previous session, they used their voting record. VoteWatch then asked the other candidates how they would have voted on the same issues. Amazingly, they received several thousand replies from candidates across Europe, so could actually deliver a comparison tool to voters. I’d love to see how much take up we’d get from candidates in the UK for a similar project.

Another 2014 election product was Score-EP.org, managed by a Xavier Dutoit, a long-serving (long-suffering?) and softly spoken Swiss-French campaigner. He and a colleague managed to get NGOs to score parliamentarians according to their voting records. They assumed the NGO review would be more interesting to voters, who see in ‘issues’ rather than votes. Unsurprisingly, managing the NGOs wasn’t an easy task, but the results were detailed and the site is user-friendly. I would have genuinely found this helpful (if I had known about it…)

Score-EP.orgIn the screengrab above, I’ve selected Climate Change as the issue I care about, then I’ve asked it to compare UK MEPs. I could have compared all the Member States, or compared one country with another. That’s interesting, but less relevant in an election… Still, a great tool.

I think Score-EP could have been improved with that classic of civic tech — the postcode lookup — to help users find their local MEPs. In the UK at least, you vote for a regional candidate, not a national candidate. I suspect, given that the rules for European Parliamentary elections are different in every country (!) this may have been too difficult. 

Separately, the same people tried to create the platform for NGOs to get pledges out of 2014 candidates, with the intention of tracking these pledges against the winner of the election. Again, pushing through the pain of working with a coalition of NGOs, the campaigners managed to get pledges from a range of candidates.

But — and here’s the useful lesson for everyone — the platform didn’t work as well as they had hoped because the NGOs failed to do the follow-up tracking. That is, the time or resource for following up was not planned far enough in advance, potentially leaving users disappointed. Everyone gets excited in the run-up to an election, then stuff gets dropped afterwards. 

In the one example where the NGO did do the hard work to follow up after the election, on an LGBT issue, it worked well. Campaigners were able to activate members who had expressed interest in the relevant pledge to email their parliamentarian, remind them of their pledge, and urge them to grill a new candidate for Health Commissioner. The MEPs obliged, taking questions directly from the NGO’s template.

4. How can citizens participate in law-making?

I once knew how laws are made in the EU. I have long forgotten. To help folks try to understand it better — and to have their say — Fabian Fechner and Maria Lastovka are running Politix EU. It aims to give citizens the chance to put their thumbs-up or thumbs-down to European legislation. It’s a nice idea, that doesn’t ask much of a user, and the hard work is in the team’s efforts to write a short, snappy description of what each piece of legislation does. 

Politix.ioIt’s user-friendly and simple enough — but it is an example of ‘if you build it they will come’. One way forward, suggested by Mathew Lowry (mentioned below), might be to convince media organisations to embed the small thumbs-up, thumbs-down in any story mentioning the legislation. I think that’d be great — a win/win for the media company and for Politix, who can envisage their approach being used anywhere that legislation happens.

Aside from civic tech approaches to participation, there are actually official ‘European Citizens’ Initiatives’. The idea is that if enough European citizens propose something, the commission will look at making it law. Of 57 attempts, in which enough signatures have been garnered — and just for fun, the rules of signing differ between countries — a grand total of zero initiatives have made it through to legislation. Unsurprisingly, and perhaps to the relief of the bureaucracy, enthusiasm for the initiatives has now rather petered out. As Doru from VoteWatch pointed out, there’s not much digital innovation in this space – it’s largely about getting big numbers on a petition, but maybe that would have been different had they had any effect.

Lastly, there’s apparently no participatory budgeting happening in the EU system. Which feels like an opportunity missed.

Other good Bruxellois working hard to make stuff better…

A quick round up of the best of the rest. Daniel Fritz is running EU Insights – a social media tracking service that monitors MEP’s public communication (test out the ‘MEP of the day’). Daniel was one of the most delightfully pro-EU folks I think I’ve ever met. Regardless of where you stand, if you believe that debating leads to good outcomes, then we need more such people. We certainly could have done with some pre-Brexit. Daniel also criticised some of the digital engagement campaigns happening at the EU level, suggesting they fail to account for the way laws actually get made, such as sending a 100k emails after the opportunity for change has occurred. This suggests there is still a need for civic education on the EU. 

Mathew Lowry has been in Brussels a while and has seen trends in technology for democracy come and go — e-gov or gov2.0 anyone? Mathew’s suggestion for Democracy Club was not to ignore Facebook: if they aren’t making use of the open election data we produce, then try a Facebook App to get into people’s timelines. Worth thinking about.

A special thanks to Laurens Cerulus, who was the spark for most of the meetings I had in Brussels. Laurens pointed out that the lack of a shared news media across Europe is one of the contributors to the ‘democratic deficit’: the gap between the people of Europe and its institutions. Politico.eu, co-owned by Politico (the US media company) and Springer (a giant German publisher) is not necessarily trying to be that pan-European newspaper, but it is trying to provide solid coverage of what’s going on in the institutions. Which in turn hopefully helps national journalists to translate for national audiences. Politico.eu runs an ‘everyday’ edition, and a ‘pro’ version with more detailed, jargon-heavy stories. The stuff aimed at normal folks seemed pretty Brussels-bubble to me, but it was readable without requiring in-depth knowledge of how the EU works, and the gossip columns lighten the tone. If they can build an audience, then they might be a great partner for future civic technology projects for the EU.

What can we borrow for the UK?

My main take-away from Brussels is to borrow some of the approaches to better candidate information. For WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk, Democracy Club has talked about giving candidates space to describe, in their own words, why they are running, but we could also look into external scoring and pledges. A survey of ‘How would you have voted?’ using the historical votes would be interesting, though might be impossible outside parliamentary elections. The other tricky bit is in getting responses from the top two parties. (Unless there’s a progressive alliance). As ever, we need to start early.

This could mean that users of WhoCanIVoteFor (or, via the API, wherever else hosts the information) would have not only a list of names of candidates with party affiliation, links to websites and social media, but reviews or ‘scores’ from interest groups (and not only NGOs, but perhaps business or industry groups too). Ditto for pledges made by candidates. Constituents could sign up to track them. And so on… Of course the execution is vastly harder than the idea, but it’s good to hear that this stuff has survived a real world example. 

Dear reader, do you work at an NGO? Do you get a sense of how powerful or useful this would be to you? Would you want to give it a go? I’m imagining either scoring candidates or just giving badges of approval to keep it simple. Thus an active candidate would end up with badges from local or national campaigns and so forth…? Get in touch.

Next, à Paris…

Right now, I’m in a bookshop in effortlessly hip Ehrenfeld, Köln, but UBT (Universal Blog Time) is weeks behind CEST, so these posts are seriously behind. Paris is up next. Teaser trailer: there’s loads going on. Not least because the French government pays the salaries of interns for NGOs. True. Story.

P.S. ArtTech (if that’s a thing…)

As a reward in the event you read this far, here’s a miscellaneous tech thing that perhaps isn’t civic, but is extremely cool.

The Fine Arts Museum in Brussels has a small collection of works by Pieter Bruegel, the elder. I think he was the dad. It’s confusing. Anyway, he painted extraordinary scenes of everyday human activity, and some extraordinary scenes of out-of-this-world activity too, a bit like Hieronymus Bosch. And perhaps later to inspire Where’s Wally.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels (Bruegel)

In front of the stunning Fallen Angels, above, the museum, partnering with Google, has installed a large touch screen running ‘Gigapixel’ – to allow visitors to explore the painting further. You get a guided tour of the painting, or you can zoom in to whichever bits interest you. I’d recommend the farting demons, or the intricate wings of the strange butterfly monster. It’s a brilliant way of learning about art. I wonder if we can Gigapixel democracy. Give it a go here.

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