Change the system: civic tech lessons from Amsterdam, and a wrap-up from across Europe

I think Amsterdam might be (whisper it) more beautiful than Paris. It’s the canals. And the architecture, particularly the social housing — which has been cutting-edge since about 1910.

Apart from wandering around thinking “I’d really like to live here”, I also met up with two democracy-focused organisations. One that I would call classic civic tech, and one that takes a wider democratic engagement role, but that has helped deliver some interesting digital products. With a general election approaching in March 2017, it’s an exciting time for Dutch civic tech.

Amsterdam was also, alas, the last stop on EuroCivicTechTour2016 — so I round off this post with some reflections of the State of Europe’s Civic Tech.  Continue reading Change the system: civic tech lessons from Amsterdam, and a wrap-up from across Europe

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Berlin does civic tech. Großartig!

I’m back in the UK (is that still a thing?) now — but I have two more EuroTrip stops to blog about. 

First, Berlin. As you may know, Berlin is excellent. It also has a bit of a reputation for tech startups. And for doing interesting political things with tech.

It seems a long time ago that there was excitement about ‘Liquid Democracy’ — the German Pirate Party software that was going to revolutionise representative democracy. It allowed constant ‘delegative democracy’: you could choose to delegate your vote to someone on a certain topic, but take it away from them again or choose a different delegate at any time. In addition, your delegate could delegate your vote, and so on. Hence the ‘liquid’ bit — power would flow as voters chose and changed their representatives at will. The software made this practically feasible for the first time. There were some excitable blogs about it. But the revolution never came. I wondered what became of it — my trip to Berlin revealed the answer.

And there’s much more happening in Berlin today — in a way that is perhaps more realistic and more understanding of how most people want to engage.  Continue reading Berlin does civic tech. Großartig!

Paris, j’aime votre civictech projets

The French are precious about French. It’s fair enough. Gotta watch that creeping Anglicisation. Courriel, for example, is the officially designated French translation for email. 

So I’d imagined that they wouldn’t go in for ‘civic tech’ so much. But they love it! People instantly knew what I was on about — even folks not in the tech or civic sector. Vive la France.

And there’s a lot of civic tech going on. Paris’ civic tech scene is thriving — and represents only some of what is going on across France. Here’s what I learned, between scoffing baguettes and incredibly good fromage, and pottering around the Canal St Martin.

What’s happening?

Démocratie Ouverte

Démocratie Ouverte creates its own projects, such as Parliament & Citizens, described below, but I think what’s exciting is that they’ve gone meta and positioned themselves as an umbrella membership organisation for every civic tech project happening in France.

Continue reading Paris, j’aime votre civictech projets

What does Brexit mean for digital democracy?

Democracy Club was asked by a journalist where it would go post-referendum. I attempted to write a quick response…which turned into a not-so-quick response. Unsurprisingly, the journo ditched it — but I think it’s still worth publishing here. These are my personal thoughts.

In short:

Some digital democracy enthusiasts have long hoped that the internet would help realise a direct democracy, where everyone would vote on everything, all the time. We’re all Ancient Greeks now. (But this time with women voting too please. And without the slaves.)

Perhaps, say a few commentators, after the fibs, bent truths and ill-informed debate, the Brexit referendum experience has shown the merits of our aged representative democracy.

But people are still pissed. Representative democracy has clear problems; and we know these better than we think. If it’s true that a chunk of the Leave vote came from wanting to give the system a kicking, wanting to reject the ‘elite’s’ idea of what is good for the UK, and — of course — of desiring in some way to ‘take back control’ (Ed: why couldn’t Remain find a call to action for their slogan?) — then the system we have is already failing people. And let’s not just pretend it’s about Europe. Feeling out of control; feeling disempowered; feeling that you’re at the whim of HyperMegaGloboCorp is not fun – and is a result of the policies of Westminster as much as Brussels.

We must make our representative democracy better — and part of the way we do that, part of the way we should respond to Brexit — is by pushing forward with the tools and services that make democracy more understandable, more interactive, more user-friendly, more fun. Democracy Club can help do that

Continue reading What does Brexit mean for digital democracy?

Three things we’ve learnt – and one thing we haven’t – by trying to create one list of election hustings

I’ve been working with the good folks at Democracy Club, and particularly James Baster of Open Tech Calendar, to crowdsource a list of hustings events for the general election. Here’s what we’ve found so far… Continue reading Three things we’ve learnt – and one thing we haven’t – by trying to create one list of election hustings

Are we reaching peak e-petition?

I’ve now received emails from at least six different organisations about the HSBC tax scandal, with all the related ‘Did you miss this?’ or ‘Thanks for signing, can you forward to everyone you’ve ever met?’ emails.

I think we might be reaching peak e-petition. Or maybe I am. Cos I sign up for too much stuff. Or because these organisations love list-building – several get their funds from donations from a minor percentage of their lists, so they’re incentivised to grow their lists, weakening the case for collaboration. (Collaboration that might, however, more effectively lead to results.)

Anyway, I think digital democracy might not be meant to feel like getting bombarded with emails. Continue reading Are we reaching peak e-petition?

Quick notes from ‘Contact democracy for the hyper-connected age’ event

Policy Network and the Barrow Cadbury Trust are running a great little series of events under the umbrella title of ‘Understanding the Populist Signal’. Last night’s was ‘Contact democracy for the hyper-connected age‘ – probably the area most closely related to my own interests.

Prof. David Farrell of University College Dublin gave the main presentation – an excellent review of both the pessimistic view of democracy (turnout down by an alarming rate in all large Western democracies – but watch those Scandi’s bucking the trend, of course) and the optimistic view (today we engage in different ways – by signing petitions, by tweeting a minister – and we hate the phrase politics, but that doesn’t mean we don’t practise it). Even on constitutional reform – which can seem to be going nowhere – Farrell argued that the UK has been a lot more successful over the last 20 years than his home country of Ireland (e.g. progress on Freedom of Information and the Human Rights Act). Continue reading Quick notes from ‘Contact democracy for the hyper-connected age’ event