From Galaxy Classification to Civic Participation

The Zooniverse is an amazing collection of web-based Citizen Science projects that use the efforts and abilities of volunteers to help researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them. It started with the launch of one of those projects, the Galaxy Zoo, in 2007. The project, led by the astrophysicist Chris Lintott, was an unexpected success with massive participation from the public: more than 50 million galaxies were classified during its first year, contributed by more than 150,000 people. Brutally impressive.

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Not only that, but it also proved very useful for the academic community (as they describe in their About), because these contributions from the public “produced many unique scientific results, ranging from individual, serendipitous discoveries to those using classifications that depend on the input of everyone who has visited the site. So they went on to extend this model beyond galaxy research to other scientific fields, grouped under the Zooniverse umbrella.

The main takeaways for the Tech4Democracy community are:

  1. The Cognitive Surplus is very real and very powerful if harnessed well (I know this is obvious, but good to see confirmations).
  2. The incentives for the participation of the crowds (i.e. guaranteeing that their inputs will be meaningful) are crucial, as I argue when making the case for Online Empowered Participation. As the Galaxy Zoo puts it: “This commitment to producing real research – so that you know that we’re not wasting your time – is at the heart of everything we do.

If scientists are able to engage the crowds so successfully, why are politicians failing so notoriously?

507 Theories of Democracy

Some researchers from the Sydney Democracy Network took the time to compile a “Democratic Theories Database”, and it happens to document… 507 of them! Looks like there are many ways of understanding democracy.

You can find the whole list here. To give you a feeling of what it is, here are those theories starting with “A”:

1. Aboriginal democracy (Brush and Stabinsky, 1996; LaSelva, 1996)
2. Abstract democracy (Deth et al, 1999; Merle, 2013)
3. Abused democracy (Nylen, 2003; Maisrikrod, 2008)
4. Accelerated (accelerating) democracy (McGinnis, 2012; Nyamnjoh, 2005)
5. Accidental democracy (Neuborne, 2011)
6. Advanced democracy (Schedler, 1998; Dogan, 1997)
7. Advancing democracy (Shabazz, 2004; McFaul, 2010)
8. Adversarial (adversary) democracy (Friedman and Hochstetler, 2002; Lijphart, 1989)
9. Aesthetic democracy (Docherty, 2006; Frank, 2007)
10. Affluent democracy (Park, 1990; Pierson, 2002)
11. Aggregated (aggregative) democracy (Browne, 2009; Bäcklund and Mäntysalo, 2010)
12. Agonistic democracy (Bell, 2008; Wingenbach, 2011)
13. Agrarian democracy (Griswold, 1946; Rapping, 1967)
14. Alternative democracy (Zweig, 2002; Aronowitz and Gautney, 2003)
15. Anarchic democracy (DePalma, Ringer, and Webber, 2008; Springer, 2010)
16. Anaemic democracy (Miller and Turci, 2006; Sutherland, 2014)
17. Ancestral democracy (Lintott, 1992; Mossé, 2004)
18. Anthropic democracy (Gagnon, 2013; Gagnon, 2014)
19. Anthropocene democracy (Dryzek, 2014a [forthcoming])
20. Anthropocentric (humans-only) democracy (Dryzek, 1995; Hettinger, 2001)
21. Apolitical (un-political, non-political, anti-political) democracy (Gienow-Hecht, 1999; Urbinati, 2010)
22. Argumentative democracy (Watkins, 1987; Sparke, 2007)
23. Aristocratic democracy (Keane, 2009a; Ober, 2007)
24. Assembly democracy (Hansen, 1999; Dahl, 1994)
25. Associational democracy (Baccaro, 2006; Elstub, 2008)
26. Atomic democracy (Martin, 1946; Woods, 2007)
27. Attention deficit democracy (Berger, 2011)
28. Autoimmune democracy (Farred, 2010)
29. Automatic democracy (Hanke, 2007)
30. Autocratic democracy (Mauceri, 1997; Lloyd, 2002)
31. Aversive democracy (Norval, 2007; Dryzek, 2010)

How to Measure Democracy?

I recently wrote this paper called “A Maximalist Approach to Measure Democracy: Lessons from the EIU Democracy Index.

It’s about the fundamental question of how to measure democracy, a contested issue that remains unsettled with some scholars advocating for minimalist approaches and others arguing for maximalist ones. This endeavor to measure democracy is a crucial one if we are in the business of improving the performance and legitimacy of our democratic institutions. In order to improve our democratic governments and have them better serve the interests and wellbeing of their citizens, we should have a good and reliable democracy index, which I will argue that needs to be a maximalist one, to critically assess the state of democracy and to provide meaningful insights and recommendations for policymakers to act upon.

Enjoy the paper!

Empowered e-Participation

I’m planning on writing about the new trend of Empowered e-Participation in local governments, a topic that I started exploring with my very dear Net Party and that I’m researching as a RA in Harvard’s Ash Center.

The starting point will be a review of the traditional concept of 19th century Representative Democracy that reigns today in democratic countries, to then analyze how it is being challenged by the dynamic changes introduced by the mass adoption of the Internet.

I will then review how governments are increasingly embracing participatory processes, paying special attention to online initiatives (which come under the form of crowdsourcing for public services and online consultation for decisionmaking). But I will emphasize how online participation in decisionmaking processes fails to deliver given that there are no guarantees that citizens’ input will be taken into account.

And that is how I will introduce the concept of Empowered e-Participation, in which the citizen is granted real decision making power, incentivizing greater quantity and quality in the inputs. I will explain the concept by looking at the 2 models of Empowered e-Participation that we have today, which are the online versions of Participatory Budgeting (such as the ones of Chicago and Long Beach) and Legislative Liquid Democracy (such as the one proposed by the Net Party), to conclude by making the case for further experimentation under these models and new models to be conceived.

The Internet Political Paradox in China & the US

The Internet Political Paradox refers to the Internet’s potential to facilitate both autocracy and democracy. The Net has helped states to conduct autocratic behaviors (as well as democratic ones, thought I won’t revise them now) and has empowered individuals to fight for democracy against asymmetrical government actors. The Internet is a tool, and as such it has potential for both good and evil. It’s all about what humans decide to do with it. What’s interesting is that these autocracy vs democracy online dynamics happen in both autocratic and democratic countries. So let’s look at the cases of autocratic China and (nominally) democratic United States, and analyze how these antithetical forces unfold by using the Internet.


In the case of China, which is lucidly described in the book Now I Know Who My Comrades Are by Emily Parker, the Net has become a crucial instrument for the Communist regime to tighten their autocratic dominance (through online censorship and surveillance, as analyzed in Morozov’s The Net Delusion), but it paradoxically has also helped political dissenters to self-organize while remaining anonymous to government officials. Looking close into the government’s autocratic online behavior, Parker identifies four main tiers of censorship: 1) the Great Chinese Firewall, which blocks unfriendly voices; 2) automatic filtered “sensitive” keywords; 3) human censors who monitor online activity; and 4) self-censorship, which is the hardest to see but the most real and pervasive.

Regarding blogger dissenters, Parker argues that the Net benefits them greatly by allowing “ridiculously easy group-forming” (which I looked at in this post and which gives the title to Parker’s book), by protecting them through the use of fake names, and by connecting them to the outside world (what in same cases can be a life insurance given the regime’s reluctance to see their branding hurt in foreign media). Also, these digital pro-democracy activists come up with creative turnarounds for some of the state’s censorship practices, such as VPNs to bypass the Great Firewall and language coding to overcome filtered keywords (such as May 36 or May 37-1 to mean banned June 5).

On the other side of the spectrum, the US also experienced similar dynamics in the recent past, despite being a democracy. The outrageous scandal of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations brought to the spotlight this paradox. On one hand, the US government incurred into autocracy-style behavior by taking advantage of the Internet to implement a massive and illegal surveillance program both at home and abroad, in complicity with Silicon Valley giants. And on the other hand, it was a single individual who challenged the government by exposing the facts (Glenn Greenwald’s No Place To Hide book is great for the details) and starting a very urgent debate for democracy’s health.

And if we talk about Snowden, we also need to talk about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the most mediatic case of an individual empowered by the Net to challenge the US government (I recommend this old The New Yorker piece on him). Although many things around him are controversial (as convincingly argued by Lanier), one must acknowledge that many of his leaks have definitely been positive breakthroughs bringing transparency over dirty government issues and opening up much needed debates. Good news is that, as Bruce Sterling compellingly reminded us, more Snowdens and Assanges will inevitable come in the years to come of this digital age.

Richard Stallman, Julian Assange and "Yes We Can" photo of Edward Snowden. Credit: WIKILeaks.

Richard Stallman, Julian Assange and “Yes We Can” photo of Edward Snowden. Credit: WIKILeaks.

But what was the most shocking and worrying symptom for me was to witness how the US government was so successful in manipulating public opinion to demonize both Snowden and Assange: in a Harvard Kennedy School class about this topic 2 days ago, it was terrifying to see how many Americans in the room discredited both by labeling them as “lunatics” (the word was used at least 15-20 times in the session), messing up this important debate about government surveillance and whistleblowers with ad hominem arguments that fall very short from expected Harvard standards. This notable quote (also cited in the Wikileaks Collateral Murder video) comes to mind:

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.” – George Orwell

To make it even worse, one of my American classmates justified the NSA by saying: “I worked in Washington and that’s how reality works, all governments do it; that’s how life is“. Hopefully we’ll not conform to this status quo argument that has been repeatedly used throughout history to justify terrible social evils.

Obama’s lessons for digital advocacy and persuasion

As societies continue to deepen their dependance on digital networks, political battles will increasingly take place in the Net. The Internet is becoming the de facto political arena, the materialization of the public sphere. And this trend will become even more prominent as our political systems start embedding participatory technology into the institutions, especially when that participation is empowered with real decision-making power (such as in initiatives of participatory budgeting and of legislative liquid representation like the one by the Argentinian Net Party). Citizens opinions will increasingly be shaped online and will slowly become determinant in the outputs of our democratic systems.

Obama’s 2012 campaign illustrates how political advocacy and persuasion will look like in the future, regardless of the country, the size of the district, or the purpose of the campaign (be it a traditional candidate-based campaign of a standard representative democracy or a theme-based campaign to drive a decision in an institution with empowered civic participation). In the very insightful Inside the Cave report we have the chance to deep dive into Obama’s digital campaign and extract some important learnings of how will political campaigning look like in the increasingly digital public sphere.

“The Cave” in Obama for America’s Chicago headquarters housed the campaign’s Analytics team. Credit: TIME.

“The Cave” in Obama for America’s Chicago headquarters housed the campaign’s Analytics team. Credit: TIME.

So let’s look at the Obama 2012 success story. Their online team of 300 staff members was distributed in three main areas (who were supported by Tech4Obama volunteers for some specific tasks):

  1. DIGITAL team (housing 67% of the staff), aka Digital Storytellers, who operationalized the campaign narrative and engagement through:
    • social media, which was the key for success and 2008 and was further fine-tuned in 2012 (check this paper by Townera & Dulio and the Organizing for America 2.0 HBS case study for more about it);
    • online advertising, which was a crucial component consuming $100 million (21% of the media budget!), using Schlough’s 3 tips (long-tail nanotargeting, measurement by points, and remarketing) to drive massive traffic and awareness (targeting mainly young, female, and Hispanic voters), despite the fact that online ads are still not a panacea (as proven in this 731,568-Person GOTV Experiment);
    • web properties;
    ol’ good email marketing, which continue to prove their huge effectiveness; and
    • online fundraising and its many intricacies.
  2. TECHNOLOGY team (housing 16%), who took care of anything related to the tech infrastructure of the campaign, ranging from the main website ( to the ad-hoc tools built for the campaign (such as a dashboard for supporters to connect with supporters near them, a tool to synchronize data from multiple sources to build profiles of supporters -a key input for the Big Data approach described by Nickerson & Rogers which was well implemented by the Obama team-, and a tool to transfer data from vendors for querying). Their winning principles were Silicon Valley best practices:
    • Rapid iteration
    • Minimal barriers between developers and ops staff
    • Heavy use of cloud technology (AWS and Akamai)
    • Constant testing to handle outages and heavy loads (they were so well trained in worst case scenarios that when Hurricane Sandy hit the US they were able to keep everything online).
    This tweet from their DevOps lead gives a glimpse of what they were up to:

  3. ANALYTICS team (housing 16%), in charge of improving every aspect of the campaign by A) supporting digital storytellers with data to optimize performance (in landing pages, email marketing, social media, etc), and by B) predicting daily the election outcomes in battleground states so as to allocate resources efficiently. A/B testing was king, as suggested by Brian Christian in his lucid Wired article.

Pretty impressive. More to come in future political debate.

Journalists are re-thinking journalism, will politicians re-think politics?

Journalists have a lot to teach politicians. Both professions love status quo and have a really hard time trying to understand the tectonic shifts that are undermining their traditional way of doing things. But journalists are genuinely trying to re-think Journalism and adapt it to the current times (mostly because they cannot afford status quo), while politicians are extremely comfortable with how things have worked for the past two centuries and prefer not to think about change (because they can still afford status quo).

The following cartoon brilliantly introduces the topic, and, besides describing journalists, it could work as well for politicians if the desk tag said “president” or “senator”. Both professions are dominated by dinosaurs that just see the Internet as the need for a web site.

journalism 2.0

To have a feeling about the debate journalists are having among them, I recommend starting by reading the New York Times Innovation Report (here you have a condensed summary), which was meant to be a confidential report for the NYT newsroom management but was leaked to the masses. The report is great to understand their thinking because it is brutally honest about how they are lagging behind in the digital age. Actually, these lines in its introduction depict extremely well the dinosaurs cartoon:

we have watched the dizzying growth of smartphones and tablets, even as we are still figuring out the web. We have watched the massive migration of readers to social media even as we were redesigning our home page.

Although the specific recommendations for a newspaper are very different than those for a government (given their different natures and purposes), the NYT report accurately describes five important requirements that are needed for both re-thinking processes to be meaningful. Those requirements could guide very well the re-thinking of governance, but unfortunately (most) politicians have done almost nothing about them so far. Namely:

  1. Take more time to assess the landscape and chart the road ahead:
    Politicians hardly understand the Internet and the changes it’s driving in the societies they govern.
  2. Rethink print-centric traditions:
    Representative-centric and bureaucracy-centric traditions (that were born in the late 18th century) are deeply embedded in the mindset of politicians, who cannot even think about alternatives in which citizens are empowered to participate and to control government affairs.
  3. Use experiments and data to inform decisions:
    Experiments? Data? What are you taking about?
  4. Hire and empower the right digital talent:
    This is a very hard challenge. Governments have such a reputation of being slow and bureaucratic that digital talent usually escape from it and flow into the private sector, with a preference for dynamic tech startups. Anyways, promising work has been done by the nonprofit Code for America and its international partners, who place developers in local governments with a very innovative model and fantastic results.
  5. Work hand in hand with reader-focused departments:
    Taking the effort to really understand citizens hasn’t been a priority for most politicians, who spend most of their time trying to understand donors, lobbyists and other politicians.

To dive deeper into the re-thinking of journalism there are lots of great articles, such as the ones by Starkman and Shirky. But the one I recommend the most is the Post-Industrial Journalism report by Anderson, Bell, and Shirky. The report mentions 4 fundamental changes in the following aspects of Journalism:

  • Production of news: now users have the potential to contribute by sourcing facts for journalists through the mobile phones in everybody’s pocket.
  • Distribution of news: now users spend a massive amount of time in social networks, consuming news curated by their friends and people they follow (i.e. so everyone is a news distributer for their followers).
  • Business Model: the “bundling paradigm” doesn’t stand anymore with the rise of specialized outlets, and print advertising (which troubled John Wanamaker) was lethally wounded by online advertising and its brutally more effective and cheaper “CPC model”.
  • Institutions of news: the decline of traditional journalism institutions is complemented by the rise of digital native outlets that are continuously experimenting (e.g. Quartz and Vox, as analyzed here and here), what recalls Clark Gilbert’s transformation routes (either to reform the existing institution or to create an entirely new one).

Journalists are slowly starting to embrace change because they had no choice, and politicians are far from embracing change because status quo is still working for them. But we as citizens have the power to force politicians to embrace change (hardest plan) and/or to become politicians ourselves committed to embrace change (hard-plan-but-not-as-much).