The Data-Driven Democracy

We’ve seen how digital campaigns have helped citizen groups upset national power dynamics from Egypt’s Arab Spring to the USA’s Tea Party and Occupy. But can digital technology affect democracy at a more fundamental level? The following line from a Wired article on A/B testingintrigued me:

Consensus, even democracy, has been replaced by pluralism—resolved by data.

Democracy currently operates most concretely through voting, by which citizens select policies either by choosing the policy directly (as in a referendum or proposition) or through a representative who has taken a stand on a number of policies (as in an election). There is a presumption that no one knows the right answer (on education, defense, health care), so the best way to arrive at the common good is to ask a large segment of the population their opinion.

Big data on public policy issues, if it is made accessible and if software is created to facilitate processing, could present us with real answers to these big questions. We could actually know what education policy is likely to increase graduation rates in poor urban schools. We could know what policies actually decrease teen pregnancy rates. We could know what strategies reduce health care cost while maintaining or increasing wellness.

The role of the citizen in a data-driven democracy would be to identify policy goals. We would not be asked to choose a candidate based on what we think a good education policy is or vote on a referendum based on what we think a good health care policy is. We would indicate our priorities – we want education for all, we want low-cost and effective health care – and then quantitative analysis of the data would identify the most successful policy.

Open data and data literacy are critical to this strategy, since vested interested could easily manipulate data. The goal would be for as many people as possible to be able to analyze data on public policy issues, and the best results would rise to the surface. Citizens would also need to become literate on data-driven conclusions in order to assess the credibility of proposals. The goal would be data pluralism.

Of course, there would still be tremendous contention. Often different groups of citizens have directly opposing priorities – environmentalists and energy companies, social conservatives and gay rights activists – but it would be harder to palm off false policy claims. There would still be a tremendous fight over policy questions, but at least we could arrive at real solutions.

Blaming Facebook For Egypt’s Elections

This repugnant Mark Steyn op-ed is merely the most open elaboration of a new meme travelling through the American punditocracy, namely that because an Islamist and a remnant of the Mubarak regime finished 1-2 in the Egyptian presidential election, Facebook has been proved useless (and of course, Egypt is lost to the “Shariah-enforcing, Jew-hating, genital-mutilating enthusiasts of the Muslim Brotherhood”). While the matchup of Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi and former Muberak PM Ahmed Shafiq is hardly ideal, it also not yet a foregone conclusion, as there is a pending court case against Shafiq’s candidacy that may yet disqualify him. There are also credible rumors that Shafiq was illegally assigned 900,000 votes, vaulting him ahead of the third-place candidate, Hamdeen Sabahy (Abel Moneim Aboul Fotouh did not finish third as Steyn mistakenly asserts in his article). Continue reading

Wanted: Digital Orgs That Can Win Revolutions AND Elections

As the votes of Egypt’s presidential election are counted today, Francis Fukuyama asks on The Daily Beastwhy the young revolutionaries of the Arab Spring did not have a candidate.

This group of young activists, which can still be mobilized for street protests like the recent demonstrations in front of the Defense Ministry, has failed to turn itself into a meaningful player in post-Mubarak electoral politics.

This voter probably doesn't use Facebook.

It is a fair point. In the last wave of democratic revolution, which brought down the Soviet Union twenty years ago, the most successful democratic transitions featured organizations, like the Solidarity union in Poland and Civic Forum in the former Czechoslovakia, which could organize a revolution AND then win power afterwards. Analogous digital organization, like the April 6th Youth Movement, have not had this success.

Does the ease of collective action on social media, which allows effective coordination through loose ties, mean that the strong ties that are needed for durable organization do not form? Can Egypt’s digital movement follow the path of organizations like thePirate Party, which did translate online organization into electoral success? How can the “flash organizations” which facilitate digital revolutions transform themselves into durable political organizations capable of influencing the aftermath?

Converting Online Commitment to Offline Action in Cairo

If You Flash It, They Will Mob

A Thursday flash mob in Cairo’s Ramsis Station has been drawing some press attention, as reporters seem determined to figure out what the purpose of the event was. As usual, reporters try their hardest to emphasize the pointlessness and essential frivolity of any kind of digitally-organized gathering.

The point of this post is not to decide whether or not the flash mob constituted street art or some other political protest. It is to try, once again, to complicate our understanding of what constitutes success and failure in digital organizing. Continue reading

Slacktivism at its Best: New Activists Emerging

I’ve argued before that slacktivism is not established activists slacking but new activists emerging. Here’s one more example of that, from a comment on my recent post for the Open Society Foundations:

Thank you for validating my actions on my Facebook page. I am nearly 74 years old & making FB posts, giving funding to some activist organizations & meditation is about all I am able to do at this stage in my life. I had never heard the word “slacktivism” before reading the FB post on my news feed. Thanks for the encouragement to continue. If you have any suggestions to improve my FB page, please let me know. Thanks again!

This is the micro-activism of the internet at its best: allowing someone who would previously be unable to take political action to do so.

Flickr: Josef Stuefer

Beyond Slacktivism: A Kony 2012 Post-Mortem

The dust has settled on the Kony 2012 campaign. What have we learned?

Am I still talking about Kony 2012? Yes, and with good reason. On April 20th, the campaign came to a close of sorts with Cover the Night, an effort to“make Kony famous” by plastering “every city, on every block” with “posters, stickers and murals of Kony to pressure governments into hunting down the guerrilla leader.” It was the last action of the original Kony 2012 campaign.

The Invisible Children site does not tell how many young people participated in Cover the Night (though I imagine they know). The Guardian, however, which has given excellent and critical coverage to the campaign, noted that:

The movement’s phenomenal success in mobilising young people online, following last month’s launch of a 29-minute documentary which went viral, flopped in trying to turn that into real world actions…..Paltry turnouts on Friday at locations across north America, Europe and Australia left cities largely unplastered and the movement’s credibility damaged. “What happened to all the fuss about Kony?” said one typical tweet. “Kony is so last month,” said another.

Although the campaign succeeded in increasing awareness of Kony and Western news coverage of Africa, and mobilized millions of youth to care (if briefly) about a humanitarian crisis on the other side of the world, it has so far failed in its own stated goal: the capture of Joseph Kony.

The standard discourse at this point would be to call Kony 2012 “slacktivism”: a clear example of how massive online action (millions of video views and shares) converted into modest offline action (thousands not millions of participants in Cover the Night) and no impact (Kony is still at large), and then using that observation to disprove the value of digital activism in general.

Let’s not have that conversation (again). Instead, let’s look at why the online action did not work. Sandrine Perrot, a long-time specialist on Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army at France’s Sciences Po, has an excellentexplanationon the siteThe Independent, here’s part of it:

In Congo or CAR [Central African Republic], making Kony famous by sharing the video, wearing a bracelet or sticking his poster in Western streets won’t bring any solution to the highly difficult operational terrain, to the weak coordination and raising tensions between the Ugandan, Congolese and Centrafrican militaries deployed since December 2008 (which the so far unfinanced joint UA/UN mission created on March 23rd will first have to smooth), or to the underlying strategic divisions between Washington, USAID, the State department and the defence department.

Kony 2012 has failed not because digital activism is inherently ineffective, but because their own strategy was. As Perrot points out, the reasons that Kony has not been capture are diverse and complex, including factors from difficult topography to the challenges multilateralism. Invisible Children’s theory of change -that mobilizing Western young people to increase Western awareness of the crisis would change that complex dynamic – was inaccurate. The arrest of the video’s creator, Jason Russell, while ranting and publicly naked, and the harsh criticism on the original video’s simplifications and misrepresentations did not help matters.This is how all digital activism failures (and successes)should be evaluated: by looking at the range of causal factors and placing the effect of the digital action in context.

Post-Arab Spring/Indignados/Occupy it is simply ignorant to argue that digital tools have no impact on political realities. They do, but the recipe of success and failure is far from clear. Scholars like Clay Shirky and David Faris argue that political outcomes have always been multi-causal and the introduction of digital tactics into these complex processes make them more complex, not less so.

In the case of Kony 2012 the political and logistical factors described by Perrot overwhelmed the effect of Invisible Children’s online and offline actions. The organizers mismatched context and tactics, a difficult task in any campaign, especially one as international andintractableas the ongoing crimes of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

A New Tool to Map the Best Digital Resources for Advocates

From the Arab Spring to Occupy, the events of 2011 highlighted the potential of new technologies for advocacy. But new tools are more likely to facilitate social impact if they’re used by people with the right training and support.

This isn’t happening as much as it could. Why? I think it’s because of a few big challenges facing the field of support for digital advocates. First, there’s a lack of information from the ground about what is actually needed. Second, trainers are too often flown in from thousands of miles away for a few days of workshopping with no incentive to remain in contact with the advocates they trained. Third, remote training resources (like guides) often sit on the web without reaching those who might be able to benefit from them.

Part of why we founded the engine room was to address these challenges. Our first project, the Social Tech Census, aims to map the best resources for integrating digital media into advocacy work in order to inform the work of the communities of practice that we work with: advocates, support organizations and technologists. The Census is an important foundational step for us and (if all goes according to plan) will also be a useful tool for our partners.

But how, exactly, will it be useful for them? We decided to ask, and here’s what we found out. There are four main ways that groups we partner with will be able to act on the information that we’re gathering.

1. New program ideas based on empirical evidence for who needs what and where

Any attempt to compile an exhaustive database of resources will ideally end up spotlighting gaps in what’s out there. We suspect this will be the case with regard to regions (where are all the francophone tech trainings on mapping tools?), issues (say, digital security versus strategy for online video) and types (ad hoc communities built on email lists or formal organizations) of support.

By shedding light on these gaps the Census should make it easier for our partners to better identify and understand demand in order to meet it. Here’s an example: say WITNESS is writing a proposal for a training program in a region that they’ve never worked in before. They could use the Census to identify and include hard data about the relevant training gaps in order to underline the importance of the proposed program.

2. Adapting existing training programs to on-the-ground contexts

The first step in launching any capacity building program (technology-focused or otherwise) is often to identify local stakeholders. You need these networks to engage with the most nuts and bolts aspects of your training effort (for example, identifying the right participants). This process is both time consuming and expensive. The Census aims to allow trainers to identify local actors – and get necessary information from the ground in order to maximize the impact of their projects. New Tactics in Human Rights, for example, could use it to connect on the ground trainers with people who are already there providing support – helping both to maximize their impact.

3. Getting resources for remote learning into the right hands

A lot of our partners have put quite a bit of very laudable effort into creating resources for remote learning so that they can help more people to become effective digital advocates. Take WITNESS’ Video Advocacy Toolkit, Access’ guide to addressing DDoS attacks or the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self Defense project. If they’re going to have as much impact as possible, these resources need to get into the hands of those who need them most. Partners should be able to use the Census to identify outreach partners who clearly understand information needs in target communities.

4. Working together to enhance the current model by which advocates get tech support

Will the the Census minimize the degree to which trainers have to be parachuted into new contexts in the first place? We hope so. The best thing we heard from one of our partners was that they didn’t want to fly across the world to give a training (or send one of their staff). They’d rather use the Census to connect local need to local support.

Do you work with an international organization or network that supports technology use in advocacy? We’d love to get your opinions- take this survey– it only takes 5 minutes.

By Susannah Vila, also posted on engine room’s blog as well as by WITNESS, Small World News, Digital Democracy and other engine roompartners
Susannah used to run outreach and training content for, where she spent a lot of time developing online resources for digital advocacy and speaking with other support organizations and advocates in the field about their work. She co-founded the engine room to address needs that were made clear through this work and through a series of in-depth interviews that she conducted with advocates in Cairo in the summer of 2011.

Image from infographic on IHub Nairobi (

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.