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Consensus, even democracy, has been replaced by pluralism—resolved by data.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