WFD: Artificial Intelligence for Democracy

Lab 7 Report: “Artificial Intelligence for Democracy”

World Forum for Democracy

Council of Europe • Strasbourg, France

Robert Viðar Bjarnason and Gunnar Grimsson presented the “Your Priorities 3D” initiative, which was created in 2008 by the Citizens Foundation, an open-source platform provider that the two co-founded in Iceland. Robert explained the creation of the initiative as a response to low voter turnout, loss of faith in democracy and the over-influence of both media and money in politics. He detailed some specifics of “Your Priorities”, including a completely open idea submission structure, a point system for making popular ideas more visible and a positive versus negative split screen layout in place of traditional comment sections. The initiative is considered a success in Iceland, where over 500 ideas have been approved and put into action in collaboration with the city of Reykjavik, and in Estonia where 7 ideas have become part of Estonian law. It is also used to consult with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, for e-democracy start-ups in Serbia and defining school priorities in Australia.

 “Your Priorities 3D” is a scalable initiative that translates well and can be used in other countries and, with the advance of modern computing power, can reinvent how ideas are displayed. The 3D interface provides a virtual environment and relies on artificial intelligence algorithms to digest large amounts of data and present them in fun, engaging ways. Gaming elements provide enhanced connectivity and live-streamed dialogue which could notably be used for participatory budgeting.

The discussants (Ms Simone Bernstein [USA], Mr  Meng Qingtao [People’s Republic of China] and Ms Ons Ben Abdelkarim [Tunisia]) drew on their experiences to comment on the initiative and ask questions, followed by feedback from the audience. Ms Bernstein highlighted the use of mobile phones in young generations and the need for initiatives that take advantage of texting. She also stressed the need to engage low-income and underrepresented members of society, recommending starting with increasing internet connectivity in schools as a means of involving those that do not have access at home.

Mr Meng reflected on the situation in China, where its 332 million internet users (which tend to be younger than the population as a whole) experience advantages and disadvantages of increasing connectivity. He brought up the issue of a minority making decisions for a majority, which continued to be a theme for the audience and speaker discussions. He also underlined the importance of rule of law and sense of responsibility in e-democracy.

Ms Ben Abdelkarim touched on the issue of connecting proposals with real actions and real laws. She questioned how people without access to the internet could participate in the process and maintained that traditional forms of media (tv, radio, print) were still relevant and even dominant in some countries. She used an example of a political analysis of Assembly attendance and voting that was put online in Tunisia, but carried further by television media to reach more audiences. Her focus on democracy as a tool for improving people’s lives seemed to create a consensus in the discussion that followed.

Several questions and comments from the audience were about applying the 3D initiative and others to real contexts for change. Participants questioned whether ideas presented in non-written formats could be taken seriously and whether politicians acted on initiatives in a concrete way. Whether participation and motivation can be translated into real change was debated. Defining roles of young actors in “real” contexts and the concept of relying on youth or unexperienced actors in “real” decisions like health, pensions and central banking were brought up. The Citizens Foundation founders used the example of participatory budgeting in Reykjavik to show how the masses, including youth, could help define priorities.

A proposition from Ms Bernstein to involve youth throughout the process and even in the creation of e-democracy tools was discussed. Mr Grimsson highlighted the role of youth in the shaping of his initiative and several people mentioned the need for intergenerational dialogue. Youth ambassadors were suggested as a link in communication; they could be trained to present ideas of older, less connected citizens and put them online.

Some ethical topics came up in the discussion as well. How to address hate speech in a sea of dialogue and how to treat data protection issues were important. Also prominent was the issue of scale-how many people are needed and how many are optimal for involvement? Does it boil down to minorities representing majorities or active people representing inactive people? Reponses from the “Your Priorities 3D” initiative focused on the use of pseudonyms, but also noted that 70% of their users used their real names. Since all content is publicly visible and transparency is key to the success, there is the problem of minors and protecting both data and identity. Robert also mentioned an administrator notification system as a tool for preventing hate speech and offensive comments. Regarding questions of scale, the correlation between participation (in numbers) and meaningful results appears to be strong, as politicians respond more to initiatives that are backed by larger numbers of people. There is no “magic number” for participation, but reaching out to everyone and hoping for the most input possible are vital.

The panel and audience members were thoughtful and seemed personally implicated in the issues at hand. International cooperation was important to several participants; looking to more digitally connected countries for guidance in helping less-connected countries get online (and hopefully skipping forward) was suggested. A Ugandan participant cautioned against Euro-centric approaches and suggested working with more regions, including Africa. A Moldovan participant stressed bottom-up actions for involvement in democracy, using the example of trending on Twitter, and wondered how to build bottom-up platforms.  An audience member from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia questioned the whole concept of representative democracy and suggested truly direct democracy as the only way to avoid corruptible representatives.

Most, but not all, participants were behind the idea of introducing gaming elements to the democratic process. Everyone seemed to agree that the process was more fun and engaging when it involved 3D displays and more images, but some feared that critical thinking would be discouraged by such visual media (“dumbing down” the message), or at the very least be interpreted as a lack of critical thinking. Several ideas to respond to this problem involved compromise: mixing media, having a text-based system behind the scenes, using algorithms to create clusters of data from larger indigestible sources, and tailoring platforms to different devices and display types. There will continue to be a need for traditional media alongside newer, ever-evolving media. Creating new tools for democracy does not imply a need to replace older ones, but to complement them while increasing participation.

If a consensus could be felt, it was in the notion that democracy’s true goal and identity rely on improving the lives of people. The actions that the “Your Priorities 3D” team were most proud of were those that directly impacted people’s lives: creating and improving neighbourhood playgrounds, defining the budget priorities of a city council, making political processes more transparent. Although data protection was raised as an issue, most comments tended toward the notion of transparency. In response to the moderator, Mr Huber’s, invitation for suggestions to the Council of Europe came a request for more open data. Enabling citizens to use data both empowers people and encourages other institutions to open up as well.

10:30-12:30 Room 10 Palais d’Europe