Elections Won’t Save Our Democracy. But ‘Crowdlaw’ Could.

Beth Simone Noveck (@bethnoveck) is director of the Governance Lab and a professor of technology, culture and society at New York University. She served as the first U.S. deputy chief technology officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative under President Barack Obama. She is an upcoming Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

In October 2017, as Hurricane Irma battered the U.S. East Coast, M.I.T.’s Urban Risk Lab worked with Florida’s Broward County to pilot a free, open-source platform that enabled flood-affected residents to use popular social media channels to add information to a publicly available map. Known as RiskMap, the data allowed officials to assess damage, reroute traffic and implement disaster-control measures. RiskMap has also been successfully deployed in Jakarta, Indonesia, where up to 1,000 residents contributed information during a severe flood event, enabling 250,000 people to view the public map in order navigate the city.

RiskMap is a paradigmatic example of collective intelligence, which in this day and age means using the Internet to connect groups of people so they can share knowledge. Like Wikipedia, Duo Lingo or other popular sites that augment human intelligence with machine learning, RiskMap confirms what we have long understood from reading restaurant reviews and getting medical advice online: expertise rooted in local knowledge and lived experience is widely distributed across society. Social platforms allow us to combine and scale this intelligence to aggregate knowledge, share work and increasingly, to solve problems collaboratively.

Yet despite the emergence of hundreds of collective intelligence platforms like RiskMap — including my new favorite, Penguin Watch, where people count the number of penguins in a picture to help scientists measure changes in their population — our political institutions seem to be getting stupider. That need not be. Collective intelligence isn’t just a tool for improving disaster response or enhancing scientific study. It can be used to improve governance too.

More than a hundred local city councils and parliaments at both the regional and national level, from Iceland to Ireland to India, are turning to “crowdlaw,” a form of crowdsourcing that uses novel collective intelligence platforms and processes to help governments engage with citizens. Crowdlaw is based on the simple but powerful idea that parliaments, governments and public institutions work better when they leverage new technologies to tap into diverse sources of information, judgments and expertise at each stage of the law and policymaking cycle. This helps improve the quality as well as the legitimacy of the resulting laws and policies.

Because collective intelligence helps to aggregate collective wisdom, it is useful for identifying problems. For example, the crowdlaw project vTaiwan, championed by Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang, enables the public to define public problems. It then utilizes machine learning software to form working groups to create policy recommendations. In more than 80 percent of cases, publicly defined issues have led to government action, in large part because the process tightly integrates collective intelligence into public decision-making. So far, 26 national issues, including the regulation of Uber, telemedicine and online education, have been discussed with over 200,000 participants.

Collective intelligence is also good at helping groups of people deliberate and discuss. In Iceland, the capital of Reykjavik has its own crowdlaw project called Better Reykjavik, created by the Active Citizens Foundation, where users identify and then devise ways to improve city services through forum discussions. A reported 20 percent of Iceland’s population has used the site, and more than half of those registered use it regularly. More important, the site is having an impact. When the economic crisis in Iceland left people homeless and literally freezing to death, the platform helped the public devise a new homelessness policy.

A third way that collective intelligence platforms can be used is to help citizens evaluate laws and policies after the fact. In Ghana, tech entrepreneur Prince Anim launched TransGov, a social auditing platform, in 2014. This site is used by about 600,000 Ghanaian citizens who monitor the progress of local development projects and hold their government accountable. In Brazil, the government launched a platform in 2016 that enabled students across 10 Brasilia public schools to share information about their learning environments. The platform helped identify the major issues students faced and then helped pinpoint root causes and generate ideas on how to fix them.

Despite these proliferating examples, however, the success of collective intelligence platforms has been mixed. Many projects remain in the pilot phase, failing to expand. When Spain’s Podemos was still an upstart political party, for example, it successfully engaged its supporters in drafting an online party platform but saw less success embracing these crowdsourcing practices once in government. And the Decide Madrid platform, to which 400,000 people have signed up to propose policy to the city council, has resulted in only two new policies but not a single new law.

This is because bureaucracies are very resistant to change. Furthermore, governing is an arcane and jargon-filled process, and most of us simply do not have the know-how or vocabulary to discuss public policy. Nor do politicians or public servants typically want to engage us. After all, there is little political will to do something that could result in a loss of power, especially in a hyper-partisan environment. This is most likely why, now that Italy’s Five Star Movement is in power, it no longer meaningfully uses the Rousseau online system that it created for campaigning, preferring to tightly control how policy is made.

Another reason for failure is bad design. Each stage of decision-making, from identifying to evaluating problems, demands distinct forms of information and action. Identifying problems requires large-scale input from diverse members of society whereas solving them often requires more time and expertise, which means investing a substantial amount of time into designing workable solutions. The best crowdlaw projects — and we are only just beginning to understand which ones result in enhanced problem-solving — offer different ways of participating, such as consultations, competitions and participatory budgeting, each of which are designed for a distinct phase of decision-making, be it spotting or evaluating problems.

To be sure, more research is needed to understand what incentives will get both individuals and institutions to collaborate. But the reality is that new technology has the potential to unlock approaches that enable more individuals to weigh in on how to solve our collective problems; and it has the potential to offer city councils or parliaments rapid counsel from entrepreneurs, artists and engineers.

Advances in science and technology are set to transform the way we live together, with profound consequences. We need to use some of those same tools to redefine democracy, not as a once-a-year or less sporting competition between warring teams, but as robust conversations about how to solve our greatest challenges together.

This article initially appeared in The Washington Post.