An interview with Angus Chiu and SnD about civicdata.hk and how the 2014 protests gave birth to an active civic tech community devoted to empower democracy in Hong Kong thanks to open source technology.
Can you present yourself and how you got involved in civic tech?
For me it began last year. I got involved in civic tech in 2016. Basically, what got me interested was an article written by Benny Tai who is an associate professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong. He also became the de facto leader of the pro-democracy Occupy movement. Anyway, his article made me think: “here is an idea that could reshape our legislative council election”. So I got interested in these movements and became part of the civic tech community.
I was part of a civic tech team in Hong Kong back in 2014 (code for Hong Kong), and at the time we used a lot of help from the toolkit built by the Sunflower movement in Taiwan. Ever since the protests I’ve been wondering how civic tech can push democracy here in Hong Kong. Last year I saw a message from Angus on the Facebook Code for Hong Kong group, asking for help in the upcoming voting campaign (the Legislative Council election). So I decided to join and became part of the team.
Can you tell us about the Umbrella movement?
Ever since the end of august 2014, the Chinese government has been setting up new constraints on how the chief executive in Hong Kong can be elected. For instance, they created a committee which can nominate the candidates for the election. They basically have a veto on who can or cannot become a candidate. The idea of the pro-democracy Occupy movement was to tell the pro-Beijing camp they should not have that kind of power. Regarding the “Umbrella” part of it now, it is connected to the tactics used by authorities to silence protesters. On several occasions, the police used cold water jets or pepper spray to disperse people. Umbrellas can protect you of those things so it naturally became our symbol.
Symbol of the movement (picture: Wikimedia Commons)
Would you say the 2014 protests started it all in Hong Kong?
There were protests before 2014. I think that ever since 2012, concerns were growing in the population because the chief executive was very unpopular. And ever since then, the pro-Beijing camp became more and more aggressive. I remember that at the time people were already using technology to inform one another, for instance, there was this movement called SocRec (Society Record) which emerged after 2012 and used to broadcast the news related to the protests on social media and stuff.
The Admiralty protest site on the night of 10 October 2014 (picture: Wikimedia Commons)
Is civic tech popular in Hong Kong?
There is not much people in Hong Kong that are trying to embrace the idea that technology can improve democracy and even though we have had some people taking part in our projects, we still feel like it is a work in progress, but we have had some popular projects in the past. For instance, there were over 65,000 people who expressed their opinion during our latest referendum, using our POPVote platforms. We were a bit disappointed because we expected more participation. It is still decent though, but we have had some major successes in the past. In June 2014, we campaigned alongside with the pan-democratic party for the civil referendum regarding constitutional reform proposals. There was a lot of enthusiasm and this ended up gathering almost 800,000 individual opinions. We mainly reached people through the Internet but I feel like the success of this referendum was mostly due to the pan-democratic party efforts.
POPvote is an e-voting platform that was used by almost 800,000 people during the June 2014 civil referendum
What is the civic tech sector like in Hong Kong? Do you have private companies there?
I don’t think there are private companies doing civic tech in Hong Kong at the moment. There used to be this one company that created a platform designed to empower whistle-blowers by giving its users a place to chat and share stuff that offered high privacy standards. But it was more like a hobby, they did not make money off of it. As for the projects that have been pushed by the Umbrella movement and the pan-democratic party, there is POPVote, (Public Opinion Programme) which Angus just mentioned. POP is a web platform and a mobile app which allows citizens to raise their concerns and voice their opinion online through an e-voting system. It has been used during 12 voting events here in Hong Kong, including 2 territory-wide civil referendums. In addition, we also built a tool called VotSonar, which lets citizens vote and see polling results in real-time. We used it during the Legislative Council (LegCo) Election on September 4th, 2016, and gathered over 42,000 votes.
VotSonar lets citizens vote and see polling results in real time
3 years after the protests, can you assess the improvements made by civic tech in Hong Kong?
In my opinion, there has not been much progress made in terms of democratic initiatives in Hong Kong, people are still getting arrested for being part of the pro-democracy Occupy movement. Basically, people fear retaliation from the pro-Beijing camp so they tend not to get involved too much even though for the most part, the ones we talk to agree with our views. We have had some good results on some of our previous projects, but it is not enough and even though I can seem a bit pessimistic I am not about to give up yet. I will keep working and helping build good products for the community!
I feel like the people in Hong Kong consider themselves to be pretty realistic. They think protests cannot really change things. This is especially true for teenagers, who are pretty detached and do not really care about politics. There is an upside to what we do though: technology. It allows people to raise concerns anonymously, so personally, I do believe things can change even though the situation is not perfect right now.
Police officers surrounding a protest (picture: Wikimedia Commons)
How do you feel about similar foreign initiatives, like g0v in Taiwan or Podemos in Spain?
It is really special to be able to share our views with people who are involved in similar initiatives all around the world. I think it is important for us to have connections with foreign movements because it allows us to find out what technology works and maybe borrow it from one another. It is quite amazing to see that people in Europe, in South America share our values even though the local contexts are totally different. I feel like foreign movements acknowledge our situation. For example, we have had some help from the people at democracy.earth who are known for their will to push decentralized and incorruptible voting systems. Between December 2016 and March 2017, Virgile Deville and Lucas Isasmendi joined forces with us to work on securing POPvote (which suffered massive cyber attacks by Chinese hackers during the June 2014 civil referendum). Their help was greatly appreciated as they are familiar with technologies such as IPFS networks and the Bitcoin Blockchain, which allow secure votes storage.
Our situation here in Hong Kong is pretty specific because unlike you guys in Europe, we are not working with, but against our government. Even compared to our friends at g0v, who got a chance to leverage the government because they won the elections. In our case, so far we cannot access the official resource and this makes our job much harder.
What are your motivations? Why do you feel like civic tech is important?
Technology is a very powerful tool that can be used for the greater good but also to do tremendous harm, because it grants people in charge a power that in the past, they would only have had with an army supporting them. Nowadays, a dictator would need very few people to actually handle thousands and thousands of drones. My goal is to contribute to society by making people embrace open technology and enforce a virtuous use of it.
In my case, I used to work in the Silicon Valley and there are open source movements there that tend to use technology to affect society through open culture. So this kind of mindset is very common there and when I moved back to Hong Kong, the whole society seemed weird to me, especially when it comes to politics. I felt like people were angry and so I chose this life to try to improve the local situation.