Our generation yearns to create a more collaborative world. The stakes of our time does not leave us much choice anyway. We must change the way our democracy works, especially if we want it to avoid being overrun by defiance, anger and renounce. Digital technology offers a chance to lower this fence that prevents us from accessing information and exchange. It is part of the answer.
However, standard still exists and while we try and surpass it, we sometimes worsen its flaws. OuiShare has seen this happen in the field of “sharing economy”, which was taken over by the swift growth of giants like Uber, which quickly valued profit over social transformation.
Now we risk facing a similar phenomenon in the field of French civic-tech, which we celebrate from the 7th to the 9th of December in the finest palaces of the Republic during the Open Government Partnership summit, which France presides this year.
We are collectively responsible for letting the mist of confusion that surrounds civic-tech grow thicker. This “unidentified political object” behind which we have taken shelter with hope and enthusiasm. We declined a gabble composed of terms like: “open gov”, “hackathon”, “open data”, “API”, “DIY”, “crowdsourcing” and “proxy-voting” on the “blockchain” which makes our projects literally incomprehensible for most of the people we aim to reach. We have also been trapped by our own definitions of civic-tech, so encompassing they do not allow us to make the distinctions between the different realities, whether they are technical, economical and moreover eminently political.
If “civic-tech” does qualify the whole of the platforms and apps specifically designed to strengthen civil participation, democratic concertation and government transparency, it is still necessary to delve even further in the subject in order to obtain a more objective typology of the different stakeholders and models.
By definition, Open Government rests upon a collaborative space: a triptych-discussion which must happen between public institutions, civil society organizations and the citizenry. The interests and means of every group being obviously different, sometimes even divergent. Governments and administrations aim to enhance the quality and transparency of the public service they provide to their citizens, and every sign of openness is a good sign, especially in times of reelection. The citizens are expecting better decisions to be made in conjunction with them to improve their lives in concrete terms. Organizations seek to increase their audience and resources. A startup’s business model is quite clear: start by investing through equity or fundraising in order to offer the best product possible, be the last to survive to the acceleration phase and obtain a de facto monopoly, even if it means acquiring competitors in the process. In the end, there only remain an Airbnb, a Facebook, a Netflix, because all the others are dead or marginalized. Winner takes all. At this very moment, the question being played out in France is to figure out whether we want to submit civic-tech to the same business models or if democracy justifies an exception.
French institutions are being held prisoners by proprietary software.
The diversity of French civic-tech initiatives which have been teeming these last eighteen months has maintained an appearance of complexity. It has now been described as a homogenous catalog by all our standard media whether they are local or national. And for the most part they have not delved further into the analysis and kept using corporate wording. Let us go into detail.
Some platforms are “scalable”, meaning that a new user marginal cost tends towards zero, as illustrated by Jeremy Rifkin in his analysis of digital platform economy. Hence a site like Change.org does not need to re-invest resources — apart from bigger server capacities — to get from ten to ten thousand petitions, from ten to ten thousand signatures.The same goes for GOV, which aims at “uberizing” polls through an app that allows a cheap way of collecting opinions whereas polling institutes must reproduce and analyze hundreds of phone calls with fixed unit costs. The compensation is the centralization and standardization of these platforms. Facebook offers the same possibility to all its users. This system works for mobilization tools, as long as no difference is being made for a left-wing or a right-wing candidate, whether he has ten or ten thousand supporters. This led Nation Builder to provide at the same time for the pro and the anti-Brexit campaigns, but also in France, to provide for both far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Republican François Fillon. These platforms are action tools at the service of personal interests which collide with one another in political life. They should therefore be unified under the term of “pol-tech”.
Another side of civic-techs has to do with decision-making and its evaluation. It depends on the initiatives of government themselves. Some have the means to develop their own tools (such as the City of Paris with its participative budget), but most need to deal with private operators. This hybrid model is called “gov-tech”: it is important that every government have a tailor-made tool at their disposal that guarantees the sincerity and protection of collected data but with recurring types of participation — call for projects, suggestions and proposals, public policy consultation, collaborative mapping, participatory budget, legal portal providing access to public data… The same platforms can therefore be adapted with just a slight contextual tweak. That is where the two models collide: free and open source software versus proprietary software.
Several French companies have been successfully created lately. Spallian partially reconverted into “Tell my City” reporting apps sales. Fluicity is developing a mobile app to improve communication between municipalities and their citizens. OpenDataSoft offers an integrated solution for collectivities to easily create their open data portals — which they are now legally obliged to have. Cap Collectif sales consulting platforms. These companies develop “gov-tech” and as they are being used, their quality and profitability grow — especially during election periods. They attract private investors that inject capital; for example, OpenDataSoft just raised 5 million euros to deploy their solution everywhere in the world. Technical enhancements on these platforms are praiseworthy, even sometimes technically impressive.
However, the proprietary approach is accompanied by a batch of drawbacks :
The challenge of developing common tech in a closed environment.
- First and foremost, the lack of transparency. The public authority does not have access to the source code that runs these platforms. So why worry about these technical details — which, let us be honest, go far beyond the understanding of the majority of decision-makers — as long as the platform works? If code is law, as demonstrated by Professor Lawrence Lessig (Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, 1999), a digital platform is never neutral. It is the result of the technical and ideological choices of its designers. When we do not master its code, it is the authors of this code who control us.
- Then comes the topic of the loss of sovereignty. Retrospectively publishing a dataset from a non-auditable platform is not a sufficient guarantee that the data has not been manipulated. Even if we do not have reason to doubt the intentions of the current publishers of these platforms, the fact that these companies can be redeemed in the medium term by other players is a threat that any public stakeholder must take into consideration since it engages their responsibility in a process of collecting citizen’s opinions and democratic concertation.
- Finally, the absence of a lasting collaboration. All governments having the same needs, they represent a promise to these companies. Instead of pooling their needs, institutions — and therefore ultimately taxpayers — pay and repay the existing technologies. Some of the gains are reinvested, but improvements will only benefit the next customers. Public money does not finance the development of freely reusable common goods, but traditional economic models.
After distinguishing pol-tech and gov-tech, we now have a clearer view of what the technologies of citizenship intrinsically are. The ability of citizens to master and use these tools themselves to inform, organize and make collective decisions is in the DNA of civic-tech, defined in the United States as “the use of technology for the public good”. It may be necessary to evolve towards a definition of “common-tech” to delineate more precisely the creation of these digital commons, which corresponds more to what exists internationally. For free alternatives exist for the same needs.
- “Fix my Street” for example, is an open source reporting platform developed in the UK by mySociety.org.
- The new Open Knowledge Estonia association that I had the pleasure of meeting in Tallinn is launching the development of an open source application called “2 minutes 4 my city” which connects citizens with local news and decisions.
- DKAN is an open source portal created in the United States for collectivities.
- Democracy OS is an open source consulting platform initiated in Argentina.
Democracy OS is an open source consulting platform initiated in Argentina.
- The European Commission requires that the software it finances be open source, as the ones of D-Cent projects;
- The Obama administration opened the code of its official application of petitions “We the People” and has just launched the code.gov portal that frees code from all US government platforms;
- The new Taiwanese digital minister Audrey Tang has animated for years the g0v.tw hackathons dealing with the development of open source solutions;
- The pioneer of citizen lobbying tools is the Meu Rio open source platform in Brazil;
- The Icelanders whose pirates and democratic model we salute, have created an open source portal for Better Reykjavik;
- Podemos elected officials in Madrid invested in the software Consul which is used by the portal decide.madrid.es for consultations and the participatory budget of the capital … and other Spanish cities that have access to the same tool.
The French civic-tech is against the tide.
The open source model is based on licenses that define the conditions for open access, use, transformation and marketing of platforms that are openly and collaboratively coded. The files that structure the applications are publicly accessible on platforms like GitHub or Gitlab, and notices explain how to deploy and configure free-of-charge instances that you can host on your own servers and adapt to your needs. Hence a clear misunderstanding about open source: just because access is free does not mean development is as well. Technical configuration, translation and addition of functionalities require time and development skills — sometimes more than for a proprietary solution that already exists and which duplication cost is infinitely lower than the price the company charges for the operating license. On the other hand, the improvement financed this way benefits the entire community. All around the world. For example, by choosing Democracy OS to develop the portal “participez.nanterre.fr”, the mayor of Nanterre has invested in an improvement of the ergonomics of the platform that has been reused up to the level of the Argentine government. The diffusion of open source is free: the metropolis of Reims has used a private provider to set up a Democracy OS consultation instance without even consulting the organization. In the same way, any community, any associative project with in-house technical understanding can use Democracy OS. Dozens of alternatives are built around the world: Discourse (US) for participative forums, Loomio (New-Zealand) for non-pyramidal organizations, Ushahidi (Kenya) for collaborative mapping, and so on. In these contexts, the added value comes from the expertise deployed in the field thanks to the tool, not the dangerous mirage of technological solutionism which claims that a single tool will change everything.
We at Open Source Politics are convinced that there is an economic model for these common-techs. We are experimenting with curating and adapting the best free platforms dedicated to democracy. This model is probably less profitable for short-term investors, but much more for citizens in the medium term. And all the more so for long-term democracy. This view will necessarily take longer to reach its full potential. Institutions often prefer the comfort of the relationship with a private actor rather than working with a community that is not yet structured. But it exists through the concept of permanent hackathon we launched in early 2016 within the Open Democracy Now team. We are now meeting more and more developers that are happy to commit to a free civic-tech.
In his reference book on new peer-to-peer models, Michel Bauwens explains that a common is unlikely to triumph if it is isolated from private competitors, but always ends up winning if it teams-up with public or private actors which bring stability and rewards to the work of the community. As detailed in this brilliant article by Uzbek & Rica [in French], the challenge for public authorities to understand and collaborate with the emergence of commons, goes well beyond the civic-tech framework and concerns the entire innovation sector. That is why the responsibility of leaders attending the World Summit of the Partnership for Open Government exceeds simple marketing.
“The Century of Commons”, Usbek & Rica
Making a difference is within our reach.
So far, civic-tech is just a hobby for the urban middle class, disillusioned by the spectacle of its political representation. With very few exceptions, our initiatives are not inclusive and do not affect the citizens of the working-class districts and peripheries that form the bastions of non-voters or far-right voters. The task is immense because the gap to be filled is so deep, the fractures to mend so vast. Other cities have succeeded in doing so, such as Medellin in Colombia, which went from a drug platform to participatory democracy in twenty years of virtuous actions. We miss the target because we cannot afford to scale. There is a need for strong support for the development of new digital tools which would be able to spread more and more easily throughout the country, in order to intensify our democratic practices in schools, associations and companies, to increase the number of consultations and open accounts, to equip the collective local citizens who are the only ones in a position to unite the outcasts. This is the condition of our democratic transition.
These tools, for the most part, already exist. We honored their creators from Germany, Taiwan, Estonia or Malaysia at a civil society event on Tuesday, December 6th. The Open Government Toolkit (ogptoolbox.org), developed by Etalab for a whole year, is posted on the international hackathon at the Palais de l’Elysée on December 7th and at the Iena Palace on the 8th and 9th. Taking in the content of numerous international repositories, this site gives access to detailed information on good practices implemented throughout the world.
French civic-tech has been growing tremendously for the last eighteen months. New levers are being put in place. An incubator is born with the support of the French Minister for Digital Affairs Axelle Lemaire. It is intended to be hosted by the “Civic Hall” Anne Hidalgo [mayor of Paris] calls for in Paris. As long as we do not have guarantees on the technical and political criteria required to be part of it, we will look at these two initiatives with the vigilance that is expected of the civil society in an approach of Open Government. This posture may seem idealistic at a time when democratic innovation suffers from a real economic precariousness, but if what we develop does not bring us closer to a freer and more open democratic, how useful can it really be?
Written by @ValentinChaput, with many thanks to the translator Noé Jacomet