According to a study by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) published late last week, digital technologies will become an increasingly important factor in European democracy in the coming decade. This is perhaps not entirely surprising; After all, the pandemic has shifted much of our lives to the digital realm, why shouldn’t our political participation?
The report, based on interviews with more than 50 government and industry representatives, states that the market for online participation and consultation in Europe is expected to grow to 300 million euros in the next five years, while the market for e-voting to 500 million euros will grow. Respondents also indicate that there is a “window of opportunity” for European democracy technology providers to expand beyond Europe.
The report’s authors further believe that digital democracy technology can support outreach to demographic groups that may otherwise be difficult to reach, such as B. Youth and immigrant communities. This also includes broader sections of the population in difficult circumstances, such as those created by the pandemic and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
“In the event of war, electronic democracy tools must be even stronger. Because we understand that we need to live for society and give tools to citizens,” said Oleg Polovynko, IT Director at Kyiv Digital, Kyiv City Council and one of the speakers at the TNW conference 2023.
Not without controversy
Digital democracy refers to the use of digital technologies and platforms to improve democratic processes and increase citizen participation in government decision-making. This is also referred to as Civic Tech (not to be confused with Govtech, which focuses on technologies that help governments perform their duties more efficiently).
Examples of tools include online petitions, open data portals, and participatory budgeting systems where citizens come together to discuss community needs and priorities and then allocate public funds accordingly.
At its best, it has the potential to reinvigorate democracy by allowing citizens to participate anytime, anywhere. At worst, it could be used for disinformation or just plain old toxic online behavior.
Furthermore, the discussion about a potential “digital divide” – who benefits and who is excluded due to having or not having access to technology – is not easy to resolve.
Invite AI into collective decision-making
IDEA states that there are more than 100 online participation, consultation and voting providers in Europe, most of which are active at national level. The majority of internationally active companies are start-ups with 10 to 60 employees, but they are expanding quickly.
Many of these democratic technology platforms have already begun to take advantage of recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence to introduce new features or enhance existing ones.
“We envision a future where citizens and AI work collaboratively with governments to address complex social problems by merging collective intelligence with artificial intelligence.” Robert Bjarnason, co-founder and president of Citizens.is, to TNW.
“We advocate a model where citizens collaborate with powerful AI systems to help shape policy, rather than allowing central government AI models to exert undue influence.”
After Iceland’s banks collapsed in 2008, distrust of politicians in the Nordic island nation was at an all-time high. Along with another programmer, Gunnar Grímsson, Bjarnasson developed a software platform called Your Priorities that allows citizens to propose laws and policies, which can then be upvoted or downvoted by other users.
Just before the 2010 local elections, the open source software was used to set up the Better Reykjavik portal. Five years later, a poll on the website managed to name a street in the Icelandic capital after Darth Vader (well, his Icelandic nickname Svarthöfði, or Black Cloak, which already went well with the names of the streets in the area).
Of course, there were much more “weighty” decisions influenced by the platform, such as B. Crowdsourcing ideas to prioritize the city’s educational goals.
So far, over 70,000 residents of the capital have committed to Better Reykjavik. Pretty impressive for a population of 120,000. In addition, Your Priorities has been tested in Malta, Norway, Scotland and Estonia.
The Baltic tech-forward nation has passed several laws proposed via the platform, which includes a unique debate system, content crowdsourcing and prioritization, a “toxicity sensor” to alert admins to potentially abusive content, and extensive use of AI. In fact, Citizens.is recently entered into a collaboration with OpenAI and provided GPT-4 for its AI assistant – in Icelandic.
GPT-4 is now strengthening digital democracy and collective intelligence in Iceland 🤖❤️ Thanks to a collaboration between @OpenAI, the government and Miðeind, we are launching our AI assistant in Icelandic. Thanks @sama, @gdb, @vthorsteinsson, @cohere, @langchain, @weaviate_io & @buildWithLit pic.twitter.com/LNxAAFe2nf
— Citizens Foundation (@CitizensFNDN) March 19, 2023
Don’t worry if the language barrier feels a bit steep. Citizens.is was kind enough to provide TNW with a screenshot of the company’s AI assistant in action from a project in Oakland, California.
Photo credit: Citizens.is
Other examples of civil society technology companies in Europe include the Belgium-based scale-up CitizenLab, which now works with more than 300 local governments and organizations in 18 countries, and the Berlin-based non-profit organization Liquid Democracy. Liquid’s Adhocracy+ open-source consulting and collaborative decision-making software platform also helps facilitate face-to-face meetings throughout the lifecycle of equity projects.
Win the trust of the citizens
The key product trends identified in the IDEA study are: artificial intelligence, voting, and management and reporting. Meanwhile, it also noted the importance of addressing inclusivity, data use, accountability and transparency issues, and developing security standards for end-to-end verified voting.
One proposed solution is the introduction of a Europe-wide seal of approval for democracy technologies.
“If a citizen can trust the banking application to conduct transactions, then they can also rely on our service to make the citizen’s voice heard,” said Nicholas Tsounis, CEO of online voting platform Electobox. “We want people to trust this application because we know it’s there to protect their right to speak and vote.”