TICTeC 2015: Revisiting the Myth of Digital Democracy

The Myth of Digital DemocracyI recently read Matthew Hindman’s The Myth of Digital Democracy [1], in which he tears down the notion that the Internet has significantly democratised participation in the political sphere. I particularly enjoyed his data driven, economics approach to the issue, which reminded me of the methods used in Freakonomics [2] and my very favourite example of counter-intuitive cause and effect, in which postal voting actually decreased turnout at Swiss referendums [3].

Hindman’s core argument was that structure of the web itself prevents it from truly democratising participation—the way Google works, for example, bestows a rich-get-richer effect on content that is already widely linked. Interestingly, though, his work was based on a pre-social media Internet and he was largely talking about blogs as a mechanism for political discourse. I was left wondering what effect social media—which has undoubtedly changed some of the structure of the web—might have on his findings. Sharing and retweeting, for example, are recent structural elements that provide new opportunities for discovery (but certainly don’t even things out!)

With a focus on the impact of civic technology, and on web-based civic technologies in particular, it was natural that these issues would crop up at TICTeC. Shelley Boulianne’s opening keynote addressed it head-on with a meta-analysis [4] of research examining whether Internet use has a positive or negative effect on civic engagement. You don’t come across a lot of meta-analyses in design-led HCI research, so this was a nice change! Her analysis of 38 studies showed an overall positive effect. What’s interesting in this case is that it’s not the Internet acting as a tool for participation, but rather to better inform citizens and inspire them to participate through more traditional means.

Ethan Zuckerman’s closing keynote likewise did a great job of dismantling some assumptions around slacktivism—low-effort online activities like putting a Twibbon on your profile picture, which are widely regarded as being ineffectual. He argued that these simple but visible actions can actually go a long way towards challenging and ultimately changing social norms. For example, if a large number of your friends and family are visibly supporting gay marriage, this has a lot of normative influence. In this example, it is not just social media’s ability to get a large number of people involved that makes it effective, but also its ability to draw on influential social ties.

I think these examples go a long way to illustrating the wide variety of ways in which technology can have an impact, but also that sometimes need to go digging a little deeper to find them.

  1. Hindman, M. (2008). The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton University Press.
  2. Levitt, S.D. and Dubner, S.J. (2005). Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. William Morrow.
  3. Funk, P. (2010). Social incentives and voter turnout: evidence form the Swiss mail ballot systemJournal of the European Economic Association 8(5), 1077–1103.
  4. Boulianne, S. (2009). Does Internet use affect engagement? A meta-analysis of researchPolitcal Communication 26(2), 93–211.

TICTeC 2015: Take-Home Thoughts on Civic Tech

TICTeC-logos_general-with-yearAt the end of March I attended the first TICTeC conference, run by mySociety in London. If you haven’t come across mySociety yet, you will almost certainly have come across one of their websites, including TheyWorkForYou, FixMyStreet and YourNextMP. They now have a research programme aimed at understanding how effective these tools are, part of which includes running an annual conference bringing together people interested in civic tech.

I turned up to give a presentation about Viewpoint and I don’t think I’ve ever been to an event that seemed quite so tailored to my interests—in fact, I think I’ve run events I was less interested in. There was a lot to soak up, but now that I’ve had a couple of weeks to digest, here are some take-home thoughts.

How do we measure the impact of civic technologies?

Opening the conference, mySociety CEO Tom Steinberg set out the importance of this question with a neat analogy: in the past, doctors prescribed all sorts of things that we now know to be hokum, because they lacked the ability (or will) to rigorously test their remedies. If we develop civic technologies but don’t rigorously test their impacts, we are effectively doing the same thing.

When talking about Viewpoint I’m always candid about the fact that while we succeeded in our goal of generating high levels of participation, with hard data to prove it, we failed to find a way of converting that participation in to meaningful outcomes. What’s more, we didn’t really have a clear idea of how to evaluate that. It was both reassuring and concerning to discover that most other people working with civic tech didn’t really have a clear idea of that yet either.

By coincidence, this question has emerged on three separate projects I’m involved in over the subsequent couple of weeks. One of the solutions mooted has been measures of self-efficacy or collective efficacy that measure people’s belief in their ability to effect a change before and after the intervention. This sounds quite neat and tidy, but I’ve never quite been convinced by the simple ten-point checklists that have been developed for this purpose. Slightly more convincing are community-level indicators, which measure conditions in the community tailored to your goals. However, both these approaches are confounded by the time-scales we work with: research projects are increasingly tending towards the 18-month variety, but these effects can take a long time to emerge.

What is the value proposition to civic organisations of getting involved with researchers?

In contrast to most conferences I attend, practitioners vastly outnumbered academics and it was interesting to see how the non-academic civic tech community perceives us. The two communities have a lot to offer each other, but articulating the academic contribution and working around practical challenges is difficult. It’s something I spent a lot of time banging by head against while working on the Creative Exchange (with only a headache to show for it). Not least amongst the practical difficulties is the seemingly glacial pace that academia works at. Even our shortest projects don’t mesh well with small organisations who need to be fleet of foot.

There’s also the issue of money: we have a bad reputation for assuming organisations will be willing to take part in research projects for free. It’s not entirely our fault, as RCUK is often the most attractive source of funding for us, but typically won’t hand anything out to non-academic partners. There is some sign of change on this front: In the Making is funded through a strand of AHRC funding that allowed groups representing communities (in our case Disability Rights UK) to be funded as Community Co-Investigators, and the AHRC Knowledge Exchange Hubs are also handing out limited amounts of funding to non-academic organisations. I’d love to see EPSRC’s Research in the Wild strand move in this direction, where it seems particularly appropriate.

How do we think beyond the web?

My last thought is more of a self-centered observation. The vast majority of work I saw presented was web-based and much of it was based on national-level discourse. There were exceptions: Nanjira Sambuli spoke about the importance of local radio and it was great to meet some people from Code for America and their international siblings whose work can potentially take all kinds of forms. But for the most part of idea of civic technology is currently grounded in the web.

The web is obviously pretty great and a powerful tool for civic engagement—you only have to look at the level of discourse going on right now around the General Election to see that. But if we fixate on the web, we risk being blinkered in the same way that Old Media was. Civic life works at a lot of different scales and the web isn’t suitable for all of them—at least, not the web as we currently conceive it. I went along hoping to show that we can think much more creatively about the role that technology can play: I don’t know how effective I was in doing that, but I think it’s something that bears repeating.