De-anonymizing open data, just because you can… should you?

October 23rd, 2014

If an essential part of the data reveals personally identifiable information (PII), should the data not be released? Should the users of open data be the ones responsible for ensuring proper use of the data?

I mention this question because of an article by an intrepid Gawker reporter who decided he could correlate photos of celebrities in NYC taxis (with visible Taxi medallions) and the de-anonymized database on every NYC cab ride in 2013 to determine whether celebrities tipped their cab drivers. Of course, this article is another example of “Celebrities doing normal people things like using taxis”, but the underlying question here is just because you can violate people’s privacy does it mean you should?

Identifying celebrities and their cab rides was first done by an intern at Neustar, Anthony Tockar. In his post he recognizes that it is relatively easy to reveal personal information about people. Not only could he match cab rides to a couple of celebrities, but he also showed how you can easily see who frequently visits Hustler’s. Tockar says:

Now while this information is relatively benign, particularly a year down the line, I have revealed information that was not previously in the public domain.

He uses these examples to introduce a method of privatizing data called “differential privacy.” Differential privacy basically adds noise to the data when you zoom in on it so you can’t identify specific information about an individual, but you can still get accurate results when you look at the data as a whole. This is best exemplified by the graphic below.

This shows the average speed of cab drivers throughout the day. The top half is the actual average speed of all drivers and the average speed of all drivers after the data is run through the differential privacy algorithm. The bottom half shows the same for an individual cab driver. Click on the graphic to go to an interactive tool that lets you play around with the privacy parameter, ε.

But we’re still struggling with getting data off PDF’s or worse, filing cabinets. It’ll take years before we can create such privacy mechanisms for current open data! What to do in the meantime? It would seem that Gawker stopped reading after “Bradley Cooper left no tip” (actually, we don’t know since tips are not recorded if paid in cash). Just because someone could look up ten celebrities’ cab rides does it mean they should have? The reporter even quotes Tockar’s quote about “revealing information not previously in the public domain”. The irony seems to have been lost on Gawker. I’m of the opinion that Gawker shouldn’t have published an article about celebrities’ cab rides no more than it should publish their phone numbers if they were available inside a phone book. Unless it was trying to make a point about privacy and open data, which would’ve made for a great conversation piece.  Except it wasn’t since it was all about tipping. They even reached out to publicists for comments on the tipping.

Ultimately, who cares about Bradley Cooper taking a taxi. But when you go “hey, let’s see how many celebrities I can ID from this data” and write an article about it without questioning the privacy implications, you’re basically saying “Yes, because you can, it means you should.”

UPDATE: ok, so apparently there is a reason it’s called “Gawker”. See this example where this same author tries to out a Fox News reporter. Today I learned.

Reddit is NOT a failed state….

October 9th, 2014

It has it’s problems for sure, but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it as having failed.

I’m referring to a The Verge article posted about a month ago following the celebrity nude photo leaks. The main argument for FAIL is the fact that instead of chastising the users who help spread the leaked photos, Reddit protected them under the shield of free speech. I’m not here to argue whether Reddit acted appropriately or not in protecting the individuals (personally, they could’ve been kicked out, banned, arrested, and I would’ve been content with that). But I do not think this transgression in privacy, abuse of free speech, and overall disgusting behavior by a small group of a larger community a failed state makes.

Is this indicative of pervasive malicious behavior across Reddit? Absolutely. We didn’t need r/TheFappening to figure that out. Just talk to woman redditors about their experiences as participants.

But at least we’re talking about these issues. It’s not so much the fact that we are, it’s the fact that we have the ability to do so. Through their karma system, Reddit has built a system that promotes good behavior and–sometimes–reproves the bad. It’s a primitive system for sure, especially since it’s not immune to the hivemind behavior (for example, apparently the r/nyc hivemind thinks people have ZERO responsability to give up your seat in the subway for a pregnant woman (maybe they’re right and I’m wrong)). This system, I think, allows the hive to go through iterations of what they believe to be correct. In effect, every now and then it corrects itself. Take the terrible “detective work” conducted during the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. After the hive realized it was wrong (so wrong), whenever there was a post asking for some sort of crowdsourced detective work, it was often met with someone who commented on the terrible results that came out of the last time they tried to play detectives.  As a result, Reddit for the most part now knows: We should avoid digital vigilantism.

In the coming years we will increasingly see Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s principles on governing the commons applied to digital spaces. Although primitively (and perhaps unintentionally) Reddit has created a space where communities are able to define their own boundaries, (sort of) align “governance” rules with their preferences, (kind of) ensure that those who participate in the community can have a say on the rules, and are (barely) able to sanction those who misbehave. It has a long way to go for sure. What happened with r/TheFappening is a case where a group of very misguided individuals were able to gather in one place and as a community behave inappropriately. In that case what Reddit might be lacking is some greater oversight over communities and their leaders. An oversight that’s not dictatorial, but rather an oversight that is also provided by a community (a council of communities?).

Another problem with Reddit (or any digital space, actually) is that whenever someone goes through the trouble of committing a crime–say stealing nude celeb photos–the “morality cost” of engaging in the immoral behavior is significantly decreased by the internet’s ability to massively distribute information at a significantly low cost. For the most part, the consequences for engaging in such immoral behavior do not exist. Especially when it costs nothing to click on a link. This is maybe one of the internet’s biggest weaknesses: it’s ability to facilitate engagement in immoral behavior.

We need to design digital spaces that somehow take this into account. Spaces where the community can more meaningfully participate and deal with the bad apples more effectively. Is Reddit, and the rest of the internet, full of misguided individuals who do some fucked up shit? Yes, but this doesn’t mean we need to take it to the back of the barn and shoot it. It means we need to think about how we create these digital spaces in the future. Or do away with it if you want, but then let’s take the good lessons and the bad, and let’s make something better.

 

Placemeter pays YOU for your data…

October 8th, 2014
Note: I have set a new goal to post at least once a week, even if the posts are short.

Turns out you may have some data to offer that is actually more valuable than just your online shopping patterns: the view outside your window. Placemeter is a relatively new startup that pays New Yorkers up to $50 to place their phones against their windows and record movements on the street below. Using nifty computer vision algorithms, Placemeter extracts data from the images recorded by your phone. The short video below gives a sense of what they are trying to track.

The front page immediately addresses the issue of privacy. The company will not use the data to record anything that goes on inside your home, they will not use the data to identify people on the street, and the video they record isn’t stored. They only store raw data extracted from the video.

Their business model is simple: they pay you a little bit per month to record information which they will later sell to third parties. You provide the product they later sell (hey, at least they pay you for it). Since their goal is to sell data to businesses and city governments, they are mostly interested in views of restaurants, shops, or bars. This means lots of people like me can’t participate (I have a very lovely view of a wall). This got me thinking on who else can and can’t participate. If you happen to live in (and have a view of) Times Square, your view could be worth dozens of dollars! What about a view from a quiet Staten Island street? Or from the Bronx? Basically in order to participate you just have to live in the right place. A place that is probably expensive too.

One redditor applied to sell his/her view and was rejected because the street wasn’t busy enough, but that he/she would be considered when the company started “sending out unpaid meters”. I imagine this means the company would mail you a sensor for free and you would record data for them. If this happens I can see them shifting the rhetoric towards “help us analyse and improve your urban environment”, which this article already does.

Seeing as how the most valuable data would come from a select group of New Yorkers, most of their most valuable data might come from the already freely available video feeds around the city (they should fill out the survey for the OD500).

How to Build a Website From Scratch

January 23rd, 2014

When I signed up to build the Open Data 500 website, I wanted to go through the entire process of making a website from scratch. Full stack. Just to sort of see what it was like.
After spending 5 entire 10-hour days trying to trouble shoot a feature on the site, I decided to write a post on the skills needed to build an entire website from scratch.

To build an entire website from scratch you need to know the following:

  • HTML5
  • CSS
  • JavaScript
  • jQuery
  • D3
  • ParsleyJS
  • Modernizr
  • Tornado
  • Python
  • MongoDB
  • Mongoengine
  • CSV
  • JSON
  • geoJSON
  • Regular Expressions
  • Seamless
  • Heroku
  • Command Line
  • Git / Github
  • Google Analytics
  • MailChimp
  • DNS Records (A, CNAME, MX, etc)
  • Oh yeah, go directly to hell, GoDaddy
  • Polar Vortex Survival Skills
  • Basic Pharmacology
  • UX
  • UI
  • FU
  • F712U
  • Scheme (might as well)
  • Creative Commons Licensing
  • PHP (throw in a couple more languages, just in case)
  • Java
  • Ruby
  • C#
  • C♭
  • Perl
  • .NET
  • Obviously not WordPress
  • Ballmer Peaks
  • Double-team keyboarding
  • Windows
  • Mac
  • Linux
  • Atari
  • SNES (you’re welcome)
  • Brainfuck
  • SSL
  • HTTP
  • API’s
  • SOAP
  • LDAP
  • TCP/IP
  • WOFF
  • DOM
  • Cookies
  • XSRF
  • RSS
  • XML

I think that’s about it. I’f you’re just beginning with web development. Good luck. You’re almost there.

26

(Seriously, though. Keep it up, the road is long and arduous, but it’s totally worth it)

 

 

My Social Network

October 13th, 2013

I was playing around with Gephi, and I loaded my Facebook data to visualize my social network (or at least my Facebook social network). This is the result (click for full size).

 SocialNetwork

As you can see the network is pretty modular, which is to be expected since I’ve lived in 6 cities. There are 13 communities:

  1. High School, mostly my graduating class (21.97%) – Green
  2. The rest of Monterrey (17.41%) – Red
  3. ITP (16.4%) – Acqua
  4. Model UN (14.23%) – Light Blue
  5. UT Austin (12.57%) – Fuchsia?
  6. Oklahoma City (5.71%) – Purple
  7. Family, extended family, and family friends (5.13%) – Dark purple
  8. Schlumberger (3.32%) – Lime Green
  9. GovLab (1.3%) – Yellow
  10. NYCDigital (0.79%) – Orange
  11. Students For Sensible Drug Policy (0.72%) – Dark Blue
  12. Las Chilangas de Nueva York (0.22%) – Dark Blue inside ITP blob
  13. The group of Canadians I randomly befriended on a bus one day. (0.22%) – Tiny Light Green Offshoot from large Green blob

I filtered out those nodes which had less than 2 degrees (less than 2 mutual friends), but it was interesting to see the lonely nodes on my network. Those are mostly people that I have encountered while traveling alone or have randomly met. The graph contains 1,384 nodes (friends) with 35,226 edges (connections) between them. The longest path (network diameter) between two of my friends (without going through me) is 8. The huge blue dot in the middle is Gaby, and she is connected to 7 of my 13 communities and shares friends. In second place is Chantel who knows everyone in Monterrey.

Making your own graph

If you want to do this for your own Facebook data, go to http://snacourse.com/getnet. Authorize the app. I selected all options in case I want to use that data later. Click on the ‘click here‘ link in Step 2. The app will need to scrape your Facebook and this might take a while if you have a large network.

You’ll also need to download Gephi, an open source visualization software.

Once you’ve downloaded your data and Gephi, open Gephi and File->Open your data file (default settings should be OK). You’ll see a bunch of dots arranged in a square in the middle of the screen.

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 12.04.02 PM

You’ll need to tell Gephi to reorganize the graph. On the bottom left you can choose a Layout. I chose ForceAtlas 2, checked Dissuade Hubs and Prevent Overlap, and set Gravity to 50.

Click Run. You’ll see the dots start to move around. Depending on the size of your network, it might take a while before you start seeing a discernible pattern. You can click on an individual node to find information about it by selecting the Edit tool in the toolbar (bottom-most tool). The node info will be displayed on the edit tab next to the Partition and Ranking tabs.

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 12.19.17 PM

If you want to remove the lone nodes and just show your one giant network, on the right of your screen you’ll see a Statistics and Filters tab. Click on Filter -> Topology, and drag “Giant Component” below to where it says ‘Drag filter here‘. Click Filter at the bottom. I also filtered out nodes with less than 2 degrees. Drag ‘Degree Range‘ into your Queries as well. When selected, you’ll see Degree Range Settings at the bottom. Drag the sliders or double-click the numbers to edit them. (Don’t click Filter again, the button works like an On/Off switch, and it was already on from the previous step).

Degrees

Before sizing the nodes by degree (in this case degrees represents mutual friends), let’s calculate the Average Degree. Under Statistics, click on Run next to Average Degree. You’ll get a result for average number of mutual friends across your network and you’ll get a nifty distribution graph. Usually this looks like a power-law distribution.

Now, go to the top left and click on the Ranking tab. In the drop down menu, select Degree. You can visualize with color, size, label color, or label size. I chose Size, but feel free to play around. Choose a range that fits best for your network, and hit Apply.

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 12.15.41 PM

By the way, if you graph isn’t changing much anymore, you can stop the ForceAtlas 2 Layout process. Click on Stop. The dots should stop moving.

Communities / Modularity

To color the different communities, you’ll need to calculate Modularity. It’s under the Statistics tab on the right. Click Run. Press OK for the default settings. Again, you’ll get a nifty distribution chart.

Go to the Partition tab on the top left. Under Nodes, click the Refresh Button Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 12.27.49 PM. Select Modularity Class from the drop-down menu. If you don’t like the colors, you can right-click inside that window and select Randomize Colors. Or click on the individual colors and manually select your colors. Once you’re happy with the colors, click Apply.

Awesome! You’re own social network graph. Gephi is a lot of fun to play around, and I encourage you to do so. The Gephi website has a bunch of tutorials you can follow that will teach you some of the awesome things you can do. To save your graph as a PDF, click on Preview on the top-top left. Feel free to play around with the settings, they’re pretty straight forward. When you’re done, just click on Export SVG/PDF/PNG at the bottom left.

I’ll try to make my graph prettier. As soon as I can get Illustrator to open up this tiny file.

What One Database Marketing Company Knows About Me

September 8th, 2013

It’s no surprise that marketing companies gather data about you to sell off to advertisers who then deliver targeted ads via mail, email, or while you surf the internet. Sometimes it’s even creepy how much they know about you. So far, it’s been a bit of a mystery finding out exactly how much of your information these companies have. A few days ago one marketing technology company, Acxiom, launched a new service called AboutTheData.com which allows people to take a peek into how much information the company has gathered on them.  Acxiom is no small marketing company. According to the NYTimes, it has created the world’s largest commercial database on consumers. I decided to give the service a try to see just how much data this company had about me.

Since this is such a large company, and I’m such an active internet user, I expected to find Acxiom to have gathered a lot of information about me. I was slightly disappointed–or relieved–when I found out that they didn’t have that much information on me at all (honestly, I don’t know how I should feel about this). Before going into the data, here is a little more information about where this data comes from and what we are shown.

According to Acxiom, this data is collected from:

  • Government records, public records and publicly available data – like data from telephone directories, website directories and postings, property and assessor files, and government issued licenses
  • Data from surveys and questionnaires consumers fill out
  • General data from other commercial entities where consumers have received notice of how data about them will be used, and offered a choice about whether or not to allow those uses – like demographic data

The data they show us, is their “core data”. This data is used to to generate the modeled insights and analytics used for marketing, which they do not show. Acxiom says that we are shown all of their core data. They make no mention about whether there is other non-core, non modeled insights data.

The site allows you to view data from six categories categories. Below is the information that has been gathered on me. Economic and Shopping data is over the past 24 months.

Characteristic Data: Male, Hispanic, inferred single
Home Data: No data.
Vehicle Data: No data.
Economic Data: Regular credit card holder (as opposed to Preimum/Gold), Regular Visa, 2 cash purchases (includes checks), 1 Visa purchase.
Shopping Data: $139 spent on 3 purchases (the ones referred to above?), 2 offline totalling $100, average $50 each (one purchase < $50, the other >$50, so I guess it’s a coincidence they add up to $100), 1 online for $39. My supposed interests include books, magazine, Christmas gift purchase, ethnic products (??), lifestyles, interests, and passions.
Households Interests Data: No data.

It makes sense that there is not be a lot of information about my home data or vehicle data, since I currently own neither (although there was no info on my previous vehicle ownership). Perhaps car and homeowners would have these sections filled out entirely. The household interests category is meant to include data related to interests of me or people in my household (examples given from the site include: gardening, traveling, sports). Not so surprised this is also empty, but I’m not sure why they guess that my shopping interests include ethnic products and yet they are not able to guess that I enjoy traveling. As for Characteristic Data? My Twitter feed should be enough to reveal that I’m a single male hispanic. Since you have to provide your name, email, address, and last 4 digits of your SSN, it’s pretty safe to assume that they also have this information.

**To skip Luis’ short history of shopping, jump to the next paragraph.
Economic and Shopping Data provide a little more hints as to where the data are coming from. First of all, they only have three purchases. That’s it. Out of the 3,100 card/check purchases I’ve made over the past 24 months, they have 3. I tried looking for two offline purchases on my Mint which add up to $100, but this proved to be a very difficult exercise. Even after filtering offline purchases and sorting data, there were too many possible combinations. For now, those two offline purchases remain a mystery. I was able to find a suspect for the online payment of $39. The most suspicious purchase came from a $39 seat upgrade at United Airlines. I can’t be sure if this is the one since I happened to buy a $39 upgrade, plus a plane ticket which does not show up in my AboutTheData. However, my suspicion arises from the fact that Mint had prepared a targeted ad for me by placing a green flashy dollar sign next to the purchase. This also could’ve been a coincidence.

Conclusions/Best Guesses
Given the fact that I spend A LOT of time on the internet and the high amount of purchases I’ve made over the years (I should cut down on those), I am surprised that Acxiom does not have more data about me. Basically, they know I’m a single, male, hispanic, and that’s about it. I can’t possibly imagine what they could gather from the rest of my data that’s worth $$$ to advertisers. Additionally, it seems a lot of their data comes from publicly available government data sets (home and car ownership), and–at least in my case–not a lot of data comes from neither my online habits or my shopping habits. I presume most of my important data is owned by Facebook and Google, and I’m pretty confident that they do not sell/share my data with Acxiom.

Last thought: AboutTheData let’s you edit your data so that you can receive more accurate targeted advertising. I’m curious to know who uses Acxiom data to target me, so I would’ve loved to enter distinctive preferences that do not apply to me (yet) such as “pregnancy”, “colonoscopies”, “underwater basket weaving”, or “Cook Islands National Women’s Football League” to see where these ads pop up. Unfortunately, AboutTheData only lets you change the above mentioned interests to ‘true’ or ‘false’. I guess they thought about the trolls.

RT @MartinLutherKingJr I Have a Dream… #CivilRights

August 28th, 2013

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The event, attended by over 250,000 people turned out to be a defining moment for the Civil Rights Movement. Fifty years later, the country has made great strides towards equality, but a lot remains to be done not just in terms of equality, but also in a wide range of social issues. While some of the issues of today are the same as the issues fifty years ago, new technologies and new ideas have quickly empowered us to react to these struggles in ways where we don’t yet fully understand its effect. The widespread adoption of the internet and social media have by no means replaced traditional marches like Dr. King’s, but rather it has augmented the form in which people participate in social movements. Going forward, it’s important to ask what is the effect of these new forms of activism. Will traditional marches like the one fifty years ago ever be replaced? Will online forms of protest ever match the effects of, for example, the 60’s anti-war movement? What would Dr. King make of the hundreds of thousands of people who tweet for a cause?

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 9.16.38 AM

 

Click on the image to see the Processing sketch. Code included.

*This post was posted in this blog in tandem with The GovLab.
**No… the tweets are not live.

Red Burns

August 24th, 2013

I’m pretty bad at words as it is, and in moments like these, I’m especially bad at words. So I usually don’t say anything, out of fear that whatever I say will sound stupid. So instead of mine, here are hers.

Red would present this on the first day of her Applications to the incoming ITP class. (Transcribed by Chris Selleck, posted to the ITP Alumni list by Michael Colombo)

 

What I want you to know:
That there is a difference between the mundane and the inspired.
That the biggest danger is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge
That any human organization must inevitably juggle internal contradictions – the imperatives of efficiency and the countervailing human trade-offs
That the inherent preferences in organizations are efficiency, clarity, certainty, and perfection.
That human beings are ambiguous, uncertain, and imperfect.
That how you balance and integrate these contradictory characteristics is difficult
That imagination, not calculation, is the “difference” that makes the difference
That there is constant juggling between the inherent contradictions of a management imperative of efficiency and the human reality of ambiguity and uncertainty
That you are a new kind of professional – comfortable with analytical and creative modes of learning
That there is a knowledge shift from static knowledge to a dynamic searching paradigm
That creativity is not the game preserve of artists, but an intrinsic feature of all human activity
That in any creative endeavor you will be discomfited and that is part of learning
That there is a difference between long term success and short term flash
That there is a complex connection between social and technological trends. It is virtually impossible to unravel except by hindsight.
That you ask yourself what you want and then you work backwards.
In order to problem solve and observe, you ought to know how to: analyze, probe, question, hypothesize, synthesize, select, measure, communicate, imagine, initiate, reason, create
That organizations are really systems of cooperative activities and their coordination requires something intangible and personal that is largely a matter of relationships
What I hope for you:
That you combine that edgy mixture of self-confidence and doubt
That you have enough self-confidence to try new things
That you have enough self doubt to question
That you think of technology as a verb- not a noun
It is subtle but important difference
That you remember the issues are usually not technical
That you create opportunities to improvise.
That you provoke it. That you expect it.
That you make visible what, without you, might never have been seen
That you communicate emotion
That you create images that might take a writer ten pages to write
That you observe, imagine and create
That you look for the question, not the solution
That you are not seduced by speed and power
That you don’t see the world as a market, but rather a place that people live in – you are designing for people – not machines
That you have a stake in magic and mystery and art
That sometimes we fall back on Rousseau and separate mind from body
That you understand the value of pictures, words, and critical thinking
That poetry drives you, not hardware
That you are willing to risk, make mistakes, and learn from failure
That you develop a practice founded in critical reflection
That you build a bridge between theory and practice
That you embrace the unexpected
That you value serendipity
That you reinvent and re-imagine
That you listen. That you ask questions.That you speculate and experiment
That you play. That you are spontaneous.That you collaborate.
That you welcome students form other parts of the world and understand we don’t live in a monolithic world
That each day is magic for you
That you turn your thinking upside down
That you make whole pieces out of disparate parts
That you find what makes the difference
That your curiosity knows no bounds
That you understand what looks easy is hard
That you imagine and re-imagine
That you develop a moral compass
That you welcome loners, cellists, and poets
That you are flexible. That you are open.
That you can laugh at yourself. That you are kind.
That you consider why natural phenomena seduce us
That you engage and have a wonderful time
That this will be 2 years for you to expand- take advantage of it
Appolinaire said: – Come to the edge, -It’s too high, – Come to the edge, – We might fall, – Come to the Edge, – And he pushed them and they flew

 
 

R.I.P. Red Burns

 

Pushing Policy Through Mexican Telenovelas

August 14th, 2013

In recent Mexican news, there has been some talk about an energy reform. One of the biggest and most contentious issues being discussed is whether the state-owned oil company, PEMEX, should be allowed to receive foreign investment. Whether it should or it shouldn’t is not the topic of this post.

A couple of months ago, a YouTube user uploaded this clip from the telenovela Corazón Indomable.

Translating, and attempting to keep the tone of the conversation, the dialog goes something like this:

Woman 1: “Is there an inconvenience ma’am?”

Woman 2: “I didn’t think that a foreigner could have property in this island.”

Woman 1: “Yes, we are happy that is so. We would be sad if we didn’t have investment from abroad.”

Woman 2: “Why?”

Woman 1: “Because places prosper with everyone’s talent, national and foreign.”

Woman 2: “Hmm, but foreigners take the money with them, no?

Woman 1: “Money comes and goes, what you’re talking about with the Emir, he practically leaves it here because he spends it here.”

[Some talk about the Emir.]

Woman 2: “Well, every day you learn something new.”

Woman 1: “And what did you learn today?”

Woman 2: “Well, that foreign investment is really necessary and convenient.”

Woman 1: “Don’t doubt it. Without disparaging the national ones, of course.”

Woman 2: “Well, thanks for everything and good day.”

Woman 1: “Good day, excuse me.”

This telenovela is produced by Mexico’s largest media company (and largest in the Spanish-speaking world), Televisa. Televisa generated a lot of controversy during last year’s presidential election because of an alleged secret collaboration between the PRI and Televisa. The media company has been criticized for it’s low quality content and often ridiculous telenovelas (if you don’t speak Spanish, I’m sorry, you’re missing out), but I’m not sure I have seen this blatant use of telenovelas to convince the public of a political agenda before. It even gets didactic in the end when the woman asks “And what did you learn today?”

In a country where only two companies (Televisa and TV Azteca) own practically all TV content in Spanish, it is becoming increasingly important to make sure more people have access to the internet, where they would have access to a broader variety of media content, and as the Soraya meme shows, would even have the ability to ridicule such horrible TV .

GovLab Post: Democratizing Policymaking Online: Liquid Feedback

June 13th, 2013

Note: This post was written for the GovLab on June 10. You can view this same post at The GovLab’s site here.

Liquid Feedback
This week, Beth Noveck kicked off her talk at the Personal Democracy Forum conference by reflecting on the the MoVimento 5 Stelle (M5S), Italy’s 5 Star Movement, and their use of Liquid Feedback (LQFB), a software for policymaking and political discussion. After its initial deployment by the German Pirate Party, the software has gained a lot of popularity over the past few years, and most recently it has been adopted by several M5S groups in regions such as  Lombardy, Lazio and Sicily. True to their principles of participatory democracy and free access to the internet and information (and in response to criticism about how they run their business), it is no surprise that these two parties have been searching for a platform to engage their members more directly. But is Liquid Feedback the answer?

Liquid Democracy
Before we get into Liquid Feedback, lets introduce the concept of “liquid democracy.”

Think about how you would vote on where to go to dinner when hanging out with five of your friends. The five of you would sit around the living room, discuss what each of you are in the mood for and then vote on a place that would suit most people’s cravings. This is a very simplified version of  a direct democracy. However, what if instead of 5 friends, you’re hanging out with 30 friends? You might not remember the last time you had to discuss and agree on where to eat with 30 people, and that would be because as a group grows larger, discussions get longer and reaching a consensus gets harder. Also consider that Billy and Jane are from out of town, and what do they know about local food?

Direct democracy — one person one vote — does not scale well. The voters might not always be knowledgeable on the matter being discussed. That is why today, many governments use a form of representative democracy, where people vote on representatives they trust who will represent them when voting on policy decisions.

As most voters can attest, however, your representatives may not have expertise on every topic and won’t always share your same opinions on every single issue. We don’t want Billy and Jane choosing the restaurant.

Liquid democracy tries to take the best of both direct and representative democracy by allowing the voter to decide whether to delegate her vote to a representative on a given issue or simply vote on her own. Say you’re an expert on education, wouldn’t it be great if you could have your representatives vote for you on all health care issues, but when it came down to education issues, you could cast your own vote? This is what liquid democracy attempts to do. This video, by German designer Jakob Jochmann, provides a great introduction to liquid democracy. Liquid Democracy would have been unworkable prior to the Internet but is becoming a reality today and ready for prime time testing.

Delegate your votes to someone else who in turn can give their votes to another person they trust.

Liquid Feedback – How it works
Liquid Feedback is an open-source software created to facilitate Liquid Democracy. It enables policy discussions and decision-making with this kind of proxy voting system. It allows participants to propose policy, revise anyone’s proposals or propose alternatives, and vote on issues themselves or by proxy (someone else vote’s for them).

Here’s how it works:

Any member can propose policy. For the proposal to be taken to a revision period, it needs to gather 10 percent quorum within a certain amount of time. Once in the revision period, any member can set up an alternative proposal and over the next few weeks members vote up or down on the available proposals until a winner emerges. The voting is where it gets interesting. A member can decide to vote individually on an issue, but it would be a daunting task to read and go through every policy paper available.

Liquid feedback allows you to give your vote to someone you trust would vote on your side of the issue. Additionally, the person you delegate your vote to can also give his vote, along with all of his votes, to someone else. Very quickly, people could gain a lot of voters and hence a lot of power, but the system allows members to reclaim their votes at any given time, so if someone wants to keep their voters, they need to keep constantly working for them. “We want effective people to be powerful and do their work, but we want [the grassroots] to be able to control them,” says Ingo Bormuth, the spokesman for the Berlin Pirate Party.

Liquid Feedback allows members to delegate their votes in three ways. Global delegation is where members give their vote to a representative on every issue. The second is subject delegation, where people give their vote on specific subjects only, like health or education. The last one is issue delegation, where a member only entrusts another member with their vote on specific issues.

Limitations
The software does have its limitations. In its mission statement, Liquid Feedback says it is an “online system for discussing and voting on proposals in an inner party (or inner organizational) context and covers the process from the introduction of the first draft of a proposal to the final decision.” This means that the software is only intended to be used to decide on policy papers within a party, and is not meant to replace a legislative body’s core function. Germany’s Pirate Party is one of Liquid Feedback’s largest adopters. For now, the software is only used by the party to finalize position papers that then inform decisions at the party’s conventions. Some members would like to see it used to make decisions within the party, but for now, it seems the software is still in its trial period for the Pirate Party. This doesn’t mean only few users have tried out the platform. Almost 10,000 pirates are LQFB members. Yet for now, use of the platform is limited to condensing results and bringing them to a vote at the party’s convention.

There also seems to be a small tech literacy barrier. As is typical of open-source software, the interface and user experience are far from award-winning. Political science professor, Christophe Bieber, says the interface may be “seen as ‘nerdy or geeky’ by many new recruits, especially when compared with the familiar mechanisms of wikis and collaborative text editors. It has an interface only a developer could love”. If Germany, with a high digital literacy might find it a little challenging to gather participants, countries with low digital literacy might be long ways away from adopting such technology.

German Pirate Party Logo

In a NY Times op-ed, Steve Kettmann wrote that on some level, Liquid Feedback “is a gimmick, an effort to get young people interested and involved in the humdrum of German politics, outside the campaign season and even off line. Whatever it is,” Kettmann writes, “ it works: late last month some 1,300 members trekked to the small northern city of Neumünster to elect a new executive board.” Simon Weiss, a Pirate politician in the Berlin Parliament is more sceptical of the idea that the platform might be attracting voters. Weiss says that while the average person might know the Pirate Party is a grassroots movement with a strong internet presence, many are still unfamiliar about LIquid Feedback.

If Liquid Feedback did draw in a crowd, it didn’t last. Last month, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, reported that the party’s popularity had sunk from 13% to 3% in polls, and four out of five Germans do not believe the party will gain the 5% vote necessary to gain a seat in German parliament. If Liquid Feedback did attract young audiences a year ago, it seems the hype was not sustained through this year and the Pirate Party has major issues to address.

Scalability
Whether this platform can scale or not is difficult to say, and we might have to wait to see more results. Christophe Bieber says the data on the system’s performance remains scarce, so it might be too early to tell. Simone Weiss says Liquid Feedback has always been “intended as a prototype for a future version of democracy” and they are currently experimenting with it themselves. But Liquid Feedbacks problems might be evident already. By October 2012, Der Spiegel wrote “In North Rhine-Westphalia, meanwhile, the Pirate Party’s parliamentarians have used the software to gather general opinions on just two issues so far. A poll of Pirate Party voters there concerning a proposed law to regulate circumcision showed …  20 votes in a federal state with nearly 18 million inhabitants. It’s a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate.” It seems that we cannot know for certain whether the software can scale or not because we have not seen a large enough participation by LQFB members to know for sure.

Democratizing Lawmaking
While no new technology has made it really possible to democratize lawmaking at a large scale, people have certainly been trying. Liquid Feedback isn’t the only software trying to democratize political processes and lawmaking. Germany’s federal parliament is using Adhocracy for a commission on digital policy and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has been another similar platform for its party think tank.

Liquid Feedback and M5S
In the latter half of last year, the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S) decided to adopt the platform in response to criticism on its lack of internal democracy. Because M5S has a much larger representation in Italy’s senate and chamber of deputies than the Pirate Party does in it’s own country, we might see much wider adoption of the platform in Italy than in Germany. Here is where we might see whether the platform can scale. The issue of security might prove to be the bottleneck in the scaling process. In order to ensure that a person can’t create multiple accounts, vote more than once, or cheat the system, people have to go through a verification process before they are allowed to join. The M5S movement has tens of thousands of members, and verifying all of them and allowing them all to participate in discussions might be a huge undertaking.

MoVimento 5 Stelle Logo

However, the platform has been already adopted at a regional level. Recently, the M5S chapters from the regions of Lombardy and Sicily were able to elect candidates for the presidency using only Liquid Feedback. So far few issues are being discussed in the Lombardy and Sicilian Liquid Feedback portals, presidential candidates being the major one (although the Lazio LQFB seems a bit more active). Yet the platform is still in its infancy and given the success in its ability to chose candidates online, we might expect more issues to be brought up via LQFB.

Online platforms that attempt to democratize political processes such as policy making are still in their infancy. Liquid Feedback is only one such experiment and we can expect to be hearing more of it in the news in the coming years. While it’s shortcomings won’t necessarily mean its demise, if Liquid Feedback doesn’t evolve to solve the challenges of security, scalability, and user experience, then it might end up fading away with all its promises of liquid democracy.

You can try out a test version of Liquid Feedback here and browse the Pirate Party’s version here. For a full list of M5S instances of LQFB, click here.