The promise and limits of civic hacking

This article first appeared on Impact48.

The hack weekends organised by Impact48 exemplify one of the most interesting emerging uses of web technology: the design of innovative new channels for the delivery of public and charitable services.

During the weekends - sometimes called 'hackathons' - engineers, designers, developers and strategists volunteer their time and skills to create online applications that seek to improve the accessibility of public services and provide useful new tools for the day-to-day work of doctors, the police and other public servants.

Much excellent work has been done, for example:

  • National Health Service hackathons have yielded innovations such as CellCountr, an app providing a simple and efficient online interface for recording information about bone marrow samples, now used regularly by doctors across the UK.
  • A worldwide NASA Space Apps Challenge saw a group of British developers win the 'Most Inspiring' award for T-10, an app allowing astronauts to choose a location they wish to photograph, select a day/night photo option, and set an alarm notifiying them when the location comes into view.

Some developers have gone on to specialise in this new field of 'civic hacking'. mySociety, for example, has developed a range of popular digital services that have made it much easier to contact government officials and politicians, and - by means of searchable web directories - unlocked hitherto inaccessible sets of government data for easy public scrutiny.

  • FixMyStreet provides a straightforward online interface making it simple for residents to notify councils of day-to-day issues such as graffiti, fly tipping, broken paving slabs, and faulty street lighting.
  • WriteToThem, launched in 2005 when most MPs (still) didn't have a publicly available email address or website, makes it easy to contact them online. The service now routes as many as 200,000 messages a year to parliamentary offices.
  • TheyWorkForYou offers powerful search tools for accessing MP voting records and contributions to parliamentary debates and committees.

The popularity of services developed by agencies like mySociety has encouraged the Government to set up the open data hub at data.gov.uk, which has made it easier for engineers to access and do useful things with public data.

Governments around the world, recognising the ease with which hackers can open up and manipulate great masses of previously obscure public information, have established the Open Government Partnership, an international venture committed to online publication of government data.

Re-engineering politics

These successes have encouraged many within the tech community to wonder whether the potential usefulness of web technology might extend beyond logistical matters of delivery, to reform of the decision-making processes by which public policy is set. If developers can pioneer imaginative solutions for the channeling of public services, perhaps they might also be able to improve the effectiveness of policy making itself? Perhaps politics is ultimately just another engineering problem.

Hacker ideals of openness, transparency, distrust of hierarchies and preference for horizontal rather than vertical decision-making structures, have informed some bold online experimentation with new political frameworks that differ radically from the traditional institutions through which liberal democracies have mediated public debate for centuries.

The Kickstarter crowdfunding site , for example, illustrates the potential of online forums to facilitate mass participation in decision-making processes. Kickstarter has pioneered new models for sourcing arts funding. Traditionally, artists seeking financial assistance apply to institutions such as the Arts Council or the National Endowment for the Arts, staffed by experts who deliberate the respective merits of applications and award grants accordingly. Kickstarter does away with these mediating institutions: any registered user of the site can nominate a project for consideration by their fellow users, who, if sufficiently intrigued, can pledge funding. No experts, just mass direct participation, made possible through a simple web interface.

There have been some interesting attempts to introduce this crowdfunding model to mainstream politics.

ruck.us is a radically open forum for civic engagement that completely by-passes traditional political institutions. On registering with the site users are asked to provide some basic information about their primary political interests and beliefs. ruck.us uses that information to assess the user's 'political DNA', and then seeks to match them with similar users by means of a cause-recommendation engine that works somewhat like those of Netflix or Amazon. Users can launch or join projects and causes, known as 'rucks' (an American football term analogous to a rugby scrum). Members of a ruck participate in online discussion as to how best to define and promote their cause, whether through organisation of local and national events, nomination of a particular user to stand for election, or direct lobbying of state or federal government.

An associated project, Americans Elect, was set up with the 2012 US Presidential election in mind. Billed as 'the first national online primary' Americans Elect allows registered users to nominate presidential candidates through the click of a button, and thus ignore entirely the traditional channels of the Democrat and Republican Party primaries.

Nathan Daschle, a founder of Americans Elect and Ruck.us, says:

Whereas 30 years ago we were blissfully ignorant about our limitations, we now expect options, tailoring, customisation and immediacy, none of which is available in the 19th century creation that is our two-party system … the Americans Elect innovation is so exciting … because it relieves us of anachronistic structures that harm our political system. It's the iTunes of politics.

The UK has its own version of ruck.us. The 38 Degrees website assesses the political interests of its users through regular online polls, and provides advice on how best to translate the most popular concerns into effective political action. As the website explains:

The most popular ideas and opportunities are voted on through regular polls of 38 Degrees members. The staff and volunteers in the 38 Degrees office will then work together to find the best ways to have a big impact on the issues which are a high priority to members.

For example, our Save the Forests campaign started with a member post on our Facebook page highlighting an article in a Sunday newspaper about the public forest sell off. Throughout the day we received hundreds of comments and posts on Twitter and email. The next Monday, we polled our members and got some expert advice to check the facts.

The forest sell-off was eventually scrapped by ministers, in part, 38 Degrees maintain, due to represenations made on behalf of their users.

Frustration with the untidiness of traditional political processes that has spurred projects like ruck.us, Americans Elect and 38 Degrees is, perhaps, particularly acute within the tech community. Conventional politics seems a clumsy tool for addressing serious issues such as climate change, population growth and economic recession. Established political parties appear hamstrung by short-term considerations of re-election, and wholly inadequate vehicles for the formulation and delivery of the bold long-term political action these problems demand. And the institutional frameworks within which they work seem broken: the US Congress and Senate are in perpetual deadlock, the British Parliament compromised by the uncertainties of coalition government, the European Union divided by the challenges of chronic economic stagnation.

All of which is anathema to clever, idealistic software engineers and entrepreneurs emboldened by their proven ability to fix the most complex technological and logistical challenges. In the words of Eric Schmidt:

In the future, people will spend less time trying to get technology to work … because it will just be seamless. It will just be there. The Web will be everything, and it will also be nothing. It will be like electricity … If we get this right, I believe we can fix all the world's problems.

An optimistic sentiment echoed by Mark Zuckerberg:

There are a lot of really big issues for the world that need to be solved and, as a company, what we are trying to do is to build an infrastructure on top of which to solve some of these problems.

The relative success of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in overcoming the notorious difficulties of targetting aid efficiently to impoverished nations has only served to encourage hope that engineers, armed with the firepower of web technology, can address social and economic challenges more effectively than mainstream politicians.

Wired journalist Josh Quittner describes the hacker agenda for a new politics succinctly:

The Net is merely a means to an end. The end is to reverse-engineer government, to hack politics down to its component parts and fix it.

Cyber-utopianism

All rather ambitious. Can Silicon Valley know-how and optimism be reapplied quite so seamlessly from the ordered realm of technology to the nebulous world of politics?

Some of today's leading technology commentators don't think so. Recent books by Jaron Lanier, Anthony Townsend and Evgeny Morozov seek to chart the dangers of this cyber-utopianism, arguing that inappropriate application of technology can damage imperfect but delicate processes of public decision making that have evolved over centuries of political practice and reflection, and pollute civic action by encouraging behaviour better suited to the marketplace than the public square.

Morozov's most recent publication, To Save Everything, Click Here, coins the term 'solutionism' to refer to the temptation to believe that social issues can be solved in much the same way as organisational or technological problems.

Morozov argues that the phenomenal growth of the web has encouraged uncritical worship regarding its possibilities. Belief in the power of 'the Internet' (a term Morozov always places in inverted commas) to fix all problems has developed cultish qualities. Idealisation of the web has morphed into a new religion, a creed worshipping this miraculous new technology that has seemingly descended from the skies, promising salvation from all our technical and social problems. He writes:

The very idea of 'the Internet' has not merely become an obstacle to a more informed and thorough debate about digital technologies. It has also sanctioned many a social and political experiment that tries to put the lessons of 'the Internet' to good use. It has become the chief enabler of solutionism, supplying the tools, ideologies, and metaphors for its efficiency crusades.

Soaring hope in the power of the web to put the world to rights can be understood as a contemporary manifestation of the age-old tendency of the engineering mindset to believe that 'inefficiencies' in the moral and political sphere can be fixed much like technical problems, through the calm, reasoned application of technology.

The French revolutionaries of the late 18th century sought to realise an 'Age of Reason' by replacing a cobwebbed monarchy with fresh democratic republican assemblies, analogue equivalents, one might say, of digital forums like Kickstarter and ruck.us.

Rapid industrialisation during the 19th century encouraged idealisation of the machine, culminating in several massive social experiments during the first half of the following century that sought to pattern social and economic arrangements on the model of an engineering blueprint. The high modernists of early 20th century Russia and Germany dreamed of logically ordered utopias interwoven with gleaming cities populated by rational workers organised like well-oiled machine components.

All of these ventures idealised the figure of the engineer, whose systematic approach to problem solving was taken as a paradigm for the methodical resolution of moral complexities.

In his classic essay In Defence of Politics (1961), the political philosopher Bernard Crick wrote:

At heart what disturbs those hopeful for a science of politics is simply the element of conflict in ordinary politics; what excites them has been the prestige of science, its good reputation for - so it is thought - 'unity'.

Crick noted that technology could be 'a style of thought that would be invoked in the name of reforming politics and cleansing it of imperfection, a doctrine that could "rescue mankind from the lack of certainty and the glut of compromises … [and] rehouse and redevelop mere politics".' The key to this doctrine, wrote Crick, is the belief that 'everything in society is … capable of rational manipulation if the techniques of power and production are understood.'

And in Technocracy, 1969, Jean Meynaud wrote:

[0]ne of the most important components of the technician's mentality is his belief that rational analysis and interpretation of facts are liable to bring about unanimity, at least among men of good will. The technician who believes that he has arrived at a full understanding of a question is always surprised and often grieved when he encounters opposition to his theories; inevitably he is tempted to attribute this to ignorance or ill-will.

For Crick and Meynaud the untidy, endlessly argumentative civic realm isn't an engineering challenge at all. Politics isn't ultimately about solving problems, but rather should be understood as the delicate process of seeking to manage competing visions of the good life. And because people will always disagree over ideals politics is necessarily untidy. Politicians seek to mediate clashing conceptions of the good, an endlessly complex project necessitating humility, imperfection and compromise. Morozov puts it nicely: the untidiness of politics is a 'feature', not a 'bug'.

It isn't clear that the radically open democratic assemblies imagined by forums such as ruck.uks and 38 Degrees would foster a kinder, more reasonable, more democratic politics. Political parties, their well documented shortcomings notwithstanding, perform the crucial function of organising diverse political views into reasonably coherent platforms. Parties represent long standing political traditions - liberalism, social democracy, conservatism - that educate as well as reflect opinion, allowing patterns of opinion to find a home.

Without the mediation of parties democratic assemblies become free-for-alls. It becomes impossible to reconcile the constellation of diverse opinions into coherent political strategies, leaving something that looks rather more like a marketplace than a civic assembly. Politics as crowdsourcing inherits all of crowdsourcing's attendant disadvantages: populism, the by-passing of minority voices, and short-termism.

If the political arena is conceived as a kind of marketplace, and citizens as consumers, dissatisfaction with politics will worsen. In the marketplace consumers get what they want; in the political arena individual desires are necessarily stymied by the necessity of compromise. Catherine Needham, in her book Citizen Consumers, observes:

The fundamental danger is that consumerism may foster privatised and resentful citizens whose expectations of government can never be met, and cannot develop the concern for the public good that must be the foundation of democratic engagement and support for public services.

So, despite everything, traditional political processes have their uses: institutions embody something of the collective wisdom of centuries, and while they must always evolve, they cannot simply be swept away and replaced by a radically new systems. Political institutions offer well tried and tested frameworks for decision making, the channelling of partisanship, for education, and the navigation of pluralism and complexity.

Gamification and self-tracking

The 'solutionist' tendency to see people as rational, self-directed consumers reflects something of the radical libertarianism characteristic of the hacker ethic. This model of 'citizen-as-consumer' informs some other - well intentioned - attempts to harness technology for the sake of the public good.

Many online apps, for example, employ game mechanics to supply incentives for responsible social behaviour: points, badges, levels and virtual currencies are offered as rewards for fulfillment of humdrum but useful social tasks.

Take Recyclebank, which records users' recycling activites, awarding points that can be traded for rewards. According to the website blurb: 'If you want to learn how to live a greener lifestyle and get rewarded for it, then you've reached the right place!'

A couple of years ago Google started to reward Google News Badges for the dutiful reading of certain number of news stories. As Google put it: 'Your badges are private by default, but if you want, you can share your badges with your friends. Tell them about your news interests, display your expertise, start a conversation or just plain brag about how well-read you are.'

Initiatives like these, which seek to engineer good behaviour through the tool of incentives, is commonly referred to as 'Gamification'. The intention is worthy - the encouragement of environmentally conscious and well informed citizenship - but the tendency is to corrode rather than strengthen civic virtue: an act is virtuous only if performed without thought of personal advantage, as an end in itself, not as a means to reward.

Similar problems beset another family of civic apps, those inspired by the concept of 'self-tracking', a manifestation of Quantified Self movement. Self-tracking apps installed on wearable devices (although smartphones are often sufficient) allow users to record detailed statistics about their day-to-day activities. They allow day-to-day monitoring of total steps walked, average heart-rate, breaths per minute, and even sleep patterns.

The idea is to encourage individuals to take responsibility for their health through careful self-monitoring. Again, the intention is good, and the potential benefits clear, but as with gamification the emphasis is on individual behaviour rather than the broader social and political contexts in which that behaviour is embedded. Moving responsibility to individuals shifts focus from the policy decisions that shape the environment in which people act. Attention is focused on optimising activity within existing frameworks, rather than consideration of the merits of those frameworks.

Proceed with caution

So gamification and self-tracking, like attempts to design new public forums that encourage mass participation, risk damaging the very civic virtues they seek, with the best of intentions, to promote. Gamification can help encourage people to act responsibly, but at the cost of cheapening the underlying motivations for those actions. Self-tracking can help people take responsibility for aspects of their lives they can control (diet, exercise, sleeping patterns etc). But by placing so much emphasis on the individual the sense that people live and move within frameworks set by policy is lost. And exploration of new assemblies open to mass participation is a commendable effort to encourage and enliven political engagement, but tends towards a crowdfunding consumer politics.

The application of web technology to longstanding problems of public life can and has already done enormous good. The optimistic can-do hacker ethic has shown how the web can be used to revolutionise aspects of public service provision. But web developers and entrepreneurs must tread carefully indeed when seeking to apply technological fixes within the delicate sphere of moral and political deliberation and action. Here we act as moral agents, not consumers, and in pursuit of ideas, not rewards. Moral and political issues are not problems to be fixed, but expressions of differing, irreconcilable visions of the good that must be negotiated with humility and mutual respect.

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