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edemocracy - undiscovered country
This page features the notes that I used for my final exam presentation, delivered for the completion of the Interaction Ivrea Masters program.

For a better view of the slides, a pdf of the presentation can be downloaded here.

Return the the Project description
View the Prototype documentation
Presentation Sections
Democracy is an Operating System for People
As Seen on TV
Democratic Potentials
Current Examples
Democratic Interactions
Early Concepts
Experience Prototypes
Software Prototype
Prototype Links
My thesis project completed over the past year is “The Undiscovered Country - Enabling Democracy through technology.”

Over the next 20 minutes, I'd like to take you through my process of investigation that looked at opportunities where interactive media might be employed within democratic systems of a society that is technologically and informatically rich . . My task in this analysis was to expand upon the accepted definitions of democracy . . and at the same time . . provide new ways for a citizen to engage their representatives on a local or national stage . .
Democracy is an Operating System for People. This sentence has been with me all throughout my work this year. I would like to describe to you what this means . . essentially . . it is a metaphor that aligns how we use computer systems with society itself . .

Just like an operating system . . society has rules, laws and conditions that must be met as a task is being performed and before it can be completed . . those rules differ dependant on the task at hand . . and . . more importantly for the purpose of this presentation . . for the kind of participation needed and how many people are expected to take part in a sociopolitical process whether that be a group as small as a jury or the group whose population is in the millions . . as we experience every time there is a national election.
Some of the Requirements that make up that operating system. Thus enabling democracy to function . . with as little stalling or crashing as possible . .

Firstly we have the Constitution . . or a similar document . . that acts as the bedrock upon which any democracy runs. Aside from protecting various basic rights and occasional freedoms, it describes the function and make up of government . . how it operates and how citizens may interact within the nationstate and with the institutions that it is comprised of.

A democracy should also have a Defined population of "interested" citizens . . who exchange views and interact with . . their government as part of the democratic conversation. That definition of the group . . is in part comprised of what age a person may vote, who that person is and describe the areas in which that citizen lives.

Thirdly it requires a Method of Information input, aggregation & retrieval . . these processes closely follow the operating system metaphor . . at the national and municipal level, this is where a citizens opinion is transformed into a vote . . a vote that is then tallied depending on constantly updated electoral law . . and it is that vote that impacts the make up of and direction of government.

The next item is the hardest element to control and define . . Political will for either change, retraction or continuation . . it is supplied by the citizenry but is facilitated by elected representatives.

Finally in this list . . the previous 3 elements are kept fresh and constantly updated by A fixed and regular electoral cycle.
As some of you know, this years national election in Italy was a bitterly contested battle. A battle that was fought beyond the final ballot being cast. The text . . behind the presenter here . . simply captures the mood on election night in April. It simply states: “Chi ha vinto?” -- Who won?

A victor was not declared immediately, as the election results were so close. It became the responsibility of the judiciary to declare a winner . . almost a month later . .

This image demonstrates two things: firstly the deliberative process continued long after the final vote was cast and ballots counted . . and secondly . . beyond grassroots interactions of the citizenry . . the democratic conversation occurs in a passive top down sense . .

After a point, citizenry were simply eliminated from the conversation . . at the least, given the opportunity, by national broadcasters, to merely observe as far as the process of governance was concerned.

It is this basic situation, here and around the world, which we still call “participatory democracy.”
“Democracy is necessarily despotism, as it establishes an executive power contrary to the general will; all being able to decide against one whose opinion may differ, the will of all is therefore not that of all: which is contradictory & opposite to liberty.” – Perpetual Peace, §ii, 1795

This quote from Immanuel Kant . . is presented here as it is a reminder that democracy is far from perfect . . system . . in fact . . many of the elements that I have thusfar outlined may contribute to the despotism described in the quote.

Kant wrote this 200 years ago . . and the fact that people are still arguing over the benefits and failures of democracy . . regardless of its individual flavour . . says to me that it’s a system with plenty of room for improvement . . Perhaps allowing for democracy become closer to the participatory government that its histories and its proponents have described to us . .
Our collective cultural myths and understanding surrounding democracy tends to far out weigh our experience of it.

Every new media promotes a change in our social interactions. Interactive media currently promotes a strong sense of micromanagement in the mind of the user . . Democracy is liveness of opinion as well as a vote etched into stone or passed via paper. We have been using paper ballots for around 150 years . . why are we still stuck with the speed of paper, when technologies have been developed in recent decades that enable the opinions of the citizenry to be collected and passed onto representatives in government far more readily, efficiently and perhaps even more accurately?

The medium is no longer the message by itself, the interactions that can be found within it contribute to its strengths.

I will now talk about how information technology could and currently does impact this process.
This list is the distillation of things that I have examined throughout the year. Where I Identified where systems of governance could benefit from an increase in granularity brovided by information technology if applied to how the citizenry might make and contributes deliberation and aggregate decisions.

Immediacy describes how the input and granularity of the democratic participatory experience could be improved . . and at the same time . . perhaps increase the sense of voter satisfaction.

What is the Location Context of the voter? Is an issue at hand interesting to a particular citizen? Have they experienced the problems being discussed directly? Or is the topic abstracted, or otherwise described, for them?

Issue Prioritisation. Even though sometimes some of us would like it to . . the world does not stop changing . . and . . that change occurs on a variety of scales and intervals. Many of these changes cannot be reflected in the current long term election cycle. Could the process of voting be adapted to take into account Relevant . . or . . Unexpected events?

Issue Occurrence seeks to address that age old question: “Didn’t we do this last month?” Why does an issue continually come up? Is it because the people involved haven't solved it yet? Or is it because the conversation is considered valuable initself?

Could voting become context relevant in terms of it’s frequency or duration?
I will now go on to describe some current examples of technologically enabled democratic interactions that you may be familiar with . .

The first is a very common form poll, the CNN Quickvote. The screen that you see here is a pop up window that displays results to either a person who brought it up by participating with the question at hand . . or likewise to the casual visitor to their site . .

It is interesting for two reasons . . firstly . . it immediately gives a voter an opportunity to see where their opinion lies in comparison to the other 2593 people who took part (in this case) . . and secondly . . and . . why the example fails to meet my criteria . . the question being asked . . “Will humanity be eclipsed by its own technology” . . surely requires a little more deliberation than Yes . . or . . No response.
Google News is a monster news aggregator of 4,500 external news websites in 35 countries . . it dynamically and constantly . . sources material from all over the web . . and then places the stories into a order or hierarchy of importance as determined by an algorithm . . that order . . is defined on a case by case basis . . before its republishing on Google News . . by a third party editor . . and that editor is typically a human being . .

This aggregation is valuable as . . it not only collates, it comes to demonstrate immediacy or . . events as they occur . . coming to represent an aggregation of issue importance . . and therefore social direction . . all good values . . but again . . it's useless without the participation of those approximately 4,500 human beings collecting and publishing information in the first place . .
Lastly . . I will bring up the most infamous example of how technology . . directly . . and in this case significantly . . influences democracy . . the election process in Florida during the 2000 Presidential election was effected . . partly due to the interface design of the ballot employed in Palm Beach County. A week prior to the election . . the ballot guideline overlay that you see here was redesigned . . from its traditional one page to a spread . . this redesign . . may . . have caused some people to vote inadvertently for the wrong candidate . . as you can see in the top two examples on the left hand side . . the holes in the centre do not follow the same linear order as the guides for hole punching in the centre . .
To conclude this section . . I would like to briefly describe some recent examples of a brighter future . . these examples demonstrate early adoption of new technologies in governmental activity.

Estonia . . is not the first test of internet voting internationally but . . it is the first where the option to vote electronically was made available within a national election. Although a small country . . Estonia has a very developed internet culture . .

The town of Bülach in the Canton of Zurich in Switzerland made SMS voting available to its citizens in a trial run recently . . enabling citizens to have their say in what the local speed limits would be . . via SMS . . this was partly possible by Switzerlands own unique form of direct democracy.

Malaysia took a page out of the American Idol book recently when . . after the science ministry pre-selected a group of candidates . . they opened the choice of the first Malay in space up to the citizens that the successful Cosmonaut will be representing . .
Democratic Interactions. Where might these many technologies take the act of participatory democracy? This next section contains concepts that I have found relevant and have lent inspiration to my the process and the result . .
Quick & Deliberative Democracy
Quick democracy . . is not a new topic . . and . . as the citizens of Switzerland will tell you . . it is not even dependant on technology . . but in this case . . "Quick" is used literally . . interfaces and communications networks eliminate barriers between the citizenry and political representative or the government itself.

Deliberative democracy describes both a process of citizen participation . . whereby a participatory community meeting is an integral part of the process of governing . . and . . it also describes something a little more far fetched . . where technology is allowed to listen in on that deliberation process and at the same time record it . . perhaps even using a form of technological intelligence that can detect the direction of the deliberation underway.

Which brings me to . .
Emergent democracy . . A term perhaps first described by . . Joi Ito . . who uses the term in relation to the "Living web" . . it describes the democratisation effect of web publishing tools . . such as blogs or forums . . that allows more people than ever before to contribute their opinion and have an online representation.

Through Ito's writings on this subject . . he has identified . . processes such as . . “Interest Networks,” which is where a group of like minded people congregate to share similar interests . . “Agenda Storming” . . a term that can be likened to brainstorming . . & “Happenings," a word that is quite similar to Howard Reingolds concept of Flash mobbing: people congregate through happenstance or organisation . . although here it primarily describes virtual congregation.
Throughout presidential campaigns in the United States since World War 2, sociologists have identified time and time again, that political personalities or partisan identification is what people use in the absence of understanding issues being discussed.

Simply, This is because our participation within democracy operates as a relationship between representative politician and citizen. In an issue based democracy . . one that reflects the fragmented professional society that we occupy . . the people who have knowledge of a topic would bring that issue to the fore . . and help others understand it . .
As a result of some of the things previously discussed . . my early concepts contain these goals . . to be used as a focus for the final implementation project . . they are . .

Issue Based Voting . . replacing or supplementing the traditional role of a politician . . that enables voters not only to cast a ballot for a representative . . but to vote and contribute on the issues that most concern them . .

This in turn enables . . Interest Constituencies . . to form . . Once a citizen has identified the issues that they are most concerned with . . they are able to join with other like minded citizens . . forming a topic specific constituency that could directly contribute to the formation of policy and decision making . .

Strategic & Tactical Voting . . technology allows for liveness and responsiveness to the issues at hand . . as they come to a critical mass . . what would happen to a electoral process if . . given suitable granular input to a ballot . . a citizen were given the affordance to . . place it exactly were they wanted it . . in line with the issues at hand . . as well as the exact timing of it.

Direct participation . . as it stands in current representative democracy . . the relationship of one person: one vote . . could be likened to a mere grain of sand . . how is it possible for the voter to see their contribution? to make the vote a valuable commodity in the mind of a voter?

The relationship between voting is far removed from the result . . can an interactive method of casting a ballot be determined that links you, your opinion to the larger social conversation?
With the desk research and top goals in mind, I conducted experience prototypes that might further aid the design process and the creation of the final prototype. These experience prototypes concentrated on how people made decisions and declared them . . as individuals and within a immediately present social dynamic . .
The first prototype is called “This Way Up?” and was an exercise to observe how people make opinions given multiple choices . . and in this case . . although there was an almost infinite amount of choice.

I asked 22 individuals to examine two pictures . . by the Dutch artist MC Escher . . that had all identifying marks removed from them and then answer a seemingly simple question according to their own logic . . “If the picture is at right angles to a wall or floor . . which orientation would you hang this picture on a wall?” No further information or conversation was extended to the individual asked to make their decision . . In the first image, not one respondent was incorrect.

In the other . . pictured here . . the image . . and its orientation . . proved contentious. The opinions were divided fairly evenly among 3 choices but weighted by a small majority towards one answer. During this process . . 3 of respondents, unprompted . . decided to give me a rationale for their decision . .
It was these extended answers that led me to part two of this experiment: How would deliberation effect the process and final decision? The three people were asked to form a quorum or committee that would then deliberate and provide a final binding answer that would decide which direction that the picture would be hung.

They were given minimal guidelines . . as to how they would form the decision . . however, they first had to organise themselves into a hierarchy to break any impasse . . should one arise . . and also to establish criteria by which the final decision would be made by . . After 45 minutes of discussion, they released the result . . it confirmed what the slim majority had already outlined in the previous experiment.

The latter part of this experiment . . confirmed my earlier readings regarding emergence of opinion outside a framework . . People will . . even if not explicitly told to do so . . discuss an issue in an orderly fashion . . even if they are not intrinsically tied to the result.
The second prototype . . is called “We the Party People.” In the absence of political issues . . this prototype taps into desire as a driving motivator to ensure that people were truly involved in the process.

To attract participants, I offered a free drink to anyone whose original choice became the victor of the election process . . the list of drinks in the election was chosen by a participant referendum held via interviews beforehand . .

The election itself was a live situated vote process . . that required the presence of all those people who had entered into the referendum in the first place in order to be eligible. This was done to promote discussion among the participants . . and to directly observe whether tactical voting was employed by the voters as afforded to them . .
This image shows the vote in its final stages . . initially the choices were randomly positioned on a board.

Voters were called up to make their mark . . in public . . as determined by the order that I received the original response to the referendum . . as voting progressed . . bargaining between the voters started to occur . . and in some cases . . people swapped from one option to another . . as they tried to engineer the outcome back into their favour if they felt that they were about to be part of the losing side[s] in the election . .
As you can see from this image . . I consider the experience prototype a success . . throughout the process . . people became more and more engrossed . . if not also entertained by it . . that was not only triggered by the prospect of a free drink, but by the electoral process that they were within . .
for the record . . I kept my promise . . as you can see here from the winners . . who won a contentious and bitterly fought political struggle . . to the victors go the spoils of extended democracy . .
The final experience prototype . . is called “We the People.”

This was completed to gain content for my final implementation prototype . . and from that content examine some of the assumptions that I had been making throughout the design process . . mainly for the purpose of establishing some grounds by which information could be categorised into a taxonomy . .

Opinions of 20 people were collected under one simple question: “name no more than three issues of concern that you think might be of concern to a community, but not pertaining to yourself as an individual” this process was collected through a series of one on one interviews . . that was not placed under any time restraint.

The other consideration that I examined was . . considering that the respondents were in a private and comfortable environment . . how many people would be happy for their opinions to be attached to them personally . . would they mind their image . . or their identity . . attached their opinion?

The respondents were all video taped, but were asked at the start of their interview whether they would mind if the video was in someway published and made available in the near future.

I should point out at this juncture that images of individuals in the previous slide do not match the example issues on this slide . .

The total 55 issues raised and then collected . . were wide and varied . . from local community issues such as the future of Interaction Ivrea . . all the way to the other end of the spectrum . . such as the humanatarian crisis in the Darfur Region of the Sudan.

How to place such a massive spectrum of concerns into an organisational structure that might become useful? . . not only for transmission and technological mediation . . but also for the person using an interface that would come to contain authouring features as well as the issues themselves. The taxonomy should also give structure into which new issues could be added.

From the source data . . I was able to organise a set of 4 variables where that data could be firstly described and then navigated . . they were: the prototype citizen, the tag or meta description of which 29 were established, 5 categories of communal scale into which each of these issues were placed. This final point was the national origin of the respondent. It was the only demographic data collected.

Once the basic organisations and semantic filters were identified and applied . . the screen that i showed you earlier . . now looks like this . . A list that is now understandable by a machine, but is still not very useful to extract information in the a context of an election, an opinion authoring tool, the examination of issues or voting in itself.

How might a technological mediation lend another meaningful layer of visual information? Perhaps demonstrating both a spread of opinion, but also another method of running a democratic system…

Visual Aggregation
As I stated earlier . . current forms electoral systems processes do not take advantage of recent technological advances in how information can be collected, aggregated, displayed or interacted with . . The portrayal of that information can give further information to the viewer before they examine the literal content of the information itself . .

Using information technology and visualisation techniques . . can a topographical map of opinion be created that illustrates democratic will emerging through citizen based participation and interaction?

Can a software tool be designed that enables the undiscovered country of opinion and democratic interactions to become visible?

From the basic data descriptions that were created from the responses and interviews earlier, would it become possible to develop an application that contained an input interface and visualisation output that would demonstrate emergent opinion through participation?

I will now go on to describe 5 initial visualisations that, when combined a foundation electoral system allotting voting conditions to participants, could be used as a method for directing a democratic system of governance.

This screen shot of the prototype is my answer to that question.

Unlike many participatory web applications that many of us are familiar with that merely aggregate content from third party sources . . this prototype attempts to combine an enabling authoring tool into the visualisation itself . . perhaps becoming an ecosystem of opinion and votes . . capturing the wax and wane of the democratic conversation . . enabling a citizen to tactically vote in line with that ongoing conversation.

The Undiscovered Country is a proof of concept prototype expressed as a web based application. It is a system for non-partisan, passive and reactive authoring and aggregation of political opinion.

It includes, but goes beyond, options present on a ballot. It gives participating individuals an ability to give direct responses to current issues facing their governments on a selection of social and communal scales.

The first visualisation type is called Waterfall. As issues, votes and opinions are entered within by participating citizens, it responds in realtime. In contrast to the previous slide, the responses, aligned to the intersection between the x & y axis vary dependant on input opinion and votes.

As more votes are added, the issue becomes larger . . proportionately dictated by their width. However, the height of the text column also illustrates, in a qualitative manner, the amount of opinion contributed, resulting in columns of text flowing down the interface.

Although all issues are still open to browsing and interaction, both output parameters give visual feedback as to what issue in which communal scale is more relevant at any given time.

Further inputs within the interface help the participant keep track of their own opinions as well as being able to navigate the consistent chaos which marks the act of democratic conversation.
Where in the World aligns the author who originally contributed the issue with their location provided at login registration. As with Waterfall, navigation highlights allow individual issues to be separated from one another.

This time, it is the opinion governing the visual width of the issue headline. The vote tally of the leading issues are illustrated as a live “sparkline” to the right of the headline.
In Context enables an objective and quantative view of the opinion matrix. All issues are represented as they were entered. Representation of votes is demonstrated by an underlying horizontal stacked bar graph. Opinions are entered and accessed as a drop down menu. The visualisation is intended to illustrate information in a far more objective way, although it does not rely on more or less information than Waterfall. The use of the stacked bar graph does not simply allow for the total aggregation to become easily apparent however.
Conclusion I will return you now to the screen that identifies what technology can offer the process of democracy.

- Voter Satisfaction & System Response
- Location Context
- Issue Prioritisation
- Issue Occurrence

Technology can help democracy operate as its mythology advertises. Using or harnessing opinion so that an individual might have the opportunity to control their world in conjunction with and understanding of others in the same locality.

Would the application of such power of choice benefit the society? Would it offer new possibilities as to how democracies are run?

Thanks: Thesis Project Advisors at Interaction Ivrea: Neil Churcher & Fabio Sergio, Flash programming & technical consultant: David Colquhoun. Additional Photography: Aram Armstrong.

The Original Undiscovered Citizens: Ana Camila Amorim, Hayat Benchenaa, Shawn Bonkowski, Dave Chiu, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Heather Martin, David Mellis, Alie Rose, Victor Szilagyi, Haiyan Zhang

Prototype screen shots, quicktimes & other documentation can be found here.

Visit and contribute here to the operational edemocracy prototype.
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