By Martin Maximino, Master in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, 2015
Kate Krontiris speaking at PDF15.
The 12th Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) reunited public servants, scholars, activists, developers, journalists, and students in New York, NY on June 4 and 5, 2015. Organized by Micah Sifry (2012 visiting lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School) and Andrew Rasiej, this year’s theme was “Imagine All the People: The Future of Civic Tech.”
Conference topics ranged from government transparency and campaigns, to civic engagement and activism, to net neutrality and surveillance. Following are just a few highlights of PDF15, focusing on civic engagement, open data, analytics, and algorithms. The full program of the 2015 event is available on the PDF website, as are videos of the main hall sessions. You can also view the Twitter feed using #PDF15.
Understanding America’s Interested Bystanders
2014–2015 Berkman Center Fellow Kate Krontiris opened PDF15 by presenting her research about “interested bystanders,” a growing category of motivated and potentially engaged citizens who “know what is going on, but lack the motivation to engage.” Through 101 in-person interviews in six U.S. cities and more than 2,000 digital surveys, she found that almost half of the U.S. population could be considered “interested bystanders.”
She found three paradoxes characteristic of this population: First, there is a misalignment between what interested bystanders think they already do in terms of civic engagement and what they think they should do. This is the result of a tension between what is defined as civic engagement in the traditional political realm, compared to the community activities that may engage interested bystanders. Second, interested bystanders agreed that power comes from having a voice, but they don’t often want to share their own opinions. Finally, these citizens agree that power is mostly local, but tend to associate democratic power with national elections.
The implications for 2016 are important, particularly given the size of this group and their willingness to engage in civic life. According to Krontiris, connecting electoral activities with community-based activities could help engage these bystanders, particularly if their professional skills can be linked to community needs.
Speedbumps on the Road to Government as a Platform
Emma Mulqueeny, Amen Ra Mashariki, Greg Bloom, and Mark Headd discussed how to share data across government agencies and overcome traditional bureaucratic barriers. The speakers agreed on the importance of building analytics capabilities within public agencies, the critical role that open data will play in the delivery of public services, and the need to combine multiple datasets to solve public issues — from health to public utilities.
The panel also agreed on the challenges that lie ahead, including the need for a change in the culture of data production and use, and higher engagement of citizens in open data platforms. Additionally, creating guidelines to generate and publish public data is key, but the connection between these guidelines and the real capacity to meet them is still weak. Mashariki added that public agencies can embrace data more broadly by making data a tool to support ongoing public processes and services. This, in turn, encourages agencies to share their datasets and work collaboratively. “In this way,” he said, “you obtain important data from public agencies, not just the data nobody cares about.”
Finally, the panel discussed how local and state governments could embrace open data policies and make use of government information to solve pressing social issues — of particular importance, as local public agencies are responsible for a large part of citizens’ daily quality of life. While some local and state governments have made substantial efforts to adopt a government-as-platform approach, public servants would still benefit from more training and empowerment to work with data.
Analytics, the speakers claimed, can be used to dramatically reduce the cost of campaigns by allocating resources more efficiently, particularly TV ads and social media, providing a strategic advantage to campaigns with limited resources. In the triangle of campaigns — who, how, and what — analytics can help better identify potential voters, optimize channels to reach them, and customize electoral messages.
The panel looked ahead to the role that analytics are likely to play in 2016. While the Democratic Party has fewer presidential candidates and a larger group of analytics practitioners available, the prospects for analytics use in the GOP are also good — at least for companies and vendors, as there are more candidates and more competitive races at the state level.
While the speakers recognized the increasing role of analytics in allocating budgets and strategic campaign decisions, they also described tensions with traditional campaign staffers. The real shift in culture, they said, will take place when an analytics expert becomes a campaign manager. Meanwhile, analytics and ongoing testing and experiments can provide key insights as a campaign develops.
Weapons of Math Destruction
Cathy O’Neil, author and data scientist, considered the dark side of algorithms — evaluations in education, predictive policing and evidence-based sentencing in the criminal justice system, and microtargeting voters in political campaigns all have their risks.
O’Neil argued that the authority of algorithms should be revisited and special attention should be given when using algorithms to “segment and measure individuals, often to their detriment, and often in opaque and unreasonable ways.” Besides using “questionable attributes,” these mathematical models and algorithms are often secret, widespread in their effects on people, and can result in pernicious feedback loops. As a result, models are “embedded opinions” that “may be efficient for campaigns, but inefficient for democracy.”
The Shorenstein Center is a sponsor of Personal Democracy Forum 2015.