BerlinInOctober e-democracy summit

On October 15 and 16 I attended an un-conference called BerlinInOctober, organized by politik-digital.de, e-demokratie.org and mySociety. For the third time, people from several international e-democracy projects met in Berlin to exchange experiences and collect inspirations for new services.

That’s why a big share of time was reserved for presentations for individual projects. Many portals are dedicated to bringing more transparency into parlamentarians’ work. Services such as OpenParlamento from Italy and NosDéputés from France analyze the activities of representatives.

NosDeputés tags speeches of congressmen. This way the discussion around a certain topic can be summarized. The site TheyWorkForYou.com on the other hand lets users link videos from the English House of Commons to text from the Hansard, which includes notes from the speeches that are not verbatim.

Thereby the site is one of the few that let users become actively involved themselves to establish transparency. In a session on “action-based sites” it became apparent that still most e-democracy portals are mere services for citizens and rarely offer opportunities to them to take action themselves.

One important task for such participatory sites named in the session was that they have to take up emotions immediately as they evolve – e.g. as someone has to pay a bribe. Therefore it is important that services are structured accordingly. One could use the Obama iPhone app as an example, where the first option was “call friends” – which is the most obvious action to be taken with a mobile phone.

Rob McKinnon of TheyWorkForYou.co.nz made a point in his lecture that it is important to establish transparency apart from big politics. He used the concept of a “web of power” to show that there is a lot of influence located within companies – probably even more than within parliaments.

Therefore it needed more projects that focus e.g. on making lobbyism more transparent, McKinnon said. The goal is to “disentangle” the various circles of influence – politics, media, money. One example for that is journalisted.com, a site that collects information on journalists.

But there was criticism towards those efforts for more transparency as well. Tobies Escher of the Oxford Internet Institute referred to a recent essay by Lawrence Lessig provocantly entitled “Against Transparency“. It is a fact, Escher said, that online even more than offline it is the most well-educated part of society that turns to political activism. E.g. two thirds of mySociety users are academicians. Eschers point is: To only establish transparency isn’t enough, as long as people don’t use the publicly available data.

William Perrin thinks he has found a solution to this problem. He advocates “hyber local community websites”, such as his own project Kings Cross Local Environment. By breaking down information that is available, but hard to understand to its importance for a small neighborhood local initiatives are empowered, he said. This way things could actually be done. Perrin also wants to further spread this approach through is project Talk About Local.

This is a translation of my post for netzpolitik.org (where I am doing an internship at the moment). There’s another report at e-politik.de (in German), and you may have a look at the tweets from the conference, tagged with #bios09.