04 November 2011

Crowdsourcing a political agenda

A sign of emerging digital democracy.

I earlier blogged about the challenge of achieving change when you are part of a popular upswell of public opinion, such as the Occupy Wall Street protests. These rallies appear to have been largely spontaneous outbursts of dissent and dissatisfaction. As such, they lacked a clear agenda or spokesperson and struggled to get media attention or a clear political response, since their demands were unclear.

It can be hard to get a diverse group of people to agree on common messages, especially those that fit the prevailing media and political model of fact-based arguments, soundbites and instant rebuttal. As a result, media coverage of Occupy Wall Street and similar protests around the world has tended to focus on their lack of a manifesto.

But an enterprising tool may help to address this issue. New York group  Digital Democracy has created AllOurIdeas, a platform to help people choose which issues to prioritize. The underlying concept is that the diverse views of a crowd can be captured and distilled into a streamlined agenda. This could help refine the messages of the protest and help direct their efforts towards some clear, specific goals. It would certainly help the news media get a grip on the issues involved and perhaps help legislators react accordingly.

Of course such an enterprise is subject to limitations. Anybody, anywhere can click on the link and express their views: not just the people protesting on the street. However, that also means it is open to all and the results will ultimately reflect the inputs of anybody motivated enough to participate. There is also the issue of how the questions were chosen, and the fact that you are asked to choose between issues that are not mutually exclusive. Some of the question pairs are intentionally provocative, as the image here shows.

Digital Democracy is calling this an open-source protest or a wiki-revolution. They propose that online tools can help develop new forms of grassroots decision-making.

It seems this model of democratic involvement is catching on. The United Nations launched a
similar initiative last week, for young people to help set the new youth agenda for the Joint UN programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).