Data and Democracy: Building Tools for Citizen Engagement

by Gordy Slack

“A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” –John Dewey

In 2011, CITRIS launched its newest focus: the Data and Democracy Initiative (DDI), whose mission is to explore and develop digital tools to promote citizen engagement. The project, a collaboration of faculty from UC Santa Cruz’s Department of Digital Arts and New Media, UC Berkeley’s Center for New Media, the Social Apps Lab at CITRIS, and the Algorithms, Machines, and People Lab, among others, is increasing its focus on projects that help amplify the voices of those whose perspectives may often go unheard.

Camille Crittenden directs the DDI, which aims to promote direct involvement by citizens in the political process.

The “Democracy” part of Data and Democracy “is more than just political participation or voting or the rule of law,” says Camille Crittenden, who was appointed Director of DDI in June. “It includes those things,” she says, “but also all kinds of citizen engagement. How can we help promote direct involvement in the events and decisions that affect people?”

Also key to the DDI mission is the idea that all participants in a community, regardless of their immigration status, can act as urban citizens, says Greg Niemeyer, Associate Director, and co-founder (with Director Ken Goldberg) of DDI.

In the era of ubiquitous cell phone cameras, one kind of participation that has come to the fore is documentation by citizens of contested events. From the Occupy movement to campus protests, aggregating and interpreting thousands of hours of video, while protecting the security of activists, is a growing challenge.

“Footage of the Arab Spring protests was all over the internet,” says Crittenden. “But it was hard to know how to interpret much of it because it was so fragmented. What was the context? What else happened before and after the footage was taken? What happened behind the camera or elsewhere outside its view?”

Working with the Berkeley Law–based Human Rights Center, DDI is developing a media editing and compilation software tool called the Rashomon Project. Like its namesake 1950 Japanese film, Rashomon will weave several different sources of narrative into a single multilayered story. The app takes several media inputs, synchronizes them, and places them into one display, says Crittenden. The display screen will contain multiple panels that can play footage side-by-side so that a single event can be seen from various vantage points.

Rashomon will be an “open-source, online instrument that facilitates the assembly of multi-perspective chronologies,” says Crittenden. It “will allow users to easily put these fragments together” so that footage taken by handheld cameras and smartphones at a political demonstration, for example, could be synchronized to create a more holistic presentation of the event. DDI is developing Rashomon in partnership with WITNESS and The Guardian Project, nonprofit organizations dedicated to video advocacy and security for human rights activists. They have developed related applications for the Android platform: InformaCam, which allows users to add or encrypt digital metadata, and ObscuraCam, which pixilates or otherwise obscures faces and identifying characteristics that could endanger the safety of activists in repressive regimes.

If a user can be confident of the integrity of the metadata, says Crittenden, it adds a deeper layer of authority to the perspective. Multiple authenticated accounts of human rights violations or civil disturbances may even bolster the credibility of recordings enough to make them admissible as evidence in courts or investigative commissions, she says.  All of that temporal and location data would also let users simply plug footage into Rashomon, which would organize it by location, time, or other data-driven criteria. The more different vantage points are represented, the richer and higher-resolution the record of the event will be.

Minding the Gap

One way to promote citizen engagement is to give people tools they can employ to observe themselves, their relationships to the people and world around them, and to act on the conclusions they reach based on those observations, says Niemeyer.

“There is often a gap between the frequency at which we experience and gather data,” says Niemeyer, “and the frequency at which policy decisions are made:  Data is fast, policy is slow.” The tools DDI is developing, Niemeyer says, could narrow that gap and “create better possible futures.”

Niemeyer and his students are developing a tool that would track how often the occupants of individual homes vote—public data that is available from county voting records—so that people can tell whether others in their communities are voting or not.

The Politify project lets voters see how a candidate’s platforms will directly affect them.

Another DDI-supported project, Politify, is an online tool that aims to quantify the personal financial impacts of different political scenarios. The project, winner of a CITRIS Big Ideas Prize in April, was the brainchild of Nikita Bier and Jeremy Blalock.

Politify is a response to what the two undergraduates see as a fundamental lack of empiricism in the way many American voters pick their candidates. Rather than considering the ramifications of a candidate’s platform, Bier says, voters cast ballots based on a candidate’s style, their avowed positions on moral issues, and who else supports them. To inject more data into the electoral equation, Blalock and Bier (with advice from Pandora Radio creator Will Glaser and Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez) developed software into which voters can plug their own incomes, zip codes, and other personal data. The numbers are crunched by their algorithms, based on the candidates’ platforms, which conclude how much each platform, if enacted, would cost them in taxes, for example, or how that platform’s provisions would affect government revenue generation and the national deficit.

Politify turns abstract political proclamations into personal data. A voter might find out that under one candidate’s policies she would be paying more taxes, but that those dollars would be going to education or to defense or to National Parks. Armed with those projections, she could cast her ballot based on information and values, not just bias.

Bier and Blalock are soon planning to expand Politify to include all kinds of government decisions including local elections and ballot measures.

The DDI also encompasses a UC Santa Cruz Digital Arts and New Media department-driven project to create an “open video archive of the U.S. Congress,” Metavid,”  led by DDI co-director and associate professor of Film and Digital Media Warren Sack.  Another project, says Niemeyer, is UC Davis’s Center for Regional Change, a collaborative research center for “just, sustainable, and healthy regional change in California’s Central Valley and Sierra Nevada.” Dave Campbell is the staff director for the Center for Regional Change and Jonathan London is the faculty director.

“Being the Data and Democracy Initiative, we want to have something to contribute to the November elections,” says Crittenden. “We are still clarifying DDI’s focus, but in the short-term we want to support efforts to narrow the gap between eligible, registered, and active voters, especially among under-represented groups, like young people and recent immigrants.”

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