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Open democracy

In the run up to the UK general election, we're looking at all things democratic, accessible and open
Voter apathy was a buzzword circulating around last year’s European elections. At the time, only 41% of young people said they were definitely going to cast their ballot in this year’s elections. But analysis of non-voters aged 18-34 in the last general election revealed they have more or less the same level of optimism about the future as voters in the same age bracket. Perhaps the apathy isn’t quite as all-encompassing as we’re led to believe. So what would make an otherwise energetic and committed group equally lively about who’s in power?

It might help to strip out the jargon, and ask more questions – we certainly will be at tonight’s theme launch event. In addition to event speaker Kirsty McNeill, who wants to make policy accessible with ShouldWe (the Wikipedia of public policy, if you will), there are initiatives like Turbovote in the US, which Kathryn Peters co-founded to bring the immediacy and convenience of the internet to voting. Outside of the Libertine100, there are dozens of hackers and campaigners working with open government data to make the facts more accessible – see Democracy Club, They Work For You and Democratic Dashboard. Aren’t sure who to vote for? Take a Buzzfeed-style quiz with Votematch.

Election aside, we’ve seen lots of other creative and tech-savvy ways of empowering people to tackle difficult or complex subjects. Filmmaker and campaigner Leila Sansour is using Bethlehem as a less controversial anchor city to get people talking about Israel and Palestine. Moushira Elamwary has developed Risha, an open source laser cutter whose main goal is to get non-traditional users involved in making. Similarly, Catarina Mota has taught numerous workshops to get people with no science background interested in designing with smart materials.

But the biggest presence in this month’s exploration of the subject relates to data and democracy. Whether it’s fighting to give people access to the world’s data, like Lydia Pintscher, who runs Wikidata; or educating people to control and access their own information like Waag Society’s Marleen Stikker, there are growing educational initiatives to empower the layperson to look after their own ones and zeroes. There are still barriers to entry, which is where Kathryn Parsons comes in – her crusade to get people coding in a day has dissolved a lot of the psychological barriers.

Founder of the internet Tim Berners Lee would like to see these democratic hacks cemented by a universal bill of rights for internet users – a ‘Magna Carta for the web’ – that would protect internet users in every country from threats to their security. These include excessive surveillance, protecting the privacy of activists and enforcing the online safety of women and girls. In Pakistan, human rights lawyer and founder of the Digital Rights Foundation Nighat Dad has made great strides in campaigning for the latter. The site Hamara Internet  (meaning ‘our internet’) maps instances of electronic violence against women (eVAW) in a bid to raise awareness.

Visibility is a big part of the democratic process. As Adam Greenfield demonstrated in his essay against the smart city, we are surrounded by networks and structures that do not have our best interests at heart. We need to know what those are so we can challenge them. Claire Melamed‘s work at the Overseas Development Institute draws similar attention to the gaps and biases in available data which mean we never quite get an accurate picture of what’s going on, and act accordingly.

Image credit: CC USDAgov

There are growing educational initiatives to empower the layperson to look after their own ones and zeroes



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