Technology For Democracy

Photo credit: Luna Blue Photography via Philip Tong

By: Dr. Hollie Russon-Gilman, Beeck Center Fellow

Original post appeared on the World Bank Group's "Deliberation and Development: Rethinking the Role of Voice and Collective Action in Unequal Societies" in 2015.

There is much discussion about the precise opportunities for integrating digital tools or information communication technologies (ICTs) into the political sphere. After an initial wave of tech utopianism, some are searching for more tempered and realistic implementations of technology to strengthen democratic governance. This includes leveraging these tools to hold government accountable to its citizens.

With support from the Open Society Foundation, I was part of a small research team in 2010 led by Archon Fung to conduct original field research in Brazil, Chile, India, Kenya, and the Slovak Republic. In India, I witnessed the power of digital tools to reduce barriers to entry - empowering students to crowd source information on elected officials running for office. In an environment of "paid news" - where advertisements can be concealed as news, crowd sourced information was able to serve as a credible source.

Based on this research, we found three particularly salient models for how technology might improve democratic transparency and legitimacy. These included: 1) truth based advocacy 2) political mobilization and 3) social monitoring. In truth based advocacy, ICTs can facilitate collection of relevant information leading to more trustworthy and accessible data. Political mobilization leverages ICTs to help organize and galvanize people. Often civil activists or organizations can use ICTs with strengthen their causes and find supporters. In social monitoring, ICTs can foster crowd sourced information to lead to an enhanced information environment. In the private sector, examples include Amazon or Trip Advisor.

In all these examples, the underlying premise is that there are lessons from the realm of commerce and social life that can be integrated into the political realm. However, it is not as simple as a one-to-one analogy. Rather, in the realm of civic and social life, politics and local context are much more critical than in the commercial or social spheres. Thus, as we at the Beeck Center continue to explore innovation in social impact, the realities of politics and local contexts will remain vital. At its core, social impact is about people. There is much more research needed about how best precisely to engage people in this work.