Mara Balestrini. Beyond the transparency portal: citizen data and the right to contribute

Mara Balestrini.
Beyond the transparency portal: citizen data and the right to contribute

We assume that information only goes one way: from the Administration to the citizen. This assumption is not valid anymore. Citizens produce lots of data that could be used to leverage change. We should acknowledge the right of citizens to produce data, not only to receive data.

What can citizen-generated data do?

  • Improve or augment existing data. E.g. air quality. #MakingSense in Plaça del Sol in Barcelona.
  • Check the validity of public data. E.g. #MakingSense in Kosovo.
  • Create new data. E.g. #BristolApproach

How to do it? We need to plan ahead a strategy of participation, and begin with the things people care:

  • Identify the issue and the people that care: people directly interested in the issue, altruistic people that want to help, communities of practice of people that work in the field, and communities of interest of people that want things to happen in a given field.
  • Frame the issue. It is necessary to link the abstract (“mobility in the city”) with the concrete (“where can I park my bike”). The Administration usually cares about the abstract, while the citizen cares about specific issues.
  • Design a participatory project. It is crucial to avoid the creation of an elite of participation.
  • Deploy it.
  • Orchestrate it. Awareness raising activities so that more people join the project. Though not only by “voting”, but by contributing with what they can/know: helping to define, analysing, explaining, etc.
  • Assess and evaluate the outcome. And include the creation of an infrastructure of participation that remains after the process is over.

Case of the Plaça del Sol in Barcelona, to approach the problem of noise in the square. There are huge amounts of noise, which cannot be measured and, in fact, “no one is doing anything wrong”, but it is the aggregation of small noises that creates discomfort in the neighbourhood.

A project was created to measure noise by citizens, aggregate public open data and raise awareness on the issue by showing evidence of the problem. Once the problem was actually measured, citizen assemblies were made to collectively find a solution.

Some outcomes of the project:

  • Open and shared data.
  • Skills and capacity. The more complex the tools, the more excluding will be — unless we build capacity around them.
  • Co-created solutions.
  • New open technologies and knowledge.
  • New networks and social capital. New politics is about creating emerging communities out of a citizen issue.

Of course, not only should citizens have the right to generate data, but have ownership over these data, to have governance over data.

How about co-create license to share citizen data?

  • TRIEM is a study that uses collective intelligence mechanisms to co-design licenses to access and use our data.
  • DECODE is creating an open data commons.
  • is a citizen cooperative of health data for science.

The Administration should foster the creation of new infrastructures: legal infrastructures, that regulate citizen data, new institutions (such as the recognition the role of citizens in creating and sharing public data), etc.

Article. Alternative economics or technopolitics. Activism from agroecological products cooperative consumption

Cover for ¿Economía alternativa o tecnopolítica? Activismo desde el consumo cooperativo de productos agroecológicos
¿Economía alternativa o tecnopolítica? Activismo desde el consumo cooperativo de productos agroecológicos (article)

Ricard Espelt, Enrique Rodríguez and I have just published a new article, ¿Economía alternativa o tecnopolítica? Activismo desde el consumo cooperativo de productos agroecológicos [Alternative economics or technopolitics. Activism from agroecological products cooperative consumption] which analyses the relationship between technopolitics and the cooperative movement. Our hypothesis is that some emerging cooperatives go beyond the mere practice of cooperativism for production or consumption, and engage or even are driven by political values. Our findings only partially support this hypothesis, but allow us to characterise three types of cooperatives according to these political values and activism, which we found quite interesting.

Expanded summary

Agroecological cooperativism is made up by an inter-cooperation network articulated by producers and consumer groups that promotes the acquisition of agroecological products in the context of the Social and Solidarity Economy (Martín-Mayor et al., 2017). At the same time, as part of the anti-globalisation and territorial defense movement, it has political resolution (Vivas, 2010). In this sense, it frames its activity as a response to the homogeneity of global food chains (Mauleón, 2009; Khoury, 2014) and promotes a recovery of the «identity of the sites». This re-appropriation purpose is expressed -especially- in the social movements that emerged during 2011 that, according to Harvey (2012), link with the fight against capitalism and the demand for a collective management of common goods and resources. Across the area of Barcelona, where the map of consumer cooperatives is well defined (Espelt et al., 2015), it has been registered an increase of these kind of organizations during the 15M or the Spanish “Indignados” movement in 2011.

As embedded in the era of the Network Society and the expansion of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), this article studies the correlation between agroecological consumer groups, as an instrument to promote an alternative economy, and social movements, as the space where technopolitics develop (Toret, 2013). That is, this article aims to corroborate whether agroecological cooperativism, which emerged in the late 20th century -and grew with remarkable strength during the second decade of the 21st century- and the profound crisis of legitimacy of the democratic institutions, with a rising participation in citizen extra-representative and extra-institutional movements, is connected.

This article has a double goal. On the one hand, to assess the existing relation between consumer and cooperative groups and the 15M movement and their ideological similarities, as selfmanaged movements that aim for social and political transformation. On the other hand, if applies, to study how this relation is shaped.

The main hypothesis of our research is that nowadays agroecological cooperativism possesses an acute activism component, which is why it is reasonable to predict a relative involvement of this activist cooperativism in movements such as 15M. However, former literature has explained and described the 15M movement as a form of activism that eminently operates outside the institutions and through a network organization. From that point on, a second hypothesis is formulated, proposing that activist cooperativism participation occurs individually, rather than collectively and/or institutionally. That is, it is possible to identify overlaps between activists that take part both in cooperatives and social movements such as 15M, but it is not reasonable to foresee a relevant level of involvement of cooperatives, as collectives, in this movement.

In order to respond to the hypothesis, a questionnaire comprising two sets of questions has been designed. A first set aims to determine the level of accomplishment based on the SSE criteria. A second set of questions focuses on the correlation between the studied organizations and the 15M movement, and the relevance of ICT in their organization. Semi-structured interviews were sent between February 2015 and March 2016 with a sample of 44 groups and allowed us to gather information regarding the origins, motivation and functioning of each of them. The questionnaire about the relation between the groups and the 15M movement was sent between December 2015 and March 2016, and 37 responses were collected. Thus, the 37 groups that have completed both questionnaires and the semi-structured interview will be considered the sample for this research.

In order to assess the accomplishment level of the variables corresponding to each of the aspects of the Social Solidarity Economy and the relation of the organizations with the 15M movements, we have performed arithmetic measurements for each of the variables studied. To evaluate the performance of the formulated hypothesis we have applied a correlation and a factorial analysis upon the studied variables (Commitment, Ideology, Technology, Group Involvement and Individual Involvement) to quantify the existing association between variables (correlation) and to identify the latent existing relation between them (factorial), with the goal of gathering additional information that has allowed us to interpret the results of the individual classification (nonhierarchical segmentation). Once the groups have been obtained, significant differences between segments have been determined through a variance analysis (ANOVA).

The results of our research show that consumer groups are part of a larger group of organizations that conform the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE), which, among others, values the promotion of spaces in which democratic participation is emphasised. If we constrain our analysis to 2011, just in a few cases the creation of new groups can be drawn from the influence of 15M. However, the entities created that year recognise the movement as an agent of change for the individuals in their condition of activists. At the same time, this research allowed us to determine three types of organizations: the traditional cooperative, which shows a low level of social commitment and a moderate level of individual participation, and that barely embraces ICT; the network cooperative, which adds social commitment and ICT usage; and the activist cooperative, which presents a greater group and individual involvement.

Despite the sample is limited in quantitative terms, the results confirm our hypothesis, which is to say, that cooperativism has a strong activist component. This finding points in the same direction with what Cantijoch (2009), Christensen (2011), Anduiza et al. (2014) or Peña-López et al. (2014) have expressed with regards to a strong (and even rising) tendency in extra-representative and extra-institutional practices when it comes to take part in political participation or citizen activism. On the other hand, despite the classification of the groups in traditional, network and activist cooperatives, we dare to say that their relation with the 15M movement must be, therefore, exogenous, depending on a non-identified variable, which is highly probable individual and not consubstantial with consumer cooperativism. That is to say, one doesn’t affiliate to a cooperative – as it’s the case as well with political parties, labor unions or NGOs- in order to achieve other political goals, but rather that one’s active participation in cooperativism constitutes the techno-political action by itself.


logo of PDF file
Espelt Rodrigo, R., Peña-López, I. & Rodríguez, E. (2016). “¿Economía alternativa o tecnopolítica? Activismo desde el consumo cooperativo de productos agroecológicos”. In CIRIEC-España, Revista de Economía Pública, Social y Cooperativa, (93), 293-318. Valencia: CIRIEC.

Fostering non-formal and informal democratic participation (III). Infrastructures for non-formal and informal democratic participation

This is a three-part article entitled Fostering non-formal and informal democratic participation. From mass democracy to the networks of democracy.

The first part deals with Man-mass and post-democracy and how democracy seems not to be maturing at all, or even going backwards due to lack of democratic culture and education. The second one deals with the Digital revolution and technopolitics and reflects about how the digital revolution might be an opportunity not only to recover but to update and transform democracy. This third part speaks about what kind of Infrastructures for non-formal and informal democratic participation could be put in place.

Democratic participation happens in a planned and structured way: elections, sessions in the representation chambers, etc. they have their place in time and an internal order for their development.

Non-formal participation lacks the first feature: although it has an internal structure —provided often by institutions, but increasingly by citizens without an entity behind it— it takes place ad-hoc to respond quickly to a specific issue.

Informal participation, finally, is one that is neither planned nor does it have an internal structure determined as a spontaneous manifestation or assembly, or many debates in spaces such as social networks.

The general objective of a policy to promote infrastructures for non-formal and informal democratic participation is to identify actors, facilitate spaces and provide instruments that enrich the non-formal and informal democratic practice so that it achieves its objectives, either directly or through channeling action at some point towards a democratic institution.

  • Actors: in addition to people who may have an interest or knowledge in a given policy, articulate the participation and active intervention of intermediaries (prescribers, experts, representatives), facilitators (experts in making happen democratic participation actions) and infomediaries (experts in the treatment of data and information for public decision-making).
  • Spaces: create the conditions so that the actors can work together, either coinciding in time and space as with other “spaces”, facilitating especially the conditions of participation, mediation strategies, channels and codes, weaving the network and explaining its operation.
  • Instruments: methodologies, operating regulations, technological support (digital or analogue) for information, communication, decision-making and return.

For the deployment of this policy to promote infrastructures for non-formal and informal democratic participation we propose six axes or priority action programs:

  • Deliberative participation program: to promote and improve projects on deliberative democracy, government 2.0, an appropriate regulatory framework for citizen participation, and awareness of the importance of this instrument through training, research and dissemination.
  • Program of electoral participation and direct democracy: promote and/or improve electoral processes to increase the legitimacy of formal participation processes, as well as projects on direct democracy consisting of the return of sovereignty to the citizen; raise awareness about the importance of these instruments through research and dissemination.
  • Internal participation program: work towards a transformation of how the Administration understands participation, collaboration and cooperation within the institutions as well as in its relationship with citizens, through training and support networks and work, communities of professional innovation practice and open communities of practice between public professionals and citizens.
  • Collaboration program: with the objective of standardizing and normalizing public-social-private consortiums and innovation initiatives according to the quadruple helix model; or, to put it another way, to work for the planning and structuring of non-formal and informal initiatives of democratic participation for its scaling and replication.
  • Intermediaries, facilitators and infomediaries program: to contribute to the growth and consolidation of a trained and/or professionalized sector in the field of participation, in order to achieve the highest quality of participatory practices and projects, providing the sector and citizens involved with knowledge, instruments, technological tools or resources in general.
  • E-participation, electronic voting and technopolitics program: accelerate the adoption of ICT in the field of participation, thus contributing to facilitate and standardize electronic participation, electronic voting, electronic government and electronic democracy in general, at the same time transforming the paradigm behind citizen practices based mainly on passive or merely responsive actors towards a technopolitical paradigm based on active, empowered and networked actors.

We can see a graphic representation of these six programs in the Theory of Change of Citizen Participation that appears below.

In it we can see how the programs become products or political actions that, in turn, have expected results (measurable according to the established objectives and indicators) and that, according to the theory, will lead to an impact, understood as a change in social behavior —or a latent variable impossible to measure.

As we have started saying, the expected impact wants to go far beyond the improvement of efficiency, effectiveness and legitimacy of the democratic system, although this is the first desired impact, of course.

On the one hand, one should aim at fighting populism, fighting the simplification of politics and the manipulation of citizens working to improve the social fabric, information and the involvement of citizens in public issues.

This participation, moreover, is not merely quantitative but qualitative, given that we aspire to explain the complexity of the challenges of public decision-making and management with the concurrence of citizens in the design and evaluation of them.

We achieve this, besides reinforcing the traditional channels of institutional participation, by encouraging non-formal and informal participation initiatives, establishing or re-establishing broken bridges between institutions and citizens but, above all, doing it on an equal footing, sharing sovereignties … and sharing the resolution of the problems associated with the responsibility that comes with enjoying such sovereignty, both personal and collective.

Fostering non-formal and informal democratic participation (II). Digital revolution and technopolitics

A city at nightAnts, courtesy of Fabien Cambi

This is a three-part article entitled Fostering non-formal and informal democratic participation. From mass democracy to the networks of democracy.

The first part deals with Man-mass and post-democracy and how democracy seems not to be maturing at all, or even going backwards due to lack of democratic culture and education. This second part deals with the Digital revolution and technopolitics and reflects about how the digital revolution might be an opportunity not only to recover but to update and transform democracy. The third speaks about what kind of Infrastructures for non-formal and informal democratic participation could be put in place.

While we are witnessing this possible exhaustion of democracy, the digital revolution has long ceased to merely affect the management of information and communications to be a vector of very deep transformations in absolutely all aspects of daily life. They do not escape to this revolution neither civic action nor democratic commitment.

There are many and controversial pros and cons on the so-called electronic democracy, the uses and abuses of the practices that we encompass as Government 2.0 or the enormous disagreement on whether the new channels of information and digital communication improve or worsen the quality of the information that arrives to the citizens, or if citizens are able to form part of more pluralistic communities or, on the contrary, they are enclosed in their own resonance chambers.

An issue that seems unquestionable to us, because it transcends the scope of democratic action, is the elimination of intermediaries for many of the collective tasks that traditionally required institutions to promote, articulate, organize, guide and resolve collective action. Or, failing that —the elimination of intermediaries— at least a radical transformation of the roles or actors that will develop these mediation roles.

We believe more than proven by the empirical evidence that the cost of participating in any area of ​​collective decision-making has been dramatically reduced. Information, deliberation, negotiation, specification of preferences, decision making in itself, evaluation and accountability. All this can now be done with significantly less material and personal costs than in the past.

Likewise, and as mentioned above, the potential to increase the benefits of participation has also increased due in part to the potential increase in participation itself, but also to the potentially much greater quantity and quality of information for the taking of decisions, the possibility of carrying out simulations, pilot tests, obtaining more and better indicators and in real time, the potential increase of the relative benefit by reducing the cost of conflict management, etc.

These potentials have been materialized in countless citizen initiatives focused on self-organization, self-management, decision-making distributed in what has come to be called for-institutions, spaces of autonomy or means of mass self-communication.

However, the wide range of opportunities offered by these spaces often takes place completely giving their back to institutions. Not only outside of them, but alien to them, when not directly challenging what was previously the natural space of these institutions or even their foundational functions, as Yochai Benkler reminds us.

Even in the case where one believes that institutions were not necessary, an orderly transition between the now hegemonic institutional space towards informal spaces of democratic participation would seem desirable.

Our bet —based on the belief that institutions have many difficult functions to replace, among them and as a priority the protection of minorities— is towards a deployment of the collective action of institutional spaces towards (also) the new informal spaces, as well as a sharing of sovereignty between these same institutions with the new actors of civic action in particular, and citizens in general.

However, we run the risk of falling into what Manuel Delgado calls citizenshism, namely, let citizens participate, but participate just and necessary. To avoid this, we propose a return of sovereignty based on putting the “means of political production” in the hands of citizens.

Fostering non-formal and informal democratic participation (I). Man-mass and post-democracy

Ants inside a cristal pipeline
Anthill inside, courtesy by Marcel de Jong

This is a three-part article entitled Fostering non-formal and informal democratic participation. From mass democracy to the networks of democracy.

This first part deals with Man-mass and post-democracy and how democracy seems not to be maturing at all, or even going backwards due to lack of democratic culture and education. The second one deals with the Digital revolution and technopolitics and reflects about how the digital revolution might be an opportunity not only to recover but to update and transform democracy. The third speaks about what kind of Infrastructures for non-formal and informal democratic participation could be put in place.

There are two complementary views of citizen participation. The traditional view is that participation helps us to design better laws and public policies thanks to making more people work on them, with different visions and with different knowledge. Thanks to this greater concurrence, we get more effective laws and policies —because their diagnosis and range of solutions are more adjusted— and more efficient, since consensus is increased, conflict is reduced and design is technically better.

This view, which we could describe as essentially technical, can be complemented by another vision much more philosophical or even political in the sense of social transformation through ideas. This second view is that participation of a deliberative nature could constitute a kind of third stage of democracy, taking the best of Greek democracy (direct) and modern democracy (representative), at the same time that it contributes to addressing more and more manifest shortcomings of both: on the one hand, the cost of participating; on the other hand, the increasing complexity of public decisions. However, this third stage, given its deliberative nature, by definition must occur in new spaces and with new actors, to incorporate the current design of democratic practice centered almost exclusively on institutions.

Greek democracy has often been idealized as the perfect paradigm of public decision making: citizens, highly committed to the community, assume the responsibility of managing that public. They inform, debate, make decisions and execute them. Without caricaturizing what was of course a much more elaborate public management scheme, there are at least two aspects that are worth considering. First, the relatively simple sociopolitical context of the time. Second, the existence of citizens of a lesser degree or directly non-citizens (women, foreigners, slaves) on whose shoulders were discharged many tasks that facilitated that citizens with full rights could do politics.

The next reincarnation of democracy will take place several centuries later in a totally different socio-economic reality that will change rapidly on the back of science and the industrial revolution. The modern liberal democracies, given the greater complexity of the context, as well as the greater (and also increasing) concurrence of free citizens, will resort to the creation of the State and the institutions of democratic representation for its administration. The delegation of power will be a radical transformation of the exercise of democracy that in turn will transform social organization —and vice versa.

Some authors, however, alert us both to deficiencies in their design and signs of depletion. Ortega y Gasset, among others, warns in The rebellion of the masses that the technical and social advances have not been followed by similar advances in the fields of ethics or education, understanding education not as technical training for professional development, but in the humanistic sphere of personal development or as human beings. These so-called mass-men, says Ortega, are capable of operating with revolutionary technologies, but have not been able to grasp the historical dimension of humanity and, with this, are unable to understand and even to rule their own destiny. Ortega warns —and his warnings can be complemented by Elias Canetti‘s reflections on the dynamics of mass and power masses— how easy it is to end up controlling these masses, as well as the degeneration of that manipulation that we have come to call fascism.

In a less destructive but equally worrisome version, Colin Crouch describes the current situation of democracy as post-democracy. Crouch explains that the growing complexity of decision-making, as well as political disaffection due to a feeling of alienation and ineffectiveness of politics, expulse tacitly or explicitly the citizens of the public agora, leaving them in the hands of elites who control, with an appearance of democracy, all the springs of public life.

Paradoxically, the “solutions” that have appeared for one case (the mass-man) or for another (the post-democracy) are opposite and complementary at the same time: before a mass-man incapable of ruling himself, one aims for technocracy, for political meritocracy to its limit, for the professional rulers that are above a misinformed and ignorant citizenry, for the political aristocracy as a solution. On the other hand, the fight against post-democracy, the struggle of the elite that “does not represent” the citizen, has often led to populisms where a messianic leader, belonging to the people and not to the reviled elite, stands as foreseer of any solution, easy and simple, and many times consistent in finding a scapegoat to sacrifice along with the corrupt political elite. That populism derives in fascism is, as many authors like Rob Riemen say, only a matter of time.

The question that remains latent, however, is whether there is a middle ground between fascism and aristocracy. It would seem that in this middle term there should be at least two concurrent circumstances: first, to go beyond education based on information and move towards the upbringing of full citizens, in the sense of individuals aware of their social environment and rights and duties towards their peers and their project as a collective; second, to provide instruments so that these trained citizens can democratically express their wishes and needs within this new globalized and complex system and, above all, under the protection of destructive populist drifts or the dispossession of their rights by the aristocracies.

A Theory of Change of citizen participation

The Theory of Change is a methodology for strategic planning for social change. It is based on a reverse engineering process: once the systemic changes are stated, the process goes backwards to identify what outcomes are related to these systemic changes, what outputs (products, services) lead to these outcomes, and what activities or groups of activities (programmes, resources, etc.) have to be deployed to create these outputs.

What follows is a Theory of Change of citizen participation, in which the engagement of citizens in public decision-making is put at the service of some systemic changes and, reversely, can be fostered through some specific programmes.

The expected impacts, featured on the right side of the scheme above, are:

  1. Efficiency, efficacy and legitimacy of public decisions improves.
  2. Populism has decreased in institutions and the public sphere.
  3. Citizens understand the complexity of public decision-making.
  4. Citizen participation and political engagement clearly shifts towards a technopolitical paradigm.

The first expected outcome is pretty straightforward and is usually the expected outcome of any citizen participation policy. Second and third are, indeed, the two sides of the same coin, and are related with the quality of democracy in particular and social cohesion in general. The last one, more instrumental, aims at embedding technology not as a mere tool, but as the driver of a deep transformation in how people collaborate with each other and with the Administration: from an institution-centred and hierarchy-articulated collaboration to a people-centred and network articulated collaboration; or, in other words, from centralised to distributed decision-making.

The Theory of Change ends up with —or begins with, depending on how one sees it— five main programmes:

  1. Programme of citizen participation.
  2. Programme of internal participation.
  3. Programme of collaboration.
  4. Programme of intermediaries, facilitators and infomediaries.
  5. Programme of e-participation, e-voting and technopolitics.

The first one is the traditional ones: make citizens participate. The second one aims at transforming institutions with the same philosophy: let public servants and politicians participate, work together, open up to the citizens. The third one is putting together the former two: let us see what happens when participation takes place between the two spheres. The fourth one aims at addressing the “industrial sector” of participation, but with a hint: it is not about the firms that facilitate projects, but about the collectives that do, as increasingly it is the organised civil society that engages itself in this kind of facilitation: data and research journalists, activists, hackers, social movements, etc. Last, the fifth one is an explicit support to participation infrastructures, including technology but also the methodologies that are embedded in these technologies.

As this is a draft, a work in progress, comments are more than welcome.

Some references on the Theory of Change

Anderson, A.A. (2006). The Community Builder’s Approach to Theory of Change. A practical guide to theory development. New York: The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change.
Blamey, A. & Mackenzie, M. (2007). “Theories of Change and Realistic Evaluation”. In Evaluation, 13 (4), 439-455. London: SAGE Publications.
Brest, P. (2000). “The Power of Theories of Change”. In Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2000, 47-51. Palo Alto: Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.
Connell, J.P., Kubisch, A.C., Schorr, L.B. & Weiss, C.H. (Eds.) (1995). New approaches to evaluating community initiatives: Concepts, Methods and Contexts. Queenstown: Aspen Institute.
Connell, J.P. & Kubisch, A.C. (1998). “Applying a Theory of Change Approach to the Evaluation of Comprehensive Community Initiatives: Progress, Prospects, and Problems”. In Fullbright-Anderson, K., Kubisch, A.C. & Connell, J.P. (Eds.), New approaches to evaluating community initiatives: Theory, measurement, and analysis. Volume 2. Queenstown: Aspen Institute.
Rogers, P. (2014). La Teoría del Cambio. Síntesis metodológicas. Sinopsis de la evaluación de impacto nº2. Florencia: UNICEF.
Stein, D. & Valters, C. (2012). Understanding Theory of Change in International Development. London: JSRP, The Asia Foundation.
Taplin, D.H. & Clark, H. (2012). Theory of Change Basics. A primer on Theory of Change. New York: ActKnowledge.