What can the political advocacy community learn from the open government community?

Progressive_Advocacy_Standard

View a mind map of a proposed infrastructure that would facilitate information sharing in the progressive political advocacy community in order to encourage innovation, collaboration and experimentation. 

Open data doesn’t necessarily create an open government, but an open government can’t exist without open data. Similarly, open political data doesn’t necessarily mean an open political community, but you can’t have an open political community without open political data.

Distributed organizing is quickly becoming the norm for progressive political advocacy organizations like Moveon.org, Democracy for America, CREDO, Corporate Action Network, and many others. It’s effective, it’s scalable, and it empowers individual activists.

But the question remains: how do you take a distributed organizing model within an individual organization, and then collaborate with other organizations to build a movement? And how do you do it in a scalable, automated way to encourage collaboration, innovation, and experimentation within the progressive community?

Open data & open government advocates have learned that standardized and accessible data encourages innovation and experimentation.

One of the open government models that the progressive advocacy community should emulate comes from the Sunlight Foundation and their set of open government API’s. They have spent over seven years finding government data sources, standardizing the data, and serving it up in unique API’s that have facilitated hundreds of open government applications. Sunlight built a brain trust of open government data in the U.S. that is not only transforming the way people process information about the government, but it’s created a collaborative space for open government advocates to gather and build apps.

Another open government model that should be noted by the progressive advocacy community is from DemocracyMap, a data translator/API created by former Presidential Innovation Fellow Phil Ashlock. DemocracyMap uses data from the Sunlight Foundation API’s, and combines it with data from web scrapers to create what he calls a “meta-API that aggregates, normalizes, and caches other data sources including geospatial boundary queries” – in short, his API has nearly 100k contact records of elected officials across the U.S., and his simplified API makes it possible to integrate just one API into a 3rd party app, instead of forcing a developer to connect dozens of external API’s and web scrapers, while also maintaining that process.

Finally, when it comes to standardizing international open government data, projects are still in their infancy. But one effort to organize and debate the standardization process has been led by the awesome Canadian open government group Open North. They launched an effort called The Popolo Project, whose goal “is to author, through community consensus, international open government data specifications relating to the legislative branch of government, so that civil society can spend less time transforming data and more time applying it to the problems they face. A related goal is to make it easier for civic developers to create government transparency, monitoring and engagement websites, by developing reusable open source components that implement the specifications. Although the data specification is designed primarily for open government use cases, many other use cases are supported.”

What these three large and audacious efforts have in common is an understanding that open, accessible data spurs innovation. There is a movement taking place in the open data community – a movement that is making huge gains for the open government community – but far too few people are paying attention to how this work could be translated into the political advocacy community.

How can progressive political advocacy organizations emulate the strategies of open government/data organizations in order to encourage innovation, collaboration, and experimentation? 

The progressive political advocacy community has a strong infrastructure led by 10-20 major groups, dozens of issue-focused groups, hundreds of local and state-based groups, and thousands of sophisticated political operatives and technical developers. Some of the groups are more effective organizers than others, some are more technical, some are better financed – but they are among an infrastructure working to activate and engage millions of individual activists looking to take collective action to affect progressive change.

From a technical organizing perspective, one of the big takeaways over the last few cycles has been that distributed organizing is an effective way to engage and grow a large group by empowering smaller groups and individual activists. These smaller groups launch niche-issue campaigns, hyper-local efforts, and are the ears on the ground to find issues that could be elevated to a national or state-level.

But one big question about distributed organizing remains –with more and more organizations employing this strategy every year, how can we connect this growing distributed movement into a larger technical infrastructure to encourage innovation, collaboration and experimentation? 

View a mind map of a proposed infrastructure that would facilitate information sharing in an automated, machine-readable format.

There are a number of significant hurdles that advocacy organizations would have to overcome in order to build out a similar infrastructure that exists in the open government/data community. Just a few of those hurdles includes:

  • The support and funding from a respected organization or company looking to lead the project and support it’s growth into the future
  • Buy-in from the largest stakeholders in distributed organizing
  • Policies and practices to ensure no personal user data was compromised or shared without explicit approval from end users
  • An agreed-upon standardized data structure that would streamline metadata sharing
  • An agreed-upon authentication standard for an open voting API or any leadership system that was cross-site functional
  • An in-depth depth discussion about the end-goals of a Progressive API, in terms of what types of metadata and resources should be served up for 3rd party app providers in order to encourage progressive innovation, experimentation and collaboration
  • An in-depth discussion with the largest stakeholders about what types of information could be useful in a limited access Progressive Dashboard that would facilitate better information sharing and collaboration

These are just a few of the outstanding issues that would need to be discussed – not to mention whether this technical infrastructure would actually be useful to the movement at large.

How we can take the Green Button API lessons and apply them to an Open Voting API?

Data standardization + Authentication standardization = Scalable data sharing

Green Button is a concept conceived by President Obama’s White House and is being implemented by the energy industry across the country – the goal was to provide near real-time access to energy usage in a home or a business.

The Green Button concept was relatively straightforward: create a data standard for energy usage so metadata produced from energy companies could be machine readable by 3rd party apps, and create an authentication standard so that 3rd party apps could connect to all energy companies through the same process. So far, about 30 million households have access to Green Button data, mostly in California, and dozens of 3rd party app providers have launched apps to help people better understand their energy usage.

You may be wondering – how could we apply the lessons from Green Button, a concept rooted in hard-data from energy usage, to something more abstract, like an online voting application?

Recently, Micah Sifry wrote a thought-provoking piece, “You Can’t A/B Test Your Response to Syria.” In his article, he gently poked holes in efforts by progressive groups to poll their members to determine what position the organizations should take on Syria. Essentially, he claimed that the small-scale voting efforts weren’t representative of the progressive movement at-large, and the polling was merely a CYA strategy.

If progressives were to take a queue from Green Button, it’s possible they could develop a cross-site voting infrastructure that would let groups not only vote across multiple sites and organizations – think of it like a distributed voting and leadership infrastructure — but it could also empower more innovative 3rd party apps that are built to conduct group decision making. The concept is relatively simple, just like green Button, but the implementation would certainly have a number of technical and logistical hurdles. Some of these hurdles include:

  • How would organizations want to conduct cross-site voting?
  • What process would need to be implemented in order to ensure some sort of voting integrity or voting authentication standards?
  • How could someone’s vote spin off into a separate leadership group? For instance, everyone who voted “no” about whether the U.S. should bomb Syria, could those people be added to a leadership group to discuss additional strategies?
  • How could a cross-site leadership and voting infrastructure be implemented by the largest groups in a way that would ensure they aren’t marginalizing their own power to engage and motivate their members?
  • How could/should voting data be anonymized in order to break down demographic and geographic information?

There are numerous groups already trying to solve the “group decision making” problem, and some of them may have already moved this ball forward to some extent. But one of the big problems with a top-down decision from one company or organization is that all of the stakeholders don’t get a chance to talk about issues with the system. The Green Button data standard has gone through years of intense debate in order to ensure that the energy company stakeholders were on board with the decisions and so that they could implement whatever data standard/authentication process was decided upon. It’s my belief that any distributed voting or leadership effort that attempts to bring on board the largest progressive groups, needs to directly address their concerns throughout the entire deliberative process.

Should the Progressive Political Advocacy community attempt to build a system similar to what has been built out by the open government/data community?

The process to build out a technical infrastructure to encourage innovation, collaboration and experimentation within the progressive political advocacy community could take years of work. Stakeholders would need to be brought to the table, high-level discussions with app developers would need to take place, and individual activists would need to provide their feedback on the proposed infrastructure. Beyond that, there are a handful of things that would need to be debated:

  • Research and catalog unique data sources/groups to get a sense for the political advocacy landscape
  • Debate and determine standards for metadata sharing
  • Debate and determine authentication standards
  • Create an application to translate unique data source metadata into the standard
  • Serve the metadata standard through a JSON API to 3rd party app providers
  • Provide metadata analysis through a limited-access application
  • Determine the feasibility of an open voting API and implementation steps

There would likely be dozens of other smaller hurdles along the way that would need to be overcome, but it’s my belief that this type of infrastructure is the key to tying everything together.

We all use different CRM/CMS platforms. Some groups custom code projects. Some groups use open source projects. New apps and websites are coming online all the time with the “cure all” to our problems. New group decision-making apps are created every year. New best-practices apps and organizations are launching all the time. But individual apps and organizations just don’t seem like they will ever be able to build out an infrastructure, grow themselves into sustainable efforts, and provide the collaborative, innovative technology to move the progressive advocacy community forward over the next 20+ years.

Organizers oftentimes say that people are the solution to our problems. Technologists oftentimes say that digital is the solution. Old-school strategists point to local organizing and distributed decision making as the key to growing our movement. New-school strategists point to list building and distributed organizing supported by large organizations as tenants of new organizing. The question remains though: is any one strategy the correct one? How can we bridge all of these concepts together in a way that won’t solve the problems we’re seeing today, but will solve the problems in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years down the line.

Finally, some people may wonder why this process should be limited to the progressive political advocacy community – and why not build something out like this for people of all political persuasions. The main reason is that this process is complicated enough without trying to bring together politically disparate groups and individuals and try to get them to work together. It would be like trying to teach 100 cats to dance a synchronized swimming routine – perhaps fun to watch, and amazing if it actually worked out – but utterly unrealistic when looking at the challenges at hand.

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *