Technology has been hailed as the answer to many challenges we face today and an increase in civic participation has long been identified as one of the problems that technology can “fix.” But of course, it’s not that simple. Technologies have to be crafted differently for different users and a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle changes have to be made to insure that a technology is accessible to the broadest audience possible. But even if these technologies are carefully designed to reach the broadest audience, the question remains, does the public want to be involved?
The OpenGov Foundation hopes the answer to this question is yes. The Foundation was established earlier this summer with help from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and is dedicated to “putting better data and better tools in more hands.” With an understanding that these technologies need to be designed to reach many different audiences, it aims to “make or adapt those tools to be easy to use, efficient, scalable and free.”
The most well-known tool associated with the Foundation is software called Madison. Madison has been integrated into Keep The Web Open, a website run by Rep. Issa. Madison functions like a wiki, allowing anyone to post comments on its content, which in this case is current and future U.S. federal legislation. The beta version of Madison was first used by Rep. Issa to crowd source the OPEN Act, or Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act. According to the Foundation, this represented “the first time a Member of Congress had crowd sourced a bill and actually introduced user-generated improvements to the legislative process.”
This is an early example of the potential of Madison to empower ordinary citizens to impact the legislative process. The question arises, is this simply novel technology or the beginning of something big?
The OPEN Act was introduced to Congress by Rep. Issa, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in Jan. 2012 as a response to SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and PIPA, the Protect Intellectual Property Act. Both pieces of legislation were met with strong resistance from both legislators and the public.
The SOPA and PIPA legislation were pushed in large part by entertainment companies, publishers and pharmaceutical companies that claimed that the lack of online piracy regulation and enforcement was costing them billions of dollars a year. However, many Internet companies and users argued that the legislation proposed in these bills was too broad and might interfere with free speech rights. Rep. Issa voiced his concern saying, "You could have Yahoo or Google or any of these sites shut down, even though 99.9 percent of their material was completely legitimate." On Jan. 18, dozens of websites engaged in a “blackout” in order to protest the SOPA and PIPA legislation, with websites like Wikipedia and Reddit turning their hyper dynamic websites into static landing pages with protest messages about the proposed legislation. With the OPEN Act, Rep. Issa hoped to find a more balanced approach to piracy regulation and “address the problem of piracy without resorting to denial of service.”
Following the backlash over both pieces of legislation, there seemed no better way to write a law for the users of the Internet than by letting the users write it themselves. Rep. Issa subsequently launchedKeep The Web Open and, using the Madison software, put the OPEN Act on the website for public mark up. The use of the Madison platform to forward the mission of a public-government collaboration process has been nicknamed “The Madison Project” and is so far the most extensive and lauded project of the OpenGov Foundation. A motto of The Madison Project is ECHO, which stands for “everyone can help out.” It reiterates the fundamental belief behind the broader movement trying to increase public-government collaboration, that collectively we can come up with better laws than we can through elected officials, and that by combining the ideas of “millions of individual experts” we can craft legislation that best fits the needs of the broadest range of people.
The Foundation sees the future of The Madison Project as a “living” database containing all legislation that impacts the lives of ordinary citizens. The hope is that this database can be easily searchable and edited by the public, and then used by legislators to gauge the collective thoughts on a particular bill so that it can be changed in order to reflect the wishes of the people. But the question remains, are the people interested in increasing their civic engagement in this way?
On its first day, Keep The Web Open saw 157,000 unique visitors. During a 12-hour markup marathon for the SOPA bill, the site saw nearly 200,000 unique visitors. These are pretty good numbers for a brand-new platform on a little-known site, but obviously far from the level of participation that Project Madison and champions of public-government collaboration hope to see in the future.
The Madison Project is still in its beta phase and is undergoing an open source development project to improve its functionality, but once the project is completed we will hopefully have access to more statistics and get a bit closer to understanding what steps need to be taken to increase public-government collaboration to the largest possible audience. The technology for collaboration exists and there are high hopes for it, but whether or not it is able in to increase civic participation will depend on its design, its availability and in large part on the desire of the people to be involved.
Image credit: “Open Government Data Venn Diagram.”User justgrimes, Flikr. Used under the Creative Commons license.
Camille Koué is pursuing her master’s degree in Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University. She is focused on the intersection of technology, infrastructure and design and the effects these domains have on human relations, civic engagement and community development. A native of Oakland, Calif., she graduated from American University with degrees in Visual Media, Justice and Spanish Language.