World Forum for Democracy 2015: A report from the democracy incubator hackathon

We are at the start of a digital democratic revolution that will revitalize democracy and help restore trust between governments and citizens.

Robert Bjarnason
21 December 2015

Flickr/optick. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/optick. Some rights reserved.

In November the Council of Europe organized the World Forum for Democracy for the fourth year in row. Despite its name, the Council of Europe is not a part of the European Union nor the European Council but a regional intergovernmental organisation whose stated goal is to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in its 47 member states, covering over 820 million citizens.

The World Forum for Democracy is a gathering of leaders, opinion-makers, civil society activists, representatives of business, academia, media and professional groups to debate key challenges for democracies worldwide. The forum invites people from all over the world, with over 1.000 attending this year. This event is one of the most important forums we have today to create a worldwide network of democratic researchers and practitioners.

The main subject of this year’s Forum was security versus liberty. This was highly pertinent as the event took place in the week after the shocking Paris terrorist attack. How can we maintain a balance between security and freedom in a democratic society under threat? Can democracies resist the escalation of fear and formulate responses based on civic responsibility and active citizenship?

One of the main events on the last day of the forum was a hackathon event; co-organized by Démocratie Ouverte, a french non-profit promoting and experimenting with transparency, participation and collaboration for democracy. The main mission of the hackathon was “to develop a democracy innovation incubator with the purpose of implementing democracy innovations at the local level in order to accelerate their growth and success. The hackathon gathers Forum alumni and local political decision-makers to develop the framework of the incubator, while brainstorming on concrete solutions for increasing the impact and reach of democracy innovations, in order to improve citizen participation at the local level.”

The hackathon

We at the Citizens Foundation in Iceland took part in the hackathon, along with almost 30 participants comprising democratic innovators and representatives of 15 cities around Europe. We started the morning with inspiring presentations from several democracy innovators and researchers and then split into smaller groups, each of these comprising both representatives from cities and democratic innovators.

Shortly before the hackathon we published a blog outlining our contribution for the democratic incubator, suggesting that a key part of the incubator could be a Digital Commons for Open Government. 

“We propose creating a Digital Commons for Open Government and invite you to join us in its design. The plan is to create a highly automated marketplace for open source tools, open knowledge and relevant support services. We will connect governments and civil society with open source developers and commercial support companies. This single borderless market will automate and speed up deployment of citizen participation and open data solutions on all official levels while saving participating governments money.” 

In each group we went through a brainstorming process, spending an hour on the Why, an hour on the How and an hour on the What of what we wanted to build. This proved a useful exercise. Here are some of the main points that came out of our group when we presented our ideas about Digital Commons for Open Government, a digital marketplace.

Why a Digital Commons for Open Government? 

To help citizens regain trust in government by giving them the power to have direct influence and the knowledge to understand information which is open and transparent. The commons need to be bottom-up and citizen driven, not imposed through a top down structure of governments and corporations. It is important to share responsibility between citizens, public institutions, private institutions and civil society.

To help citizens and government trust democratic applications of technology. Using reviews and rankings, enable cities to see what other cities are experimenting with. This mechanism should be crowd-sourced and citizen driven. There is a strong demand for open government from citizens around the world.

We need to always be evolving and improving and reflective on what works and doesn’t work, and to learn from each other. To make better decisions is the ultimate goal both for governments and citizens, with more inclusivity and in everyone's interest. We need more long term efficiency and better informed citizens.

How will we build it? 

By collaboratively reinventing and developing democracy. We’ll need to build a knowledge exchange with questions and answers, user groups and collaboration and competition. This should include information about what works best for marketing and user takeups. 

We should consider this as an Airbnb/Songkick for democracy tools and services. It should be as easy to use for cities as popular mass market online services, and it should enable cities to share feature development costs between themselves.

What will we create?

A transnational app store, an online meeting- and marketplace for democracy advocates, applications and services. In our hackathon group we came up with the working name for this part of the incubator: “Democracy Source”.

We will build the commons in cooperation with organizations like the Council of Europe, Open Government Partnership, civil society, cities and citizens.

We have setup a working group to discuss the ideas around the digital commons at https://digital-commons.yrpri.org/

In the final hours of the Hackathon we and four other brainstorming groups also presented interesting ideas including setting up a human run information democracy exchange within the Council of Europe and a Social Github where cities and democratic innovators could work together, in many ways similar ideas as the Digital Commons for Open Government. Bruno Kaufmann, a respected democratic innovator who took part in the Hackathon, wrote a blog post about the Forum and the Hackathon and published it on his SwissInfo blog.

What next?

There is clearly strong political and administrative will towards more open governments.  We would like to see cooperation with the Open Government Partnership, which is another important forum on democracy innovation.

We have high hopes for the Council of Europe as a democratic incubator. The Council has a great reputation with its mission to promote democracy and human rights and is uniquely placed to bring together democratic innovators and cities through their extensive network created with the World Forum for Democracy over the past four years. But this project is also the responsibility of citizens, democratic innovators, representatives, civil servants and civic start-ups. They will have to cooperate and be willing to experiment with new tools, methodologies and roles for everyone in democracy. We are at the start of a democratic revolution that will revitalize democracy and help restore trust between governments and citizens. We all need to work together to make this a reality.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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