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Rethinking Democracy in the Current Political Context

From the excitement of a thoroughly inspiring AoIR 2012 conference, I've now made my way to Istanbul for this year's European Communications Conference, ECREA 2012. We open the conference with a keynote on e-democracy by Donatella dells Porta, considering the types of democracy which new social movements are envisaging.

Political Self-Interest as a Barrier to e-Government

The final speaker in this DHA 2012 session is Julie Freeman, whose interest is also in online political participation; her focus is on the City of Casey local government authority in Victoria, comprising a population of 256,000 citizens served by 11 councillors. How are online tools and platforms used in local government in this case?

Casey has its own council Website, of course, as well as a Twitter and Facebook presence (which is mainly used to disseminate media releases), the civic networking site Casey Connect (a council-provided platform for local clubs and associations to present themselves, at arms’ length from council) and the civic consultation facility Casey Conversations (a PhD project which offers discussion boards on key advocacy issues, without direct council involvement in the discussions).

Understanding Flows of Information and Power in Open Data

I’m chairing the next workshop at the Berlin Symposium, which features a paper by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Zarino Zappia. Zarino starts us off by highlighting the Obama administration’s statement that government should be transparent, participative, and collaborative – and a number of open data sites by governments and non-government have now been set up.

But where is the research into how this material has been used, by whom, why, and with what results? Will such re-routing of information flows bring about a democratic renaissance, or will we see the rise of intermediaries who wield new forms of power? To address some of these issues, Zarino and Viktor have begun to map the new field.

Towards Open Statecraft

The second keynote at the Berlin Symposium this morning is by Philipp Müller, who will argue for the idea of ‘open statecraft’ in a networked world. He suggests that our world has become ‘unfiltered’ through the move from mass to networked and social media; the appropriate description for this is not simply many-to-many or few-to-few media, but n-to-n media, where all sorts of power games in pursuit of communicative impact, visibility, and success take place.

There are also some cognitive lags here – we’re missing a framework that allows each of us to work in these worlds, much as we once learnt, slowly and with difficulty, to live in the industrialised and mass media worlds. Historical analogies are 1386 – where lances as a military technology were first used to undermine warfare based on mediaeval knights, and in the process undermined the knighthood system overall; 1518, when Martin Luther became the first blogger, using the new technology of the printing press, and a church door, to initiate some 150 years of governance crisis; and 1927, when Bertolt Brecht pursued ‘radio theory’ and considered the development of audience-driven backchannels to radio as well as theatre plays.

Pushing Back against State and Corporate Internet Surveillance and Censorship

The second day of the Berlin Symposium begins with a keynote by Rebecca MacKinnon, who begins with the story of an arts installation, the Berlin Twitter Wall, which reflected on the fall of the Wall in 1989 through the medium of Twitter. As it happened, though, the hashtag #fotw (fall of the wall) was taken over by Chinese Twitter users, protesting against the continuing censorship in China; this cold war view of state censorship as an ‘information curtain’, and of digital media as the samizdat of the day, continues to permeate today.

But this ‘iron curtain 2.0’ view of the Internet has also been criticised – there are more complicated problems that mere barriers to access, and more complex divisions than those commonly perceived to exist between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘democratic’ countries. We may be succumbing to historicism, even to technological determinism, blinding us to what’s actually going on. Where, in fact, are we going, then?

The Historical Trajectory of Social Innovation

The second plenary speaker in this session at Challenge Social Innovation 2011 is Frank Moulaert. He begins by suggesting that much of the interdisciplinary work on social innovation has not been properly recognised, or has even been gently censored. But why is this the case?

We must work towards a shared analytical framework, but this can only happen through an open and wide-ranging discussion of where social innovation research should be going. Research on social innovation goes back to the early days of social science (Weber, Durkheim, Schumpeter, …); such work was synthesised in France (and in French) during the 1970s and 80s, but does not seem to have crossed over into anglophone research. Only at the end of the 1980s, international social science renewed its interest in social innovation – but international work, especially by the Young Foundation, takes too much of a business- and enterprise-oriented approach to the study of social innovation.

Social Innovation Policy in the European Union

The next speaker at Challenge Social Innovation is Agnès Hubert, representing the European Commission. There is a growing interest in questions of social innovation at the European Union, with important preliminary work already underway; a new report has already been published, and further social innovation actions are underway. This brings together a wealth of important but still very fragmented initiatives in the past; social innovation is now becoming a frontline issue for decision-makers at the Commission.

Two major EU policy documents, framing the next ten years, address social innovation: this includes the 2020 directive, promoting inter alia innovation and the reduction of poverty. Social innovation is also embedded throughout a variety of other initiatives contained in the directive. Additionally, the EU budget also features significant financial support for social innovation initiatives; member states will need to identify themes for social innovation, and the Commission will facilitate capacity building in this field. Further, the EU Horizon 2020 research programme will also address social innovation research, and aims to unleash innovation across a number of crucial growth areas.

The Inevitability of Public Funding for U.S. News Media

Day two of the Future of Journalism conference starts with a keynote from Robert McChesney. He begins by acknowledging yesterday’s keynote, but also notes that he has a somewhat different view on matters; pointing to The Guardian as a special case, endowed by a trust, and publicly funded media in Britain in general, he notes that there aren’t all that many such news organisations left – and these and new initiatives may not be enough in their own right to sustain the future of journalism. More and other approaches are needed.

The world is filled with young people who want to be journalists, and they need to be given the opportunity to do so. There’s no lack of talent or enthusiasm, but a lack of resources and institutions that enable this – this is a political problem first and foremost; the labour market for journalists in the U.S. is now the worst it has ever been – worse even than in the Great Depression –, and this will not change unless major changes are made. And things may get even worse in the coming years.

CeDEM Lightning Talks, Part 1

The final session at CeDEM 2011 is a series of five-minute lightning talks – so I’ll try to cover them all in two combined blog posts. Let’s see how we go…

The first speaker is Siobhan Donaghy, whose interest is in the transparency of electronic vote counting: after voting (using traditionally paper ballots and ballot boxes) has taken place, how are the results dealt with? Can technological solutions improve the counting process – and how can we keep the counting process transparent even though counting is no longer manual?

A Passionate Plea for More Open Data Initiatives

The final keynote speaker at CeDEM 2011 is Stefan Gehrke, whose focus is on open data. He notes that open data was a niche term at first, but turned more mainstream after President Obama launched the initiative – as a result, the increased availability of public sector information (PSI) initiated a change from from a permissions culture (where data access must be requested) to an innovations culture (where access is the default setting, and no permissions are necessary for the development of new services using these data).

PSI puts citizens into focus and highlights the importance of government-to-citizen interaction between elections. This increases the focus on citizens’ needs, and the potential at a local government level is especially high. But in spite of all of this, the digital civic rights movement has been faster than government in harnessing open data; they have developed projects showcasing the potential of open data, if not always with the support of government.


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