Democracy can sometimes be a controversial topic; at Wool, the team are hugely interested in the democratic world and we love to learn about it in as many ways as possible. So, when the Tech For Good Live team put together an event surrounding the topic of democracy, we had to be there. As ever, the evening was interesting, insightful and brought together a room of wonderful people - all kept going with pizza and beer. The two wonderful presentations of the evening came from Ben Fowkes (@ben_fowkes) from Delib (DelibThinks) and Zarino Zappia (@Zarino) from MySociety (@MySociety) who both explored how their organisations are working to improve democratic processes both in the UK and overseas.
Ben kicked off the evening by promising to tell the truth about Delib's journey to where they are now, with his presentation surrounding 'Living in Interesting Times – the trials and tribulations of building Citizen Space'. Citizen Space is a platform which allows people to participate in ongoing decision making which effects everyday life.
The journey started in 2001 when three students set up a satirical political site surrounding the ongoing general election, the different activities on the website gained traction and the team decided to keep going and between 2001 and 2010, the they experimented with ways in which they could improve democracy, for example, creating programmes which could be used in schools for educational purposes.
One of the amazing projects which the team worked on was with the Obama administration on a crowdsourcing activity. Which, let's face it, is a pretty great proof of concept.
Around 2008/2009 Delib started to look at the government as a platform with the intention to cut across silos and to develop things which could really make change. They found that consultation is hard and Delib really wanted to change this, luckily, the vast majority of officials also wanted to hear from real people meaning that there was a space for something to improve the democratic landscape.
There were a few main issues identified for citizens;
- Unable to find consultations
- The process was difficult and confusing
- Users would never hear anything back following participation
- Consultations seemed to be repetitive and unnecessary
- People were concerned about their privacy and how their personal data might be used
There were also issues found which centred around officials, which were very similar to those of the citizens;
- Unable to publish things centrally
- There was no standard way to conduct consultations online
- Culturally unsure around how (or if they should) feedback to outcomes
- Data, teams and people are often siloed
- No process, technology or ideas surrounding how to manage sensitive data
Essentially, Delib were 'betting the farm' and made the decision to move to a product based solution. In 2010, the state of play was bad with few customers and little cash, and the technology itself definitely lending itself to be being the 'minimal' end of MVP.
In the run up to the Scottish Independence Referendum, the government understood that they needed to consult on a wide range of topics, for example; should 16 and 17 year olds be able to vote, how should the ballot be worded to ensure that it is clear and should the referendum be held on a weekend to assist with turnout? Thanks to this, the state of play in 2008 was much more positive as Delib began to work on projects of this nature.
The next step? They decided to 'bet the farm' again and sell the idea to the Australian market; working on the assumption that Australia operated in the same way as the UK and in turn, they scaled up and replicated the idea down under. However, it turned out that Australia have a quite different system to the UK. Moreover, they had much more cash than in the UK, so were less pressed for an efficient product and there was also lots of competition (interestingly, the solutions provided by the competition were much older, however, with them being more established, this wasn't an issue) and finally, the democratic system itself was just generally different in Australia than it was in the UK.
Delib managed to find an area of Australia who were willing to work with them on the product and they soon found that if you manage to convert the countryside, the cities will fall. And so, managed to become much more established within Australia.
Following on from this, the state of play in 2014 was much more promising and the team now had cash, meaning that they could begin product development and released version 2, which had around 70 updates – all of which were included in the subscription for existing users, as is true for any future updates. Soon after came version 3, which was properly designed, responsive and allowed different organisations to include their own branding for a much more personalised product.
Bringing us to the now, the business is in a much better situation with a range of customers using the technology, which is much more than 'viable'. One difficulty of the solution is measuring the impact which it has had, but this seems to be implied by users.
Ben shared that the difference between success and failure is the passion which is behind the project. And as it shows, the Delib team were definitely passionate.
And for the name 'Delib'? Well, always having a deliberate approach.
Next up, Zarino explored the topic of 'Design for Civic Participation' through the impact which the charity MySociety has had globally; the organisation has the view that everybody should have access to democracy and works to empower the ability for this around the world. The work undertaken by MySociety enables people to hold decision makers accountable along with mapping the locations of things such as access to pharmaceuticals and crime.
To ensure that the products created by MySociety can be executed as effectively as possible, there is always an upfront research phase to underpin the needs of the user. Design decisions are also made at the start of the process and then iterated, if required, throughout the rest of the project.
Another interesting point made by Zarino, was that those who are hardest to reach and research are those who you really need to think about and ensure that the platform works for them.
Zarino presented four things which should be considered when designing a platform;
1. Understand the local culture – for example, some colours may have local connotations which may imply a political allegiance, some countries want more text on their websites as it implies credibility to users, and local partners can give much more insight into culture than you could ever imagine.
2. Follow the users – go to the area(s) where your users are, this way you will be able learn much more than if you were to just make assumptions. It is also worth looking into user behaviours and following the trends and use cases of the local area; for example, in some countries, social media (primarily Facebook) is the only access to the outside world available and people have data plans set up on phones along with their accounts all in one package – never knowing how the account was set up, or the email address associated with it. More over, if the phone is broken or lost, they simply have a new Facebook account set up. This inability to access the internet without depending on Facebook means that for some countries, products have been iterated to allow for single sign on with Facebook to open the solutions to a wider audience.
3. Design for multiple devices – overtime, MySociety have found that global users are accessing the internet through a wide range of devices and browsers, some of which, bring along their own complexities, meaning that testing throughout is crucial – along with ensuring that you cater to the nuances of a variety of mediums.
4. Make a change right now – the team recently spent one day working on a Front End performance sprint which reduced the page weight of a solution by 40% which has had a huge impact for users in other countries. This process also gave the team lots of ideas for what can be improved going forward. A few days working on a platform can make a huge difference to users and has a real impact – making a change right now doesn't need to be scary.
Both Ben and Zarino presented interesting and insightful presentations surrounding how technology can improve the general process of the democratic services and gave the team lots to think about surrounding the capabilities of technology on a global scale. Thanks again to the team at Tech for Good Live for putting on an amazing event, we definitely recommend that you get yourselves down to the next event around Circular Design!