In recent Italian elections one party that wanted eDemocracy, but had no real platform installed, won about one third of the votes in the Parliament. So everybody started shouting that they now wanted them to install Liquid Feedback. Mostly people said so, without ever having used Liquid Feedback. While trying to present some alternatives I realised most people did not know of White House 2. One of the most successful, but unknown platform for eDemmocracy. So I wrote the following blog post. I translated here in Italian. Not exactly word by word, but quite precisely.
It was November 2008 when White House 2 opened up. It was made from Jim Gilliam (@jgilliam); the site was very simple. In a way brilliant: if you were the President of the United States, what would be your priorities?
Participants could insert laws that they wished were approved, and had to order them from the more important to the least important.
The site had a system for automatic research, similar to StackOverflow, so that if you wrote a law that had some words similar to other laws that has already been proposed, he would find you those proposals. So, instead of adding your proposal you could add the already existing proposal.
[Note: if participants can easily search through the existing proposals, they will avoid to rewrite them].
On every proposal the people could write if they agreed with them (and so add them on their list), or if they were against (and I think they could add in the list their opposition to that law), they could also add documents in favor, documents against, comments in favor, comments against. All neatly ordered in two columns, one green and one read. This helped people that would read the proposal get rapidly an idea if they supported or not the proposal. Obviously the site would measure for each proposal how many people favoured it, and how many people opposed it. Not only, but Jim, for each proposal would indicate if the President supported it or not (basing himself on the President public declarations). It would then compile an integrated list of what the people preference were. What people wanted regarding the Economy, regarding Education, …
But what would happen if a proposal was present but was not developed enough?
This is maybe one of the unsolved problems, and maybe unsolvable problems, in eDemocracy. If people can vote for proposals those cannot change in time. If it changes in time you must make everybody re-vote (loosing participation), or you risk that some of them will support on the website a proposal, they they don’t really subscribe to anymore. Wikipedia solves it by keeping the last version, and not letting people vote the pages. On Vilfredo anyone can rewrite anything, but then everybody must re-vote. The maximum of precision, the minimum of usability. On Ideascale (and in general in petition systems) you cannot change proposals. On Liquid Feedback people can suggest changes in the proposals. But then every proposal has an editor (who wrote it first) which has the responsibility, and the power to decide what to accept (this is, by the way, one of the weak points in LF). On Airesis there is a similar system, but slightly more refined: you can propose yourself as an editor for a specific proposal. Probably the perfect system will permit to anyone to rewrite any proposal. And will then let everybody chose the versions of the proposals they want to follow. Something similar to GitHub. Votorola uses a similar system. (See on this also the presentation Clay Shirky‘s TED presentation). But all this came later; Jim Gilliam, at the time, came up with the following system: you could propose a new version of a proposal. This was then subject to the (automatic) evaluation of the people that have participated in the previous version (voting pro or against). If within 48 hours at least 70% of the people who participated accepted the new version, all the ones that did not answer the mail would be moved to the new version anyway. Who said no would remain with the old version.
“people can create a new priority, and then they can ‘propose an acquisition’ of an existing priority, either the endorsers/opposers or both. and state a reason why. then it goes up for a vote to all the people who are endorsing/opposing the priority to be acquired. they get an email with the reason the person suggested the acquisition, and are asked to vote yes or no within 48 hours. if they vote yes, they are automatically transferred over to endorsing the new priority, and if they vote no, they stay on the existing priority. and then for the people who don’t vote within 48 hours, if more than 70% of people supported the acquisition, all the non-voters will be transferred over automatically. otherwise they remain there. anyone who voted no, still stays on the existing one no matter what.” [Jim Gilliam, personal email 5 March 2009]
The result was a fast and dirty, system, that would work well, but at the cost of mathematical precision. Surely there were people that in this way would find themselves supporting proposals they no longer agreed with. But just in part. But the system worked, and if you accepted the point of view that you were not supporting a dead law, but an alive proposal, you could also accept that the result was not always what you wanted.
Then Jim introduces an economical system (called “political capital”, pc). Many of you know the Karma system: if you do something good (write a proposal that wins approvals from other people, for example) you win points. The more points you have, the more the system gives you power. This is a system that works, but tends to create “super users”. Both Slashdot and StackOverflow use it (even though in very different ways). In StackOverflow the points are gained helping other people programming, and can then be added to your curriculum, when you are looking for work. In WhiteHouse 2 there was a point system, but the points were not just gained, they also could be spent! Inviting a person to join the site would give you so many points. Mutating a proposal would cost you others. But if a proposal was accepted (the acquisition agreed on), you would gain back your points, and more. You could spend points advertising law proposals on the side of the website. A very interesting system, which more importantly, worked.
The great problem (in my view) was that the website did not have a solid mathematical base. Why would the proposal of a person who has invited other people have more visibility than the proposal of a person that would just enter to write that one proposal. Was it really 70% the threshold that represented the limit that would make sure that a proposal would substitute an other?
But it worked, and it worked so well that Jim explained to me how at first the number of proposals started growing in an exponential way. But eventually, even if the number of participants kept on growing, the number of proposals stabilised itself. They have mapped (more or less) the space of all the laws that Americans wanted. And for each law they had a measure of how many where in favour and how many against. Just for this description White House 2 was an exceptionally successful instrument.
It was also its peak moment. Jim decided to make it open source, to permit to other people to open similar pages for other groups. And since each group was seen as a nation, the new site was called: Nation Builder. He then abandoned the project [in a recent tweet, he explained how Nation Builder was too complicated to be installed, and needed to be offered as a Software as a Service product]. He closed White House 2 (which, he explains, was taking too much time managing the community), and he used his experience to build an instrument to permit to people to manage communities, put them in touch with activists, and generally help them handling them. For a political group using it, the software would help them getting elected, for example. Also this instrument was called Nation Builder (how confusing).
For the people of the Movimento 5 Stelle, Nation Builder is a system similar to meet up, but centralised. That will permit a continuous exchange of information between the center and the periphery. Something similar to Beppe Grillo’s site on steroid, but where the aim is to get your representatives elected. The site telling you who to contact, and how to keep an ear on what the supporters are saying. If you have read the l’articolo from the Guardian, Beppe Grillo is judged as an old style leader. This because, although he uses the internet to reach out to the people, he does not build up a dialogue (for example if you have ever written to Grillo, or at his staff, no one will answer you). Nation Builder, SaaS, will build this missing dialogue (for about 20 $ a month, I gather). But let’s go back to White House 2. The fact that Jim turned off the server was not the end of the code. As it often happens to valuable projects, it was recovered.
In the meantime the crises in Iceland happened, and they had new elections. Those were won by a small, new, party. (This was told me by Robert, one of the programmers working with this party). A party everybody treated as a joke, until using some “strange program from the internet” were able to mobilise so many people to win elections. Once the elections were won the party asked its programmers: “ok, now let us know what the icelandic people want us to do”. This group of programmers, in particular Róbert Viðar Bjarnason (let’s call him Robert, the one I mentioned before), recovered the old nation builder (now deprecated), forked it calling it Open Active Democracy. Then started working on it, he also added some of his ideas (I am not sure of the details, this part was told me by Smári McCarthy -icelandic, one of the designers of Liquid Democracy-) and an instrument to permit to anyone to help in the site translations. Then he used the result to make a series of websites.
The programmers made a first website to permit to the population to express what they wanted from Iceland (http://www.skuggaborg.is/ defunct), then a second website to decide what to do in Reykjavik: Betri Reykjavik.
Then they substituted skuggaborg with Betra Island. And by now we have gathered that Betri and Betra means Better. With those sites their organisation (Citizen Foundation) won the EU eDemocracy Award. Then they tried to jump out of their nation and opened Your Priorities. A meta-website, divided in many sub-websites. One for each nation. And for each nation people could participate. The site is still there, but so far participation is still missing, showing that it is not enough to have the right software. It is also needed a local structure that connects it with the territory. (But we could use the italian sub-site, as we did for the meet-up).
I will add that with Derek (friend and collaborator with which we developed Vilfredo), we tried to instal a website of Open Active Democracy. At the time we saw this as the best software available. We could not do it. Not only we were not Ruby programmers, but also the code has changed in time without being reinstalled each time. The result was that without the original database it would not work. Yet, a good programmer, with some time could make it.
Also there is sitill the italian version of Your Priorities. And always the possibility to contact Robert and his team.
And this is the story of White House 2.