A few weeks ago mySociety and Politik Digital held a small unconference in Berlin. The idea was to get together some of the best practioners building and running democracy websites across Europe, regardless of their size or status.
I’ll try to write this up more fully soon, but for the moment I wanted to share some email interviews I did with some of the participants after the event. The first is with Guglielmo Celata from the Italian group D.E.P.P. We first came across them a couple of years ago when they borrowed some code from PublicWhip.org.uk (the independent volunteer vote analysis project run by Julian Todd and mySociety senior developer Francis Irving) for their website OpenPolis.
Anyway, enough for the context – D.E.P.P have some great, boundary-pushing work coming up and I thought people in the English speaking community would want to know.
What is the organisation you work for?
The name of the Association is D.E.P.P., that stands for Electronic Democracy and Public Partecipation.
It’s a relatively small group of people (four) who work on e-partecipation projects with local administrations (the municipality of Rome and the Regione Lazio, for examples). We also have an self-financed project, named Openpolis, to map politicians, their charges, their declarations, both at a national and at a local level. More on this later.
What is the main purpose of the site(s) that you run?
We have a project named eDem 1.0 which has been so far installed twice: municipiopartecipato.it focuses in enabling e-participation of local communities on the “participatory budget”; and edem-regione on the budget of the Regione Lazio (the link points to an alpha version).
I think the participatory budget for the local community is far more interesting. The site shows a list of issues categorized by theme and territory. Registered users can vote up issues and make them emerge as important. Issues are created by the users. Users can also create proposals related to issues and vote them. The integration with Google Maps, allows user to see how issues and proposals distribute in their territory; it makes the user interface immediate (and of course makes the site sooo stylish).
The proposals emerging as the most voted are approved and follow a workflow to be actually financed and implemented.
Online activities and offline physical assemblies (which exist), are linked together by a group of paid people, called enablers. They take care of moderating both offline and online activities, too.
The other project has almost the same features, but applied to the budget document of the Regione Lazio. Of course, the issues here are not created by the citizens, being the chapters (or sections) of the official budget document. The citizens can create and rate proposals, but such proposals are never going to be implemented.
This happens a lot, administrators are intersted in e-participation projects, but they want to reduce the possibility of issues emerging directly from citizens, and€ of course they try to change the nature of the project from a participative one, into a consultative one. A kind of Poll 2.0, if one wants to be cynical.
Can you tell us about your next site, the one you showed us in Berlin?
Openpolis is a project to gather informations on our political class and make them transparent. How they vote once elected, what laws they propose, their charges in institution, political parties and private organisations, public declarations, financial interests, judicial positions etc. The aim of the project is to revive the bond between the citizens and their representatives. We would like to give individuals or organized group of citizens, a set of tools to enable them to perform lobbying activities.
We want to work both at a national level and at a very local level, and to do this we plan to allow users to create part of the content on the site, and hope this way to create communities, wiki-style.
However, the site is not a wiki, since content has to be well-structured; we want to export statistics and make analysis on data added by users.
You are planning to combine information gathered from formal sources, and submitted by users. Can you tell us where you’re getting the formal information from, and how you are going to handle the information submitted by users?
We have different levels, and correspondingly different sources. At a national level, we are harvesting the official web sites of the Camera and Senato (the two houses of national representatives) and the web site of European Parliament. At local levels we rely on official biographical data from the Ministero degli Interni (Interior Ministry). We double check politician’s data for the 20 major cities in italy, but of course can’t possibly dream of doing that for the 109 provinces and 8100 municipalities.
For data on charges, declarations, financial interests and judicial positions, and for a complete double check on details and biographical data, we plan to leverage the community of users. The more users, the more data and verification.
Of course, data inserted by the users must be always connected to sources (i.e a web link, a reference to a book, an article in a newspaper, or a radio or television program). Data will be verified by moderators, and the community of moderators will grow on trust basis (using a karma-based system, so that when a subscribed user reach a certain treshold of trust, he is proposed as moderator to the board of administrators). We all know that this part is a real challenge and that handling a community online is a daunting task, but, hey, let’s try.
Users can be banned and content can be censored (after publishing), but any banning or censorship will be performed transparently, so that anyone, in any moment will be able to know the reason why a user was banned.
Do you ever face claims that the effects you have on politicians aren’t entirely positive? If so, how do you respond?
We actually have not yet started, but we do plan on receiving a lot of such claims. Of course we are trying to create something that the politicians should use, as well, so the most interested and active users should be the politician themselves.
Are there any other features of your site that you think are unusual or unique?
We plan to release an API, in order to make integration of our data and analysis possible directly from other web applications. Starting from RSS feed, to a proper API, it should be possible to integrate pieces of our applications directly into people’s blog or other similar applications.
What other projects around the world excite you the most, and why?
Well, of course the TheyWorkForYou project was a real kick off, we just thought: “wow, we have to do that here in Italy!” Then I really appreciate the work at GovTrack.us, especially from the technical standpoint, for the innovative way of using RDF and the Semantic Web approach.
Here in Italy, a project I forgot to mention in Berlin is: http://fainotizia.radioradicale.it.
FaiNotizia means Make Your Own News, it’s a project by Radio Radicale, an historical radio broadcast of the Italian Radical Party. It provides one of the first citizens journalism website in Italy and we plan to integrate with them in the future.
Do you use the law to help you get information? If so, how have you gone about it, and what have you obtained?
We haven’t so far, every information that we gathered was publicly available, we just wrote tons of parser code.
We plan to push the release of data on financial interests and judicial positions, though. Those data are public, but poorly accessible (no electronic format, no scanning, phtos or copies possible). This will require some legal actions or some fantasy to get them. We’ll see.
So there we are. If you’ve any further questions or clarifications, just post a comment here and I’ll update this post with Guglielmo’s help.