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Civic Tech or Civic Business? Digital technology will not help democracy without adopting its foundations

- February 15, 2017 in OK France, Open Data, Open Government Data, Transparency

This blog originally appeared on RegardsCitoyens.org and has been translated by Pierre Chrzanowski and Samuel Goëta (Open Knowledge France). Civil society did not wait for the buzzword “Civic Tech” to implement digital technology to serve democratic innovation. But since the boom of this trendy term, there have been many initiatives claiming to belong to what it entitles as a concept without respecting the very basic principles of democracy.

Adapted from a photo of Alexis (CC0)

Digital technology is not democratic in itself. Its simple use would not be enough to magically manage the essential democratic stakes, quite the contrary. Having a blind faith in technology opens the door to a loss of sovereignty and democratic control. There is a reason why the global “Open Government” movement has found its foundations in the Open Data dynamic (https://public.resource.org/8_principles.html) and the collaborative governance of the Internet, themselves deeply tightened to the principles of democratic transparency, public deliberation and open source communities. It would not be acceptable if the digital transition of democratic life were to come along with the creation of lucrative monopolies whose mechanisms would be hidden from society. This digital transition must therefore at the very least scrupulously respect the level of transparency and sovereignty of our democratic heritage. The Open Government Partnership global summit in Paris was a new opportunity to observe the public authorities boast, support and proudly announce the use, or even promote the tools of several “Civic Business” startups who specifically refuse to apply these democratic principles. Some of these companies, like Cap Collective (a startup also leading Parlement & Citoyens, that sells its proprietary consultation tool to the French government for most of its participatory initiatives), even claimed for years, for purely advertising purposes, to adhere to the principles of transparency and openness, but in reality never applied them. This is the reason why it seems urgent today to reaffirm that any democratic digital project needs to be based on open source code, ensuring diversity, transparency, participation and collaboration which are the very principles governing “Open Government”. While Regards Citoyens is not primarily dedicated to the promotion of free software (many organizations such as April or Framasoft are already doing so well at the national level), it is at the heart of our statutes as well as in all our projects. It is not a question of taking a dogmatic, purist or even a technical posture. It is more of an ethical position. Since its beginnings and until today, democracy has had to equip itself with tools such as the collaborative counting of votes, official newspapers and public deliberations to ensure a minimum of transparency and equal access to public life and provide a sufficient level of trust to citizens. It is essential that these same principles now apply to digital tools who aim at accompanying public institutions in our modern democracy. If “code is law”, only free software can ensure transparency and collective governance of this code, both essential in regards to trust in these new “laws”. That’s the whole issue of the transparency of algorithms that participate in public decision-making. Publishing the data generated as open data is also necessary, but as Valentin Chaput very well says “retrospectively publishing a dataset from a non-auditable platform is not a sufficient guarantee that the data has not been manipulated”. On NosDeputes.fr (Regards Citoyens’ Parliamentary monitoring website)  and its visualizations of parliamentary activities, for example, it is crucial that anyone can check that our algorithms do not implement any discriminatory treatment for a specific MP or political group. To gloriously invite world-renowned and fervent advocates of commons and free software such as Lawrence Lessig, Audrey Tang, Pablo Soto, Rufus Pollock or mySociety, while promoting initiatives that refuse to apply these principles, is purely and simply called “open-washing”. The fact that the French secretary in charge of digital affairs can organize and animate an international overview of Civic Tech during the OGP summit, while France is only represented by an initiative which is also the only one of the panel that sells proprietary software, is particularly caricatural, and shares a disastrous image for France among these international ambassadors of digital democracy. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the use of digital tools to support democracy is incompatible with any form of remuneration for Civic Tech actors! The same way we advocate for a fair compensation for elected officials and that we support that many policy makers have relatively low income in comparison with their responsibilities, we consider the remuneration of developers and animators of Civic Tech tools as a major issue. This debate must however not forget that democracy lives mostly based on volunteering. For instance, political activists getting involved in an electoral campaign knowing they will never be elected, or citizens mobilized during months to influence a political decision. Unfortunately too often, Civic Businesses dogmatically reproduce usual economic models, forgetting about the space and the issues in which they operate, exempting themselves from essential democratic values. By reproducing authoritarian models of startups and other sorts of incubators, Civic Tech may unleash cryonism, conflicts of interests, and actors who only want to enrich and empower themselves. However, many companies have well understood there are business models out there compatible with an open governance, with the production and use of free software, and with the transparency of algorithms. Everyone can be open! Simply applying the same requirements of exemplarity and transparency to our own structures is enough. Our workshop dedicated to Transparency applied to NGOs during the OGP summit was most illustrative in this matter and included many key actions, simple but essential, with which civil society can engage: free software and open data obviously, but also apply a more horizontal open governance, by for instance publishing detailed accounts, declaration of interests of representatives, minutes of meetings or also opening to oversight or the participation of all to meetings and ongoing works… So many opening actions that can become beneficial to structures who implement them and without which (at least) the growing French Civic Tech may sadly lose its soul. Digital technology will not renew democracy by feeding distrust with more transparency.

Let’s defend Open Formats for Public Sector Information in Europe!

- December 3, 2012 in Access to Information, Campaigning, Europe, Open Data, open formats, Open Government Data, Open Standards, Open/Closed, Policy, PSI, Regards Citoyens, WG EU Open Data, WG Open Government Data

Following some remarks from Richard Swetenham from the European Commission, we made a few changes relative to the trialogue process and the coming steps: the trialogue will start its meetings on 17th December and it is therefore already very useful to call on our governments to support Open Formats! When we work on building all these amazing democratic transparency collaborative tools all over the world, all of us, Open Data users and producers, struggle with these incredibly frustrating closed or unexploitable formats under which public data is unfortunately so often released: XLS, PDF, DOC, JPG, completely misformatted tables, and so on.

The EU PSI directive revision is a chance to push for a clear Open Formats definition!

As part of Neelie Kroes’s Digital Agenda, the European Commission recently proposed a revision of the Public Sector Information (PSI) Directive widening the scope of the existing directive to encourage public bodies to open up the data they produce as part of their own activities. The revision will be discussed at the European Parliament (EP), and this is the citizen’s chance to advocate for a clear definition of the Open Formats under which public sector information (PSI) should be released. We believe at Regards Citoyens that having a proper definition of Open Formats within the EU PSI directive revision would be a fantastic help to citizens and contribute to economic innovation. We believe such a definition can be summed-up to in two simple rules inspired by the Open Knowledge Foundation’s OpenDefinition principles:
  • being platform independant and machine-readable without any legal, financial or technical restriction;
  • being the result of an openly developped process in which all users can actually be part of the specifications evolution.
Those are the principles we advocated in a policy note on Open Formats we published last week and sent individually to all Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from the committee voting on the revision of the PSI directive last thursday. Good news: the first rule was adopted! But the second one was not. How did that work?

ITRE vote on Nov 29th: what happened and how?

EP meetingA meeting at the European Parliament
CC-BY-ND EPP Group
The European parliamentary process first involves a main committee in charge of preparing the debates before the plenary session, in our case the Industry, Research and Energy committee (ITRE). Its members met on 29th November around 10am to vote on the PSI revision amongst other files. MEPs can propose amendments to the revision beforehand, but, to speed up the process, the European Parliament works with what is called “compromise amendments” (CAs): the committee chooses a rapporteur leading the file in its name and each political group gets a “shadow rapporteur” to work together with the main rapporteur. They all study the proposed amendments together and try to sum them up in a few consensual ones called CAs, hence leading MEPs to pull away some amendments when they consider their concerns met. During the committee meeting, both kinds of amendment are voted on in accordance with predefined voting-list indicating the rapporteur’s recommandations. Regarding Open Formats, everything relied on a proposition to add to the directive‘s 2nd article a paragraph providing a clear definition of what an Open Format actually is. The rapporteurs work led to a pretty good compromise amendment 18, which speaks pretty much for itself:
« An open format is one that is platform independent, machine readable, and made available to the public without legal, technical or financial restrictions that would impede the re-use of that information. »
This amendment was adopted, meaning this change will be proposed as a new amendment to all MEPs during the plenary debate. Given that it has the support of the rapporteur in the name of the responsible committee, it stands a good chance of being carried. Regarding the open development process condition, MEP Amelia Andersdotter, shadow rapporteur for the European Parliament Greens group, maintained and adapted to this new definition her amendment 65:
« "open format" means that the format’s specification is maintained by a not-for-profit organisation the membership of which is not contingent on membership fees; its ongoing development occurs on the basis of an open decision-making procedure available to all interested parties; the format specification document is available freely; the intellectual property of the standard is made irrevocably available on a royalty-free basis. »
Even though it also got recommanded for approval by the main rapporteur, unfortunately the ALDE and EPP groups were not ready to support it yet and it got rejected. Watching the 12 seconds during which the Open Formats issues were voted is a strange experience to anyone not familiar with the European Parliament, since most of the actual debate happens beforehand between the different rapporteurs, the committee meeting mainly consists of a succession of raised hand votes calls, which are occasionally electronically checked. Therefore, there are no public individual votes or records of these discussions available and the vote happens very quickly.

What next? Can we do anything?

Now that the ITRE committee has voted, its report should soon be made available online As the European institutions work as a tripartite organisation, the text adopted by the ITRE committee will now be transferred to both the European Commission and Council for approval. This includes a trialogue procedure in which a consensus towards a common text must be driven. This is an occasion to call on our respective national governments to push in favor of Open Formats in order toc maintain and improve the definition which the EP already adopted. The text which comes out of the tripartite debate will be discussed in plenary session, planned at the moment for 11th March 2013. Until noon on the Wednesday preceding the plenary, MEPs will still have the possibility to propose new amendments to be voted on at plenary: they can do so either as a whole political group, or as a group of at least 40 different MEPs from any groups. Possible next steps to advocate Open Formats could therefore be the following:
  • Call on our national governments to push in favor of Open Formats;
  • Keep up-to-date with documents and procedures from the European Parliament: ParlTrack offers e-mail alerts on the dossier;
  • Whenever the proposition of new amendments towards the plenary debate is opened, we should contact our respective national MEPs from all political groups and urge them to propose amendments requiring Open Formats to be based on an open development process. Having multiple amendments coming from different political groups would certainly help MEPs realize this is not a partisan issue;
  • When the deadline for proposing amendments is reached, we should call on our MEPs by email, phone calls or Tweets to vote for such amendments and possibly against some opposed ones. In order to allow anyone to easily and freely phone their MEPs, we’re thinking about reusing La Quadrature du Net‘s excellent PiPhone tool for EU citizen advocacy.
In any case, contacting MEPs to raise concerns on Open Formats policies can of course always be useful at all times before and after the plenary debates. Policy papers, amendments proposals, vulgarisation documents, blogposts, open-letters, a petititon, tweets, … It can all help! To conclude, we would like to stress once again that Regards Citoyens is an entirely voluntary organisation without much prior experience with the European Parliament. This means help and expertise is much appreciated! Let’s get all ready to defend Open Formats for European Open Data in a few weeks!
Regards Citoyens — CC-BY-SA

International Open Legislative Data Conference, July 6-7, Paris!

- June 25, 2012 in Events, Legal, Open Government Data, WG EU Open Data, WG Open Government Data

While the newly elected French National Assembly gets ready to choose its president, the question of its modernisation keeps arising. From the academic research world to the hacktivist perspective, parliamentary monitoring and studies are flourishing in France and all over the world. Methods and techniques may differ, but all share one common need: larger transparency regarding parliamentary activity, meaning raw OpenData access to legislative data. That is the core of the international Open Legislative Data Conference we are organising in Paris on July 6th and 7th together with our academic partners at Sciences-Po, for our project “The Law Factory”. With speakers coming from all over the world, this two-day event will be an opportunity to discuss all kinds of experiences within the field of parliamentary informatics: law tracking, parliamentary monitoring, citizen involvement, rollcall vote analysis and accountability, the study of speeches, and of course raw access to bulk data from parliaments around the world. On Friday the 6th, the conference will start at Sciences-Po, with a plenary session in the morning introducing various ongoing projects including “The Law Factory” initiated by the conference organizers, and the work on a future “Declaration for Parliamentary Openness”. About 30 different speakers will then present, including Bruno Latour (Sciences-Po’s Medialab), Daniel Schuman (Sunlight Foundation), Claire-Emmanuelle Longuet (French Senate), Tom Steinberg (mySociety), Maria Baron (Latin America Network for Legislative Transparency), Ashok Hariharan (UN’s AkomaNToso project), and many others. In the afternoon, six working sessions will be held in 3 parallel workshops on the different themes so that participants can share and exchange after a few introductory talks. On Saturday the 7th of July, “La Cantine”, a co-working space used for hosting hackathons and barcamps, will host informal sessions and discussions to enhance cooperation. Gathering together people from very different horizons, this English-speaking conference is open to anyone: Join us and register! Read the full programme