Last Thursday, 3rd October, Delib hosted the ninth Practical Democracy Project – a series of events designed to foster discussion on practical ways in which we can actually change our democracy for the better.

While we were setting up for PDP #9 in Westminster, Extinction Rebellion sprayed fake blood all over the Treasury and a number of innocent bystanders just across the street. The botched moment of protest, during which rebels lost control of the fire hose and got several people (themselves included) absolutely drenched in red dye, felt oddly significant as we prepared for an event themed around the state of modern democracy. (Can’t quite put my finger on why.)

It was a truly excellent event, with thanks to our truly excellent speakers: Mevan Babakar from Full Fact; Kitty von Bertele from Luminate Group; and Marcus Shepheard from Institute for Government. They’re all very different organisations, but they all have a goal in common: to use data to combat the rising (dyed red) tide of misinformation, mistrust and misuse of power, facts, and resources within our democracy.

Here’s how.

Full Fact

Mevan knows just how quickly information can spread on the internet. This summer, she put out a tweet asking people to share a picture of a man who gifted her a red bike, back when she was a 5-year-old refugee in the Netherlands. She wanted to meet him again to say thank you for the gift, but didn’t know his name or where he lived. Within 36 hours, the man had been located and they met up in person.

However, for every heartwarming story like hers there are millions more claims, fake news posts and misleading quotes and articles shared across our vast information sharing networks. Full Fact’s modus operandi is checking these claims and pushing for corrections where necessary.

One of the ways they’re able to operate efficiently and effectively is by using machine-learning, which she demonstrated with a seriously impressive voice-activated live fact check. The algorithm did several things:

  • Correctly interpreted her spoken words
  • Recognised that her sentence was a claim
  • Recognised the words and statistics in the claim (‘employment’, ‘fallen’, ’10 years’)
  • Assumed the claim was made about the UK
  • Cross-checked the claim against ONS data and concluded it was false
  • Linked to the source information.

Mevan made the point that none of this would be possible were it not for the fact that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has made its data completely open, as well as readable by machine-learning programs. The fight for open data continues.

Luminate

Kitty von Bertele spent nearly a decade working in the public sector, at a time when seeds of change in terms of open government were beginning to germinate. Indeed, it seemed like open government was the inevitable future, and there was a palpable sense of excitement at the brave new world it was going to bring with it. Sadly, things don’t always work out the way we think they will and there’s still much work to be done on getting governments to be more open and accountable.

Luminate does this work all around the world, and in the last two years, they’ve started working in the UK, too. (While it’s excellent that they have, it’s also a bit depressing that they should need to.) In the UK, their support goes towards independent media and organisations that work on strengthening data & digital rights. Luminate ran a focus group in partnership with the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and the Open Data Institute, which you may have seen being discussed on Twitter under the hashtag #WeAreNotRobots. The key takeaway? People do care about their data and are concerned about how it’s used. We just feel powerless to control it. 

Still a public servant at heart, Kitty wants that to change: she’s a cheerleader for deliberative forms of democracy and empowering people – under-represented communities especially – to become advocates for things that affect them.

Institute for Government

Marcus Shepheard is a senior researcher at Institute for Government, a think tank with an ambitious remit: helping people to understand government, and helping government to understand itself. One of the ways they do this is by providing quantitative data reports, which is a huge undertaking in and of itself. Marcus pointed out that it’s easy to quantify how well a prison is performing; they have targets, and performance metrics. It’s not so simple to quantify how well Parliament is doing. But by taking data from the ONS, Freedom of Information requests, web scraping, and interviews with people, Institute for Govermnent can create a picture of what government is and how it could be better. For example, they created a chart displaying the amount of FOIs granted per quarter by each department. The Cabinet and Foreign Offices weren’t doing so well. Other departments performed much better.

By displaying performance in a quantitative, statistical format, Institute for Government can present information in a way that is transparent and therefore holds government accountable – to itself, and to the people. One of their charts, on what happens when a vote of no confidence is made, was displayed in the office of a cabinet minister. 

Open data, practical democracy project, digital government, fake news

It was an eye-opening couple of hours, which really served to highlight just how important open and accessible data is to a functioning modern democracy. We’ve been fighting in that corner for a long time, but it’s good to be reminded of how much data policy affects other organisations, too. And with further seismic changes in our democratic landscape ahead, which could have a huge impact on how data moves across our borders, it’s important that the fight for open data, open government and honest information continues.

Endless thanks again to our speakers for generously donating their time and wisdom. You can follow them on Twitter: Mevan, Kitty, and Marcus. Also thanks to One Birdcage Walk for the event space.

If open data is your jam, an excellent resource for open government data in the UK can be found here. Also check out the ONS’s Open Geography Portal.

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