Can “We the People” really help draft a national constitution? (sort of..)

As innovations like social media and open government initiatives have become an integral part of the politics in the twenty-first century, there is increasing interest in the possibility of citizens directly participating in the drafting of legislation. Indeed, there is a clear trend of greater public participation in the process of constitution making, and with the growth of e-democracy tools, this trend is likely to continue. However, this view is certainly not universally held, and a number of recent studies have been much more skeptical about the value of public participation, questioning whether it has any real impact on the text of a constitution.

Following the banking crisis, and a groundswell of popular opposition to the existing political system in 2009, the people of Iceland embarked on a unique process of constitutional reform. Having opened the entire drafting process to public input and scrutiny, these efforts culminated in Iceland’s 2011 draft crowdsourced constitution: reputedly the world’s first. In his Policy & Internet article “When Does Public Participation Make a Difference? Evidence From Iceland’s Crowdsourced Constitution”, Alexander Hudson examines the impact that the Icelandic public had on the development of the draft constitution. He finds that almost 10 percent of the written proposals submitted generated a change in the draft text, particularly in the area of rights.

This remarkably high number is likely explained by the isolation of the drafters from both political parties and special interests, making them more reliant on and open to input from the public. However, although this would appear to be an example of successful public crowdsourcing, the new constitution was ultimately rejected by parliament. Iceland’s experiment with participatory drafting therefore demonstrates the possibility of successful online public engagement — but also the need to connect the masses with the political elites. It was the disconnect between these groups that triggered the initial protests and constitutional reform, but also that led to its ultimate failure.

We caught up with Alexander to discuss his findings.

Ed: We know from Wikipedia (and other studies) that group decisions are better, and crowds can be trusted. However, I guess (re US, UK) I also feel increasingly nervous about the idea of “the public” having a say over anything important and binding. How do we distribute power and consultation, while avoiding populist chaos?  

Alexander: That’s a large and important question, which I can probably answer only in part. One thing we need to be careful of is what kind of public we are talking about. In many cases, we view self-selection as a bad thing — it can’t be representative. However, in cases like Wikipedia, we see self-selected individuals with specialized knowledge and an uncommon level of interest collaborating. I would suggest that there is an important difference between the kind of decisions that are made by careful and informed participants in citizens’ juries, deliberative polls, or Wikipedia editing, and the oversimplified binary choices that we make in elections or referendums.

So, while there is research to suggest that large numbers of ordinary people can make better decisions, there are some conditions in terms of prior knowledge and careful consideration attached to that. I have high hopes for these more deliberative forms of public participation, but we are right to be cautious about referendums. The Icelandic constitutional reform process actually involved several forms of public participation, including two randomly selected deliberative fora, self-selected online participation, and a popular referendum with several questions.

Ed: A constitution is a very technical piece of text: how much could non-experts realistically contribute to its development — or was there also contribution from specialised interest groups? Presumably there was a team of lawyers and drafters managing the process? 

Alexander: All of these things were going on in Iceland’s drafting process. In my research here and on a few other constitution-making processes in other countries, I’ve been impressed by the ability of citizens to engage at a high level with fundamental questions about the nature of the state, constitutional rights, and legal theory. Assuming a reasonable level of literacy, people are fully capable of reading some literature on constitutional law and political philosophy, and writing very well-informed submissions that express what they would like to see in the constitutional text. A small, self-selected set of the public in many countries seeks to engage in spirited and for the most part respectful debate on these issues. In the Icelandic case, these debates have continued from 2009 to the present.

I would also add that public interest is not distributed uniformly across all the topics that constitutions cover. Members of the public show much more interest in discussing issues of human rights, and have more success in seeing proposals on that theme included in the draft constitution. Some NGOs were involved in submitting proposals to the Icelandic Constitutional Council, but interest groups do not appear to have been a major factor in the process. Unlike some constitution-making processes, the Icelandic Constitutional Council had a limited staff, and the drafters themselves were very engaged with the public on social media.

Ed: I guess Iceland is fairly small, but also unusually homogeneous. That helps, presumably, in creating a general consensus across a society? Or will party / political leaning always tend to trump any sense of common purpose and destiny, when defining the form and identity of the nation?

Alexander: You are certainly right that Iceland is unusual in these respects, and this raises important questions of what this is a case of, and how the findings here can inform us about what might happen in other contexts. I would not say that the Icelandic people reached any sort of broad, national-level consensus about how the constitution should change. During the early part of the drafting process, it seems that those who had strong disagreements with what was taking place absented themselves from the proceedings. They did turn up later to some extent (especially after the 2012 referendum), and sought to prevent this draft from becoming law.

Where the small size and homogeneous population really came into play in Iceland is through the level of knowledge that those who participated had of one another before entering into the constitution-making process. While this has been over emphasized in some discussions of Iceland, there are communities of shared interests where people all seem to know each other, or at least know of each other. This makes forming new societies, NGOs, or interest groups easier, and probably helped to launch the constitution-making project in the first place. 

Ed: How many people were involved in the process — and how were bad suggestions rejected, discussed, or improved? I imagine there must have been divisive issues, that someone would have had to arbitrate? 

Alexander: The number of people who interacted with the process in some way, either by attending one of the public forums that took place early in the process, voting in the election for the Constitutional Council, or engaging with the process on social media, is certainly in the tens of thousands. In fact, one of the striking things about this case is that 522 people stood for election to the 25 member Constitutional Council which drafted the new constitution. So there was certainly a high level of interest in participating in this process.

My research here focused on the written proposals that were posted to the Constitutional Council’s website. 204 individuals participated in that more intensive way. As the members of the Constitutional Council tell it, they would read some of the comments on social media, and the formal submissions on their website during their committee meetings, and discuss amongst themselves which ideas should be carried forward into the draft. The vast majority of the submissions were well-informed, on topic, and conveyed a collegial tone. In this case at least, there was very little of the kind of abusive participation that we observe in some online networks. 

Ed: You say that despite the success in creating a crowd-sourced constitution (that passed a public referendum), it was never ratified by parliament — why is that? And what lessons can we learn from this?

Alexander: Yes, this is one of the most interesting aspects of the whole thing for scholars, and certainly a source of some outrage for those Icelanders who are still active in trying to see this draft constitution become law. Some of this relates to the specifics of Iceland’s constitutional amendment process (which disincentives parliament from approving changes in between elections), but I think that there are also a couple of broadly applicable things going on here. First, the constitution-making process arose as a response to the way that the Icelandic government was perceived to have failed in governing the financial system in the late 2000s. By the time a last-ditch attempt to bring the draft constitution up for a vote in parliament occurred right before the 2013 election, almost five years had passed since the crisis that began this whole saga, and the economic situation had begun to improve. So legislators were not feeling pressure to address those issues any more.

Second, since political parties were not active in the drafting process, too few members of parliament had a stake in the issue. If one of the larger parties had taken ownership of this draft constitution, we might have seen a different outcome. I think this is one of the most important lessons from this case: if the success of the project depends on action by elite political actors, they should be involved in the earlier stages of the process. For various reasons, the Icelanders chose to exclude professional politicians from the process, but that meant that the Constitutional Council had too few friends in parliament to ratify the draft.

Read the full article: Hudson, A. (2018) When Does Public Participation Make a Difference? Evidence From Iceland’s Crowdsourced Constitution. Policy & Internet 10 (2) 185-217. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/poi3.167

Alexander Hudson was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Do Finland’s digitally crowdsourced laws show a way to resolve democracy’s “legitimacy crisis”?

There is much discussion about a perceived “legitimacy crisis” in democracy. In his article The Rise of the Mediating Citizen: Time, Space, and Citizenship in the Crowdsourcing of Finnish Legislation, Taneli Heikka (University of Jyväskylä) discusses the digitally crowdsourced law for same-sex marriage that was passed in Finland in 2014, analysing how the campaign used new digital tools and created practices that affect democratic citizenship and power making.

Ed: There is much discussion about a perceived “legitimacy crisis” in democracy. For example, less than half of the Finnish electorate under 40 choose to vote. In your article you argue that Finland’s 2012 Citizens’ Initiative Act aimed to address this problem by allowing for the crowdsourcing of ideas for new legislation. How common is this idea? (And indeed, how successful?)

Taneli: The idea that digital participation could counter the “legitimacy crisis” is a fairly common one. Digital utopians have nurtured that idea from the early years of the internet, and have often been disappointed. A couple of things stand out in the Finnish experiment that make it worth a closer look.

First, the digital crowdsourcing system with strong digital identification is a reliable and potentially viral campaigning tool. Most civic initiative systems I have encountered rely on manual or otherwise cumbersome, and less reliable, signature collection methods.

Second, in the Finnish model, initiatives that break the threshold of 50,000 names must be treated in the Parliament equally to an initiative from a group of MPs. This gives the initiative constitutional and political weight.

Ed: The Act led to the passage of Finland’s first equal marriage law in 2014. In this case, online platforms were created for collecting signatures as well as drafting legislation. An NGO created a well-used platform, but it subsequently had to shut it down because it couldn’t afford the electronic signature system. Crowds are great, but not a silver bullet if something as prosaic as authentication is impossible. Where should the balance lie between NGOs and centrally funded services, i.e. government?

Taneli: The crucial thing in the success of a civic initiative system is whether it gives the people real power. This question is decided by the legal framework and constitutional basis of the initiative system. So, governments have a very important role in this early stage – designing a law for truly effective citizen initiatives.

When a framework for power-making is in place, service providers will emerge. Should the providers be public, private or third sector entities? I think that is defined by local political culture and history.

In the United States, the civic technology field is heavily funded by philanthropic foundations. There is an urge to make these tools commercially viable, though no one seems to have figured out the business model. In Europe there’s less philanthropic money, and in my experience experiments are more often government funded.

Both models have their pros and cons, but I’d like to see the two continents learning more from each other. American digital civic activists tell me enviously that the radically empowering Finnish model with a government-run service for crowdsourcing for law would be impossible in the US. In Europe, civic technologists say they wish they had the big foundations that Americans have.

Ed: But realistically, how useful is the input of non-lawyers in (technical) legislation drafting? And is there a critical threshold of people necessary to draft legislation?

Taneli: I believe that input is valuable from anyone who cares to invest some time in learning an issue. That said, having lawyers in the campaign team really helps. Writing legislation is a special skill. It’s a pity that the co-creation features in Finland’s Open Ministry website were shut down due to a lack of funding. In that model, help from lawyers could have been made more accessible for all campaign teams.

In terms of numbers, I don’t think the size of the group is an issue either way. A small group of skilled and committed people can do a lot in the drafting phase.

Ed: But can the drafting process become rather burdensome for contributors, given professional legislators will likely heavily rework, or even scrap, the text?

Taneli: Professional legislators will most likely rework the draft, and that is exactly what they are supposed to do. Initiating an idea, working on a draft, and collecting support for it are just phases in a complex process that continues in the parliament after the threshold of 50,000 signatures is reached. A well-written draft will make the legislators’ job easier, but it won’t replace them.

Ed: Do you think there’s a danger that crowdsourcing legislation might just end up reflecting the societal concerns of the web-savvy – or of campaigning and lobbying groups

Taneli: That’s certainly a risk, but so far there is little evidence of it happening. The only initiative passed so far in Finland – the Equal Marriage Act – was supported by the majority of Finns and by the majority of political parties, too. The initiative system was used to bypass a political gridlock. The handful of initiatives that have reached the 50,000 signatures threshold and entered parliamentary proceedings represent a healthy variety of issues in the fields of education, crime and punishment, and health care. Most initiatives seem to echo the viewpoint of the ‘ordinary people’ instead of lobbies or traditional political and business interest groups.

Ed: You state in your article that the real-time nature of digital crowdsourcing appeals to a generation that likes and dislikes quickly; a generation that inhabits “the space of flows”. Is this a potential source of instability or chaos? And how can this rapid turnover of attention be harnessed efficiently so as to usefully contribute to a stable and democratic society?

Taneli: The Citizens’ Initiative Act in Finland is one fairly successful model to look at in terms of balancing stability and disruptive change. It is a radical law in its potential to empower the individual and affect real power-making. But it is by no means a shortcut to ‘legislation by a digital mob’, or anything of that sort. While the digital campaigning phase can be an explosive expression of the power of the people in the ‘time and space of flows’, the elected representatives retain the final say. Passing a law is still a tedious process, and often for good reasons.

Ed: You also write about the emergence of the “mediating citizen” – what do you mean by this?

Taneli: The starting point for developing the idea of the mediating citizen is Lance Bennett’s AC/DC theory, i.e. the dichotomy of the actualising and the dutiful citizen. The dutiful citizen is the traditional form of democratic citizenship – it values voting, following the mass media, and political parties. The actualising citizen, on the other hand, finds voting and parties less appealing, and prefers more flexible and individualised forms of political action, such as ad hoc campaigns and the use of interactive technology.

I find these models accurate but was not able to place in this duality the emerging typologies of civic action I observed in the Finnish case. What we see is understanding and respect for parliamentary institutions and their power, but also strong faith in one’s skills and capability to improve the system in creative, technologically savvy ways. I used the concept of the mediating citizen to describe an actor who is able to move between the previous typologies, mediating between them. In the Finnish example, creative tools were developed to feed initiatives in the traditional power-making system of the parliament.

Ed: Do you think Finland’s Citizens Initiative Act is a model for other governments to follow when addressing concerns about “democratic legitimacy”?

Taneli: It is an interesting model to look at. But unfortunately the ‘legitimacy crisis’ is probably too complex a problem to be solved by a single participation tool. What I’d really like to see is a wave of experimentation, both on-line and off-line, as well as cross-border learning from each other. And is that not what happened when the representative model spread, too?

Read the full article: Heikka, T., (2015) The Rise of the Mediating Citizen: Time, Space, and Citizenship in the Crowdsourcing of Finnish Legislation. Policy and Internet 7 (3) 268–291.


Taneli Heikka is a journalist, author, entrepreneur, and PhD student based in Washington.

Taneli Heikka was talking to Blog Editor Pamina Smith.

Assessing crowdsourcing technologies to collect public opinion around an urban renovation project

Ed: Given the “crisis in democratic accountability”, methods to increase citizen participation are in demand. To this end, your team developed some interactive crowdsourcing technologies to collect public opinion around an urban renovation project in Oulu, Finland. What form did the consultation take, and how did you assess its impact?

Simo: Over the years we’ve deployed various types of interactive interfaces on a network of public displays. In this case it was basically a network of interactive screens deployed in downtown Oulu, next to where a renovation project was happening that we wanted to collect feedback about. We deployed an app on the screens, that allowed people to type feedback direcly on the screens (on-screen soft keyboard), and submit feedback to city authorities via SMS, Twitter and email. We also had a smiley-based “rating” system there, which people could us to leave quick feedback about certain aspects of the renovation project.

We ourselves could not, and did not even want to, assess the impact — that’s why we did this in partnership with the city authorities. Then, together with the city folks we could better evaluate if what we were doing had any real-world value whatsoever. And, as we discuss, in the end it did!

Ed: How did you go about encouraging citizens to engage with touch screen technologies in a public space — particularly the non-digitally literate, or maybe people who are just a bit shy about participating?

Simo: Actually, the whole point was that we did not deliberately encourage them by advertising the deployment or by “forcing” anyone to use it. Quite to the contrary: we wanted to see if people voluntarily used it, and the technologies that are an integral part of the city itself. This is kind of the future vision of urban computing, anyway. The screens had been there for years already, and what we wanted to see is if people find this type of service on their own when exploring the screens, and if they take the opportunity to then give feedback using them. The screens hosted a variety of other applications as well: games, news, etc., so it was interesting to also gauge how appealing the idea of public civic feedback is in comparison to everything else that was being offered.

Ed: You mention that using SMS to provide citizen feedback was effective in filtering out noise since it required a minimal payment from citizens — but it also created an initial barrier to participation. How do you increase the quality of feedback without placing citizens on different-level playing fields from the outset — particularly where technology is concerned?

Simo: Yes, SMS really worked well in lowering the amount of irrelevant commentary and complete nonsense. And it is true that SMS already introduces a cost, and even if the cost is miniscule, it’s still a cost to the citizen — and just voicing one’s opinions should of course be free. So there’s no correct answer here — if the channel is public and publicly accessible to anyone, there will be a lot of noisy input. In such cases moderation is a heavy task, and to this end we have been exploring crowdsourcing as well. We can make the community moderate itself. First, we need to identify the users who are genuinely concerned or interested about the issues being explored, and then funnel those users to moderate the discussion / output. It is a win-win situation — the people who want to get involved are empowered to moderate the commentary from others, for implicit rewards.

Ed: For this experiment on citizen feedback in an urban space, your team assembled the world’s largest public display network, which was available for research purposes 24/7. In deploying this valuable research tool, how did you guarantee the privacy of the participants involved, given that some might not want to be seen submitting very negative comments? (e.g. might a form of social pressure be the cause of relatively low participation in the study?)

Simo: The display network was not built only for this experiment, but we have run hundreds of experiments on it, and have written close to a hundred academic papers about them. So, the overarching research focus, really, is on how we can benefit citizens using the network. Over the years we have been able to systematically study issues such as social pressure, group use, effects of the public space, or, one might say “stage”, etc. And yes, social pressure does affect a lot, and for this allowing people participate via e.g. SMS or email helps a lot. That way the users won’t be seen sending the input directly.

Group use is another thing: in groups people don’t feel pressure from the “outside world” so much and are willing to interact with our applications (such as the one documented in this work), but, again, it affects the feedback quality. Groups don’t necessarily tell the truth as they aim for consensus. So the individual, and very important, opinions may not become heard. Ultimately, this is all just part of the game we must deal with, and the real question becomes how to minimize those negative effects that the public space introduces. The positives are clear: everyone can participate, easily, in the heart of the city, and whenever they want.

Ed: Despite the low participation, you still believe that the experimental results are valuable. What did you learn?

Simo: The question in a way already reveals the first important point: people are just not as interested in these “civic” things as they might claim in interviews and pre-studies. When we deploy a civic feedback prototype as the “only option” on a public gizmo (a display, some kind of new tech piece, etc.), people out of curiosity use it. Now, in our case, we just deploy it “as is”, as part of the city infrastructure for people to use if, and only if, they want to use it. So, the prototype competes for attention against smartphones, other applications on the displays, the cluttered city itself… everything!

When one reads many academic papers on interactive civic engagement prototypes, the assumptions are set very high in the discussion: “we got this much participation in this short time”, etc., but that’s not the entire truth. Leave the thing there for months and see if it still interests people! We have done the same, deployed a prototype for three days, gotten tons of interaction, published it, and learned only afterwards that “oh, maybe we were a bit optimistic with the efficiency” when the use suddenly dropped to minimum. It’s just not that easy and the application require frequent updates to keep user interest longitudinally.

Also, the radical differences in the feedback channels were surprising, but we already talked about that a bit earlier.

Ed: Your team collaborated with local officials, which is obviously valuable (and laudable), but it can potentially impose an extra burden on academics. For example, you mention that instead of employing novel feedback formats (e.g. video, audio, images, interactive maps), your team used only text. But do you think working with public officials benefitted the project as a whole, and how?

Simo: The extra burden is a necessity if one wants to really claim authentic success in civic engagement. In our opinion, it only happens between citizens and the city, not between citizens and researchers. We do not wish to build these deployments for the sake of an academic article or two: the display infrastructure is there for citizens and the city, and if we don’t educate the authorities on how to use it then nobody will. Advertisers would be glad to take over the entire real estate there, so in a way this project is just a part of the bigger picture. Which is making the display infrastructure “useful” instead of just a gimmick to kill time with (games) or for advertising.

And yes, the burden is real, but also because of this we could document what we have learned about dealing with authorities: how it is first easy to sell these prototypes to them, but sometimes hard to get commitment, etc. And it is not just this prototype — we’ve done a number of other civic engagement projects where we have noticed the same issues mentioned in the paper as well.

Ed: You also mention that as academics and policymakers you had different notions of success: for example in terms of levels of engagement and feedback of citizens. What should academics aspiring to have a concrete impact on society keep in mind when working with policymakers?

Simo: It takes a lot of time to assess impact. Policymakers will not be able to say after only a few weeks (which is the typical length of studies in our field) if the prototype has actual value to it, or if it’s just a “nice experiment”. So, deploy your strategy / tech / anything you’re doing, write about it, and let it sit. Move on with the life, and then revisit it after months to see if anything has come out of it! Patience is key here.

Ed: Did the citizen feedback result in any changes to the urban renovation project they were being consulted on?

Simo: Not the project directly: the project naturally was planned years ahead and the blueprints were final at that point. The most remarkable finding for us (and the authorities) was that after moderating the noise out from the feedback, the remaining insight was pretty much the only feedback that they ever directly got from citizens. Finns tend to be a bit on the shy side, so people won’t just pick up the phone and call the local engineering department and speak out. Not sure if anyone does, really? So they complain and chat on forums and coffee tables. So it would require active work for the authorities to find and reach out to these people.

With the display infrastructure, which was already there, we were able to gauge the public opinion that did not affect the construction directly, but indirectly affected how the department could manage their press releases, which things to stress in public communications, what parts of PR to handle differently in the next stage of the renovation project etc.

Ed: Are you planning any more experiments?

Simo: We are constantly running quite a few experiments. On the civic engagement side, for example, we are investigating how to gamify environmental awareness (recycling, waste management, keeping the environment clean) for children, as well as running longer longitudinal studies to assess the engagement of specify groups of people (e.g., children and the elderly).

Read the full article: Hosio, S., Goncalves, J., Kostakos, V. and Riekki, J. (2015) Crowdsourcing Public Opinion Using Urban Pervasive Technologies: Lessons From Real-Life Experiments in Oulu. Policy and Internet 7 (2) 203–222.


Simon Hosio is a research scientist (Dr. Tech.) at the University of Oulu, in Finland. Core topics of his research are smart city tech, crowdsourcing, wisdom of the crowd, civic engagement, and all types of “mobile stuff” in general.

Simo Hosio was talking to blog editor Pamina Smith.

Crowdsourcing ideas as an emerging form of multistakeholder participation in Internet governance

What are the linkages between multistakeholder governance and crowdsourcing? Both are new — trendy, if you will — approaches to governance premised on the potential of collective wisdom, bringing together diverse groups in policy-shaping processes. Their interlinkage has remained underexplored so far. Our article recently published in Policy and Internet sought to investigate this in the context of Internet governance, in order to assess the extent to which crowdsourcing represents an emerging opportunity of participation in global public policymaking.

We examined two recent Internet governance initiatives which incorporated crowdsourcing with mixed results: the first one, the ICANN Strategy Panel on Multistakeholder Innovation, received only limited support from the online community; the second, NETmundial, had a significant number of online inputs from global stakeholders who had the opportunity to engage using a platform for political participation specifically set up for the drafting of the outcome document. The study builds on these two cases to evaluate how crowdsourcing was used as a form of public consultation aimed at bringing the online voice of the “undefined many” (as opposed to the “elected few”) into Internet governance processes.

From the two cases, it emerged that the design of the consultation processes conducted via crowdsourcing platforms is key in overcoming barriers of participation. For instance, in the NETmundial process, the ability to submit comments and participate remotely via www.netmundial.br attracted inputs from all over the world very early on, since the preparatory phase of the meeting. In addition, substantial public engagement was obtained from the local community in the drafting of the outcome document, through a platform for political participation — www.participa.br — that gathered comments in Portuguese. In contrast, the outreach efforts of the ICANN Strategy Panel on Multistakeholder Innovation remained limited; the crowdsourcing platform they used only gathered input (exclusively in English) from a small group of people, insufficient to attribute to online public input a significant role in the reform of ICANN’s multistakeholder processes.

Second, questions around how crowdsourcing should and could be used effectively to enhance the legitimacy of decision-making processes in Internet governance remain unanswered. A proper institutional setting that recognizes a role for online multistakeholder participation is yet to be defined; in its absence, the initiatives we examined present a set of procedural limitations. For instance, in the NETmundial case, the Executive Multistakeholder Committee, in charge of drafting an outcome document to be discussed during the meeting based on the analysis of online contributions, favoured more “mainstream” and “uncontroversial” contributions. Additionally, online deliberation mechanisms for different propositions put forward by a High-Level Multistakeholder Committee, which commented on the initial draft, were not in place.

With regard to ICANN, online consultations have been used on a regular basis since its creation in 1998. Its target audience is the “ICANN community,” a group of stakeholders that volunteer their time and expertise to improve policy processes within the organization. Despite the effort, initiatives such as the 2000 global election for the new At-Large Directors have revealed difficulties in reaching as broad of an audience as wanted. Our study discusses some of the obstacles of the implementation of this ambitious initiative, including limited information and awareness about the At-Large elections, and low Internet access and use in most developing countries, particularly in Africa and Latin America.

Third, there is a need for clear rules regarding the way in which contributions are evaluated in crowdsourcing efforts. When the deliberating body (or committee) is free to disregard inputs without providing any motivation, it triggers concerns about the broader transnational governance framework in which we operate, as there is no election of those few who end up determining which parts of the contributions should be reflected in the outcome document. To avoid the agency problem arising from the lack of accountability over the incorporation of inputs, it is important that crowdsourcing attempts pay particular attention to designing a clear and comprehensive assessment process.

The “wisdom of the crowd” has traditionally been explored in developing the Internet, yet it remains a contested ground when it comes to its governance. In multistakeholder set-ups, the diversity of voices and the collection of ideas and input from as many actors as possible — via online means — represent a desideratum, rather than a reality. In our exploration of empowerment through online crowdsourcing for institutional reform, we identify three fundamental preconditions: first, the existence of sufficient community interest, able to leverage wide expertise beyond a purely technical discussion; second, the existence of procedures for the collection and screening of inputs, streamlining certain ideas considered for implementation; and third, commitment to institutionalizing the procedures, especially by clearly defining the rules according to which feedback is incorporated and circumvention is avoided.

Read the full paper: Radu, R., Zingales, N. and Calandro, E. (2015), Crowdsourcing Ideas as an Emerging Form of Multistakeholder Participation in Internet Governance. Policy & Internet, 7: 362–382. doi: 10.1002/poi3.99


Roxana Radu is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and a fellow at the Center for Media, Data and Society, Central European University (Budapest). Her current research explores the negotiation of internet policy-making in global and regional frameworks.

Nicolo Zingales is an assistant professor at Tilburg law school, a senior member of the Tilburg Law and Economics Center (TILEC), and a research associate of the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society (TILT). He researches on various aspects of Internet governance and regulation, including multistakeholder processes, data-driven innovation and the role of online intermediaries.

Enrico Calandro (PhD) is a senior research fellow at Research ICT Africa, an ICT policy think-tank based based in Cape Town. His academic research focuses on accessibility and affordability of ICT, broadband policy, and internet governance issues from an African perspective.

Uber and Airbnb make the rules now — but to whose benefit?

The "Airbnb Law" was signed by Mayor Ed Lee in October 2014 at San Francisco City Hall, legalizing short-term rentals in SF with many conditions. Image by Kevin Krejci (Flickr).
The “Airbnb Law” was signed by Mayor Ed Lee in October 2014 at San Francisco City Hall, legalizing short-term rentals in SF with many conditions. Image of protesters by Kevin Krejci (Flickr).

Ride-hailing app Uber is close to replacing government-licensed taxis in some cities, while Airbnb’s accommodation rental platform has become a serious competitor to government-regulated hotel markets. Many other apps and platforms are trying to do the same in other sectors of the economy. In my previous post, I argued that platforms can be viewed in social science terms as economic institutions that provide infrastructures necessary for markets to thrive. I explained how the natural selection theory of institutional change suggests that people are migrating from state institutions to these new code-based institutions because they provide a more efficient environment for doing business. In this article, I will discuss some of the problems with this theory, and outline a more nuanced theory of institutional change that suggests that platforms’ effects on society will be complex and influence different people in different ways.

Economic sociologists like Neil Fligstein have pointed out that not everyone is as free to choose the means through which they conduct their trade. For example, if buyers in a market switch to new institutions, sellers may have little choice but to follow, even if the new institutions leave them worse off than the old ones did. Even if taxi drivers don’t like Uber’s rules, they may find that there is little business to be had outside the platform, and switch anyway. In the end, the choice of institutions can boil down to power. Economists have shown that even a small group of participants with enough market power — like corporate buyers — may be able to force a whole market to tip in favour of particular institutions. Uber offers a special solution for corporate clients, though I don’t know if this has played any part in the platform’s success.

Even when everyone participates in an institutional arrangement willingly, we still can’t assume that it will contribute to the social good. Cambridge economic historian Sheilagh Ogilvie has pointed out that an institution that is efficient for everyone who participates in it can still be inefficient for society as a whole if it affects third parties. For example, when Airbnb is used to turn an ordinary flat into a hotel room, it can cause nuisance to neighbours in the form of noise, traffic, and guests unfamiliar with the local rules. The convenience and low cost of doing business through the platform is achieved in part at others’ expense. In the worst case, a platform can make society not more but less efficient — by creating a ‘free rider economy’.

In general, social scientists recognize that different people and groups in society often have conflicting interests in how economic institutions are shaped. These interests are reconciled — if they are reconciled — through political institutions. Many social scientists thus look not so much at efficiencies but at political institutions to understand why economic institutions are shaped the way they are. For example, a democratic local government in principle represents the interests of its citizens, through political institutions such as council elections and public consultations. Local governments consequently try to strike a balance between the conflicting interests of hoteliers and their neighbours, by limiting hotel business to certain zones. In contrast, Airbnb as a for-profit business must cater to the interests of its customers, the would-be hoteliers and their guests. It has no mechanism, and more importantly, no mandate, to address on an equal footing the interests of third parties like customers’ neighbours. Perhaps because of this, 74% of Airbnb’s properties are not in the main hotel districts, but in ordinary residential blocks.

That said, governments have their own challenges in producing fair and efficient economic institutions. Not least among these is the fact that government regulators are at a risk of capture by incumbent market participants, or at the very least they face the innovator’s dilemma: it is easier to craft rules that benefit the incumbents than rules that provide great but uncertain benefits to future market participants. For example, cities around the world operate taxi licensing systems, where only strictly limited numbers of license owners are allowed to operate taxicabs. Whatever benefits this system offers to customers in terms of quality assurance, among its biggest beneficiaries are the license owners, and among its losers the would-be drivers who are excluded from the market. Institutional insiders and outsiders have conflicting interests, and government political institutions are often such that it is easier for it to side with the insiders.

Against this background, platforms appear almost as radical reformers that provide market access to those whom the establishment has denied it. For example, Uber recently announced that it aims to create one million jobs for women by 2020, a bold pledge in the male-dominated transport industry, and one that would likely not be possible if it adhered to government licensing requirements, as most licenses are owned by men. Having said that, Uber’s definition of a ‘job’ is something much more precarious and entrepreneurial than the conventional definition. My point here is not to side with either Uber or the licensing system, but to show that their social implications are very different. Both possess at least some flaws as well as redeeming qualities, many of which can be traced back to their political institutions and whom they represent.

What kind of new economic institutions are platform developers creating? How efficient are they? What other consequences, including unintended ones, do they have and to whom? Whose interests are they geared to represent — capital vs. labour, consumer vs. producer, Silicon Valley vs. local business, incumbent vs. marginalized? These are the questions that policy makers, journalists, and social scientists ought to be asking at this moment of transformation in our economic institutions. Instead of being forced to choose one or the other between established institutions and platforms as they currently are, I hope that we will be able to discover ways to take what is good in both, and create infrastructure for an economy that is as fair and inclusive as it is efficient and innovative.


Vili Lehdonvirta is a Research Fellow and DPhil Programme Director at the Oxford Internet Institute, and an editor of the Policy & Internet journal. He is an economic sociologist who studies the social and economic dimensions of new information technologies around the world, with particular expertise in digital markets and crowdsourcing.

Why are citizens migrating to Uber and Airbnb, and what should governments do about it?

protested fair taxi laws by parking in Pioneer square. Organizers want city leaders to make ride-sharing companies play by the same rules as cabs and Town cars. Image: Aaron Parecki (Flickr).
Protest for fair taxi laws in Portland; organizers want city leaders to make ride-sharing companies play by the same rules as cabs and Town cars. Image: Aaron Parecki (Flickr).

Cars were smashed and tires burned in France last month in protests against the ride hailing app Uber. Less violent protests have also been staged against Airbnb, a platform for renting short-term accommodation. Despite the protests, neither platform shows any signs of faltering. Uber says it has a million users in France, and is available in 57 countries. Airbnb is available in over 190 countries, and boasts over a million rooms, more than hotel giants like Hilton and Marriott. Policy makers at the highest levels are starting to notice the rise of these and similar platforms. An EU Commission flagship strategy paper notes that “online platforms are playing an ever more central role in social and economic life,” while the Federal Trade Commission recently held a workshop on the topic in Washington.

Journalists and entrepreneurs have been quick to coin terms that try to capture the essence of the social and economic changes associated with online platforms: the sharing economy; the on-demand economy; the peer-to-peer economy; and so on. Each perhaps captures one aspect of the phenomenon, but doesn’t go very far in helping us make sense of all its potentials and contradictions, including why some people love it and some would like to smash it into pieces. Instead of starting from the assumption that everything we see today is new and unprecedented, what if we dug into existing social science theory to see what it has to say about economic transformation and the emergence of markets?

Economic sociologists are adamant that markets don’t just emerge by themselves: they are always based on some kind of an underlying infrastructure that allows people to find out what goods and services are on offer, agree on prices and terms, pay, and have a reasonable expectation that the other party will honour the agreement. The oldest market infrastructure is the personal social network: traders hear what’s on offer through word of mouth and trade only with those whom they personally know and trust. But personal networks alone couldn’t sustain the immense scale of trading in today’s society. Every day we do business with strangers and trust them to provide for our most basic needs. This is possible because modern society has developed institutions — things like private property, enforceable contracts, standardized weights and measures, consumer protection, and many other general and sector specific norms and facilities. By enabling and constraining everyone’s behaviours in predictable ways, institutions constitute a robust and more inclusive infrastructure for markets than personal social networks.

Modern institutions didn’t of course appear out of nowhere. Between prehistoric social networks and the contemporary institutions of the modern state, there is a long historical continuum of economic institutions, from ancient trade routes with their customs to medieval fairs with their codes of conduct to state-enforced trade laws of the early industrial era. Institutional economists led by Oliver Williamson and economic historians led by Douglass North theorized in the 1980s that economic institutions evolve towards more efficient forms through a process of natural selection. As new institutional forms become possible thanks to technological and organizational innovation, people switch to cheaper, easier, more secure, and overall more efficient institutions out of self-interest. Old and cumbersome institutions fall into disuse, and society becomes more efficient and economically prosperous as a result. Williamson and North both later received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

It is easy to frame platforms as the next step in such an evolutionary process. Even if platforms don’t replace state institutions, they can plug gaps that remain the state-provided infrastructure. For example, enforcing a contract in court is often too expensive and unwieldy to be used to secure transactions between individual consumers. Platforms provide cheaper and easier alternatives to formal contract enforcement, in the form of reputation systems that allow participants to rate each others’ conduct and view past ratings. Thanks to this, small transactions like sharing a commute that previously only happened in personal networks can now potentially take place on a wider scale, resulting in greater resource efficiency and prosperity (the ‘sharing economy’). Platforms are not the first companies to plug holes in state-provided market infrastructure, though. Private arbitrators, recruitment agencies, and credit rating firms have been doing similar things for a long time.

What’s arguably new about platforms, though, is that some of the most popular ones are not mere complements, but almost complete substitutes to state-provided market infrastructures. Uber provides a complete substitute to government-licensed taxi infrastructures, addressing everything from quality and discovery to trust and payment. Airbnb provides a similarly sweeping solution to short-term accommodation rental. Both platforms have been hugely successful; in San Francisco, Uber has far surpassed the city’s official taxi market in size. The sellers on these platforms are not just consumers wanting to make better use of their resources, but also firms and professionals switching over from the state infrastructure. It is as if people and companies were abandoning their national institutions and emigrating en masse to Platform Nation.

From the natural selection perspective, this move from state institutions to platforms seems easy to understand. State institutions are designed by committee and carry all kinds of historical baggage, while platforms are designed from the ground up to address their users’ needs. Government institutions are geographically fragmented, while platforms offer a seamless experience from one city, country, and language area to the other. Government offices have opening hours and queues, while platforms make use of latest technologies to provide services around the clock (the ‘on-demand economy’). Given the choice, people switch to the most efficient institutions, and society becomes more efficient as a result. The policy implications of the theory are that government shouldn’t try to stop people from using Uber and Airbnb, and that it shouldn’t try to impose its evidently less efficient norms on the platforms. Let competing platforms innovate new regulatory regimes, and let people vote with their feet; let there be a market for markets.

The natural selection theory of institutional change provides a compellingly simple way to explain the rise of platforms. However, it has difficulty in explaining some important facts, like why economic institutions have historically developed differently in different places around the world, and why some people now protest vehemently against supposedly better institutions. Indeed, over the years since the theory was first introduced, social scientists have discovered significant problems in it. Economic sociologists like Neil Fligstein have noted that not everyone is as free to choose the institutions that they use. Economic historian Sheilagh Ogilvie has pointed out that even institutions that are efficient for those who participate in them can still sometimes be inefficient for society as a whole. These points suggest a different theory of institutional change, which I will apply to online platforms in my next post.


Vili Lehdonvirta is a Research Fellow and DPhil Programme Director at the Oxford Internet Institute, and an editor of the Policy & Internet journal. He is an economic sociologist who studies the social and economic dimensions of new information technologies around the world, with particular expertise in digital markets and crowdsourcing.

How big data is breathing new life into the smart cities concept

“Big data” is a growing area of interest for public policy makers: for example, it was highlighted in UK Chancellor George Osborne’s recent budget speech as a major means of improving efficiency in public service delivery. While big data can apply to government at every level, the majority of innovation is currently being driven by local government, especially cities, who perhaps have greater flexibility and room to experiment and who are constantly on a drive to improve service delivery without increasing budgets.

Work on big data for cities is increasingly incorporated under the rubric of “smart cities”. The smart city is an old(ish) idea: give urban policymakers real time information on a whole variety of indicators about their city (from traffic and pollution to park usage and waste bin collection) and they will be able to improve decision making and optimise service delivery. But the initial vision, which mostly centred around adding sensors and RFID tags to objects around the city so that they would be able to communicate, has thus far remained unrealised (big up front investment needs and the requirements of IPv6 are perhaps the most obvious reasons for this).

The rise of big data – large, heterogeneous datasets generated by the increasing digitisation of social life – has however breathed new life into the smart cities concept. If all the cars have GPS devices, all the people have mobile phones, and all opinions are expressed on social media, then do we really need the city to be smart at all? Instead, policymakers can simply extract what they need from a sea of data which is already around them. And indeed, data from mobile phone operators has already been used for traffic optimisation, Oyster card data has been used to plan London Underground service interruptions, sewage data has been used to estimate population levels … the examples go on.

However, at the moment these examples remain largely anecdotal, driven forward by a few cities rather than adopted worldwide. The big data driven smart city faces considerable challenges if it is to become a default means of policymaking rather than a conversation piece. Getting access to the right data; correcting for biases and inaccuracies (not everyone has a GPS, phone, or expresses themselves on social media); and communicating it all to executives remain key concerns. Furthermore, especially in a context of tight budgets, most local governments cannot afford to experiment with new techniques which may not pay off instantly.

This is the context of two current OII projects in the smart cities field: UrbanData2Decide (2014-2016) and NEXUS (2015-2017). UrbanData2Decide joins together a consortium of European universities, each working with a local city partner, to explore how local government problems can be resolved with urban generated data. In Oxford, we are looking at how open mapping data can be used to estimate alcohol availability; how website analytics can be used to estimate service disruption; and how internal administrative data and social media data can be used to estimate population levels. The best concepts will be built into an application which allows decision makers to access these concepts real time.

NEXUS builds on this work. A collaborative partnership with BT, it will look at how social media data and some internal BT data can be used to estimate people movement and traffic patterns around the city, joining these data into network visualisations which are then displayed to policymakers in a data visualisation application. Both projects fill an important gap by allowing city officials to experiment with data driven solutions, providing proof of concepts and showing what works and what doesn’t. Increasing academic-government partnerships in this way has real potential to drive forward the field and turn the smart city vision into a reality.


OII Resarch Fellow Jonathan Bright is a political scientist specialising in computational and ‘big data’ approaches to the social sciences. His major interest concerns studying how people get information about the political process, and how this is changing in the internet era.

How big data is breathing new life into the smart cities concept

“Big data” is a growing area of interest for public policy makers: for example, it was highlighted in UK Chancellor George Osborne’s recent budget speech as a major means of improving efficiency in public service delivery. While big data can apply to government at every level, the majority of innovation is currently being driven by local government, especially cities, who perhaps have greater flexibility and room to experiment and who are constantly on a drive to improve service delivery without increasing budgets.

Work on big data for cities is increasingly incorporated under the rubric of “smart cities”. The smart city is an old(ish) idea: give urban policymakers real time information on a whole variety of indicators about their city (from traffic and pollution to park usage and waste bin collection) and they will be able to improve decision making and optimise service delivery. But the initial vision, which mostly centred around adding sensors and RFID tags to objects around the city so that they would be able to communicate, has thus far remained unrealised (big up front investment needs and the requirements of IPv6 are perhaps the most obvious reasons for this).

The rise of big data – large, heterogeneous datasets generated by the increasing digitisation of social life – has however breathed new life into the smart cities concept. If all the cars have GPS devices, all the people have mobile phones, and all opinions are expressed on social media, then do we really need the city to be smart at all? Instead, policymakers can simply extract what they need from a sea of data which is already around them. And indeed, data from mobile phone operators has already been used for traffic optimisation, Oyster card data has been used to plan London Underground service interruptions, sewage data has been used to estimate population levels … the examples go on.

However, at the moment these examples remain largely anecdotal, driven forward by a few cities rather than adopted worldwide. The big data driven smart city faces considerable challenges if it is to become a default means of policymaking rather than a conversation piece. Getting access to the right data; correcting for biases and inaccuracies (not everyone has a GPS, phone, or expresses themselves on social media); and communicating it all to executives remain key concerns. Furthermore, especially in a context of tight budgets, most local governments cannot afford to experiment with new techniques which may not pay off instantly.

This is the context of two current OII projects in the smart cities field: UrbanData2Decide (2014-2016) and NEXUS (2015-2017). UrbanData2Decide joins together a consortium of European universities, each working with a local city partner, to explore how local government problems can be resolved with urban generated data. In Oxford, we are looking at how open mapping data can be used to estimate alcohol availability; how website analytics can be used to estimate service disruption; and how internal administrative data and social media data can be used to estimate population levels. The best concepts will be built into an application which allows decision makers to access these concepts real time.

NEXUS builds on this work. A collaborative partnership with BT, it will look at how social media data and some internal BT data can be used to estimate people movement and traffic patterns around the city, joining these data into network visualisations which are then displayed to policymakers in a data visualisation application. Both projects fill an important gap by allowing city officials to experiment with data driven solutions, providing proof of concepts and showing what works and what doesn’t. Increasing academic-government partnerships in this way has real potential to drive forward the field and turn the smart city vision into a reality.


OII Resarch Fellow Jonathan Bright is a political scientist specialising in computational and ‘big data’ approaches to the social sciences. His major interest concerns studying how people get information about the political process, and how this is changing in the internet era.

After dinner: the best time to create 1.5 million dollars of ground-breaking science

Count this! In celebration of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, NASA’s Great Observatories — the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory — collaborated to produce this image of the central region of our Milky Way galaxy. Image: Nasa Marshall Space Flight Center
Since it first launched as a single project called Galaxy Zoo in 2007, the Zooniverse has grown into the world’s largest citizen science platform, with more than 25 science projects and over 1 million registered volunteer citizen scientists. While initially focused on astronomy projects, such as those exploring the surfaces of the moon and the planet Mars, the platform now offers volunteers the opportunity to read and transcribe old ship logs and war diaries, identify animals in nature capture photos, track penguins, listen to whales communicating and map kelp from space.

These projects are examples of citizen science; collaborative research undertaken by professional scientists and members of the public. Through these projects, individuals who are not necessarily knowledgeable about or familiar with science can become active participants in knowledge creation (such as in the examples listed in the Chicago Tribune: Want to aid science? You can Zooniverse).

The Zooniverse is a predominant example of citizen science projects that have enjoyed particularly widespread popularity and traction online.

Although science-public collaborative efforts have long existed, the Zooniverse is a predominant example of citizen science projects that have enjoyed particularly widespread popularity and traction online. In addition to making science more open and accessible, online citizen science accelerates research by leveraging human and computing resources, tapping into rare and diverse pools of expertise, providing informal scientific education and training, motivating individuals to learn more about science, and making science fun and part of everyday life.

While online citizen science is a relatively recent phenomenon, it has attracted considerable academic attention. Various studies have been undertaken to examine and understand user behaviour, motivation, and the benefits and implications of different projects for them. For instance, Sauermann and Franzoni’s analysis of seven Zooniverse projects (Solar Stormwatch, Galaxy Zoo Supernovae, Galaxy Zoo Hubble, Moon Zoo, Old Weather, The Milkyway Project, and Planet Hunters) found that 60 percent of volunteers never return to a project after finishing their first session of contribution. By comparing contributions to these projects with those of research assistants and Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, they also calculated that these voluntary efforts amounted to an equivalent of $1.5 million in human resource costs.

Our own project on the taxonomy and ecology of contributions to the Zooniverse examines the geographical, gendered and temporal patterns of contributions and contributors to 17 Zooniverse projects between 2009 and 2013. Our preliminary results show that:

  • The geographical distribution of volunteers and contributions is highly uneven, with the UK and US contributing the bulk of both. Quantitative analysis of 130 countries show that of three factors – population, GDP per capita and number of Internet users – the number of Internet users is most strongly correlated with the number of volunteers and number of contributions. However, when population is controlled, GDP per capita is found to have greater correlation with numbers of users and volunteers. The correlations are positive, suggesting that wealthier (or more developed) countries are more likely to be involved in the citizen science projects.
The Global distribution of contributions to the projects within our dataset of 35 million records. The number of contributions of each country is normalized to the population of the country.
The Global distribution of contributions to the projects within our dataset of 35 million records. The number of contributions of each country is normalized to the population of the country.
  • Female volunteers are underrepresented in most countries. Very few countries have gender parity in participation. In many other countries, women make up less than one-third of number of volunteers whose gender is known. The female ratio of participation in the UK and Australia, for instance, is 25 per cent, while the figures for US, Canada and Germany are between 27 and 30 per cent. These figures are notable when compared with the percentage of academic jobs in the sciences held by women. In the UK, women make up only 30.3 percent of full time researchers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) departments (UKRC report, 2010), and 24 per cent in the United States (US Department of Commerce report, 2011).
  • Our analysis of user preferences and activity show that in general, there is a strong subject preference among users, with two main clusters evident among users who participate in more than one project. One cluster revolves around astrophysics projects. Volunteers in these projects are more likely to take part in other astrophysics projects, and when one project ends, volunteers are more likely to start a new project within this cluster. Similarly, volunteers in the other cluster, which are concentrated around life and Earth science projects, have a higher likelihood of being involved in other life and Earth science projects than in astrophysics projects. There is less cross-project involvement between the two main clusters.
Dendrogram showing the overlap of contributors between projects. The scale indicates the similarity between the pools of contributors to pairs of projects. Astrophysics (blue) and Life-Earth Science (green and brown) projects create distinct clusters. Old Weather 1 and WhaleFM are exceptions to this pattern, and Old Weather 1 has the most distinct pool of contributors.
Dendrogram showing the overlap of contributors between projects. The scale indicates the similarity between the pools of contributors to pairs of projects. Astrophysics (blue) and Life-Earth Science (green and brown) projects create distinct clusters. Old Weather 1 and WhaleFM are exceptions to this pattern, and Old Weather 1 has the most distinct pool of contributors.
  • In addition to a tendency for cross-project activity to be contained within the same clusters, there is also a gendered pattern of engagement in various projects. Females make up more than half of gender-identified volunteers in life science projects (Snapshot Serengeti, Notes from Nature and WhaleFM have more than 50 per cent of women contributors). In contrast, the proportions of women are lowest in astrophysics projects (Galaxy Zoo Supernovae and Planet Hunters have less than 20 per cent of female contributors). These patterns suggest that science subjects in general are gendered, a finding that correlates with those by the US National Science Foundation (2014). According to an NSF report, there are relatively few women in engineering (13 per cent), computer and mathematical sciences (25 per cent), but they are well-represented in the social sciences (58 per cent) and biological and medical sciences (48 per cent).
  • For the 20 most active countries (led by the UK, US and Canada), the most productive hours in terms of user contributions are between 8pm and 10pm. This suggests that citizen science is an after-dinner activity (presumably, reflecting when most people have free time before bed). This general pattern corresponds with the idea that many types of online peer-production activities, such as citizen science, are driven by ‘cognitive surplus’, that is, the aggregation of free time spent on collective pursuits (Shirky, 2010).

These are just some of the results of our study, which has found that despite being informal, relatively more open and accessible, online citizen science exhibits similar geographical and gendered patterns of knowledge production as professional, institutional science. In other ways, citizen science is different. Unlike institutional science, the bulk of citizen science activity happens late in the day, after the workday has ended and people are winding down after dinner and before bed.

We will continue our investigations into the patterns of activity in citizen science and the behaviour of citizen scientists, in order to help improve ways to make science more accessible in general and to tap into the resources of the public for scientific knowledge production. It is anticipated that upcoming projects on the Zooniverse will be more diversified and include topics from the humanities and social sciences. Towards this end, we aim to continue our investigations into patterns of activity on the citizen science platform, and the implications of a wider range of projects on the user base (in terms of age, gender and geographical coverage) and on user behaviour.

References

Sauermann, H., & Franzoni, C. (2015). Crowd science user contribution patterns and their implications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences112(3), 679-684.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. Penguin: London.


Taha Yasseri is the Research Fellow in Computational Social Science at the OII. Prior to coming to the OII, he spent two years as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, working on the socio-physical aspects of the community of Wikipedia editors, focusing on conflict and editorial wars, along with Big Data analysis to understand human dynamics, language complexity, and popularity spread. He has interests in analysis of Big Data to understand human dynamics, government-society interactions, mass collaboration, and opinion dynamics.

Will digital innovation disintermediate banking — and can regulatory frameworks keep up?

Many of Europe’s economies are hampered by a waning number of innovations, partially attributable to the European financial system’s aversion to funding innovative enterprises and initiatives. Image by MPD01605.
Innovation doesn’t just fall from the sky. It’s not distributed proportionately or randomly around the world or within countries, or found disproportionately where there is the least regulation, or in exact linear correlation with the percentage of GDP spent on R&D. Innovation arises in cities and countries, and perhaps most importantly of all, in the greatest proportion in ecosystems or clusters. Many of Europe’s economies are hampered by a waning number of innovations, partially attributable to the European financial system’s aversion to funding innovative enterprises and initiatives. Specifically, Europe’s innovation finance ecosystem lacks the necessary scale, plurality, and appetite for risk to drive investments in long-term initiatives aiming to produce a disruptive new technology. Such long-term investments are taking place more in the rising economies of Asia than in Europe.

While these problems could be addressed by new approaches and technologies for financing dynamism in Europe’s economies, financing of (potentially risky) innovation could also be held back by financial regulation that focuses on stability, avoiding forum shopping (i.e., looking for the most permissive regulatory environment), and preventing fraud, to the exclusion of other interests, particularly innovation and renewal. But the role of finance in enabling the development and implementation of new ideas is vital — an economy’s dynamism depends on innovative competitors challenging, and if successful, replacing complacent players in the markets.

However, newcomers obviously need capital to grow. As a reaction to the markets having priced risk too low before the financial crisis, risk is now being priced too high in Europe, starving the innovation efforts of private financing at a time when much public funding has suffered from austerity measures. Of course, complementary (non-bank) sources of finance can also help fund entrepreneurship, and without that petrol of money, the engine of the new technology economy will likely stall.

The Internet has made it possible to fund innovation in new ways like crowd funding — an innovation in finance itself — and there is no reason to think that financial institutions should be immune to disruptive innovation produced by new entrants that offer completely novel ways of saving, insuring, loaning, transferring and investing money. New approaches such as crowdfunding and other financial technology (aka “FinTech”) initiatives could provide depth and a plurality of perspectives, in order to foster innovation in financial services and in the European economy as a whole.

The time has come to integrate these financial technologies into the overall financial frameworks in a manner that does not neuter their creativity, or lower their potential to revitalize the economy. There are potential synergies with macro-prudential policies focused on mitigating systemic risk and ensuring the stability of financial systems. These platforms have great potential for cross-border lending and investment and could help to remedy the retreat of bank capital behind national borders since the financial crisis. It is time for a new perspective grounded in an “innovation-friendly” philosophy and regulatory approach to emerge.

Crowdfunding is a newcomer to the financial industry, and as such, actions (such as complex and burdensome regulatory frameworks or high levels of guaranteed compensation for losses) that could close it down or raise high barriers of entry should be avoided. Competition in the interests of the consumer and of entrepreneurs looking for funding should be encouraged. Regulators should be ready to step in if abuses do, or threaten to, arise while leaving space for new ideas around crowdfunding to gain traction rapidly, without being overburdened by regulatory requirements at an early stage.

The interests of both “financing innovation” and “innovation in the financial sector” also coincide in the FinTech entrepreneurial community. Schumpeter wrote in 1942: “[the] process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.” An economy’s dynamism depends on innovative competitors challenging, and if successful, taking the place of complacent players in the markets. Keeping with the theme of Schumpeterian creative destruction, the financial sector is one seen by banking sector analysts and commentators as being particularly ripe for disruptive innovation, given its current profits and lax competition. Technology-driven disintermediation of many financial services is on the cards, for example, in financial advice, lending, investing, trading, virtual currencies and risk management.

The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority’s regulatory dialogues with FinTech developers to provide legal clarity on the status of their new initiatives are an example of good practice , as regulation in this highly monitored sector is potentially a serious barrier to entry and new innovation. The FCA also proactively addresses enabling innovation with Project Innovate, an initiative to assist both start-ups and established businesses in implementing innovative ideas in the financial services markets through an Incubator and Innovation Hub.

By its nature, FinTech is a sector that can benefit and benefit from the EU’s Digital Single Market and make Europe a sectoral global leader in this field. In evaluating possible future FinTech regulation, we need to ensure an optimal regulatory framework and specific rules. The innovation principle I discuss in my article should be part of an approach ensuring not only that regulation is clear and proportional — so that innovators can easily comply — but also ensuring that we are ready, when justified, to adapt regulation to enable innovations. Furthermore, any regulatory approaches should be “future proofed” and should not lock in today’s existing technologies, business models or processes.

Read the full article: Zilgalvis, P. (2014) The Need for an Innovation Principle in Regulatory Impact Assessment: The Case of Finance and Innovation in Europe. Policy and Internet 6 (4) 377–392.


Pēteris Zilgalvis, J.D. is a Senior Member of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and an Associate of its Political Economy of Financial Markets Programme. In 2013-14 he was a Senior EU Fellow at St Antony’s. He is also currently Head of Unit for eHealth and Well Being, DG CONNECT, European Commission.