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How WeGov Will Cover a "Cambrian Explosion" In Transparency Projects

BY David Eaves | Monday, April 16 2012

We live in exciting times. In many ways we are at the beginning of a kind of Cambrian Explosion in interactions between technology, government and politics. The Cambrian Explosion was a moment about 580 million years ago when the diversity of life on the planet exploded. New species evolved and died out at rates never before seen, as the ecosystem reached a tipping point that enabled the rate of experimentation and change to increase exponentially. Many of the basic models of life were established in this period.

Today there is a similar explosion of online experiments. Internet access is already available to almost 2.5 billion people and - thanks to mobile devices - it is expected to increase markedly by the end of the decade. In addition, a generation of citizens are growing up online; their expectations and capacity for innovation are shaped by this technology. Our ability to connect and share ideas through blogs and social networks is exponentially higher than during the telephone or TV era. Meanwhile, the cost of creating services and content continues to fall. In short, as everyone has seen, the building blocks for radical experimentation and dissemination of new approaches to politics, government and engagement are in place.


Given the increased experimentation we believe is taking place the goal of WeGov will be twofold. First, we will try to talk about the issues, challenges and opportunities that are shaping the space between technology, governance and politics. Secondly, and most importantly, we will try to tell the stories of real experiments and endeavor to as assess their impact. I’ll be doing that by writing a weekly column for the WeGov section reporting on this space as I see it, along with curating a range of contributions from stringers and experts in the arena.

We’re most interested in telling stories about projects that change the way we govern ourselves. That said, since this space is still defining itself and is pretty broad, we’ll be casting the net pretty wide. Open government initiatives, online civic campaigns, tools for organizing, sites that are fighting corruption, new ways of delivering social services online, hackers using public data or user-generated data to invent better services: these are all aspects of the WeGov arena that we will cover. What we are ultimately interested in is how individuals can use technology to enhance their ability to advance what they believe to be the social good.

But we aren’t interested in just describing these projects. We also want to assess their impact. In part we will do this based on looking at each project’s stated goal – does it reduce corruption, or increase awareness, or do whatever else it was designed to do? Such an assessment we hope will be interesting to others who might want to replicate or build on an idea in their own community or country. But we’re also interested in systemic analysis. How does a project or initiative – even one that fails – change the behaviour of the actors and institutions it touches. In light of these new possibilities how will traditional organizations react or change?

There are a few other objectives and values that will influence this project.

Global in Focus

Much like the Cambrian Explosion half a billion years ago, the current explosion in the mix of technology, politics and governance is truly global in nature. From Ushahidi to Ipaidabribe to TheyWorkForYou to SeeClickFix ideas are emerging from every continent but spreading globally. As this is a global phenomenon it will require a global reach. We will have contributors from around the world, talking about projects taking place in every corner of the world.

Transparency is a Tool, Not a Solution

Obviously, here at Personal Democracy Media, we believe transparency is a powerful tool to enable accountability, foster accessibility and maybe even establish or re-earn public trust. However, we believe it is just that: a tool, not a solution. This is because even in a world of perfect transparency, there will still be injustice, marginalization, corruption and inequity. Making information transparent will not solve all our problems – it is simply one of many powerful tools that we will have at our disposal to find ways to improve governance. In the end, connecting the right people together, with the right tools, with the right set of protections and freedoms, is far more important than any one principle. Thus I’m less interested in transparency for transparency’s sake than in the use of transparency to address a problem.

Technology Works Both Ways

Technology is another powerful tool. Clearly we are deeply interested in how citizens and governments are using it to improve how we govern ourselves and improve our lives. That said, while technology can improve individuals’ ability to enhance the social good, it can also be used – sometimes by individuals and often by governments – to limit the individual’s ability to enable positive change. We are under no illusions about this fact and are interested in chronicling how governments try to fight back against citizens who seek to enhance their freedom and influence. We will not be writing about a coming techno-utopia. It’s about how technology is changing the way we govern ourselves – for better, and for worse.

About Me

WeGov is a project of Personal Democracy Media and will be edited by yours truly - David Eaves, with help from Andrew Rasiej (PDM’s publisher), Micah Sifry (PDM’s editorial director) and Nick Judd (techPresident’s managing editor).

For those who don’t know me, I’ve been exploring the intersection between transparency, open innovation, government and politics for a decade as well as advising (and critiquing) governments on open data and technology. Indeed, I’ve been blogging on many of these issues on my own blog - - for many years. My background is a mix of negotiation expertise, open innovation, and public policy development. My job will be to curate as well as author pieces that endeavour to say something intelligent about this space with some frequency – to push or provoke thinking in various ways.

But my real hope is that the “about us” will include you. As the curator of this project I’m deeply interested in hearing what you want to hear about. We’ll also have a modest budget for talented people to write about issues and projects we think are important to the community. So if you have a project or topic you want us to write about, or if you are a stringer looking for work, drop me a line at david at eaves dot ca.

Needless to say I’m excited to be writing about these issues and hope you'll be excited engaging on them with us. With a lot of work, a little luck we hope we can make this site an important resource for you.

Personal Democracy Media is thankful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.