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DemocracyOS To Launch Online Platform in March

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, February 5 2015

Screenshot of the DemocracyOS live demo

"You are here to make decisions with others."

That is the raison d'être of DemocracyOS: to help groups of people come to a decision in a democratic fashion. The team behind the software began working on the code in April 2012, and it has been available on Github for almost as long, but users had to be relatively savvy. The open-source platform they are currently developing, with support from Y Combinator, will allow anyone to launch a “democracy” in minutes, just as someone without any knowledge of code can launch a blog on Wordpress. That platform will launch in March.

Pia Mancini, the executive director of DemocracyOS, and Santiago Siri, the president, demonstrated the platform in New York City on Wednesday morning.

Mancini told the group, which gathered at Civic Hall, that politics is the “last frontier that needs—I hate the word disrupted—but upgraded.” She called the system of voting for representatives only once every four years, without any input between elections, “poor.”

Siri cited the Greek concept agora, which he interpreted as “collective intelligence,” as a driving force behind the platform.

Although the big picture goal is to make democracy more participatory, more representative of the people, in short, more democratic, on a practical level DemocracyOS can be used by any group that needs to make collaborative decisions. The Spanish political party Podemos uses it to make internal party decisions. The city council in Mountain View, California, where the accelerator Y Combinator is based, has begun using it to increase citizen participation in the community. In Argentina, where DemocracyOS began as a project of the Net Democracy foundation, there's even a country club that uses it.

Last March techPresident's Rebecca Chao wrote about a Tunisian activist who used the open-source software to build a site where Tunisians could comment on the proposed Constitution. Unfortunately, the activist, Achref Aouadi, didn't find DemocracyOS on Github until the day before the vote in the assembly was scheduled. He spent an entire night developing a site, which because of the rush was full of flaws. The platform went up and garnered 3,000 visits in three days, but the public comments were submitted at the same time as the votes in the assembly. They were only passed on to parliament after the vote had taken place.

The new DemocracyOS platform would considerably speed up and smooth out the process of getting a decision-making platform up and running, so that someone like Aouadi could do what took him an entire night in a matter of minutes. And, hopefully, awareness of the platform will spread so that activists don't have to search Github by keywords like “constitution” and “voting platform,” as Aouadi did.

DemocracyOS works as follows: someone uploads a proposal and users can then comment and vote either “yes,” “no” or “abstain.” But a simple idea can still be complicated and fraught with difficulties, especially in the political realm.

Assuming the platform eventually gets traction with people in power, there will be (or already are) a number of concerns and problems to overcome: when and how to verify voter identity, how to ensure that powerful interests don't game the system, what to do if people need to vote anonymously, etc.

Perhaps most important is the need to get politicians to care.

In Argentina, after pitching the software to existing political parties with no success, Net Democracy started their own political party, the Net Party. Mancini described their candidates as “trojan candidates”— a candidate in the guise of a politician but actually a representative, so to speak, of the platform and its users. Although they have yet to win a seat, they have promised to always vote in line with the Argentinian users of DemocracyOS.

In Argentina, which has a multi-party system, the Net Party actually stands a chance at getting a seat in Congress. Starting your own political party in the United States is almost always a fool's errand. DemocracyOS's challenge is to convince politicians to get on board. They are already in talks with local representatives, including New York City Council Member Ben Kallos. That said, Kallos has already demonstrated interest in the public's input by uploading his legislation to Github. The real trick will be getting politicians who don't already identify as tech-savvy on board.