Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Grassroots Governance through the Quantified Community

In her book, The Economics of Enough, economist Diane Coyle has several recommendations for making the economy and society more sustainable and fair. One of the principles upon which she bases those suggestions is decentralisation, particularly with regard to government decision-making. Significantly cheaper information costs and greater availability of information and data “make it highly unlikely that top-down decisions by governments will be the optimal way for solutions to the challenges of Enough to emerge.”[1] Whereas the private sector has embraced technology to innovate, re-engineer, outsource and globalise their operations (in terms of both trade and FDI) over the course of the past 40 years, the public sector has largely remained stuck in outdated, inefficient governance systems because, unlike the private sector, the public doesn’t face the same competitive discipline.

It is hoped – and expected – that widespread access to broadband and social networking communications will provide the impetus for changes in governance frameworks.  Diane Coyle says, “It is easy to overhype the scope for online technologies to change government.  There is obviously some potential but much more thought will need to be given to how to use the technologies to improve engagement and accountability."[2]  Because governments rarely engage their citizens in informed debate in order to take difficult decisions, it’s likely citizens will begin to work around governments.  “We’re likely to see much experimentation – including using the online technologies – in creating new processes or institutions to tackle collective problems.  Some of this will eventually change the way governments operate.”[3] 

I recently found a piece by Esther Dyson, a digital technology entrepreneur and analyst of technology’s impact on business, privacy, security, creativity and politics.  She writes about the Quantified Self movement, defining this as individuals equipped with the tools needed to measure their own health and behaviour, through monitoring devices and software.  A growing movement, this monitoring allows individuals to improve their health “and live more productively.”  She is also actively trying to foster the emergence of a Quantified Community movement, with communities measuring the state, health and activities of their people and institutions. She says, “Just consider: each town has its own schools, library, police, roads and bridges, businesses, and, of course, people. All of them potentially generate a lot of data, most of it uncollected and unanalysed. That is about to change.”

She cites the fact that there are many independent data-analysis software tools available as well as websites which provide data that can be sifted for local information and presented visually.  She gives the example of SeeClickFix, a user-generated data tool that allows people to collect information on infrastructure problems such as potholes, broken streetlights and such to monitor the repairs.  Contests such as New York City’s BigApps competition encourage developers to create mobile apps which use city data about a variety of subjects, from restaurant inspection results to school performance records.   The possibilities of these tools are very exciting.  Dyson explains:

As people and communities use such tools, more and better ones will be created, and developers will start mashing data together, enabling us to see, for example, the relationship between people’s exercise habits and local health statistics.  Employers and insurers can also contribute anonymised data.  The goal is to create competition – among communities and among developers of the tools – and thus to foster even better tools and more liveable, productive communities. 

I was surprised to read that Moscow has a quantified movement as well – antropolis – which provides a map of community development projects with associated data on management, budgets and suppliers. 

A key driver of the Quantified Community that Dyson recommends could be local newspapers as many are searching for new business models and unique content: “they have the connections, the resources and the respect to play a key role….Despite the pending demise of print journalism, local papers still generally reach more local citizens than any other single institution.  They need a way to remain relevant; this could be it.” The possibilities for local data analysis and benchmarking are enormous, especially in the areas of health, education and employment. This movement is in its infancy, but provides early stage models which could provide serious benefits to communities “that could benefits from more self-awareness and the spur of scrutiny and competition….With luck, as some communities lead the way, others will learn from them. Someday, citizens will not just complain about local problems; they will have the data to prove their case – and to figure out how to fix those problems.”

I think that Esther Dyson is helping to move the debate about what we call the Big Society here in the UK from discussion about ideology and austerity to solid, implementable models which already have case studies on the ground.

[1] Diane Coyle, The Economics of Enough, Princeton University Press, 2011.
[2] Ibid., p. 288.
[3] Ibid., p. 289.


  1. two sites you might be interested in checking out, showing how communities can help themselves...
    b4rn dot org dot uk and
    rickwaghorn dot co dot uk
    the power of the people, bringing ICT to rural communities which the telcos leave on the wrong side of the digital divide

  2. Many thanks for those links, Chris.

    1. Very interesting stuff, Mary Beth.

      OK, let's take the argument on re health analysis and medical data usage...

      Wired into our #21VC rural portal play for the community of Loddon in Norfolk - a model funded by NESTA and their DestinationLocal competition this summer - is Addiply, a sel-serve open ad network.

      Now with our ability to geolocate and map advertising opportunities for every postcode district in the UK...


      We can now marry local community health aspirations to effective web connection delivered from on high via to national and regional Govt health advertising that recognises from its own data sets what messages of encouragement it needs to deliver into NR14 or wherever...

      Thus not only being able to map the progress of the breast cancer screening lorry via ads per week per postcode, but also helping to sustain that communities digital and news infrastructure via perfectly targeted ads that don't have to go to Mountain View and back to encourage and reward such 'bottom up' initiatives in their search for a mor healthy and sustainable way of living.

      Best etc