Fortunately, the time is right to create a voting advice system. Much of the technology already exists and is freely available. Much of it has been on display, in fact, at planetwork.org.
I went to my first Planetwork meeting the other day, hosted by Jim Fournier and Anna Coronna. I felt like I had come home.
It gets lonely out here on the frontier, and there's little than any one person can do---so it sometimes seems as though the problems we face are insurmountable. It was therefore a tremendously uplifting shot in the arm to find out that many people are working hard to address the issues.
Planetwork is interesting in that regard, because they position themselves at the intersection of technology, the environment, and social activism. That brings a diverse group of thoughtful individuals together who are motivated by humanitarian concerns. Like I said, I felt like I had come home.
I found out about the group because of my association with Douglas Engelbart and Eugene Kim, a fellow contributor to the Engelbart movement who formed Blue Oxen Associates---a thinktank and spawning ground for collaboration systems and methodologies. It may well be that collaboration systems developed by participants in the Blue Oxen discussion groups will play a major role in bringing the Citizens' Advisory together--because it turns out that many of the pieces we need already exist, as I found out at the Planetwork gathering.
The technology we're currently using, of course, is the news feed that is bringing you this message, otherwise known as weblog technology. At the moment, I'm using CityDesk for that purpose, by FogCreek Software. After examining a dozen different products, that one had the features I needed most:
- Ease of use.
- Generation of normal HTML pages that search engines can find.
- Ability to generate to a local directory so I can examine the pages before posting them.
Their other major product, FogBugz, has the capacity for managing discussion groups and a support forum that includes an RSS feed. Pretty exciting stuff. That piece of software could form an essential part of the system, one day.
The primary goal of the Citizens' Advisory, though, is a voting advice system that lets people choose advisors they trust. The advisory bulletins I post are, in the main, devoted to showing why such a system is needed.
When it came to building a voting advice system, one of the main stumbling blocks I saw was building an organization large enough to identify all of the candidates and issues that people could vote on in each state, county, city, and precinct. I figured that effort would be a huge part of the task.
Fortunately, I was wrong. It seems that the League of Women Voters has already done that. One of the sites they sponsor is Smart Voter, a system that lets you put in a zip code and get a list of candidates and issues you can vote on.
They even include links to organizations who make recommendations. Of course, only the major organizations are represented, as opposed to having a personalized list that has organizations you trust, regardless of size. But hey, it's a big step in the right direction.
The important thing, though, is that a database of voting information already exists. We can work together with the League of Women Voters to share that data. Who knows, maybe we'll wind up building the system under their auspices. At that point, the Citizens' Advisory might simply be a newsfeed. But I can live with that---the important thing is enable a real democracy.
As good as they are, CityDesk and FogBugz aren't open source. And when it comes to technology we desperately need to develop to get the money out of politics---a voting advice system---we must use open source software.
The primary factor in that decision is not a matter of cost, but rather one of security. Oddly enough, open source software tends to be more secure than proprietary software, because more eyeballs are devoted to finding its flaws. In a proprietary system, an undiagnosed flaw can be exploited for a very long time.
One important issue in instituting such a program is to make sure that no one "games" the system---for example, by creating 10,000,000 false IDs so an can pretend they're influential when the fact is that even their grandmother isn't listening to them. Basically, if we don't make the system as nearly bulletproof as we can make it, we take away its potential to enhance democracy.
Although my political leanings tend to be fairly leftish, I have lived in a very strict, moralistic community, as well. I can adapt to any lifestyle that society wants. But I want that society to be determined by what people want, rather than by what corporations and those with excessive amounts of money want for those people.
Security issues generally center around authentication of advisors when they make recommendations, authentication of users when they select advisors, making sure that there is only one login ID per user, and ensuring the anonymity of users. Those issues could be addressed, in part, by software being developed by Fen LaBalme, Victor, and others at IdentityCommons, and Dave DelToro at CryptoRights.
It may also be possible to build the site using portal software, created by George Polisner at the 100 Year March. The interesting thing about his portal is that it can limit banner advertising to green companies who are good for the environment, as well as the economy.
One demo given by Ed Bice of The People's Opinion Project showed a truly amazing international opinion poll that was generated and managed using an automated translation system. The results were pretty staggering. They showed that fully 75% of the world no longer trusts the American government, although the same number does trust the American people. The question, clearly, is whether the American people are in charge of their government, or whether it is the other way around.
Then there was the truly great map-based interface demonstrated by Will Doherty and Steve Enzer, of
Verified Voting Foundation. That project was pulled together in a matter of months (with long hours, I'm sure), using a variety of open source software listed at the Election Incidence Reporting System. (The fact that so much good open source software exists is a great boost for this project. And the fact that these fellows have experience with it and are funded to pursue such projects has great potential, as well.)
Other great resources listed on that site (all of which need to be investigated) include:
- Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
- National Committee for Voting Integrity
- Electronic Frontier Foundation
- Online Policy Group
Whew! And all that came from only one Planetwork meeting, out of 20. There is an archive of past meetings in San Francisco, plus archives of meetings in the East Bay, Seattle, and New York to go through. Who knows what treasures await us there!
About Citizens' Advisory
Corporate money has hijacked the ballot box. The Citizens' Advisory aims to take it back. Our goal is to put people in charge of the political process. The voting-advice system recommended by the Citizens Advisory lets people choose advisors they trust. Done right, that system will enable multi-party coalitions in cyberspace. The system appeals to voters because it's convenient. It appeals to social activists and their organizations because it levels the political playing the field and empowers them with a stronger political voice.