Cyberphysical Democracy: Online Platforms and Offline Action

19 May, 2014

Cyberphysical Democracy: Online Platforms and Offline Action

By Camille Crittenden

"The more digital the world becomes, the more appetite people have for real things." (Alan Rusbriger of The Guardian, NY Times Magazine interview, March 7, 2014)

New platforms for civic engagement are leveraging the power of the Internet to bring constituents' opinions to the doorstep of the politicians who represent them. The field of "civic tech" includes applications from paying parking tickets or taxes online to creative visualizations of complex budget data or 311 calls. The most powerful citizen-driven applications use social media to refute state-sponsored media, as in the Ukraine, or engage the public directly to ask their opinions and priorities. In many cases, emerging technology empowers activists and bystanders to grab the attention of policymakers and elected officials.

Still, a physical human presence is often required for social progress. Research in "human-computer interaction" (HCI) focuses on user interfaces or device design -- the relationship between the device and its user. Thinking about HCI in the broader context of civic engagement leads to considerations of how new media applications relate to social change. Even while technology and social media offer ever-expanding opportunities for expressing opinions, creating alliances, and exposing corruption, democracy and social progress often still require physical presence and commitment.

The integration of social media with action "in real life" parallels similar trends in engineering and computer science, where the "Internet of things" or development of "cyberphysical systems" has attracted increasing attention from academics and investment by government and industry. Sensors and software are being rapidly integrated in manufacturing and aerospace industries, building automation and energy infrastructure, technology for "smart cities," as well as healthcare and consumer applications. How might these technologies be applied to improve not only commercial and industrial sectors but also to civic life and democratic engagement?

A new platform, created in a partnership between the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative and the Office of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, highlights the urgency of connecting online sentiment analysis with offline action. The California Report Card allows participants to grade the state's performance on six topics before suggesting new topics that should be priorities on the political agenda. One of the top issues that emerged since the platform launched in early February is disaster preparedness. Whether natural disasters like earthquakes and forest fires, infrastructure failures like gas pipeline explosions, or threats of human violence, many communities in California feel the state's capacity for preparation, protection and response should be improved. Of course, many technological innovations are underway to address these issues, from seismological early warning systems to sensor networks in gas pipelines. But citizen input can increase political will to accelerate real-world change.

Alternatively, opportunities are also growing for the vibrancy of offline activity and lived experience to be reflected online. A platform developed at UC Davis records and maps stories of the labor movement in real time using social media tools. Using attractive design and innovative data collection methods, Stories of Solidarity brings workers' struggles to a broader audience than could be reached through traditional channels. Data visualization tools applied to public data sets are also putting information in the hands of activists, journalists and citizens to illustrate their concerns in new ways.

At UC Berkeley we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Free Speech Movement this year. Consider how new media might have amplified the protest on Sproul Plaza: announcements posted on Facebook, live micro-blogging on Twitter, ample cellphone footage uploaded to YouTube or synchronized and displayed on the Rashomon platform. Mario Savio and his fellow activists would likely have embraced these new tools to convey their outrage at measures taken by the university administration to curb free expression. Yet Savio's call for students to put their ""bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels"— and their willingness to be arrested — reminds us that speeches often must be matched by physical commitment to achieve real change.

Even as we celebrate and recognize the advantages of online tools for organizing and promoting civic dialogue, we must find ways to recognize the unique advantages of cyber and physical systems, and bring them closer together for promoting democratic values.

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This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post on 5/15/2014. Reprinted with permission of the author.