Congress needs your input (but don’t call it crowdsourcing)

Lorelei Kelly Contributor Lorelei Kelly leads the Resilient Democracy Coalition, a group working to make sure Congress succeeds in the Information Age. More posts by this contributor Our ‘modern’ Congress doesn’t understand 21st century technology The banana republic of big data Like many modern digital innovations, “crowdsourcing” is a concept borrowed from the commercial tech […]

Like many modern digital innovations, “crowdsourcing” is a concept borrowed from the commercial tech industry. It is a method to solicit ideas from the Internet masses to complete a task or solve a challenge.  It seems a perfect fit for Congress, an entire branch of government stuck in the past, losing public legitimacy and increasingly ineffective in policymaking.

Even though it is the world’s most powerful representative assembly, Congress is working at 45% less expert capacity than it had in the 1970s.  It has remained in this state of dereliction despite accumulating millions more constituents and demands for consideration. Plus,  its most important policy bridge to the public–committee hearings–have declined, sometimes by 50% or more.

It’s obvious that Congress could use collaborative assistance.

Yet in a weaponized information environment, crowdsourcing appears unproductive and even ominous.  Take social media platforms. Five years ago, Facebook and Twitter looked like promising venues for more regular voices to provide feedback in the policy making process. But given the lack of civic guardrails like moderation or verified identity, that  “crowd” too often behaves like a hired mob.

My colleague Nate Wong is familiar with crowdsourcing from his years of consulting.  He notes that before throwing our hands up, there are some key elements of crowdsourcing to unpack.  “Some people would say that crowdsourcing works, but it’s not as effective because the crowd is not curated well.”

At this time, crowdsourcing does not work for policy making in Congress because participants are not organized for it and the institution itself lacks a curation method for credible input.

Years ago, author James Surowiecki noted that crowds can be wise if they are diverse, if individuals are independent, and if participants are decentralized with locally specific knowledge. Crucially, there also needs to be a mechanism for aggregating input.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Congress should be this mechanism. Informed public deliberation should be its forte.  But right now, our system does not have the capacity nor the incentives to reap the benefits of collective wisdom.   Before we jump to crowdsourcing, we must ask ourselves, how much assistance can be useful outside the institution unless the in-house capacity exists to process it? And, how much can we citizens expect our leaders to take risks on behalf of democratic discourse when flash-mobs, ambush tactics and armies of contempt lurk in every public space?   As it stands, Congress does not have the technical infrastructure to ingest all this new input in any systematic way. Individual members lack a method to sort and filter signal from noise or trusted credible knowledge from malicious falsehood and hype.

What Congress needs is curation, not just more information.

Curation means discovering, gathering and presenting content.   This word is commonly thought of as the job of librarians and museums, places we go to find authentic and authoritative knowledge. Similarly, Congress needs methods to sort and filter information as required within the workflow of lawmaking.  From personal offices to committees, members and their staff need context and informed judgement based on broadly defined expertise. The input can come from individuals or institutions. It can come from the wisdom of colleagues in Congress or across the federal government.  Most importantly it needs to be rooted in local constituents and it needs to be trusted.

It is not to say that crowdsourcing is unimportant for our governing system. But input methods that include digital must demonstrate informed and accountable deliberative methods over time.  Governing is the curation part of democracy. Governing requires public review, understanding of context, explanation and measurements of value for the nation as a whole. We are already thinking about how to create an ethical blockchain.  Why not the same attention for our most important democratic institution?

Governing requires tradeoffs that elicit emotion and sometimes anger. But as in life, emotions require self-regulation. In Congress, this means compromise and negotiation.  In fact, one of the reasons Congress is so stuck is that its own deliberative process has declined at every level. Besides the official committee process stalling out, members have few opportunities to be together as colleagues, and public space is increasingly antagonistic and dangerous.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

With so few options, members are left with blunt communications objects like clunky mail management systems and partisan talking points.  This means that lawmakers don’t use public input for policy formation as much as to surveil public opinion.

Any path forward to the 21st century must include new methods to (1) curate and hear from the public in a way that informs policy AND (2) incorporate real data into a results-driven process.

While our democracy is facing unprecedented stress, there are bright spots.  Congress is again dedicating resources to an in-house technology assessment capacity.  Earlier this month, the new 116th Congress created a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.  It will be chaired by Rep. Derek Kilmer (WA, 6).   Then the Open Government Data Act became law.  This law will potentially scale the level of access to government data to unprecedented levels.  It will require that all public facing federal data must be machine-readable and reusable. This is a move in the right direction, and now comes the hard part.

Marci Harris, the CEO of civic startup Popvox put it well, “The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking (FEBP) Act, which includes the OPEN Government Data Act, lays groundwork for a more effective, accountable government. To realize the potential of these new resources, Congress will need to hire tech literate staff and incorporate real data and evidence into its oversight and legislative functions.”

In forsaking its own capacity for complex problem solving, Congress has become non-competitive in the creative process that moves society forward.  During this same time period, all eyes turned toward Silicon Valley to fill the vacuum. With mass connection platforms and unlimited personal freedom, it seemed direct democracy had arrived.  But that’s proved a bust. If we go by current trends, entrusting democracy to Silicon Valley will give us perfect laundry and fewer voting rights. Fixing democracy is a whole-of-nation challenge that Congress must lead.

Finally, we “the crowd” want a more effective governing body that incorporates our experience and perspective into the lawmaking process, not just feel-good form letters thanking us for our input. We also want a political discourse grounded in facts. A “modern” Congress will provide both, and now we have the institutional foundation in place to make it happen.

In its first cyberoperation against Russian trolls, U.S. takes a gentle approach

Russia has been blamed for shutting down power grids, hacking into critical systems, and more recently launching a massive misinformation campaign aimed at meddling with past and upcoming elections. Now, the U.S. is striking back ahead of the midterm elections in an unconventionally gentle way. U.S. Cyber Command, the military wing tasked with offensive cyberoperations, […]

Russia has been blamed for shutting down power grids, hacking into critical systems, and more recently launching a massive misinformation campaign aimed at meddling with past and upcoming elections.

Now, the U.S. is striking back ahead of the midterm elections in an unconventionally gentle way.

U.S. Cyber Command, the military wing tasked with offensive cyberoperations, is directly reaching out to Russian trolls to warn the state-backed spreaders of false news that the U.S. is watching. It’s the command’s first cyberoperation since Obama-era rules governing offensive operations were relaxed, according to The New York Times which first broke the story, which now allows the U.S. government to strike back at foreign adversaries believed to be involved in conducting espionage or launching cyberattacks.

The plan involves reaching out to known Russian operatives and telling them that they know who they are and what they’re doing. The subtle message is, “we’re watching, so back off.”

Specific details of the plans aren’t known, like how the U.S. is contacting those on its watchlist — whether it’s a friendly email or sliding into their Twitter DMs. But the operation sends a strong enough message without sparking an escalation in what are already tense diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Russia.

A Cyber Command spokesperson wouldn’t comment on the operation, but noted that U.S. government leadership “has made it clear that it will not accept any foreign interference, or attempts to undermine or manipulate our elections in any way,” and this includes the government’s efforts “to protect election infrastructure and prevent malign, covert election influence operations.”

The operation, launched in the last few days, comes hot on the heels of a Justice Department “name and shame” indictment of a Russian national Elena Khusyaynova, charged Friday with interfering with the midterm elections. Khusyaynova, a St. Petersberg resident, is accused of serving as the chief accountant of “Project Lakhta,” a well-funded Russian effort — largely online — to meddle in elections by spreading misinformation and propaganda. Although there’s almost no chance that Russia would extradite Khusyaynova to face justice in the U.S., the indictment limits the ability of the accused to travel outside of Russia.

It’s not the first time U.S. Cyber Command has targeted its enemies overseas. The division launched offensive “cyber bombs” against operatives of the so-called Islamic State terrorist group in an effort to disrupt and freeze their infrastructure. The mission, however, was not seen as a success.

Civil, the blockchain journalism startup, has partnered with one of the oldest names in media

Civil, the two-year-old crypto startup that wants to save the journalism industry by leveraging the blockchain and cryptoeconomics, has partnered with the 172-year-old Associated Press to help the wire service stop bad actors from stealing its content. Civil, using its blockchain-enabled licensing mechanism, which is still in development, will help the AP track where its […]

Civil, the two-year-old crypto startup that wants to save the journalism industry by leveraging the blockchain and cryptoeconomics, has partnered with the 172-year-old Associated Press to help the wire service stop bad actors from stealing its content.

Civil, using its blockchain-enabled licensing mechanism, which is still in development, will help the AP track where its content is going and whether it’s licensed correctly. In exchange, the AP has granted the newsrooms in Civil’s network licenses to its content. Civil, which has raised $5 million from the blockchain venture studio ConsenSys, plans to make the licensing tool available to all the newsrooms in its ecosystem once it’s up and running.

Matthew Iles, the founder and CEO of Civil, told TechCrunch he wants the company to become the new economy for journalism, uprooting the long-standing ad-based revenue model and providing journalists ownership of their content. Beyond that, he wants to reinstate trust and credibility in the journalism industry, which, in an era of  “fake news,” has taken a hard hit to its reputation.

“We have a problem now of not even just dealing with literal fake news, but dealing with the social aspects of people not really knowing what to trust anymore because people are throwing around allegations,” Iles told TechCrunch. “We think [Civil] is going to create far better signals for consumers to really know if a news organization is trusting and credible, despite whatever powerful people might be saying.”

The AP-Civil deal has benefits for both sides. For Civil, they’ll get the opportunity to learn the ropes of the licensing business from the premier news wire service, and the AP will get a lesson in blockchain tech, with a goal of determining what kind of impact, if any, the blockchain can really have on journalism. Additionally, as part of the deal, the AP will be proud new owners of Civil’s cryptocurrency, CVL, which will begin selling via its upcoming initial coin offering on September 18.

If all goes well, the AP will rake in more revenue as a result of the partnership and Civil will have a nice use case of its blockchain-enabled licensing tool to show off.

Iles added that Civil has plans to announce a more partnerships in the coming weeks. Just last month, the company announced a deal with Splice, a media company based in Singapore, that has the pair investing $1 million in 100 media projects in Asia over the next three years.

“This project was founded on the idea that the digital media business is and was on a dangerous path,” Iles said. “I was motivated to look at the ways media platforms were constructed. Could we redesign a media platform from the ground up? I thought about it in conventional ways at first, but one of the things I ran into was a strong desire to make this platform decentralized. I had no idea how to do that until I found blockchain technology.”

Civil is among a new generation of blockchain journalism startups that includes Nwzer, Userfeeds, Factmata and Po.et, which was founded by Jarrod Dicker, a former vice president at The Washington Post.