OpenMedia

Stop the Secrecy

Guest Blog by James Robb - Using the internet to bring democracy closer to the people

Fri, 02/06/2015 - 12:53 -- Eva Prkachin

Photo by www.GlynLowe.com via Flickr

Thanks to Icelandic resident James Robb for contributing this guest piece.

Shortly after I moved to Iceland, my good friend and former colleague, Helgi Gunnarsson, who is now an MP for the Pirate Party of Iceland, approached me with an idea to build a piece of petition software. At the time there were a few issues moving through the parliament that had garnered a sizeable amount of controversy. The president of Iceland had also recently stated that if a petition or issue could get enough signatures, he would attempt to intervene on behalf of the public. With this in mind, we set out to build a tool that would streamline the collection of signatures opposing parliamentary actions.

Safety Valve (ventill.is) is an open source project I have created with the Pirate Party of Iceland to help citizens of any country have a more active voice regarding their respective parliaments and parliamentarians. We chose the name because of what the president had said about stepping in on a highly controversial issue. Initially we hoped our software would function as a political safety valve for when things were getting messy. The project currently allows Icelandic citizens to sign petitions either for or against every single bill, motion, or issue coming through their parliament. For example, this is a petition regarding a bill that relates to guaranteed basic income.

These petitions are generated automatically based on the bills and issues from parliament, and contain no material other than the issue or bill itself.  Since we run the software independently, we find it is of the utmost importance to not compose any of our own text in an attempt to be as neutral as possible. Once an issue or bill has been signed in support or protest enough times, the petition could be submitted to parliament by us or anyone else. At this point we believe it would be very difficult for parliamentarians to ignore, and still claim to be acting on behalf of their constituents.

Moving forward, our software will also track the votes of parliamentarians on each issue, so that as a new election nears one can easily review the issues they had signed in support or protest, and then compare how their elected representative had acted. We hope that this information and audit will help citizens make more informed decisions with their votes, and hold parliamentarians more accountable for their actions in the long term.

With a push from people all over the world for open data from their governments, creating new tools for citizens to interact with decision-makers is becoming easier and more feasible. It is of course important to remember that open data means data that is not only publicly accessible, but also data that is structured in such a way that it is understandable, usable, and most importantly parsable.

Our first and currently only implementation of Safety Valve is in Iceland under the name Öryggisventill (which literally translates to safety valve). We felt the project was really doable with the level of credibility we wanted when we learned of a mechanism called the Ice Key (Íslykill) that was growing in use in Iceland.  If you have ever seen a “login with Google” or “login with Facebook” option on some of your favorite websites or apps, this is the equivalent, except it could be seen as “login via The Icelandic Government”.

Someone logging into a service via their Ice Key is authenticated against the National Registry of Iceland, meaning it is essentially certain that the person is who they claim to be. Typically it has been used for accessing government services and for tax purposes, but has since expanded for all sorts of uses. Using this we could get guaranteed signatures online since we had the Icelandic Government authenticating our users.

With the power of the Ice Key, and the fact that the Icelandic Parliament has made all bills and motions publicly available in a parsable format, we were in business. We began tying together the Ice Key with open data from the government to create a tool that people could use easily and constructively. In trying to be as open and as credible as possible, we made sure to list all issues in parliament, as to never be accused of only showing issues that supported a particular political agenda. We have also given users the ability to redact their signature or change their stance at any given time.

When governments make their actions and services available in open data, the sky is the limit. Without the Internet, access to open data, and transparency in government, a tool like this would have been impossible to construct, especially for just a handful of people. It is important that our governments understand the need for open data, transparency, and access to the internet so that citizens can continue to thrive and be a part of democratic process of their country. Anything short of growth in these three concepts will result in the slowing or stagnation of technology serving to help people thrive in a modern age.

James Robb was born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada, and has been working as a software developer for 9 years. He has a strong passion for using technology as a means of improving our everyday lives, and an innate curiosity for how things work. Now a resident of Iceland, James continues to expand his network of like-minded individuals and tinker away on projects he feels fits his outlook on life.