Some years back, I was a user of an online tool for deliberative democracy called pol.is. I then noticed that I could help with the mathematics behind it, so here I am. It might be interesting for people who are into these things, so here is a short summary of my project and the tool itself.
For those who haven’t heard about it, pol.is is a survey-like tool where participants are called to vote agree/disagree/pass on a series of statements. At the same time, they have the opportunity to submit their own statements, for later participants to vote on. The system
- visualizes in real time the clusters of similar voters,
- the topics they agree and disagree on, and
- how they compare to other groups.
It has been shown in the past that people use this information to build “bridge statements”. This leads to increased consensus among the different groups as the conversation develops.
Here’s a breakdown of a real conversation of 2026 people in 2018, along with some impressive visualizations of the tool, such as this:
All this is quite different than the polarized world we’re currently living in, and this is why the project is close to my heart . We need more of these tools, and we need them to be effective and transparent.
The premise sounds simple enough but there is an extensive mathematical background to this, a small part of which has been looked at so far. I jumped in to model the problem formally, aiming to connect it to state of the art research in e.g.
- network theory,
- graph modelling and algorithms, and
- social science,
- machine learning,
- among others.
By doing that I hope to
- shield the system from possible crowd-based attacks,
- suggest improvements based on research,
- make the inner workings of the system more transparent, and
- make further development possible.
I work transparently and in the open - you can find my running notes at https://hackmd.io/@ThenWho/PolisGraph/ . Anyone can comment, edit, expand on them or just get inspired . If you think this is something for you, you have questions and/or want to work together, do get in touch and let’s get the conversation going!
In parallel to all this, I am also volunteering at the pol.is community. I’m not part of the core team, but I have a good overview of the code base, the current way of working, and how you can get involved. If you are interested in these things, drop me a line and I’ll try to help any way I can.
Where to find me
Besides here, of course, you can also find me on twitter, linkedin or at the pol.is community chat. I love talking about democracy online and offline, be it team dynamics, minority engagement, or mass participation. Naturally I also enjoy talking about the algorithms and mathematics behind civic tech tools