GovLab Blog Ideas Lunch

The Future of Democracy Lecture Series

Public trust in the government remains near historic lows. Only 18% of Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right.  The lack of trust extends to democracy as well as government: another study finds that one-quarter of millennials say that “choosing leaders through free elections is unimportant.” With the rise of authoritarian populist leaders around the world – including in the United States— and the weakening of democratic norms in a hyper-partisan political culture in which every day is Election Day, we must ask how vulnerable our democracy is to break down. Our Madisonian system of checks and balances has endured but are our institutions strong enough to resist the slide from demagoguery into dictatorship? And, perhaps more important, what can we do in the era of new technology to redesign what President Tyler in 1840 called “the complex, but at the same time beautiful, machinery of our system of government.” Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, in his canonical Political Man, defined democracy as “a system of elections.” But, it is clear that if we want democracy to thrive, we can do better – we must do better – and reimagine what active citizenship and stronger democracy could mean for the 21st century.
Through public lectures, research workshops, projects, and publications, the aim of this working group is to foster rigorous, interdisciplinary research on the study of Democracy and the impact of technology on its evolution.
The Future of Democracy will kick off in September 2018 with a year-long series of lectures in partnership with the Institute of Public Knowledge at NYU:
September 20, 2018 | 6-8PM | Government By The People, With the People: How is Transforming, Four Years After the Sunflower Occupy Movement (With Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister)
September 26, 2018 | 12-2PM | Collective Intelligence and Democracy  (With Geoff Mulgan, CEO-NESTA)
The series will explore questions such as:
Is democracy in jeopardy? Is it dying or declining? Is populism a serious threat? And what is the role of global corporations in advancing or undermining democracy?
Is democracy still compatible with forging an equitable, sustainable and just society?
What could replace democracy as we know it? Is democracy at the national level still what matters or what are the prospects for global, transnational, and local democracy?
What are the hallmarks of a democracy in the age of the Internet, robots, and artificial intelligence? Is there more to democracy than voting? What will be the impact of the technologies of collective intelligence and artificial intelligence?
What are the prospects for greater participation and engagement in democratic life? What kind of skills do we need to become active citizens? And do we have to tackle inequality in order to repair our democracy?
How do we reinvent democratic theory for the digital age? And what kind of democratic culture is needed to foster adaptations?
To RSVP, visit the Future of Democracy’s event page here.

GovLab Blog Ideas Lunch

Balancing Act: Innovation vs. Privacy in the Age of Data Portability

Written by Vishala Pariag and Kajol Char

In the latest edition of the GovLab’s Ideas Lunch series, Jeni Tennison, the CEO of the Open Data Institute, spoke about data and data portability as a source of innovation for public services.

Tech-giants like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter have been in the news recently over several controversies around their data use policies. These companies are now collaborating on the Data Transfer Project which aims to make it easy for users to move their data in and out of platforms with ease. “Data portability” as it is called, gives users more control over their online data because access to data (open data, research data and personal data) is crucial to making the best decisions. Even beyond improving our individual lives, data portability can also positively impact business and public policy. At her Ideas Lunch talk at the GovLab, Jeni Tennison emphasized the importance of data portability but also alluded to its dangers. She spoke about data responsibility as a way to fully realize the potential of data portability without abusing its power.

Data portability is “the fundamental right of the data subject to move their information from one controller to another controller.” It forms the basis of open banking, the EU GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and open APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). For example, open banking allows people to transfer information about their finances from one financial institution to another. It “require[s] banks to publish, both online and inside their branches, accurate and unbiased information that lets consumers evaluate their service quality, a move towards transparency designed to motivate banks to provide the best possible customer experience.” Benefits of open banking include customer knowledge of bank branches’ services and locations, ATMs, and access to real time credit scores. Tennison also spoke about Open APIs which provide the “ability for individuals and organizations to access data about themselves and share this with third parties.” According to Tennison, the EU GDPR, passed as recently as April 2018, lays out the right to data portability as one of its purposes.

However, despite the introduction of laws like the GDPR, there are still issues with data ownership. Tennison points out that giving people the rights to their own data may unintentionally infringe on the rights of others: data is never truly just about one person, it nearly always involves others. This calls into question our ability to balance the rights of one person to their data with the rights of others connected to that data. For example, if someone wanted to share their genetic data, should they actually have the right to do this, given that it might violate the rights of their family members, living or dead, who could claim ownership of this data, too? As Tennison said, “data is not just about you, it’s about lots of other people as well.”

These issues arise because data portability is such a new concept that effective security standards on the movement of data have not yet been established. Tennison referred to the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica Scandal of 2015 as one such instance in which people have lost control of how their data has been used as it has been transferred from one service to another. Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, gained access to Facebook user data through the use of a personality quiz app called “This is your digital life.” Usage of the app granted Cambridge Analytica access to the information of users and those in their network. However, this was not truly informed consent as users were unaware of the implications that this would have on their data security. This information was then used to sway public opinion in favor of Donald Trump during the 2016 United States Presidential Election.

In order for us to capitalize on the positive potential of data portability, we need to first safeguard the ways in which we handle data to prevent abuse of such a powerful tool especially in public policy. Organizations that obtain data from others need to be transparent and ensure that the people who have given them access are aware of the consequences of their consent. Another thing to be taken into consideration is the responsiveness of organizations in sharing data because its relevance is time-dependent. Furthermore, for this data to be used most effectively to improve our lives, we need to establish interoperability through common standards for most data types.

Tennison stated that we should develop regulations that allow smaller organizations the opportunity to innovate and to make our markets work more effectively. The government needs to encourage innovation in businesses and sectors with less resources to even out the playing field. As Tennison put it, it’s about empowering the disempowered with the goal of “adjust[ing] the power relationship.”

You can read more about Open Data Institute’s work on data portability on their website at this link.

About Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison is the CEO of the Open Data Institute. She gained a PhD in Artificial Intelligence, then worked as an independent consultant specialising in open data publishing and consumption. She was the Technical Architect and Lead Developer for before joining the ODI as Technical Director in 2012, becoming CEO in 2016.
Jeni sits on the UK’s Open Standards Board; the Advisory Board for the Open Contracting Partnership; the Board of Ada, the UK’s National College for Digital Skills; the Co-operative’s Digital Advisory Board; and the Board of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.


GovLab Blog Ideas Lunch

As Data Portability Grows, How Will Entities Balance Innovation vs. Privacy?

The GovLab at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering is pleased to host Jeni Tennison, CEO of the Open Data Institute, for its next Ideas Lunch, where she will discuss how data portability has been regulated in the United Kingdom and Europe, and what governments, businesses and people need to do to strike the balance between its risks and benefits.
The ability of people to move or copy data about themselves from one service to another — data portability — has been hailed as a way of increasing competition and driving innovation. In many areas, such as through the Open Banking initiative in the United Kingdom, the practice of data portability is fully underway and propagating. The launch of GDPR in Europe has also elevated the issue among companies and individuals alike. But recent online security breaches and other experiences of personal data being transferred surreptitiously from private companies, (e.g., Cambridge Analytica’s appropriation of Facebook data), highlight how data portability can also undermine people’s privacy. Also at issue is the notion of data responsibility, which The GovLab has discussed here and here.
Please join us on Thursday, July 12, 2018 from 12:30 pm to 2:00 pm EST at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, 2 MetroTech Center, 8th Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201. Jeni will share her insights about balancing innovation and privacy against data portability, explore next steps people and organizations can follow in light of new regulations, and take questions from members of the audience that will include data scientists, policy advocates, researchers, civic tech experts, government officials, students and more.
To learn more about The GovLab, and its research and initiatives at the intersection of data and governance, please visit

GovLab Blog Ideas Lunch

Crowdsourcing a Meeting of Minds: Designing the Future of Work

As far as labor revolutions go, crowdsourcing may not seem like such a groundbreaking concept. But according to Michael Bernstein, assistant professor of computer science at Stanford University, crowdsourcing and computation have the potential to revolutionize the way we work and share skills. Bernstein visited the GovLab this month as part of our Ideas Lunch series to share his research on how expert crowdsourcing can be used to achieve complex and sophisticated projects.
Computers are already having a profound influence on our employment. Researchers estimate that in the future, 20 percent of our workforce could exist online, representative of approximately 45 million workers. This staggering number shows that computers are more than just another tool in our office to improve productivity. Rather, as Bernstein revealed, computers are becoming vast, powerful networks which connect us with others, best seen in apps like Uber.
According to Bernstein, there is great potential locked away in these computerized networks to radically transform how work is performed. Traditionally, crowdsourcing has been used to complete menial, micro-tasks, seen in projects like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk which primarily uses crowdsourced labor for image labeling, data collection and other non-expert tasks. For Bernstein, such an approach neglects the potential of crowdsourcing to achieve complex, interdependent goals by curating crowds of experts.
With fellow researchers at Stanford University, Bernstein investigated whether “flash-teams” of crowdsourced experts could achieve ambitious results, like designing a hi-fi prototype of an app or making a short animation in just one day. By recruiting workers through the website UpWork, and creating a web platform Foundry to manage workflows, Bernstein and his team found that flash-teams were able to achieve goals significantly faster than self-managed teams, with almost 50 percent fewer work hours expended.
Nevertheless, Bernstein pointed out that these flash-teams are limited in what they can do. Flash-teams need pre-defined workflows so that tasks can be delegated and guided, and only small teams can be involved on a single project. For larger, more complex projects, where workflows may evolve or be undefined, flash-teams are unable to deliver sufficient results.
Furthermore, there are considerable ethical challenges to such crowdsourced forms of labor. Research by Bernstein’s colleagues into collective action by crowd workers found that “the technical infrastructure [of crowdsourcing] actively disempowers workers”, and that new forms of computationally-empowered labor collectives are therefore needed to meet the needs of this distinct workforce. But experiments in delivering such a model to connect and spur advocacy among crowd workers, specifically through the web platform Dynamo—where workers could propose ideas, vote on these ideas, and then discuss and mobilize action—revealed some of the shortcomings of computerized crowdsourcing. Particularly, though the web is adept in gathering a vast array of people quickly, it is also just as easy for people to quickly disperse if they lose interest in the cause or encounter an obstacle. Trying to coordinate collective labor actions therefore becomes more difficult than simply providing a space for workers to share and discuss ideas online.
Bernstein’s research into the challenges and benefits of expert crowdsourcing continues to make exciting discoveries. For instance, a current project seeking to crowdsource research participants from across the world suggests that crowdsourcing can even help solve open-ended, messy and large-scale problems. There remains a vast array of untapped possibilities for computerized crowdsourcing to bring workers together to tackle complex and multifaceted problems.

Key Takeaways

  • There are four features afforded by computational crowdsourcing which make crowdsourced Flash Teams effective:
    1. Modularity of crowdsourcing means that team structures can be replicated and scaled across projects;
    2. Elastic work-flows allow tasks and team members to grow and shrink dynamically depending on the evolving needs of the project.
    3. Pipelining allows incomplete results to be passed down the timeline to proceeding workers on a project. This means the entire system adapts to missed deadlines or unexpected changes to a project.
    4. Creation by request means that synthetic teams can be created instantly depending on the project proposed. Tasks are also translated into time dependent ‘strips’ of action divided among team members.
  • Self-managed teams don’t work, often because they are inefficient and poorly coordinated, leading to frustrations among team members.
  • Computational crowdsourcing provides ‘light scaffolding’ enabling workers to be shepherded through tasks and for schedules and files to be shared between members through the workflow.
  • Flash-teams (mean time to finish is 13hr 2min) are significantly faster than self-managed teams (mean time to finish is 23hr47min), p=0.05
  • If crowdsourced Flash Teams are a new form of work collective, there is also a need for new forms of worker counterbalance.

All this allows us to glimpse at what the future of work might look like, and, according to Bernstein, we can expect crowdsourcing to achieve more complex and interdependent goals, to better advocate for pro-social outcomes, and to solve open-ended challenges.

About Michael Bernstein

Michael Bernstein is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University and member of the Human-Computer Interaction group. His research focuses on the design of crowdsourcing and social computing systems. This work has received five Best Paper awards and eleven honorable mentions at premier venues in human-computer interaction and social computing. Michael has been recognized as a Robert N. Noyce Family Faculty Scholar, and awarded the Sloan Fellowship, NSF CAREER award and the George M. Sprowls Award. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University, and a master’s and Ph.D. in Computer Science from MIT.

GovLab Blog Ideas Lunch

The Finance Innovation Lab – A Strategy for Systems Change

In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, the effects of which are still being felt today, how can innovators from both sides of the financial system work toward reform?
Last Monday as part of The GovLab’s Ideas Lunch series, Rachel Sinha from The Finance Innovation Lab in the UK tackled this question head-on. Her organization brings together innovators from a variety of sectors, including civil society groups, government, business and mainstream financial firms, all determined to transform current financial systems for the good of society.
In essence, The Finance Innovation Lab tries to capture the revolutionary spirit which emerged following the financial crisis in order to build communities to create change in practical and scalable ways. Sinha highlighted that this process of networking and community building was key to creating collaborative solutions to tackle large, imbedded problems within finance and other sectors.
The Financial Innovation Lab developed as a partnership between the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Institute of Chartered Accountants. Despite their disparities, the two organizations were united by a common desire to create a more sustainable and democratic financial system, one that takes into account the needs of both people and the planet. The idea was to build upon this momentum for change to crowdsource ideas from within the financial system and develop these into implementable projects. The Financial Innovation Lab emerged to workshop and create these projects to lead to financial reform in the UK.
During her presentation, Sinha explained how she and the team behind the Finance Innovation Lab had to innovate their own organization before confronting innovation in the financial sector. By focussing on their strengths—in generating networks of motivated people, fostering conversations between activists within and outside of the finance sector, and empowering citizens—her team was able to better articulate the Finance Innovation Lab’s mission and harness their leadership potential in order to generate change. As a result, projects such as the Campaign Lab, a program which supports economic justice campaigners, have grown to be independent sites of change and innovation.

Key Takeaways

  1. Concentration of influence and power makes change difficult

The biggest barrier to change, explained Sinha, are concentrated centres of influence and power, which are often distant from the communities demanding reform. This can make transforming the status-quo seem like an unsurmountable task. But, by identifying these centres of power, and engaging these sectors in open dialogue with communities and civil society groups, Sinha suggested it was possible to crowdsource ideas from those in power to spur change from within the system.

  1. In order to create change, we have to “think systemically”

Sinha argued that change is never achievable if actors are not organized as a system. By thinking systematically—uniting people together to solve a problem, and leveraging existing communities—the spirit for change becomes a strategized and effective system capable of creating reform. As Sinha suggested, movements for change should “not just preach to the choir, but organize the choir.”

  1. Four Steps toward Reform and Innovation: Amplify, Demonstrate, Reform and Scale

Sinha outlined the 4 steps which formed a strategy for innovation, which is used by the Finance Innovation Lab to design and develop projects.

  1. Amplify: This involves bringing together diverse groups and building upon their ideas for change through dialogue and networking.
  2. Demonstrate: It is not simply enough to convene, but innovation leaders also need develop new tools and ways to function, and showcase improvements from these measures to reform. This is fundamental in creating a sustainable strategy for innovation.
  3. Reform: Leaders must be strategic about what areas can be changed, and where to target their efforts. By being specific, and understanding limitations, reform can be more implementable and effective.
  4. Scale: It is important to build strategies as the project grows, ensuring it remains dynamic and adaptable.

By building upon these core principles, the Finance Innovation Lab has become a space where radical ideas are created, articulated and developed so that perceptible change can take place. For Sinha, a key example of this iterative approach toward reform is the AuditFutures project. Launched by the Finance Innovation Lab, this project challenges existing approaches to accounting by running workshops and programmes to encourage practicing and future auditors to think about the social impact of their work.
In such a way, the Finance Innovation Lab has launched a variety of projects—some that falter, and others that flourish—to nurture innovation and radical reform in a variety of sectors of the finance community.

About Rachel Sinha

Rachel Sinha is a British award winning social innovator. She co-founded The Finance Innovation Lab with four other team members, and was named by the Guardian newspaper as one of 50 Radicals ‘changing the face of the UK for the better’. Sinha is an established thought leader in the field of social innovation and systems change and the co-author of Labcraft, a book on social Labs. She has written for publications including HBR and Fast Company, documented the work of systems leaders with Oxford University as well as published her experiences of running a Lab in A Strategy for Systems Change.

About the Financial Innovation Lab

The Finance Innovation Lab, first convened by The Institute of Chartered Accountants and the World Wildlife Fund, brought together accountants, activists, investors and citizens to work on transforming the future of finance. It launched several successful organizations as part of the strategy, from an accelerator program for economic justice campaigners (Campaign Lab), to a Rockefeller Foundation and World Bank funded ‘Natural Capital Coalition’ with a protocol for business to account for natural capital.

GovLab Blog Ideas Lunch

Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in the Digital Age

In the latest edition of The GovLab’s Ideas Lunch series, Dr. Hollie Russon Gilman, the author of Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America, explained the concept of Participatory Budgeting (PB), its advantages and various different examples of its implementation in the United States and around the world. She also discussed the rising trend of civic experiments occurring across the country. Gilman’s book is the first comprehensive academic treatment of PB in the United States.
PB refers to the process through which citizens and local officials come together to strategize how to direct government funding toward public priorities. A common implementation of PB involves a group of citizens working with local officials to develop a list of priorities and the larger community voting to decide how to allocate funds based on proposed projects.  The results of this process are fully transparent and then implemented into policy.
While still considered a governance innovation that has yet to achieve wide-scale adoption, PB is not new. In 1989, after nearly 20 years of military rule, the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre sought to encourage popular participation in governance and redirect greater government resources towards the poor. It was the first implementation of what came to be known later as Participatory Budgeting. Since then, there have been over 1,500 instances of PB across 5 continents, including several examples in the US, starting with one Alderman’s district in Chicago in 2009.
Hollie Gilman at The GovLab Ideas Lunch
During her talk, Gilman documented a number of different types of civic innovation  experiments . For example, civic crowdfunding in Central Falls, Rhode Island  (when the city worked with Citizenvstor and citizens to raise $10,000 and install trash bins in a picturesque public park in the city). And some can happen on a large scale, such as the city of Paris moving to let Parisians decide how to spend €500 million on the city over the next 6 years.
However  irrespective of the scale, the intention behind PB is to create a new path for citizens to be involved in governance. It is, as Gilman explained, “additive and not a replacement for government”.

Key Takeaways

During her talk, Gilman discussed five key takeaways regarding the expanding use and understanding of PB.

  1. Elected Officials’ Apprehensions About Cost and Participation

Gilman argued that not all government officials who have not yet adopted it are against the concept PB. Rather, they are often afraid that the costs may be prohibitive, and that people will not get involved. But cities, including New York City, have shown that not only do people choose to get involved, but they also keep coming back.

  1. Experimentation and Scaling

There needs to be room for experimenting with small pilots to test the effectiveness of PB in various contexts. These pilots should be built with an eye toward the specific needs of the region in which it is being implemented meaning that approaches cannot be blindly copied from other contexts. Simply scaling up small, ultra-localized efforts – what Gilman calls  “toilets and trees” projects – may not work  on a larger scale simply because the participation may not be as robust.

  1. Incentives

Gilman discussed strategies for motivating people to embrace PB both within government and among the citizenry.
For governments, a correlation between the willingness among citizens to pay taxes and PB can be a key incentive for government and local officials to implement the strategy. Additionally, there is potential for more straight-forward electoral benefits (i.e., reelection) for government officials who implement PB as a result of citizen goodwill catalyzed through PB-enabled financial transparency and citizen engagement.
For citizens, Gilman believes that there is significant motivation arising from a) the ability to control where a subset of their tax money is spent; and b) the ability to see for themselves if that money actually gets spent there. This motivation has been evidenced by multiple instances in which people have not only devoted the time to take part in the voting process, but have also played an active role in working on the ground to fix problems in their localities that were targeted during PB initiatives.

  1. Additional Advantages

Participatory Budgeting makes people more aware of the functioning of their local governments and the critical areas of interest in the region. At the same time people also learn some basic technological skills if the process of budgeting and voting is made online. Participatory budgeting, therefore, can be a vehicle of civic and tech education for citizens.

  1. Policy Recommendations

In the United States in particular, there is already traction in the open government space especially after President Obama’s Open Government initiative. Gilman argued that we must engage and harness diverse expertise that already exists in society, but  there is also a need to expand our notion of what it means to be an expert by including people with hyper-local context specific knowledge. One potential method  to do this according to Gilman, is to set up a centralized federal office devoted to engaging more citizens in governance.

About Hollie Gilman

Hollie Russon Gilman is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs where she is co-teaching a new course on Technology and the Future of Governance and Public Policy. She is a fellow at New America and Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Innovation and Governance.  Hollie most recently served as Open Government and Innovation Advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and holds a PhD in Government from Harvard University..

About Democracy Reinvented

Democracy Reinvented places participatory budgeting within the larger discussion of the health of U.S. democracy and focuses on the enabling political and institutional conditions. Gilman presents theoretical insights, in-depth case studies, and interviews to offer a compelling alternative to the current citizen disaffection and mistrust of government. She offers policy recommendations on how to tap online tools and other technological and civic innovations to promote more inclusive governance. Gilman suggests practical ways to empower citizens to become change agents. Democracy Reinvented also includes a discussion on the challenges and opportunities that come with using digital tools to re-engage citizens in governance.”
Cover of Democracy Reinvented

GovLab Blog Ideas Lunch

MindLab: The evolution of a public innovation lab

On January 27th, Kit Lykketoft, the Deputy Director of MindLab and a visiting scholar at Parsons the New School for Design – DESIS Lab, visited The GovLab to share insights about the design and evolution of a public sector innovation lab.
MindLab was the one of the first public sector innovation labs in the world. Founded in Denmark in 2002, MindLab is celebrating 14 years of existence. Its innovative approach has inspired the proliferation of similar labs and user design methodologies deployed in many countries. MindLab is also an institutional member of the MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance which is chaired by the GovLab.

The Deputy Director of MindLab, Kit Lykketoft, visited The GovLab to talk about the evolution of a public sector lab.
Kit Lykketoft is an expert in implementing user-involved projects and change processes, and consults on development of public sector innovation labs and capacity building for innovation in organisations.

From its start MindLab has embraced an iterative approach of rapid prototyping and testing to evolve not just their government co-creation projects, but also their organizational structure, describing their 14 year journey as an organization as being defined by six different stages or “generations.” in her talk, Lykketoft, who has been with MindLab for nine years, shared the challenges and lessons learned from working within a cross-governmental innovation unit.
Picture of the cover of a MindLab booklet that describes their evolution.
The journey of the lab is described here.

Initial projects were quite experimental for the time.  As Lykketoft puts it, “it was like throwing a grenade into the system.” For example, they used art installations to popularize citizen rights in taxation. It turned out to be too radical an approach, that didn’t resonate well with the system. They learned that they needed to move more slowly, and their focus on being experimental could come at the cost of opportunities for collaboration with government actors. “We needed to understand not only the citizens and businesses, but the system. We needed empathy.”
MindLab is tasked with breaking down silos between ministries. Currently, it is part of three ministries (education, employment and business) and the Odense municipality. Their collaboration in itself is an experiment for the lab. Lykketoft shared that in the view of MindLab, the public sector has more bottom lines than the private sector for success: productivity, service, changes in behavior, and democracy. “To meet them you need to be good at defining the right problem. We fall into well-known solutions because we don’t take the time to know well the problem.”
Skills and methods
When thinking about how to staff the Lab, “we decided we needed skillsets not commonly found in the public sector at the time. We also needed people that understood how the public sector works.” MindLab decided to build capacity with a mixture of interdisciplinary and cross-functional skillsets: public administration, social research, and design. An early job posting  called for individuals who wanted to “revolutionize the public sector.” This brought in a flood of applications. The professional backgrounds of employees were varied but “all had some idealism, wanted to change something in the world,” explained Lykketoft.
MindLab’s methodology is based on the use of ethnography and design methods, like rapid prototyping and testing, to co-create public sector solutions with citizens, businesses and government agencies. The novel incorporation of design enabled a new medium through which public sector stakeholders could reimagine problems and opportunities.
Design thinking has enabled MindLab and its many imitators around the world to understand drivers of behavior, to experiment, and to create a common language between citizens and civil servants. MindLab staff conduct semi-structured interviews in the field based on a hypothesis that emerges from initial research and issues exploration. “Quickly you see patterns emerging,” said Lykketoft. Team members may also conduct observational studies to see what people actually do in their natural environments, and not just what they say the do. Sometimes MindLab has  employed props such as a video diary, a personal user diary, or a cell phone, to text people with questions. With these artifacts and research material, MindLab engages in co-creation sessions with citizens, experts and other relevant stakeholders to come up with more ideas and prototypes. Rapid prototyping involves the creation of concrete and physical objects to understand what cannot be easily explained or immediately understood. Together they intentionally test very rough prototypes, so people can add to and adjust the solution. “It’s not hard to find people that want to engage.”
Picture of Kit talking to Ideas Lunch attendees.
The Govlab hosts Ideas Lunches in our offices in Brooklyn. You may find information about upcoming lunches here.

From service design to policy reform
At the very beginning MindLab engaged mainly in service design projects. Over time it has moved on to projects with more complex dimensions and deliverables, such as engaging in policy making, reform, and capacity building and projects they couldn’t have done initially because they didn’t know enough. According to Lykketoft, this has been possible because they have learned from their previous interactions. MindLab has captured institutional knowledge in a dynamic environment through a research program developed to look across learnings from project and programs. Their research efforts showed that IT projects, for instance, tend to share many commonalities. This knowledge helps MindLab to test richer, more evidence-based hypotheses for similar future field work.
When working on policy design or reform, MindLab has a focus on the intended political effect and on thinking about implementation very early in the process. For example, having the policy makers go into the field to  spend a day with a caseworker so that they can experience the end user’s experience. One example of engagement in reform-work was around elementary school reform that involved moving from a half day of school to a full day that would result in teachers spending less time preparing and more time teaching in the classroom. MindLab was part of different phases in the reform, including work to make common learning-goals tangible on a day-to-basis. In the implementation-phase MindLab worked with  teachers to see how they had faced the time and quality challenge, and co-created solutions together with them. Among the ideas were new and more efficient ways of meeting and “speed sharing,” a type of speed dating so teachers could share with other schools what they had learned.
Takeaways for Lab design:

  • Communication is a key success factor for innovation labs. To capture the value proposition and engage collaborators, practitioners need to explain the lab’s objectives, methodology and, eventually, its wins. Many times a good spokesperson is the user. The MindLab records audio and video with users to allow them to explain how research insights were operationalized, for example.
  • With a wave of labs being set up all over the globe, there is an ongoing discussion on their format: should they be internal, external, a nonprofit, a consultancy? For MindLab,  being an internal government lab has been an asset, as it has helped them build a network inside. “We have been able to work with the people in the ministries as colleagues, engage at an early stage in these projects, and stay longer, for implementation, which consultants often don’t do. If you don’t adjust your solutions when you implement then you won’t meet those intended political effects.”
  • Measuring impact is a constantly evolving process: “We are experimenting on a good way to do this.” They have indicators for every specific process, but, “how do we set up indicators that are right to measure what? In many cases we won’t know until years from now.”


GovLab Blog Ideas Lunch

Mark Latonero: Data-Driven Tensions in Human Rights

During the GovLab’s most recent Ideas Lunch, Mark Latonero, Fellow at the Data & Society Research Institute, spoke about the numerous tensions that result from data collection in human rights issues, emphasizing both its potential for good and the dilemmas it provokes.
In the past decade, a growing group of innovators began finding solutions in the development and humanitarian field by harnessing advances in data-driven technologies, but often faced skepticism from human rights advocates regarding the capacity of new tools to meaningfully affect conditions on the ground. Nonetheless, on September 25, 2012, President Obama gave a speech declaring that the government would harness innovations in technology to combat human trafficking. Since then, data use has come to the forefront of human trafficking efforts as a means of both identifying and countering human rights violations. While data-driven approaches to addressing human rights issues have the potential for significant good, Latonero explained that there are tensions and tradeoffs to be carefully analyzed in order to ensure that technology is being used appropriately.
Latonero used his last six years of work in investigating cases of online human trafficking as an example of how data driven applications can be used in a human rights context. As individuals have moved to online communication, so too has human trafficking. As a digital ecosystem easily connecting supply and demand within the sex industry emerged, so too have some cases of commercial exploitation of children hidden within online venues such as “classified” sites, like Backpage. Counter-trafficking efforts have primarily involved manually scanning such sites for potentially illicit cases of commercial sexual exploitation of minors, but the process is tedious and inefficient. Latonero and his team used database integration, data markup, and visualizations to help identify high-risk posts in a fraction of the usual time. On a wide-scale, this sort of data analysis could not only improve response from authorities and mitigate human rights violations, but also save huge amounts of time and resources.
Despite potential benefits, Latonero warned that there are risks and challenges that need to be considered as data collection and data-driven approaches are implemented in an attempt to bolster human rights on a large scale. He identified four key tensions that have yet to be carefully analyzed by researchers and policymakers:

Monitoring and privacy

Observing human rights issues through data can lead to risks associated with increased surveillance. Government surveillance – in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks – is a particularly fraught public issue. “Monitoring,” rights abuses carries positive connotations like protection and security, whereas “surveillance” carries negative connotations like intrusion, control or punishment. A priority in using data-driven technologies in human rights efforts, then, is to ensure that public policy and decision-makers harness such technologies in responsible ways.

Temporal tensions

Data persists in time, and information that was once essential to stemming a crisis can later marginalize or otherwise harm an individual. In many high-risk situations, the public makes a tradeoff of certain values, like privacy, for safety. After the crisis is resolved, though, the public may suffer. In the case of Ebola, for example, efforts to contain the disease included distributing information on potential carriers. Once the outbreak ended, though, some of those high-risk individuals were publicly stigmatized. How, then, should values fluctuate in confronting an immediate problem, if at all?

Risks, harms, and benefits

Data-driven applications have not been implemented on a wide scale for an extended period of time. The potential for misuse is great, and if implemented by repressive regimes could be a tool for significant harm. What are the long-term risks of developing surveillance techniques? What are the benefits? Should data be aggregated or can it be used to identify individuals?

Context, power, and implementation

There is currently no framework that governs data use as implemented in human rights issues.  Because rights issues are highly contextual, it is difficult to create universal standards for implementation and policy making. How can we take into account local context and power relationships in developing a framework for action? How can data-driven technologies be leveraged to empower as well as protect vulnerable populations?
To help address challenges in data-driven human rights efforts, Latonero called for a multi-stakeholder approach to the analysis of these tensions. Additionally, he highlighted the need for “translators” between the multiple stakeholders involved. The involvement of data developers in a conventionally government-controlled domain creates the potential for miscommunication, as policymakers may not understand the technology being used and data scientists may not understand the implications of their developments. In order to best use these technologies, Latonero explained that the multiple actors involved (policymakers, government officials, NGOs, human rights activists, data scientists, engineers, etc.) must form a network bridged by actors who can translate the needs between them.
Data-driven applications are becoming more common-place in countering human rights violations, with numerous benefits.  From confronting sex trafficking to containing pandemics, data can assist in a variety of important initiatives.  But the costs, too, must be considered.  As Latonero looked toward the future of human rights efforts with optimism, he made clear that society must evaluate the tradeoffs they are willing to make in order to protect vulnerable populations from harm.
For more information see Data & Society’s Data and Human Rights Initiative and primer
Mark Latonero can be found at @latonero and

GovLab Blog Ideas Lunch

Carl Malamud: How Citizens Can Force Governments to Change through Liberating our Data (at Scale!)

MalamudIdeasLunchPictureAt the latest installment of the Ideas Lunch series, the GovLab hosted Carl Malamud, public domain advocate and founder of, a nonprofit organization that works to make government information more accessible. The talk centered on the role that citizens should play to free public information currently being held by government behind closed doors. His discussion covered three initiatives he has done in the field recently: (1) Advocating for updates to the public federal court records system, PACER; (2) Making technical public safety standards incorporated into law available; and (3) Reforming the IRS’s e-filing system for non-profits.
The majority of Malamud’s talk was on, Yo, Your Honor, an initiative seeing to improve PACER (Public Access Court Electronic Records), the government-run online system in the U.S. used by lawyers and the public to access public federal court records. PACER, Malamud argues, is both dangerously out-of-date technologically, and fiscally untenable. The current system is behind a paywall, charging citizens a fee-per-page (10 cents) for access to court records through their use of the online database. According to Malamud, not only is this system contrary to democratic values, the website has little oversight to ensure records released to the public do not contain personally identifying information (he has frequently found the courts have not properly redacted identifying information such as names and social security numbers).
Malamud worked with individuals – including the late Aaron Swartz – to make these public resources free. After Swartz downloaded a large number of records from the database (19, 856, 160 pages of text), the Government Printing Office shut down by this free pilot program. Six years later, Malamud is still committed to making PACER free and easier for the public. He urged citizens to take part; outlining seven possible actions he has found to advocate for free access to the PACER system:

  1. Outreach. Send a letter or a postcard to the judge representing your district declaring why you think PACER should be a free resource. Residents of New York City should contact the Hon. Loretta A. Preska.
  2. Take legal action. Sue the courts to make access to PACER free.
  3. Contact Congress. Tell your representative not to charge for PACER, and to support related bills.
  4. Billing Errors. Malamud suggests the PACER system may have billing errors and has filed a detailed audit of his results to the courts.
  5. Privacy Violations. Likewise, the PACER system has a large number of privacy violations. By exposing privacy violations and notifying the courts, perhaps this will force change.
  6. Take part in The Aaron Swartz Cup Memorial PACER Cup on May 1st. Malamud urges students to download up to $15 dollars worth of records on May 1st. PACER will waive fees of under $15 worth of documents per quarter.
  7. Ask to get PACER for free. Request PACER-fee exemptions for all of PACER whenever possible.

Malamud’s push to make the U.S. government more transparent extends beyond the PACER system. In an effort to force the Internal Revenue Service to release nonprofit tax forms in electronic formats, Malamud sued the IRS in 2013 when the agency denied his freedom of information requests for the e-filing records of several nonprofits. According to Malamud, making these records more available, and in machine readable format, could provide much needed transparency within the tax exempt sector.
Find out more information about Malamud and his current campaigns at Public.Resource.Org and watch video of Malamud’s talk at MIT on April 7th here.

GovLab Blog Ideas Lunch

Piotr Szpunar: The Problem of Internet Radicalization?

IMG_0457Piotr Szpunar, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania, shared his ongoing research on the topic of Internet radicalization during a GovLab Ideas Lunch in March . The issues addressed during the talk relate to the GovLab’s broader work on Internet governance and identifying strategies for a more effective Internet governance ecosystem.
Szpunar opened the discussion with an overview of the Tsarnev brothers, the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. During the coverage of this tragic event, the media scrambled to make sense of the motivations behind it. Different sources of blame were identified that ranged from cultural and religious heritage, to fractured home lives, to medical conditions. However, a clear, overarching theme across the speculation included the Internet’s role in promoting radicalization and violence for these two young men.
Szpunar’s research focuses on critical questions around the delicate balance between security and liberty. He argues that in order to gain a better understanding of this area, it is important to understand the following question: What does the data actually tell us about the role of the Internet in radicalization? And more specifically, what does the data tell us about the role of the Internet in “instilling a set of beliefs that motivate individuals to carry out violent acts” and “providing the technical know-how for making weapons.” According to Szpunar,  only when we answer these questions can lawmakers make informed decisions about where to draw the line between security and freedom of expression.
During his presentation, Szpunar walked the audience through several real world examples of “home grown terrorism” where radicalization was at the heart of the case. These included the Fort Dix Five (2007), the Newburgh Four (2009) and the Boston Marathon Bombing (2013). He also referred to quantitative data sets regarding recent incidents of jihadist and non-jihadist “homegrown incidents causing death.”

Homegrown Incidents Causing Death
Weapon(s) Used
Type N Deaths Wounded Firearms Explosives Other
Jihadist 7 26 213 6 1 1
Non-Jihadist 18 39 22 18 1 0

(Source: New America)

Through the course of his research, Szpunar looked at three dimensions of this issue, including:

  • the evidence on Internet radicalization
  • the relationship between theories of radicalization and the evidence available
  • government conduct as it relates to the data

After analyzing the data as it relates to these three points, Szpunar found several recurring themes surrounding his two original questions.Is there data that supports the idea that the Internet “instills a set of beliefs that motivate individuals to carry out violent acts”?

  • There are significant barriers to reliable data.
  • What little data does exist tells little of “ the how and why of Internet use in adopting extremist beliefs or motivating one to violence”.
  • Existing academic theories of radicalization are vague on details related to the role of Internet activity.

Is there data to support that the Internet “provides the technical know-how for making weapons?”

  • The majority of deaths in cases of homegrown terrorism are inflicted through the use of firearms.
  • Most cases involving explosives are facilitated by paid government  informants, a consistently unreliable source of information
  • In the majority of all other cases, internet materials provide little in the way of technical training.
  • Cases like the Boston Marathon bombing, where the Tsarnev brothers learned how build explosives using the Internet, are extremely rare

Overall, Szpunar’s research highlights a severe lack of data surrounding this topic. While there is some data to suggest that Internet made a difference for individuals who are already radicalized, there is little information about how the Internet led to the types of transformation we saw in cases like the Boston Marathon bombing. This obscurity makes it very difficult to evaluate government conduct as it comes to bear in these cases and related policy-making. To conclude, Szpunar cautioned against using fears of internet radicalization to support overreaching practices of internet monitoring, surveillance and/or censorship.  While undoubtedly a difficult topic, greater transparency and information sharing between government agencies and academics who study the topic is necessary to formulate , more effective, legitimate Internet governance.