Technology can enable many things, both good and bad. In the case of democracy, we’ve recently seen how technology can concentrate power through surveillance, but there’s a clear flipside too – social media gives more people a powerful voice, and it’s a lot easier to organize people around an idea these days.
But what of decision-making? The Occupy movement provided a great example of social media helping to bring people together, but it struggled to come up with a clear plan. That experience led a bunch of activists down in New Zealand to create a platform called Loomio, which kicked off a crowdfunding campaign this week to fuel the development of a user-friendly product for organizations around the world.
Loomio reminds me a lot of Liquid Feedback, a complex online policy-making system developed by the German Pirate Party. However, Loomio is starting at an altogether simpler level. Ben Knight, one of Loomio’s founders, told me the team wanted to solve a conundrum they’d encountered in Occupy.
The movement’s philosophy of collective decision-making had great potential, but was limited by the difficulty of getting everyone to the same place at the same time to make those decisions, Knight explained:
“During the Occupy movement we were looking for online tools to resolve that situation. We looked at things like Liquid Feedback — we’re looking at the same problem, but from the other end of the spectrum. Liquid Feedback is an amazing tool for complex legislative decision-making or policy development, but the level of complexity is such that it’s out of reach for most people.
“There’s no good way to make easy decisions online, so people resort to email. We wanted to build the most basic tool for relatively small groups of people with a shared purpose to make decisions together, and then to build up from there.”
Building up from there will involve iterating the system to handle larger numbers of people and more complex decisions, as well as more contentious or public decision-making, Knight added. Right now it’s all quite simple.
Someone sets up a group discussion, in which anyone can make a time-limited proposal. During the proposal period, participants set out their opinion by saying (using signals derived from Occupy techniques) that they agree, abstain, disagree, or want to completely block the proposal. Their opinion can be accompanied by a Twitter-length justification, and they can change their mind during the proposal period, as the discussion convinces people one way or the other.
Loomio is already being used by a wide variety of organizations in New Zealand and elsewhere, from groups of kids to city councils and the Wikimedia Foundation, as well as by Pirate Parties in Brazil, India and Greece.
That’s a pretty good testament to Loomio’s user experience focus. Consider the fact that, last time I checked, Liquid Feedback looked like this:
While Loomio 1.0 is set to look like this:
Indeed, the point of the crowdfunding drive is to bring it out of beta with major accessibility improvements (screen reader compatibility and so on) and better privacy safeguards, and, as depicted above, as a mobile-first product.
According to Knight, this is because many if not most of the people who could really use such a system don’t have desktop computers. The mobile version of Loomio is a web app based on HTML5 and AngularJS, so it should play nicely with low-cost Android and Firefox OS devices, as well as pretty much any platform that supports web technologies.
Loomio 1.0 will also be able to handle multiple proposals at a time (great if you’re trying to get a consensus choice between 4 options, for example) and will include other workflow tweaks to make it more suitable for brainstorming ideas. Knight said the project team also wants to allow dynamic group formation around shared purposes — a more “decision-centric” approach.
Underpinning future systems
Down the line, Loomio could get even more interesting.
I suggested to Knight that the more dynamically-organizing future Loomio could be used in a sort of hyper-democratic system, with the user able to participate in some group for local decisions, some for regional decisions and perhaps even a mega-group for national-scale decisions. He laughed and said that’s “the big vision that’s driving this thing,” albeit something that’s “further down the track.”
There are, to put it mildly, hurdles in the way of that vision. Security is one and scaling is another. Right now the largest groups using Loomio number around 300-400 people; beyond that, it will probably be necessary to introduce a Liquid Feedback style proxy system, where the user can delegate their vote to another, who may again delegate it to another – this is the basic concept of representation made digital, and it’s tricky to run a flexible and democratic mass decision-making platform without it.
There’s no question that there is a strong socio-political tilt to what Loomio is doing. Loomio, which is a social enterprise, runs a free, donation-supported cloud-hosted service, but it’s an open source project and people can also download the code and host it themselves. Loomio offers paid-for customization here, but as Knight explained, it also does a type of consulting that extends beyond the technical:
“We’re offering cultural expertise to match the digital tools for collaboration. Loomio often functions as a Trojan horse that makes power dynamics and collaboration dynamics [explicit] in an organization that starts to use it.
“There’s a large community organization here [in New Zealand], one of the mental health service providers, called Pathways. They’re rolling it out over the next 3 years to all 800 staff. They have a vision of having decisions made in their organization as closely as possible to the people they support – they’re decentralizing.”
I’m glad to see that the team is already figuring out how to apply the open source get-it-for-free-and-pay-for-the-consulting model to their situation. Loomio may just be a sustainable business as well as a great free product and, what’s more, it may prove genuinely useful in a wide variety of contexts.
I’m clearly not the only one to think so. At the time of writing, just two days into Loomio’s month-long crowdfunding campaign, the team has already raised $22,500 of its $100,000 goal.