Polis - a FLOSS Tool for Civic Participation -- Introduction (episode 1/5)

This is the first article of a 5-episode blog post series written by Guido Berhörster, member of staff at my company Fre(i)e Software GmbH. Thanks, Guido for being on the Polis project.

Enjoy the read on the work Guido has been doing over the past months,

A team lead by Raoul Kramer/BetaBreak is currently adapting Polis for evaluation and testing by several Dutch provincial governments and central government ministries. Guido Berhörster (author of this article) who is an employee at Fre(i)e Software GmbH has been involved in this project as the main software developer. This series of blog posts describes how and why Polis was initially modified and adapted, what issues the team ran into and how this ultimately lead them to start a new Open Source project called Particiapp for accelerating the development of alternative Polis frontends compatible to but independent from the upstream project.

Table of Contents of the Blog Post Series

  1. Introduction (this article)
  2. Initial evaluation and adaptation
  3. Issues extending Polis and adjusting our goals
  4. Creating (a) new frontend(s) for Polis
  5. Current status and roadmap

Polis - The Introduction

What is Polis?

Polis is a platform for participation which helps to gather, analyze and understand viewpoints of large groups of participants on complex issues. In practical terms participants take part in “conversations” on a predefined topic by voting on statements or submitting their own statements (referred to as “comments” in Polis) for others to vote on1.

Through statistical analysis including machine learning participants are sorted into groups based on similarities in voting behavior. In addition, group-informed and overall consensus statements are identified and presented to participants in real-time. This allows for participants to react to and refine statements and either individually or through a predefined process to come to an overall consensus.

Furthermore, the order in which statements are presented to participants is influenced by a complex weighting system based on a number of factors such as variance, recency, and frequency of skipping. This so called “comment routing” is intended to facilitate a meaningful contribution of participants without requiring them to vote on each of a potentially huge number of statements 2.

Polis open-ended nature sets it apart from online surveys using pre-defined questions and allows its users to gather a more accurate picture of the public opinion. In contrast to a discussion forum or comment section where participants directly reply to each other, it discourages unproductive behavior such as provocations or personal attacks by not presenting statements in chronological order in combination with voting. Finally, its “comment routing” is intended to provide scalability towards a large number of participants which generate a potentially large number of statements.

The project was developed and is maintained by The Computational Democracy Project, a USA-based non-profit organization which provides a hosted version and offers related services. It is also released as Open Source software under the AGPL 3.0 license.

Polis has been used in a variety of different contexts as part of broader political processes facilitating broader political participation and opinion-forming, and gathering feedback and creative input.

Use of Polis in Taiwan

One prominent use case of Polis is its adoption as part of the vTaiwan participatory governance project. Established by the g0v civic tech community in the wake of the 2014 mass protests by the Sunflower movement, the vTaiwan project enables consultations on proposed legislation among a broad range of stakeholders including government ministries, lawmakers, experts, interest groups, civil society as well as the broader public. Although the resulting recommendations are non-binding, they exert pressure on the government to take action and recommendations have been adopted into legislation.345

vTaiwan uses Polis for large-scale online deliberations as part of a structured participation process. These deliberations take place after identifying and involving stakeholders and experts and providing through information about the topic at hand to the public. Citizens are then given the opportunity to vote on statements or provide alternative proposals which allows for the refinement of ideas and ideally leads to a consensus at the end. The results of these online deliberations are then curated, discussed in publicly broadcast face-to-face meetings which ultimately produce concrete policy recommendations. vTaiwan has in numerous cases given impulses resulting in government action and provided significant input e.g. on legislation regulating Uber or technological experiments by Fintech startups.35

See also

  1. https://compdemocracy.org/Polis/ 

  2. https://compdemocracy.org/comment-routing/ 

  3. https://info.vtaiwan.tw/ 

  4. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/27/taiwan-civic-hackers-polis-consensus-social-media-platform 

  5. https://www.technologyreview.com/2018/08/21/240284/the-simple-but-ingenious-system-taiwan-uses-to-crowdsource-its-laws/