New technologies are transforming public discourse. Some look at these collaborative technologies and see an exciting new world. Others worry that the push to new technologies will lead to a more divisive dialogue among a more limited subset of the public as those without access are further marginalized. 

In the 20th Anniversary session on Technology and Democracy moderated by CBI Board Member Colin Rule, panelists discussed applications and implications of new technologies for joint fact-finding, collaborative decision-making, and stakeholder representation. 


Panelist Colby Loucks of World Wildlife Fund described real-time data and monitoring technologies that are helping to eliminate the traditional gap between data collection and sharing. In Namibia, governments employ low-flying drones equipped with infrared technologies to monitor areas plagued by rhinoceros horn poaching. Another technology, Poacher Catcher Cam, sends text alerts when movement is detected – indicating that a poacher may be nearby. WWF’s Sigaptaru platform, a mixture of social network and map interfacing, enables Indonesians to use cell phones to photograph, post and discuss illegal logging activity online. These and other technologies produce and make accessible in real-time information that can engage local communities and help scientists and policy-makers better understand resource management needs. 


Technology offers valuable tools for involving members of the public. Panelist Larry Schooler, Austin’s Director of Community Engagement, described how the Texas city leverages a combination of old and new technologies to expand capacity for civic engagement and bring previously marginalized voices to the table. The approaches range from the more traditional (broadcasting meetings in English and Spanish over phone lines and the city’s public access television station), to more cutting edge (enabling residents to pose questions or respond to polls via text). A custom-designed online platform, SpeakUp Austin, allows officials to, in essence, crowd-source policy-making by gauging popularity of ideas under discussion. 

Panelist Eric Gordon, Executive Director with Engagement Lab, advocates for the use of tech-driven games to support public participation and complex decision-making. He explained that games can open a parallel space of play that leaves room for exploration and failure while ultimately producing outcomes that reflect upon and impact real-world processes. Moreover, collaborative games have the potential to serve multiple functions – from collecting data from diverse demographics and creating a context for self-reflection, to allowing players to create and advocate for causes. 


Panelist Amanda Cravens of Stanford University found that in California ocean planning processes, MarineMap – an on-line software that allows stakeholders to test and assess the impact of different ocean zoning alternatives – added value and influenced decision-making in five particular ways: i) helping users understand the geography of the planning area; ii) helping users understand the science guidelines and criteria against which proposals were evaluated; iii) facilitating communication by creating a common language for participants; iv) helping users identify shared and diverging interests; and v) facilitating joint problem solving and trade-offs. 


The use of technology in our work is not a question. It is here, and it will continue to expand. The question, then, is how to use it effectively and responsibly. Both audience members and panelists weighed in on this point. Decision support tools, panelist Cravens noted, may be limited by the underlying data and, as a result, skew the range of choices available. The process, she said, needs to account and correct for this. Lack of access to technology, as panelist Schooler pointed out, may limit which voices are heard, particularly if governments eliminate more traditional feedback paths. As one participant tweeted: “What do we know about who is and isn’t likely to participate digitally and how do we accommodate for that distortion?” The point is not to turn our backs on technology. Rather, it’s to acknowledge and account for both its promise and perils and then use it wisely.