Academic and activist Larry Lessig might not be the next president of the United States, but his entry in the race helps bring across the point that democracy should and can be fixed.
In that sense, his message is not much different from the mission of DemocracyOS, an Argentine group working to promote collaborative decision-making. Naturally, its co-founder and executive director Pia Mancini is a longtime admirer of Lessig’s work.
While Mancini may not be as well-known in the general public, her TED talk last year has garnered more than one million views. “How to upgrade democracy for the Internet era” is a good summary of what The DemocracyOS Foundation hopes to achieve, and how it came into being.
From diagnosis to reboot
Political science isn’t the most common education background in the startup world. Yet, it is exactly what put Mancini at the forefront of tech and civic innovation in her home country.
“We were a group of young people in Argentina — a mix of programmers, political and social scientists — and our starting point was a diagnosis that our government system was out of sync with how we could organize ourselves as a society,” she explained (translation ours).
One of the things that struck them was the passive role assigned to citizens in representative democracies, despite the fact that technology now made it possible for communication to go both ways in between elections.
“The costs of organization, of sending a message and so on have been reduced dramatically, and yet the interaction that the political system offers us is still very poor,” she regretted.
This inspired her and her friends to start designing DemocracyOS, which they envisioned as an open source solution to public debate and voting. The “OS” part of its name is intentionally polysemic, co-founder Santiago Siri explained in a comment on Hacker News:
“It’s meant to be open for many interpretations: – Open Source because, well, we are open source (github.com/democracyos/app) – Operating System because, well, we aim to build a layer on top of the current political system. – Open Society because, well, we aim for societies to become more participatory and democratic.
Pick your favorite flavor… The goal is to nail how democracy should work in the 21st century.”
Siri is probably DemocracyOS’ most public face; its co-founder and president, this Argentine entrepreneur and activist recently authored a book in Spanish, whose title roughly translates to “Hacktivism – the Net and its reach to revolutionize power.”
While Siri and Mancini handle most communications and PR for DemocracyOS, she made a point of highlighting that this had been very much a group effort. “We are a team of eight people,” she said.
Applying technology to the political system
Mancini’s concern for fairness is also at the core of DemocracyOS’ activities, as it plans to turn a vertical political system into a horizontal one. “We want to put professional citizens (politicians) and non-professional ones (the others) on an equal footing,” she told us. As a political scientist, she refers to the concept of “liquid democracy,” also known as delegative democracy.
Rather than voting for someone and simply hoping for the best during their mandate, or having to join a party, citizens could use DemocracyOS to express their choices on a topic-by-topic basis, with elected officials acting as mere delegates rather than decision-makers.
While this permanent referendum may sound like a hassle, DemocracyOS plans to use its technology to make the whole process as painless as commenting online.
In practical terms, its platform (currently in demo mode) is organized around topics, about which participants can share arguments. They can upvote their favorite comments right from the discussion thread, and vote when this option is enabled.
Mancini believes people want to have different delegates depending on the issue at stake. However, this raises the question of accountability. According to DemocracyOS, this is where the blockchain could help.
Applied to politics, it could help track and proof voting records, building the transparency and trust that this new system would need to be adopted. “The vote delegation would be like a micro-agreement between parties, and the blockchain would serve as a public and real-time audit confirming that those votes have been placed,” Mancini said.
“We also want citizens to be able to retain their vote when they decide to,” she added. “We are still designing the representation part, because we know that people might not want to vote on every single topic; they might not feel qualified to, so we need to think of a form of leadership, of representation that wouldn’t be vertical.”
Into the real world
While it may sound like political fiction, DemocracyOS’ open source demo is already in use, not only in Argentina but all around the globe. A dozen of initiatives in places such as Brazil, France, Hungary, India, Mexico, Spain and the US have adopted the technology. In most cases, it is used as a tool for public information and debate by or alongside traditional institutions.
In Argentina, however, DemocracyOS’ attempt to disrupt politics is further along the road. Its team is also behind the Net Party, a separate entity better known as ‘Partido de la Red.’ As you may remember, it ran for a seat in the local parliament of Buenos Aires with an innovative proposal: that each vote decision would reflect citizens’ wishes.
Although it didn’t win the seat, Mancini says that the party will run again for elections in two years, this time for the municipal elections in Buenos Aires. “We want to be the transmitters of this new political system,” she stated.
In the meantime, the team is also trying to convince institutions to use the DemocracyOS platform: “We did a pilot project with the parliament of Buenos Aires, and we are talking with two other large Argentine cities wanting to use it as a discussion platform with citizens,” she added.
From Argentina to Y Combinator
The combination of technology and civic mission in DemocracyOS caught the eyes of Y Combinator, which invited its team to join its Winter 2015 edition in Silicon Valley. Despite its startup culture, it stood out in two ways: “We were one of the few non-profits and one of the few teams from Latin America,” Mancini recalled.
As we previously reported, some 5.26 percent of companies in that batch had at least one Hispanic founder — including Bluesmart, Themidgame and Platzi (disclosure: I am now working part-time for the latter).
As for non-profits, they have been officially welcome at YC since September 2013, when its co-founder Paul Graham announced that other teams would be able follow the steps of Watsi into the acceleration program. Their participation is similar to other startups’, except for one thing: “The money we’re putting into the nonprofits will be a charitable donation, rather than an investment in the narrow sense. We won’t have any financial interest in them,” he clarified back then.
Mancini says YC has been an impressive and useful experience for DemocracyOS. “We have learned to focus and work on our product like any startup, which is very interesting for a civic tech project.”
She noted that the program acted as a door opener through to its alumni network. “For instance, [Reddit co-founder] Alexis Ohanian has become one of our advisors, and it’s thanks to YC that we had access to this type of collaboration.”
Although DemocracyOS obviously has strong ties to its home country, its team now plans to work between Argentina and the US to keep on taking advantage of these new connections.
But beyond these two countries, it can count on its international chapters to further spread its vision; at the initiative of DemocracyOS France, a public debate will be launched to debate environmental issues ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris next December.
Image credit: DemocracyOS