How Open Source Communities Being Politicized to Change Civil Participation — from Taiwan Experience

Yun Chen
12 min readOct 5, 2017

Yun Chen, August 13 2017

It’s a final report in last semester. Comments are more than welcomed for this preliminary paper.

As the Internet, or social media to be more precisely, is featured as the center of new generation social movements, few analyze the political idealism behind those new ways of communication. Internet was believed to bring more inclusive democracy and to make civil society stronger with collective action. The illusion was broken after Arab Spring (Roberts, 2016) and Trump taking the office. The angers erupted online failed to create new stable democracy due to the lack of long term mobility on the Internet and the fragmentation of public deliberation (Margetts, 2013). On the other hand, the ideas spreading over the Internet are not necessary pro-democracy and pro-human-rights, for example, the online idolatry of Suharto and Marcos among the youth in Indonesia and in the Philippines (Palatino, 2016). Internet seems not to be powerful enough to reverse the trend of democratic deterioration (Ostrow, 2014). Indeed, technology has changed how information flows and how people take actions, but if the minds don’t change, the media or technology can change nothing.

Looking back to the democratization history, media has played an important role, but who is behind the media? It was the middle class, especially the professionals such as journalists, professors and lawyers. The liberal middle class pushed democratic reforms in the forms of civil society organization (Hsiao, 2012). In the past analysis, even though typography and TV are seen as the epochal media in democracy, the technicians in the printing industry or radio technicians would not be emphasized. However, in the era of Internet, technology groups have changed the game of approaching democracy, not only due to their technical supports such as wifi connection, building websites, livestreaming in social movements, but also due to the ideology they shared. Software engineers as a arising group in middle class join the force of democratization. There is even a word “civic tech” to refer how citizens use technology to do civil participation. To be more specific, a small group of software engineers start to heavily participate in civil movements and import their political idealism, which is open source. Along with the tradition of civic deliberation, the idea of open source leads to open data, open government and new forms of “organization” and “civil participation”.

Open source model is a decentralized model that encourages open collaboration. Open source movement origins from 1950’s when some software engineers started to openly share their programming source code. The idea is that once the source code, blueprints and documentation are freely available to the public, everyone can join to make the whole software better or fork to modify for other ues. It is like co-building a wheel which everyone can use. Famous open source projects include operation system Linux, Android and web browser Firefox. After the birth of Internet, sharing and modifying projects became more convenient. There are open licenses to grant users different usage. The application of open source also broadens, for example, Wikipedia is developed under the same concept. The sense of community has been developed as well. Open source communities are developed all over the world with different programming languages and different projects in open collaboration without hierarchy. Contributors can work on the same project from different continents. A decentralized, individualism, anarchy and mistrust authority spirit has been developed among open source hackers (Levy, 2010).

Although the idea of open source can date back 60 years ago, the concept of open source democracy (Rushkoff, 2003) is relatively new. The key thought on bringing democracy more inclusive may not sounds different from public deliberation theory without noticing technology. Michael Edwards (2009) noted democracy as a system in which citizens can affect and have fair access to decision making process through public discussion and free associations. The innovation Rushkoff introduced is a model for the open-ended and participatory process through which legislation might occur in a networked democracy. Networked democracy endures patterns of large scale interaction among heterogeneous social actors coordinating themselves through electronic information flows (Castells, 2000).

By new information technology, a more radical democracy may be achieved. For example, a decentralized and direct democracy or at least at civil society organization level. The traditional entities of civil society organizations are not necessary anymore. Clay Shirky (2008) stressed the power of organizing without organizations as the Internet lowers the cost of collaboration, information sharing and taking collective actions. “The new paradigm has been described by Benkler (2006) as commons-based peer production, which reduces the value of proprietary strategies and makes shared information more important through large -scale, cooperative information production efforts” (Kostakis, 2011). The “general public” is no longer a vague word. Because of the Internet, individual citizen’s opinion is now measurable by their online comments and actions. The discursive public sphere introduced by Habermas is now more “public” than ever as everyone can be self-media instead of a small group of people having access to media. The information technology allows large public discussion in the forms of online forums, online voting, clickism and hashtags. The Internet also allows large amount of data storage and data transmission which make open data with more external effect and further applications. Based on the power of information technology, software developers have the magic to create new ways of communication and collective actions, for example, building the communication app, government website, and visualizing government budget etc. As a result, engineers hold the power of discourse as the Internet industry goes up. Nevertheless, the technical skills and social capitals don’t directly bring democracy, but the culture can. The ways engineers collaborate online thus import their open source idealism into civil movement.

Kostakis (2011) pointed out how open collaboration based on Internet engaged public discussion from experiments in Europe and in Australia. From US experience, Schrock (2016) described “those civic hacking engineers as utopian realists involved in the crafting of algorithmic power and discussing ethics of technology design, which opened up new forms of political participation.” Relative empirical researches are lacked of Asia cases and few mentions the idea of open source.

Therefore, I would like to use Taiwan’s experience to elaborate why the open source concept is as important as the information technology in the civic tech movement and open government trend. I will be focus on how open source technology communities politicized to engage in change civil participation and changed the traditional politics to be more transparent, participatory and collaborative. Instead of focusing on a single platform or a project, I will introduce g0v.tw, a decentralized grass-root civic tech community. g0v.tw started from a few open source software engineers, then attracted more diverse citizens to collaborate in civil society, and also experimented new ways of public-private collaboration. In a global picture, g0v.tw is the top 3 active civic tech communities in the world along with Code for America and Open Knowledge in Europe, according to the number of projects and contributors on GitHub, an online code development platform. Civic tech is to use technology to empower civil society.

In 2009, Open Government Initiative was issued by President of the United States Barack Obama to make government more transparent, participatory and collaborative. Then the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act) was passed to make information on US federal expenditures more easily accessible and machine readable. In global scale, Open Government Partnership (OGP) was launched in 2011 to provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. 75 OGP participating countries and 15 subnational governments have signed the commitments.

Although Taiwan is not a member of OGP, Taiwan is an interesting advanced case in open government. Taiwan was ranked №1 country in open data by Open Knowledge UK in 2015. In 2016, the new elected President Ying-Wen Tsai used open government in her election campaigns and appointed the first digital minister in charge of open government. In the past 5 years, the open source communities heavily participate in the progress, especially g0v.tw. In 318 movement in 2014, when citizens occupied the Congress against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China, asking for transparency and accountability, g0v.tw provided technical supports such as wifi, live streaming, online collaboration platform, law data base and protest map etc. After that, livestreaming and online Q & A session became a must of public hearing and parliament. The government started to promote open government and open data. Participants from g0v.tw started to join government meetings, join NGOs, became consultants or entered the government. There are few examples on how a civic tech community experiment new public-private collaboration from street demonstration to government besides Podemos, which won the election of Madrid mayor.

g0v.tw was actually initiated in 2012, before the 318 Movement. 4 Taiwanese engineers was frustrated by a government’s advertisement that claimed, “The policy is too complicated for citizens to understand, so citizens should simply believe in government.” On Yahoo! Hack Day, they made a visualization of government budget to demonstrate that information transparency could build the foundation of public discussion. They used the prize to host the zeroth g0v hackathon to inspire more people to use technology improving public discussion and civil participation. Hackathon is a popular form in Internet industry to bring people together quickly building prototypes. The zeroth hackathon attracted more than 30 participants. Since then, g0v hackathons are regularly hosted bi-monthly.

The first g0v participants have participated in open source communities for a long time. The open source communities in Taiwan took shape in early 2000s, such as International Conference on Open Source (est. in 1999), Free Software Association (est. in 2001), OpenFoundry under Acadamic Sinica (est. in 2003), Wiki community (est. around 2003) and MozTW (est. in 2004). By the time g0v.tw was founded in 2012, Taiwanese open source communities had accumulated experience in open collaboration, promoting open source to non-tech users, Code of Conduct and large conferences etc. Based on that, g0v.tw community developed open and clear documentations and friendly environment for non-tech participants and newbies. All source codes, documents, and videos are open in open license online. g0v.tw also develops a strong sense of decentralization. g0v.tw is a decentralized community not an organization. Every participant is free to launch any projects without any permissions or hierarchy. There is no membership and no boundaries. Participants collaborate online through variable channels, such as Facebook, Slack, GitHub, Hackpad and Google sheets.

g0v.tw substitutes the “o” with “0″ in gov, intending to use the Internet and digital thinking (0 & 1) to change the traditional “gov”. In their own words, g0v.tw is an online community that “pushes information transparency, focusing on developing information platform and tools for citizens to participate in the society.” The motto of g0v is, “Ask not why ‘nobody’ is do this, admit that you are the ‘nobody’.” g0v participants, including engineers, designers, journalists and government officers, have collaborated to deliver influential projects such as visualization of central government’s budget, crowd-sourcing digitization of political donations and vTaiwan, an online policy-making discussion platform. The 318 movement indeed brought more attentions and participants from different backgrounds to join the open collaboration. Many of the participants first went on the street and thought they could act to change something in 318 movement.

From 2012 to 2017, g0v.tw has evolved from building digital tools for information transparency to re-design civil participation and advocacy on open government. Useful tools are built with open collaboration. Hackfoldr enabled live and large online collaboration in 318 movement. Legislator Voter Guide(立委投票指南) collected all public legislator information such as voting records and political contributions to let voters informed. JobHelper(求職小幫手) is a Chrome extension to inform job seekers which companies have violated Labour Law. Air Pollution Map (零時空汙地圖)builds open source air pollution sensors and collaborates with local governments and schools to collect more detailed air pollution data in the spirit of monitoring citizenship.

g0v.tw also experiments new ways of interaction in public discussion. Pol.is has been used to visualize different opinion stands in disputes of Uber and death penalty. A website was built to recall a legislator with gamification design. The Taipei City Mayor Dr. Ko let citizens designed different versions of his campaign website.

As more g0v.tw participants involved in government and NGOs as officers and consultants, new designs of policy making process are experimented to be more inclusive and more open. From vTaiwan, iVoting to JOIN.tw, online policy discussion has been evolved. JOIN.tw is the official policy petition website. Once one policy proposal reaches more than 5000 petition, the Executive Yuan has to give official response within 3 months. g0v participant Audrey Tang created Public Digital Innovation Space to generate policy making from basic level public servants after she was appointed as the digital minister by the President. In the 2017 National Judicial Reform Conference (司改國是會議) — last called in 1999 — two committee members were from open source communities. They hosted the discussion on open judicial data and even live streaming of the court. In the legislation process of Digital Communication Service Act (數位傳播服務法), officers from National Communication Committee attended the community self-organized discussion meetings and opened online comments.

The idea of open collaboration from g0v.tw has transformed Taiwan politics. However, g0v.tw is still an urban middle class thing. A larger scale of online open collaboration needs to be based on higher level of digital literacy. It is also unrealistic to expect one single project, platform, technology or community can change democracy. A power thought needs time to be implemented and spread. g0v.tw now actively builds connection with global civic tech communities and NGOs, hoping to spread g0v.tw’s model and success in other countries. The politicization of g0v.tw sould be further studied with intense interviews and participatory study. The effects g0v.tw has created also needs to be further examine in theoretical framework such as 8 diameters to measure democracy (Diamond et Morlino, 2005).

On the other hand, open collaboration can’t solve all democracy problems. Kostakis (2011) identified three challenges of online democracy: attention governance, participation governance, and community governance. It is hard to win citizens’ attentions in the sea of information and to further engage active participation. The echo chamber effect make the public discourse fragmented (Margets, 2013) and concerns on opinion polarization and implicit hierarchy (Kostakis, 2011). Ironically, the successful open discussion platform Kostakis demonstrated didn’t help Greece’s bankrupt crisis in 2011. The government’s open data in Thailand is detailed to every receipt while there is no general elections since 2014, and the strict execution on Lèse majesté laws shrink the speech freedom online (Winichakul 2014). The better quality of democracy can’t be achieved simply by Information technology and openness.

Conclusions

The new information technology, especially Internet, has created new forms of civil participation. Moreover, the wide use of Internet in public discourse has empowered software engineers the power of discourse. Some software engineers brought in open source software spirit into political practice, asking for transparency, participation and collaboration. From g0v.tw’s experiments in Taiwan, engineers successfully demonstrated how open collaboration and decentralized communities work and implemented in civil society. They started from building digital tools to redesigning a more open civil participation, and integrated other civil society organizations and a wide range of citizens. By technology. g0v.tw experiments new forms of public-private collaboration and direct democracy. Whether the model of g0v.tw can run in other countries is still unknown.

References

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Yun Chen

Nobody in g0v.tw, PM of disfactory.tw. Caring #civictech #opengov #socialdesign. Now researching on Internet and open democracy.