Interview by Gemma Daou, Doctor of Philosophy
G: Hello! Martin Prévost, you are the founder of the Democracy’s Roots project. Can you tell us who are you?
M: I was born in the Brussels-Capital region, of French parents, with a father who worked his entire career in the Common Agricultural Policy CAP. So I was immersed in multiculturalism and developed a very great interest in the European Union, which is an example of democratic society throughout the world. I studied mathematics, physics and economics at several universities. One of my best experiences was traveling alone, with my backpack, through 6 Latin American countries for almost a year. I have worked in several various companies which have further strengthened my capacities and have participated in several entrepreneurial projects internationally.
G: How did you come up with the idea for Democracy’s Roots?
M: I was studying statistics at a distance university in Spain at the time. I was immediately fascinated by the value of what I call “answer comparisons”. I was already working in startups and I brought this mathematics closer to civic innovations. I have always had a huge interest in politics. The thoughts that led me to launch Democracy’s Roots were primarily inspired by mathematics, although I am now riding the rising tide of new civic innovation technologies.
G: Could you tell us what new Democracy’s Roots brings to democratic practice?
M: Democracy’s Roots uses the corrected answer comparison system. On the one hand, we correct for user sampling through targeted marketing, and on the other hand, we statistically correct responses by knowing user data and the actual distribution of voting intentions. So we come to a very precise result of what a real participatory democracy is. Users can compare their responses to those of other users; this makes it possible to understand and visualize where he stands in relation to others.
What I appreciate and which is of interest to politicians as well as to citizens is that by comparing the results of the platform with the actions of politicians in exercise, for a topical question, we arrive at what I call: “the concordance between citizen will and political action”. We must not forget that within institutions, Democracy’s Roots will not eliminate the needs of politicians and technocrats, that is to say that it is a tool that “improves” democratic practices in a digital and participatory manner.
G: What are the means of communication offered by Democracy’s Roots?
M: We add a friend system adapted to the model. For each question or group of questions, the user has the choice to remain anonymous or to be visible to other users. If he leaves a comment, it will automatically be visible; this results in one list of comments per question (except in votes where there is no list of comments and each voter is anonymous). After answering a question or group of questions, on the answers page, the user has access to the discussion wall to continue to develop his ideas and take part in the debate. Via his list of friends, the user can chat in pairs or in groups. It is also possible to create a discussion group on a subject or around a person. To disseminate his ideas, we offer users a form of blog.
These various forums have been created with the aim of fostering dynamism and synergy within the entire user community. In addition, always with a view to informing users as much as possible, we offer external links linked to subjects: such as blogs, newspaper articles, expert studies, etc. Of course, we warn users that external links are not necessarily neutral and politically objective.
G: How does Democracy’s Roots leverage computer technology to make the platform work optimally?
M: There is big data management, that goes without saying because we have to deal with all the statuses, the responses of the users that we want as many as possible and the management of discussion places. We favor algorithms and AI Artificial Intelligence, which are essential to study data, accelerate the various processes, make them optimal and give meaning to the platform. There is also the semantics which is very useful to supplement the information. And again, “blockchain” technology which has great promise for securing and making citizens’ responses transparent. There are European studies and tools that are very useful to us, such as e-Id, the European digital identity.
In addition, after having proven the correct functioning and the security of the answers, thanks to technologies, we will be able to propose to the governments to authorize the votes in elections or referendums via our platform. You have a reduction in costs, an increase in speed, a focus on security and transparency of votes.
G: What does this imply for the comparison system?
M: The comparison system is useful for comparing yourself, positioning yourself against others, but also finding new friends with the same interests, which is very useful for example to find a politician with the same ideas. For the answer comparison system, the user can choose to compare on all the questions answered, a group of questions or on a specific question. The system can be filtered according to research: a citizen, a politician or an organization, by level of power, type of question or under which ministry of the executive it seeks to filter.
When talking about organizations (political parties, NGOs, nonprofits, unions, think tanks, Lobbies, etc.), they are strongly advised to answer the questions so that users can compare themselves to them. But it should be understood that their answers are not taken into account in the final result because members of these organizations can also have a user account. Ideally, so that each user has only one account and that we have a follow-up of civic statuses, we favor registration with the identity card.
G: How are the questions asked?
M: These are the different levels of power, who hire Democracy’s Roots, who can come up with questions according to their news and their agendas. We also offer them three exceptional cases: an emergency questioning (promoting resilience), digital votes, and question groups to help decide who to vote for. In addition, citizens are invited to propose questions themselves. When a large number of users ask to ask the same questions on a certain topic, we can then direct them to the community. For the latter case, we must agree with the authorities involved to know from what number of citizens asking the same questions, can we submit them to the community?
G: How do you protect users on the platform?
M: We apply a system of moderation to the various places of discussion to prohibit profanity, hatred, verbal abuse or other atrocities. In addition, the answers to the questions are accessible in different forms: by graphic or geographic comparisons of the answers. Of course, in the case of municipalities there is no geographical comparison. The results are always corrected. In each case of comparison, a title is linked so as not to confuse or propagate “fake news”, as with the sharing of responses on social networks. It is strictly forbidden to sell or share any user data with other people or organizations.
G: What is the relationship between civic status and the questions a citizen can answer?
M: The platform model is created to be functional at all levels of political power at the same time. For example, in my case, French and adult living in Saint Josse-ten-Node which is a municipality of Brussels-Capital, I would have access to questions from the European level and other supranational levels, from the French national level, from my French region, and as well questions from the municipality of Saint Jose-ten-Noode. The model adapts very well to all democracies, for example in Belgium, we have the level of regions but also the level of linguistic communities.
G: How do you protect yourself against abuse of the system?
M: Certainly the Democracy’s Roots’ organization needs a charter to protect itself. What we do is promote participatory democracy, we must not forget that! The watchwords are: “transparency, independence, neutrality and security”. Everyone who works for or with Democracy’s Roots must sign and abide by the charter. We leave to all people the capacity to complain in a case of non-compliance with the charter. We therefore need neutral and independent political professionals to keep all processes, including asking a question, neutral and objective so as not to influence or favor any community. Questions professionals will also be tasked with objectively summarizing topics before questions.
G: What is your competition?
M: We prefer to talk about potential partners rather than competition. There are several types of civic innovations promoting participatory democracy: those which propose a questionnaire before elections to know who to vote for, those which propose polls but which are not corrected and whose answers are not comparable, those which propose information on a certain level of power by highlighting its topicality and its agenda, those which make the heuristic of votes: “for or against” in legislative assemblies, those which propose to discuss with a targeted politician, those which moderating debates, those who study AI Artificial Intelligence, etc. Democracy’s Roots brings other possibilities and additional tools. We want to bring together skills and experiences.
The Democracy’s Roots model has the constraint that it is necessary to have a large sample to function properly, and since it works at all political levels, we will move towards the highest spheres of political power: start with Europe, a planetary example of democracy, and its 27 national levels. It is at these levels that are most lacking in tools to promote participatory democracy. Democracy’s Roots is therefore a technological innovation among civic innovations.
G: What is the goal?
M: To answer you, I will start with the catch-line:
“Democracy’s Roots °: the revolution of the digital and participatory democracy!”
Democracy’s Roots brings a new vision of digital and participatory democracy; thus promoting the will of citizens. The model works at all levels and types of democracy. And since citizens respond in their privacy with a minimum of influence:
“Democracy’s Roots has the potential to create a worldwide democracy based on the will of citizens!”
What I mean by that is that by promoting the protection and rapid geographic expansion of Democracy’s Roots, we can connect all regions of the planet.
This is the goal: rapid geographical extension from top to bottom, from the supranational to the local where there are already a good number of citizen innovations, and towards democracies outside Europe. With the experience and example of Europe and its many languages we can easily adapt to other regions of the planet.
G: Thank you for your cooperation!