Crowdsourcing democracy

Rui Shi

A recent Gallup poll shows that congressional job approval was riding high at a sizzling 15 percent for the month of September. This continues to highlight America’s disenchantment with the economy and state of the nation. Popular protests such as Occupy Austin and Occupy Wall Street send a clear message: our representatives must protect the interests of the people.

An inherent problem of a representative democracy is that people’s votes do not directly translate to policy changes. In theory, our elected officials represent the will of the majority and are to pass legislation to advance the interests of the people. Yet, in practice, our representatives only cater to a few select groups. Campaign contributors and lobby groups often drown out the voices of regular citizens. A new project by the Texas Legislature, however, could prove to be a game-changer.

The Texas Senate Committee on Business and Commerce plans on implementing crowdsourcing legislation in anticipating of the 2013 legislative session, according to The Texas Tribune. Crowdsourcing is the concept of gathering information from a wide range of people via the Internet. The idea is to introduce an electronic forum that would allow for anyone with Internet access to provide input on a piece of legislation. This would allow people who are unable to have access to legislative hearings to join the conversation.

In times of budget cuts for UT, this development could have major implications for students. Crowdsourcing would provide students with a powerful tool to participate in the debate on higher education funding and with a direct outlet to their representatives down the street.

The committee has not yet determined what form the crowdsourcing will take, but regardless, this project signifies an important first step in opening up the legislative process.

The bottom-up approach to governance is exactly what we need in times of political strife. The integration of something such as social media or a legislative Wikipedia would allow for the collection of data to supplement the formation of legislation. This use of technology would allow for the widest range of input, viewpoints and ideas. An open forum would also increase transparency, as all relevant information related to a piece of legislation would be accessible to anyone.

Despite its benefits, crowdsourcing will also face a variety of challenges.

Because of the complexity of writing legislation, those who hope to contribute to the process must have substantial knowledge of current laws and specific topics. The committee must also come up with a fair metric to measure the value and weight of individual inputs. And because of the nature of the Internet, many of the opinions will be anonymous and may come from the extremes. The committee must find a way to moderate these type of entries and must also ensure that this is not an anonymous process. Each piece of input must be able to be tracked down to an individual or group in order to maintain transparency.

Nonetheless, crowdsourcing is an innovative idea that would greatly improve the legislative process, and Texas is taking an important first step toward political reform.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineer junior.