24 March 2023
Democracy Technologies: People Powered recently listed ‘Your Priorities’ as the top platform in their annual ratings. How did it feel to be recognised?
Robert Bjarnason: Yes, we were quite pleased with that. Also, there’s a handbook by OECD about citizen participation, where Your Priorities comes out on top as well. We are finally in the news.
DT: I imagine there is further development in progress. How is that coming along?
Robert: We continue to improve the platform. We’ve been adding features. For example, we’ve launched a built-in alternative to Google Analytics on the platform. It’s based on a technology called Plausible, which is for understanding citizen engagement. It’s important to understand how the users are using the platform and how the promotional marketing campaigns are doing, with Google Analytics being problematic and recently banned in Denmark. We now have a good solution built into the platform that allows any project to monitor marketing campaigns and create marketing campaigns within the platform.
DT: You run Citizens.is with quite a small team. How many do you have onboard?
Robert: The core team here in Iceland has three people. There are about two or three other people who are doing bits and pieces of volunteering. We only did volunteer work for the first five or six years to build up, but we’re gradually becoming more sustainable. There have been a lot of volunteers signing up recently as well. More volunteers than we have the capacity to utilise actually. I think that might be partly due to the situation in the tech job market.
DT: That’s quite an achievement. How do you build such a well regarded product with limited resources?
Robert: By utilising open source as much as you can, you can create a lot of things with minimum effort. Most civic tech projects do not have large teams because, for us, as a nonprofit, we’ve never accepted any investment. We’ve had many grants from Horizon 2020, FP7, and other organisations. But we’ve never had any investments. It’s totally bootstrapped and still runs. At least for me, I don’t get paid for all the work I do for the foundation. It’s a classic non-profit situation.
DT: Are there other plans for new products and services that you’re working on?
Robert: There’s a platform called “All Our Ideas” which has been used quite a bit in the US and many other countries. About a month ago, we were contacted, and the project was looking for new open-source maintainers. So we’re working on a new version of it, which is going to be integrated with Your Priorities going forward. We’re going to be relaunching it with an upgraded code base. We’re also going to offer cloud hosting for it, as well as maintaining the open source.
DT: Can you explain a little more about your revenue model?
Robert: We’re a non-profit that uses cloud hosting to partly fund itself. That’s how it is. It’s not a company that does cloud hosting. It’s still a non-profit. It’s a civil society organisation. One of the things in these dynamics that we’ve seen happen several times, for example, is in the City of Vienna. They’re just completing an exciting project called Junges Wien. They used our cloud platform, paid us a service level agreement fee, and so on for the first year. Then they decided they wanted to make this a permanent project. We helped them, and they paid a consultant fee to our non-profit to install Your Priorities locally. That’s our non-profit model. There’s always going to be a need for a cloud hosting solution. As we offer it to smaller communities, groups, or whatever, they can use the cloud platform for free. We charge the larger cities and governments we work with.
DT: What trends do you see in the market right now?
Robert: It’s still very early. It’s a very immature market and it’s complicated by the fact that on one side, there’s a drive for more open source. For example, the Icelandic government has focused on open-source over the past four or five years. They have turned all the central government services into open-source solutions. They’ve designed it more or less in-house. They get contractors and companies to bid on building the software. That’s one model. Yet the market for decision-making solutions is ultimately connected to the digital transformation drive of governments. Yet there’s going to be a tough couple of years ahead in this market. I think the trend is going to be that it will be harder for everybody, both for-profits and non-profits, to sell citizen engagement solutions to governments. Smaller municipalities are going to have little money to spend, even here in Iceland.
DT: How do you think it will impact the use of Your Priorities?
Robert: I think the idea of being able to offer open-source software that can be used for free by governments is going to be most important. Especially for smaller governments and others, so I think that’s also important. You don’t want to outsource democracy to tech companies like Facebook or TikTok.
DT: What about application trends?
Robert: I think the trend has been away from traditional social media platforms. Five years ago, many governments started to think they could use Facebook for all their engagement needs. However, for so many reasons that I’m not going to count here, it’s not going to turn out so well. I think there’s quite a bit of demand for general outreach solutions in terms of having maybe a bit of informal or formal power in policy making. For participatory budgeting, I’m not sure how that’s going to go. In some countries, like Scotland, they say a certain percentage needs to go through participatory means. That’s going to continue. In other countries that don’t have the mandate to do participatory budgeting, I think that will be more challenging in the next few years. The trends are generally toward having greater levels of conversation between governments and citizens, without using Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok.
DT: And are there other technologies you see having a major impact?
Robert: AI is already having a big impact. We have seen in the last two or three years the beginning of this amazing text-understanding revolution. Then we had an image understanding revolution in the past year or so. We are going to have so many interesting new features, including what we’re working on as AI proposal assistants for citizens. That’s going to make it more fun to participate. It will make it more meaningful in a situation where the governments and citizens can use artificial intelligence together in a decentralised way. You can have a citizen working with an AI assistant to make their proposal the best, and that goes into the process, instead of there being one AI algorithm in the central government that is making the proposals. We think that’s dangerous. We think the combination of bringing citizens and AI together to make proposals and work on policy with governments is going to be powerful, and it will eventually transform society with artificial intelligence empowering our collective intelligence. We are actually launching our first chat based AI assistant to empower citizens now in April. The technology is using the amazing power of GPT-4, mixed with data from Your Priorities databases, allowing citizens and governments to query their engagement data using natural language.