04 June 2024

Citizenlab is rebranding as Go Vocal. When asked what was wrong with the old name, Van Ransbeeck replied “we felt we had outgrown it.” The team originally chose the name CitizenLab to capture the experimental approach to democracy the Belgian company took when it was launched back in 2015 by Van Ransbeeck and his fellow co-founders Aline Muylaert and Koen Gremmelprez. By 2024, the platform is being used by 500 governments and organisations worldwide. For Van Ransbeeck, the new name reflects this change.

He admits that this isn’t the only reason for the change, however. There was also the issue of avoiding confusion with organisations with similar names, such as the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, along with a sense that the name was too generic in the field.

Jumping on the deliberative wave with AI 

Along with the name change, the company has announced that it is investing heavily in the development of AI-supported functionalities to enable deliberation. Van Ransbeeck stresses that ”online engagement platforms are great at collecting inputs. But driving it from there to group decisions and more collective intelligence is still a step that we need to get to. That’s what we hope to do in the next years.”

The idea of AI-assisted deliberation has been gaining traction over the past year. One of the first steps in this direction was conducted by the Stanford Deliberative Democracy Lab. Together with the Stanford’s Crowdsourced Democracy Team, they developed an AI-assisted online deliberation platform intended to “massively scale” deliberation.

The team at Stanford has worked on a deliberative process together with tech giant Meta. Meanwhile, OpenAI has also held its own AI-supported deliberative processes. Hélène Landemore, professor of Political Science at Yale University, sees these developments as hopeful for global democracy. Several smaller actors are also developing tools in the field, including deliberAIde and ORBIS.

The concrete functionality or role of AI-tools in these projects varies significantly. AI moderators can perform simple tasks such as timekeeping or introducing new topics. More ambitious applications include live translation, allowing deliberations to take place live in several languages at once; and tools to make analysing the results of deliberations simpler, such as summarisation or data-driven analysis of discussions.

For the time being, Van Ransbeeck envisages an AI tool that will take on the role of the facilitator to “lead the online conversation and guide to more collective recommendations.” To this end, he wants the tool to summarise discussions, but also ask participants who disagree with each other follow-up questions that enable them to better understand the reasoning behind the disagreement.

AI-supported participation process design

Another challenge Go Vocal seeks to tackle using AI is that of process design. Van Ransbeeck stresses that in bigger cities, there are often hundreds of different project managers in administration from different departments who often don’t have any experience in setting up a participatory process. In the future, he wants to build an AI tool trained on the company’s database of previous participation projects. 

This tool would then be used to guide project managers through the process design. Currently they use templates for participation processes for this, but Van Ransbeeck feels this approach falls short “unless you create a million templates”. The AI-based tool would take into account many more variables, and thereby offer more tailor made solutions.

Both the AI deliberation and AI process design functionalities are still in the early stages of development. At its current stage, Go Vocal uses AI to analyse large amounts of citizens’ input. 

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