22 December 2022
Democracy Technologies: You recently introduced a service for ID verification in online voting. How does this work?
Julie de Pimodan: We innovated on the ID verification and anonymization process for a very sensitive consultation brought by a french city. We were able to verify the ID cards of each resident before they could vote on the platform. Our technology also reconciled physical votes with digital votes in order to avoid double voting and propose accurate results for the city. Our platform was then able to present a percentage measure of representativeness of the consultation.
The way this started was that the mayor wanted to consult citizens on a sensitive topic, and wanted to allow the residents to securely vote online, but also in physical voting stations. He wanted to make sure voters could only vote once and to understand the demographics of the consultation. Our technology enables us to mix physical and digital participation while measuring representativeness, thanks to identity verification and anonymization technology. Many citizens came to thank the city council for having been able to give their opinion under these conditions, while the consultation also gave the city a basis for its position on the sensitive subject.
DT: What key products and services do you offer?
Julie: There’s a wide range of tools that we offer to our clients. The key feature that a lot of them use is our participatory budgeting tool. It’s an easy first step that cities can take in order to digitally engage their communities. They define a budget and a few rules and then let citizens propose projects and vote for their favourite ones. For citizens it is very concrete because people propose projects that will be financed and deployed. For the city it is an efficient way to show citizens that there is a limited budget and that only the most relevant ones will actually be realised.
Another service is something we call “concertation,” — a series of different participatory steps in which people can cooperate, propose projects, improve those projects, vote on them, and then implement them, without budget constraints.
We also offer calls for propositions, surveys and online deliberation tools among others. All these features are designed to collect participants’ opinions and to generate qualitative data that we present in our analysis dashboard. For example, our AI tools recognize similar propositions to avoid double entries and help administrators summarise the results of consultations. We also integrate AI in our data analysis dashboards to increase the quality of our quantitative and qualitative analysis.
The many municipalities we work with are able to build trust and promote dialogue with their citizens over the long term. Our mission is to help them make much more inclusive and representative decisions.
DT: What plans does Fluicity have for business development?
Julie: We reached our breakeven point very recently. It was an important milestone for us. We now want to grow internationally and focus on local governments, to become the international leader in self-service and white-label digital participation platforms.
The online participation market is growing, and it’s all over the world. Our idea is to keep our leadership in Europe, because we’ve been successful at leading in France and Belgium, and we’re starting to grow in other countries in Europe. We also work in Africa and South America, and to do that, we work with local partners.
DT: Are you observing a growth in competitors?
Julie: There are a lot of competitors, but I would say that there are only a few mature competitors that have enough investment capacity to play internationally. However a lot of smaller players are coming out at the moment. I guess because the dream of putting technology at the service of democracy is seductive.
In general, I’d say there are a lot of players, but at the same time, there’s convergence in the market, and more and more partnerships are being formed. I foresee that consolidation of the market will come soon.
DT: There is an ongoing debate about whether or not participation platforms and e-voting tools should be open-source. What is your position on this?
Julie: I don’t think participation platforms and e-voting tools should necessarily be open source. Proprietary code works perfectly well for citizens and governments. Whether a participatory platform is open source or not won’t change the key performance indicators that governments and citizens are expecting. For example, open source will not create more engagement, as engagement depends on how robust and tested the user interface and design are. It will also not create more trust, as trust depends on the actual actions governments will make based on the consultations’ results. In terms of pricing, open source platforms are not for free as they generate important side costs for design, maintenance, service etc.
Open code doesn’t change the game, and that’s the reason why most governments are not requiring it, based on their tenders. Sometimes it’s preferred by purchasers, but it is mostly because they prefer a service based business model versus a product oriented one.
DT: From the perspective of a democracy platform provider, how could legislative frameworks in a country like France be improved?
Julie: Within the code of local governments, there are a lot of things to do. We now have Minister Olivier Véran, who is in charge of participation and local governments. I’m sure he will make some changes.
Having a petition right at the local level would be an important step toward changing the culture of participation and making sure that people understand that they can have an impact locally.
Local citizen conventions can be generalised, standardised, and integrated into the law.
Also, having more of a legal framework for participatory budgeting would be interesting because today it’s one of the most successful participatory processes locally. It’s been proven that it has a huge impact on how people perceive the local government and how they want to be engaged in the long term. So it’s something that we should make almost mandatory for cities of a certain size.
DT: Finally, do you consider it a security risk that online participation often happens without user validation?
Julie: Not so much. It’s mostly a big fear from cities to say, “We’ll have security issues,” or “How do you make sure that you can control what people say,” or “How will we know who they are?” At the end of the day, the most difficult part of the process is to engage people for the first time and keep them as active users. It’s important to make these platforms as accessible as possible without asking too many questions upfront. Security issues will be raised after this first important step. My belief is that only sensitive or official consultations will require validation and verification.