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The NGI Policy-in-Practice Fund – announcing the grantees

We are very excited to announce the four projects receiving funding from the Next Generation Internet Policy-in-Practice Fund.

We are very excited to announce the four projects receiving funding from the Next Generation Internet Policy-in-Practice Fund

Policymakers and public institutions have more levers at their disposal to spur innovation in the internet space than often thought, and can play a powerful role in shaping new markets for ethical tools. We particularly believe that local experimentation and ecosystem building are vital if we want to make alternative models for the internet actually tangible and gain traction. But finding the funding and space to undertake this type of trial is not always easy – especially if outcomes are uncertain. Through the NGI Policy-in-Practice fund, it has been our aim not only to provide the means to organisations to undertake a number of these trials but also make the case for local trials more generally.

Over the past summer and autumn, we went through a highly competitive applications process, ultimately selecting four ambitious initiatives that embody this vision behind the NGI Policy-in-Practice fund. Each of the projects will receive funding of up to €25,000 to test out their idea on a local level and generate important insights that could help us build a more trustworthy, inclusive and democratic future internet.

In conjunction with this announcement, we have released an interview with each of our grantees, explaining their projects and the important issues they are seeking to address in more detail. You can also find a short summary of each project below. Make sure you register for our newsletter to stay up to date on the progress of each of our grantees, and our other work on the future of the internet.

Interoperability to challenge Big Tech power 

This project is run by a partnership of three organisations: Commons Network and Open Future, based in Amsterdam, Berlin and Warsaw.

This project explores whether the principle of interoperability, the idea that services should be able to work together, and data portability, which would allow users to carry their data with them to new services, can help decentralise power in the digital economy. Currently, we are, as users, often locked into a small number of large platforms. Smaller alternative solutions, particularly those that want to maximise public good rather than optimise for profit, find it hard to compete in this winner-takes-all economy. Can we use interoperability strategically and seize the clout of trusted institutions such as public broadcasters and civil society, to create an ecosystem of fully interoperable and responsible innovation in Europe and beyond?  

Through a series of co-creation workshops, the project will explore how this idea could work in practice, and the role trusted public institutions can play in bringing it to fruition. 

Bridging the Digital Divide through Circular Public Procurement

This project will be run by eReuse, based in Barcelona, with support from the City of Barcelona, the Technical University of Barcelona (UPC) and the global Association for Progressive Communications.

During the pandemic, where homeschooling and remote working have become the norm overnight, bridging the digital divide has become more important than ever. This project is investigating how we can make it easier for public bodies and also the private sector to donate old digital devices, such as laptops and smartphones, to low-income families currently unable to access the internet. 

By extending the lifetime of a device in this way, we are also reducing the environmental footprint of our internet use. Laptops and phones now often end up being recycled, or, worse, binned, long before their actual “useful lifespan” is over, putting further strain on the system. Donating devices could be a simple but effective mechanism for ensuring the circular economy of devices is lengthened.  

The project sets out to do two things: first, it wants to try out this mechanism on a local level and measure its impact through tracking the refurbished devices over time. Second, it wants to make it easier to replicate this model in other places, by creating legal templates that can be inserted in public and private procurement procedures, making it easier for device purchasers to participate in this kind of scheme. The partnership also seeks to solidify the network of refurbishers and recyclers across Europe. The lessons learned from this project can serve as an incredibly useful example for other cities, regions and countries to follow. 

Bringing Human Values to Design Practice

This project will be run by the BBC with support from Designswarm, LSE and the University of Sussex

Many of the digital services we use today, from our favourite news outlet to social media networks, rely on maximising “engagement” as a profit model. A successful service or piece of content is one that generates many clicks, drives further traffic, or generates new paying users. But what if we optimised for human well-being and values instead? 

This project, led by the BBC, seeks to try out a more human-centric focused approach to measuring audience engagement by putting human values at its core. It will do so by putting into practice longer-standing research work on mapping the kinds of values and needs their users care about the most, and developing new design frameworks that would make it easier to actually track these kinds of alternative metrics in a transparent way. 

The project will run a number of design workshops and share its findings through a dedicated website and other outlets to involve the wider community. The learnings and design methodology that will emerge from this work will not just be trialled within the contexts of the project partners, but will also be easily replicable by others interested in taking a more value-led approach. 

Responsible data sharing for emergencies: citizens in control

This project will be run by the Dutch National Police, in partnership with the Dutch Emergency Services Control, the Amsterdam Safety Region and the City of Amsterdam.

In a data economy that is growing ever more complex, giving meaningful consent about what happens to our personal data remains one of the biggest unsolved puzzles. But new online identity models have shown to be a potentially very promising solution, empowering users to share only that information that they want to share with third parties, and sharing that data on their own terms. One way that would allow such a new approach to identity and data sharing to scale would be to bring in government and other trusted institutions to build their own services using these principles. That is exactly what this project seeks to do.  

The project has already laid out all the building blocks of their Data Trust Infrastructure but wants to take it one step further by actually putting this new framework into practice. The project brings together a consortium of Dutch institutional partners to experiment with one first use case, namely the sharing of vital personal data with emergency services in the case of, for example, a fire. The project will not just generate learnings about this specific trial, but will also contribute to the further finetuning of the design of the wider Data Trust Infrastructure, scope further use cases (of which there are many!), and bring on board more interested parties.

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Policy in Practice Fund: Reducing the digital divide by improving the circular economy for devices

Leandro Navarro from eReuse answers a few of our questions to give us some insight into the project and what it will achieve.

We’re introducing each of our four Policy-in-Practice Fund projects with an introductory blog post. Below, Leandro Navarro from eReuse answers a few of our burning questions to give us some insight into the project and what it will achieve. We’re really excited to be working with four groups of incredible innovators and you’ll be hearing a lot more about the projects as they progress. 

Your project is focusing on extending the lives of internet devices. Why is that an important issue to tackle?

The issue of climate change adaptation and mitigation is rapidly becoming more urgent. Digital technologies can help us fight climate change, environmental degradation and pollution. However, at the same time, they add to the problem of pollution and health impacts of the extraction of minerals for components, energy used in their manufacture, and the waste released resulting from improper disposal. A circular consumption model is key: manufacturing fewer devices by extending the lifespan of the existing through reuse ensuring final recycling.

Extending the life of a computer directly benefits its users, the health of people and the planet. It roughly translates into savings of about 30 Kg of greenhouse gasses per year of reuse and a 40-60 per cent reduction in total environmental impact due to extended use. The amount of mining exceeds the weight of the material used in a new smartphone by 260 times: 34 kg of rock is mined for each 129g smartphone. At the same time, by collecting and refurbishing decommissioned computers for second-hand use and ensuring final recycling, we are contributing to a local economy for refurbishment and remanufacturing companies. At the social level, we are bringing computer access to more people and reducing inequality. Public and community reuse programmes save money: in cities like Barcelona, we have seen savings by public administrations beyond €500 per donated and reused device by social organizations supporting homeschooling students without computers during COVID-19 confinement. 

Over 70% of European consumers would like to buy more durable and repairable devices, but this is not reflected in the products available to us. When you buy a lamp you get thousands of hours guaranteed. Why not for digital devices? 

Over the last 3 years, eReuse has collected durability as an open dataset for above 10,000 devices. We have created local ecosystems, that we call circuits, in cities like Barcelona and Madrid with diverse stakeholders, that cooperate to capture, remanufacture and recirculate electronic devices and fight the digital divide. We have helped to improve the procurement of 3,000 devices, with 1,100 recirculated into a second life. During COVID-19, these circuits have proven to be a resilient and effective solution to vulnerable sectors in the access, use and appropriation of digital goods and services. 

What is your ideal vision for how we buy and use internet devices?

With more mobile devices than people on earth and powerful companies keen for us to keep purchasing, the successful implementation of the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) for electronic devices becomes vitally important. Today, most laptops, desktops and mobile phones are prematurely recycled when they become obsolete or depreciated by companies and public administrations. 

When we recycle a device that could be reused we lose computer use-value, we preserve the linear consumption model, which is not only damaging to the planet but also excludes those that cannot afford to always buy the latest products. 

Limiting premature recycling and promoting reuse is not the final solution to our sustainability problem but it is a way forward. Things improve with less device obsolescence and more cradle-to-cradle.

What do you hope to learn from the project, and how would that be useful for policymakers across Europe and beyond?

During the last three years, we have been working together with the Barcelona City Council to develop policies and practices in compliance with legal and operational standard procedures (secure data wipe, remanufacturing and other needs of the reverse supply chain). We have built a circuit based on the cooperation of several actors within an economic compensation system, and together we have traced thousands of computers from the Barcelona city council. We have been inspired by these principles: 

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Don’t recycle prematurely

Explore potential alternative users to give devices a new life

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Organise circular use up front

Plan for a device’s entire lifetime during procurement, including its second life

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Reduce overall consumption

Buy durable, repairable and reusable equipment and consider refurbished

We would like this project to help us to consolidate all the knowledge into agile policy templates, based on existing experiences, to help other policymakers provide value, and to support local initiatives of reuse centres and second use markets, with special attention in supplying devices to the disconnected groups.

How will this project get us one step closer to a fully circular economy for digital devices?

This project will make it easier for public and private organisations to maximise the lifespan of the devices they procure (circular procurement), reuse internally, and finally donate for further social reuse in their community, ensuring final recycling. Extended usage reduces total environmental footprint, that can be assessed through traceability data, and supports people without access to new computers and the internet. To facilitate regional replication we are creating clauses for public procurement contracts, focused on municipalities, to embed reuse in the acquisition, legal templates for computer donation to local social refurbishers and agreements between recipients and refurbishers to commit to accountable reuse and final recycling (e.g. commodate).

How can people get involved and find out more?

Look for and get involved in local initiatives about repair, collect and reuse computer devices no longer used (see repair.eu). Other people can use them, so we extend their lifespan and reduce the market pressure for new devices to be manufactured. Follow our work on eReuse.org and @eReuseOrg. If you are a public or private organisation, get involved in circular public procurement and circular policies, be an active part of nurturing a healthy second-hand market that serves everyone in your community with digital services at the lowest social, economic and environmental cost.

Icons: Pixel perfect and Flat Icons from www.flaticon.com

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Policy in Practice Fund: Data sharing in emergencies

Manon den Dunnen from the Dutch National Police answers a few of our burning questions to give us some insight into the project and what it hopes to achieve.

We’re introducing each of our four Policy-in-Practice Fund projects with an introductory blog post. Below, Manon den Dunnen from the Dutch National Police answers a few of our burning questions to give us some insight into the project and what it hopes to achieve. We’re really excited to be working with four groups of incredible innovators and you’ll be hearing a lot more about the projects as they progress. 

Your project is exploring how we share information with public bodies. What is the problem with the way we do it now?

Europe has made significant progress on protecting our privacy, including through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, there remain several problems with the collection and use of personal data. Information about us is often collected without our consent or with disguised consent, causing citizens and other data owners to lose control over their personal data and how it is used. This contributes to profiling (discrimination, exclusion) and cybercrime. At the same time, it is laborious and complex for citizens and public institutions to obtain personal data in a transparent and responsible way.

That is why a collective of (semi-) public institutions has been working towards an independent, public trust infrastructure that allows the conditional sharing of data. The Digital Trust Infrastructure or DTI aims to safeguard our public values by unravelling the process of data sharing into small steps and empowering data subjects to take control of each step at all times.

Rather than focusing on information sharing with public bodies, our project will explore public bodies taking responsibility for creating processes that help to safeguard constitutional values in a digitised society.

What kinds of risks are there for handling personal information? 

Preventing these problems requires organisations to work according to several principles, most of which can be found in the GDPR. Let’s take cybercrime as a potential threat. The risk of your data being exposed to cybercrime increases as your data is stored in more places. Organisations must therefore practice data minimisation, but there are other approaches available. For example, structures that allow citizens to give conditional access to information about them, rather than having to store the data themselves. This ‘consent arrangement’ is exactly what this project will set out to test.

This idea will be new for many people, so expert support and protection should be provided when setting up a consent arrangement for data sharing. But the potential impact is huge. Take for example someone with an oxygen cylinder at home for medical use. This is not something a citizen would be expected to declare as part of their daily life. But when there is a fire, both that citizen and the fire brigade would like that information to be shared.

That piece of data about the citizen’s use of an oxygen cylinder is the only information needed by the fire brigade. But current systems often share far more information automatically, including the person’s identity.  Citizens should be able to give the fire brigade conditional and temporary access to only the information that an oxygen bottle is present, such as in emergencies like a fire.

How can public bodies do this safely and with the trust of citizens? What kind of role do you think public bodies can play in increasing trust in data-sharing in the digital economy more broadly?

A data-driven approach to social and safety issues can truly improve the quality of life, facilitate safety and innovation. But we must set an example in the way we approach this. At each moment, we must carefully consider which specific piece of information is needed by a specific person, in what specific context and moment of time, for what specific purpose and for how long. 

By investing in this early on and involving citizens in a democratic and inclusive way, we can not only increase trust but also use the results to demand partners to do the same and create the new normal. 

You are working on a specific case study with the Dutch Police and other partners. Can you tell us a bit more about that experiment, and how you think this model could be used in other contexts too?

During the next few months, we will create a first scalable demonstrator of the Digital Trust Infrastructure. It will be based on the use-case of sharing home-related data in the context of an incident such as a fire. The generic building blocks that we create will be fundamental to all forms of data sharing, like identification, authentication, attribution, permissions, logging etc. They will also be open-source and usable in all contexts. We have a big list of things to work on!

But that is only part of the story. Complementary to the infrastructure, an important part of the project focuses on drawing up a consent arrangement. This will allow residents to conditionally share information about their specific circumstances and characteristics with specific emergency services in a safe, trusted way. To put people in control of every small step and ensure the consent arrangement will be based on equality, we will organise the necessary expertise to understand every aspect. The consequences of our actions have to be transparent, taking into account groups with various abilities, ages and backgrounds.

We will also explore how, and to what extent, the conditions and safeguards can be implemented in a consent arrangement and embedded in the underlying trust infrastructure in a democratic and resilient way. We will also look at how a sustainable and trustworthy governance structure can be set up for such a consent arrangement. We will share all our findings on these areas.

How can people get involved and find out more?

We are currently collecting experiences from other projects on how to engage residents in an inclusive, democratic and empowered (conscious) way. All the knowledge that we are building up in this area will be shared on the website of our partner Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (HvA). Naturally, we would value hearing about the experiences of others in this area, so please do get in touch.

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Workshop report: What your face reveals – the story of HowNormalAmI.eu

At the Next Generation Internet Summit, Dutch media artist Tijmen Schep revealed his latest work - an online interactive documentary called 'How Normal Am I?'.

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by Tijmen Schep.

At the Next Generation Internet Summit, Dutch media artist Tijmen Schep revealed his latest work – an online interactive documentary called ‘How Normal Am I?‘. It explains how face recognition technology is increasingly used in the world around us, for example when dating website tinder gives all its users a beauty score to match people who are about equally attractive. Besides just telling us about it, the project also allows people to experience this for themselves. Through your webcam, you will be judged on your beauty, age, gender, body mass index (BMI), and your facial expressions. You’ll even be given a life expectancy score, so you’ll know how long you have left to live.

The project has sparked the imagination – and perhaps a little feeling of dread – in many people, as not even two weeks later the documentary has been ‘watched’ over 100.000 times.

At the Summit, Tijmen offered a unique insight into the ‘making of’ of this project. In his presentation, he talked about the ethical conundrums of building a BMI prediction algorithm that is based on photos from arrest records, and that uses science that has been debunked. The presentation generated a lot of questions and was positively received by those who visited the summit.

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Eight goals for a human-centric internet

As part of the European Commission’s Next Generation Internet initiative, the NGI Forward consortium aims to set out a vision for a more human-centric internet. This blog identifies eight key objectives that can get us there and inform our policy and technology research.

In recent decades, there has been a revolution in the development of internet technologies across a wide range of fields, and all indications are that the technological progress is continuing at a rapid pace. These breakthroughs undoubtedly have a profound impact on society, and while they present significant opportunities, there are also complex dilemmas and challenges emerging around these new technologies.

Currently, the development of the internet technologies of the future is centralised around a few internet giants in near-monopoly positions on the global data market and, without an adequate response, humans risk losing control to data-driven, non-human-centric business models. It is the goal of the Next Generation Internet initiative and NGI Forward to secure progressive development of internet technologies and policy that support the development of a more human-centric evolution of the Internet.

A mixed method approach to identify emerging challenges

Insights into emerging technologies and their corresponding challenges and opportunities can be of great value for European policy-makers in this process. Understanding these emerging challenge areas will allow policy-makers to become involved in shaping internet development early on to embed more human-centric values.

Following some of our previous work to map out future internet challenges, the NGI Forward consortium have identified a new set of eight key topics that we believe will be central in developing a more democratic, inclusive and resilient Next Generation Internet. These topics will help inform the NGI’s policy and technology research agenda going forward.

To identify the most pressing issues facing the internet today – and tomorrow – we employed a mixed method approach that includes computational social science methods and expert workshops. In the first phase, DELab at the University of Warsaw collected qualitative data from technology news articles and academic working papers to identify trending keywords related to the Internet in the broader public and research community respectively. In the second phase, DATALAB from Aarhus University organised an expert workshop with leading stakeholders in the internet research community to help narrow down the areas of focus and verify or adjust the topics. Lastly, DATALAB synthesized the results to select eight key topics for the NGI.

The chosen topics are not tied to any one technology to prevent them falling out of relevance in the coming years. They are broadly interpretable and solution-agnostic so as to avoid us jumping to simplistic conclusions or specific solutions too quickly. The rapid technological development in recent decades demonstrates that focusing on specific tools and technology may render topics obsolete within just a few years, while societal challenges are more likely to remain relevant and allow the EU to focus on a wider range of solutions beyond a predetermined technology.

1. Trustworthy Information Flows

It is widely recognised that trustworthy information flows are essential for healthy democracies, but with social media and the Internet, content can spread much faster and in less moderated ways, challenging traditional information flows. The problem of online mis- and disinformation – often referred to as fake news – has evolved from a journalistic concern to one of the most urgent democratic issues in recent years. Despite major attention from the media, academia and governments, an effective solution is still not available. Coupled with other issues such as governmental censorship and large-scale content moderation by online platforms, information flows are changing rapidly, and further research is needed to explore different solutions that are sustainable and consider often conflicting values.

2. Decentralised Power on the Internet

The Internet was originally designed to be open and decentralised. But the de facto internet of today is controlled by a handful of giant companies with virtual monopoly control, acting as gatekeepers by enforcing policies on their users. However, visions for a more decentralised Internet are gaining traction – an Internet where humans can communicate without relying on big companies that collect data for profit. Some concepts for a decentralised Internet utilize distributed web and blockchain technologies to yield a more open and accessible Internet, while others focus on empowering people to publish and own content on the web outside centralised social media platforms. More research is needed into these solutions, both technical and socio-technical.

3. Personal Data Control

Recent revelations including the Cambridge Analytica scandal have made clear the lack of control we have over our own data, and the sheer amount of data collected online has created a major privacy concern. New approaches to privacy and data rights are needed to realise the societal and environmental potential of big data to connect diverse information and conduct rapid analysis – such as data sovereignty, data portability, and collective data rights. Achieving this will require research into the ways policymakers can fit these new concepts into existing data regulation frameworks in a way that offers individuals better control and authority, and builds public trust and engagement.

4. Sustainable and Climate-friendly Internet

The environmental impact of the Internet is enormous and growing rapidly. Each activity online comes with a small price in terms of carbon emissions and with over half the global population now online, this adds up. According to some estimates, the global carbon footprint of the Internet and the systems supporting it amounts to about 3.7 percent of the total carbon emissions, similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally. As the Internet expands into new territory, it is estimated that the carbon footprint of the global internet technologies will double by 2025. Indeed, sustainability should be a bigger priority, and further insights are needed into how emissions could be controlled, how awareness of the environmental impact of the Internet can be raised, and how internet technologies can be utilized in the fight against climate change.

5. Safer Online Environments

People increasingly experience the internet as a hostile space. Cyberviolence in many shapes and forms is a growing concern, and it has a significant impact on an increasing number of people, LGBTQ+, ethnic minorities, women and children in particular. It will be vital for a more human-centric Internet to build safe online environments. For this to happen, a range of issues needs to be taken into consideration, including the role of social media providers and the protection of free expression. At the same time, solutions need to be investigated, such as effective moderation or containment procedures, creating useful aid for victims of cyberviolence and enabling law enforcement to take action against offenders.

6. An Inclusive Internet

The Internet offers a potential for inclusiveness in a global and diverse community, but if access is not evenly distributed, the Internet will deepen inequality. Half of the population of the world is still offline, urban areas are better connected than rural, and those that are connected in advanced ways may not be in a position to realise the full potential of the Internet to improve their lives and mitigate against critical issues. Many disabled people also are excluded from using online information and services, so inclusive infrastructures and tools are needed to remove barriers and create an inclusive and accessible Internet for all.

7. Competitive European Ecosystems

Today, the Internet is dominated by two narratives that give little agency to users: the American model, ruled by capitalist market powers with internet giants harvesting massive amounts of personal data to shape human behaviour, and the Chinese model characterised by mass surveillance and government control of the internet. These narratives cannot go unchallenged, and growth and innovation in the European tech industry without acquisitions from the U.S. and China-based companies is needed to support a competing narrative adhering to European values. This requires further research into possible policy and regulatory initiatives that can increase Europe’s competitiveness in the technology sector.

8. Ethical Internet Technology

Recent examples, such as Google’s censored search engine developed for the Chinese market (‘Project Dragonfly’), instances of algorithmic bias in criminal cases, racially targeted ads and “differential” pricing, and the use of Facebook data for voter manipulation, have shown that the Silicon Valley attitude of ‘moving fast and breaking things’ has failed. With the rapid development of new technologies in the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, further research is needed in order to develop targeted ethical frameworks for the development and implementation of new technologies.

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How collective intelligence can help tackle major challenges…

...and build a better internet along the way!

It’s hard to imagine what our social response to a public health challenge at the scale of COVID-19 would have looked like just ten or fifteen years ago – in a world without sophisticated tools for remote working, diversified digital economies, and social networking opportunities. 

Today, we see frontline doctors self-organising through social media to share diagnostic and treatment advice, DIY communities sharing open source solutions to help bolster supplies of ventilators and face masks, and the transition of many businesses to a physically distributed and temporally asynchronous workforce model.

The common enabler of all these activities is the internet. Recent years have seen innovation across all of its layers – from infrastructure to data rights – resulting in an unprecedented capacity for people to work together, share skills and pool information to understand how the world around them is changing and respond to challenges. This enhanced capacity is known as collective intelligence (CI)

The internet certainly needs fixing – from the polarising effect of social media on political discourse to the internet’s perpetual concentration of wealth and power and its poorly understood impact on the environment. But turning to the future, it’s equally clear that there is great promise in the ability of emerging technologies, new governance models and infrastructure protocols to enable entirely new forms of collective intelligence that can help us solve complex problems and change our lives for the better. 

Based on examples from Nesta’s recent report, The Future of Minds & Machines, this blog shows how an internet based on five core values can serve to combine distributed human and machine intelligence in new ways and help Europe become more than the sum of its parts. 

We have been mapping projects that bring Artificial Intelligence and Collective Intelligence together.
Source: nesta.org.uk

Resilience

Resilience is a core value for the future internet. It means secure infrastructure and the right balance between centralisation and decentralisation. But it also means that connected technologies should enable us to better respond to external challenges. Online community networks that can be tapped into and mobilised quickly are already an important part of the 21st century humanitarian response. 

Both Amnesty International and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap have global communities of volunteers, numbering in the thousands, who participate in distributed micromapping efforts to trace features like building and roads on satellite images. These online microtasking platforms help charities and aid agencies understand how conflicts and environmental disasters affect different regions around the world, enabling them to make more informed decisions about distribution of resources and support. 

More recently, these platforms have started to incorporate elements of artificial intelligence to support the efforts of volunteers. One such initiative, MapWithAI, helps digital humanitarians to prioritise where to apply their skills to make mapping more efficient overall. 

The internet also enables and sustains distinct communities of practice, like these groups of humanitarian volunteers, allowing individuals with similar interests to find each other. This social and digital infrastructure may prove invaluable in times of crises, when there is a need to tap into a diversity of skills and ideas to meet unexpected challenges. 

In the future, collective intelligence may also help improve our ability to cooperate and share resources in, such as food and energy, effectively between and within groups. At Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design (CCID), we are supporting research that asks whether different levels of social connectivity within and between overlapping social groups on an online platform can improve coordination in response to collective crises. Experiments like this one, will help us to understand how the internet can be organised to support more collectively intelligent and resilient behaviours. 

Inclusiveness

The need to consider a diversity of information, opinions and ideas is a key factor in the success of any collective intelligence initiative. This is true for small group interactions – which have been shown to require cognitive diversity of participants to improve problem solving, creativity and learning – as well as large-scale initiatives such as crowd predictions, where individuals making mistakes in slightly different ways ensures that the collective estimate holds. If we want to address challenges facing the whole of society, we need solutions designed for everyone.

One example of collective intelligence improving inclusiveness – while also taking an inclusive-by-design approach – is Mozilla’s Common Voice project, which uses an accessible online platform to crowdsource the world’s largest open dataset of diverse voice recordings, spanning different languages, demographic backgrounds and accents. 

The Common Voice project crowdsources diverse voices, accents and underrepresented languages

Ensuring diversity of contributions is not easy. It requires a deliberate effort to involve individuals with rare knowledge, such as members of indigenous cultures or speakers of unusual dialects. But a future internet built around an inclusive innovation ecosystem, products that are inclusive-by-design, and fundamental rights for the individual – rather than a closed system built around surveillance and exploitation – will make it easier for projects like Common Voice to become the norm. 

Democracy

The future internet should have the ambition to protect democratic institutions and give political agency to all – but it should also itself be an expression of democratic values. That means designing for more meaningful bottom-up engagement of citizens, addressing asymmetric power relationships in the digital economy and creating spaces for different voices to be heard. 

Both national and local governments worldwide are starting to appreciate the opportunities that the internet and collective intelligence offer in terms of helping them to better understand the views of their citizens. Parliaments from Brazil to Taiwan are inviting citizens to contribute to the legislative process, while cities like Brussels and Paris are asking their residents to help prioritise spending through participatory budgeting. The EU is also preparing a Conference on the Future Europe to engage citizens at scale in thinking about the future of the bloc, an effort that could be enhanced and facilitated through CI-based approaches like participatory futures. These types of activities can help engage a greater variety of individuals in political decision-making and redefine the relationships between politicians and the constituents they serve. 

Unfortunately, some citizen engagement initiatives are still driven by tech-solutionism without a clear market need, rather than the careful design of participation processes that make the most of the collective contributions of citizens. Even when digital democracy projects start out with the best intentions politicians can struggle to make sense of this new source of insight, which risks valuable ideas being overlooked and diminished trust in democratic processes. 

There are signs that this is changing. For example, the collective intelligence platform Citizen Lab is trying to optimise the channels of communications and interpretation between citizens and politicians. It has started to apply natural language processing algorithms to help organise and identify themes in the ideas that citizens contribute using its platform, helping public servants to make better use of them. Citizen Lab is used by city administrations in more than 20 countries across Europe and offers a glimpse of how Europe can set an example of democratic collective intelligence enabled by the infrastructure of the internet.

Trust

A closely related challenge for the internet today is the continued erosion of trust – trust in the veracity of information, trust between citizens online, and trust in public institutions. The internet of the future will have to find ways of dealing with challenges like digital identities and the safety of our everyday online interactions. But perhaps most importantly, the internet must be able to tackle the problems of information overload and misinformation through systems that optimise for fact-based and balanced exchanges, rather than outrage and division.

We have seen some of the dangers of fake news manifest as part of the response to COVID-19. At a time when receiving accurate public health messaging and government communications are a matter of life and death, the cacophony of information on the internet can make it hard for individuals to distinguish the signal from the noise. 

Undoubtedly, part of the solution to effectively navigate his new infosphere will require new forms of public private partnerships. By working with media and technology giants like Facebook and Twitter, governments and health agencies worldwide have started to curb some of the negative effects of misinformation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But the commitment to a trustworthy internet is a long-term investment. It will not only rely on the actions of policy makers and industry to develop recognisable trustmarks, but also on a more literate citizenry that is better able to spot suspicious materials and flag concerns. 

A tweet by the UK Government warning about misinformation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many existing fact checking projects already already use crowdsourcing at different stages of the verification processes. For example, the company Factmata is developing a technology that will draw on specialist communities of more than 2000 trained experts to help them assess the trustworthiness of online content. However, crowdsourced solutions can be vulnerable to issues of bias, polarisation and gaming and will need to be consolidated by complementary sources of intelligence such as expert validation or entirely new AI tools that can help to mitigate against the effects of social bias.

Sustainability

Undoubtedly, some of our biggest challenges are yet to come. But the internet holds untapped potential for us to build awareness for the interdependency of our social and natural environments. We need to champion models that put the digital economy at the service of creating a more sustainable planet and combating climate change, while also remaining conscious of the environmental footprint these systems have in their own right.

Citizen science is a distinct family of collective intelligence methods where volunteers collect data, make observations or perform analyses that helps to advance scientific knowledge. Citizen science projects have proliferated over the last 20 years, in large part due to the internet. For example, the most popular online citizen science platform, Zooniverse, hosts over 50 different scientific projects and has attracted over 1 million contributors. 

A large proportion of citizen science projects focus on the environment and ecology, helping to engage members of the public outside of traditional academia with issues such as biodiversity, air quality and pollution of waterways. iNaturalist is an online social network that brings together nature lovers to keep track of different species of plants and animals worldwide. The platform supports learning within a passionate community and creates a unique open data source that can be used by scientists and conservation agencies. 

Beyond the direct use of citizen generated data for environmental monitoring and tracking of progress towards the sustainable development goals, online citizen science and community monitoring projects can lead to increased awareness of sustainability issues and longer term pro-environmental behavioural change and for those involved.

Building the Next Generation Internet – with and for collective intelligence

To enable next-generation collective intelligence, Europe needs to look beyond ‘just AI’ and invest in increasingly smarter ways of connecting people, information and skills, and facilitating interactions on digital platforms. The continued proliferation of data infrastructures, public and private sector data sharing and the emergence of the Internet of Things will play an equally important part in enhancing and scaling up collective human intelligence. Yet, for this technological progress to have a transformative and positive impact on society, it will have to be put in the service of furthering fundamental values. Collective intelligence has the opportunity to be both a key driver and beneficiary of a more inclusive, resilient, democratic, sustainable and trustworthy internet. 

At this moment of global deceleration, we suggest it is time to take stock of old trajectories for the internet to set out on a new course, one that allows us to make the most of the diverse collective intelligence that we have within society to become better at solving complex problems. The decisions we make today will help us to shape the society of the future. 

Aleks is a Senior Researcher and Project Manager for Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design (CCID). The CCID conducts research and develops resources to help innovators understand how they can harness collective intelligence to solve problems. Our latest report, The Future of Minds & Machines mapped the various ways that AI is helping to enhance and scale the problem solving abilities of groups. It is available for download on the Nesta website, where you can also explore 20 case studies of AI & CI in practice.

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When mind meets machine: harnessing collective intelligence for Europe

Collective intelligence (CI) has emerged in the last few years as a new field, prompted by a wave of digital technologies that make it possible for organisations and societies to harness the intelligence of many people, and things, on a huge scale. It is a rapidly evolving area, encompassing everything from citizen science to open […]

Collective intelligence (CI) has emerged in the last few years as a new field, prompted by a wave of digital technologies that make it possible for organisations and societies to harness the intelligence of many people, and things, on a huge scale.

It is a rapidly evolving area, encompassing everything from citizen science to open innovation to the potential use of data trusts, and offers enormous new opportunities in fields like sustainability, health and democracy. For Europe, harnessing CI will be critical to achieving its economic and social goals through initiatives like the Green New Deal or Next Generation Internet.

 A quick primer

Collective intelligence is created when people work together, often with the help of technology, to mobilise a wider range of information, ideas and insights to address a social challenge.

As an idea, it isn’t new. It’s based on the theory that groups of diverse people are collectively smarter than any single individual on their own. The premise is that intelligence is distributed. Different people hold different pieces of information and different perspectives that, when combined, create a more complete picture of a problem and how to solve it. The intelligence of the crowd can be further augmented by combining these insights with data analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Bringing these two elements can be extremely powerful but the field is still emerging and it isn’t always clear how to do it well.

Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design is at the forefront of both research and practice in this space, and has recently developed a Collective Intelligence Playbook to support others to harness CI more effectively.

Click here to explore Nesta’s Collective Intelligence Playbook

To explore the opportunities for Europe and the European Commission’s NGI initiative further, Nesta held a workshop as part of the MyData event in Helsinki in September. In this workshop, we introduced participants to the concept of collective intelligence and asked: how can we best combine the intelligence of the crowd and artificial intelligence to solve some of today’s largest societal problems? 

During the workshop Peter Baeck, Head of the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design at Nesta and Aleks Berditchevskaia, Senior Researcher on collective intelligence explained the concept of CI and then took workshop participants through the Collective Intelligence Toolkit developed by Nesta.

Katja Henttonen, project manager in e-democracy for Helsinki, provided a live case study introduction to CI in practice through a demonstration of the Decidim online democracy and participatory budgeting tools currently being trialled in the city. 

Using the collective intelligence toolkit canvas and method prompt cards the groups were given an hour to work on a number of practical problem statements, exploring several challenges in the internet space, opportunities around collective intelligence were explored, as well as questions about how CI can be practically used at scale, learning from exciting case studies from around the world.

What did we learn from the workshop?

  • Workshop participants saw huge potential in using CI and the toolkit In particular participants were excited to be introduced to new methods such as citizen science or using satellite data for collective intelligence.  
  • There is a clear need for better practical guidance, such as Nesta’s playbook, on what CI is and how it can be applied by organisations. Workshop participants suggested this could be done through further development of practical tools and guides for how to design for CI and the creation of open repositories or data bases on CI methods and use cases. Within this, participants highlighted the need to make the support for CI as practical as possible and suggested connecting any research, investment and support for CI to specific social challenges, such as climate change, fake news or digital democracy.
  • Of the different tools and methods to enable CI, the workshop highlighted a particular interest in understanding the relationship between human and machine intelligence in enabling different forms of CI and raised three challenges/questions: 
  1. Better understanding of the different functions in the relationship between human and machine intelligence and how to design solutions that tap into the benefits of these while maintaining strong ethical frameworks and give individuals control of the data they want to contribute to the collective and how this can be used.
  2. Knowledge on how AI enabled CI can be applied and used within grassroots networks and NGO’s to better mobilise volunteers, activists and community group to identify and solve common challenges is needed.
  3. Funding that explicitly focuses on bringing together the AI community with the CI community is needed to foster new forms of collaboration. 
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