PSi is a new online audio community engagement platform designed to allow thousands of people to deliberate on issues they care about. Its method uses empirical evidence and practitioners’ know-how to remove biases from democratic decisions.
If you are an organiser of community events and are interested in PSi, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
How certain are we that any democratic decision is indeed the best possible one? What would happen if the Brexit referendum was rerun? Those are questions we ask ourselves at SURU, a startup harnessing collective intelligence for decision-making at scale. When a polarized political debate ends with a close margin, people wonder if this was not just the product of chance. We question what difference would have been made if a particular argument had been made earlier in a campaign.
It might be tempting to think of democratic decisions as optimal outcomes from a well-oiled rational machine. Decisions can be affected by random factors, such as who speaks first in a debate or what terms they use. Other unpredictable factors may include how many people could or could not participate in a meeting. But democratic processes are dynamic and can self-correct. The hope is that, in the long run, randomness dissipates while good decisions stay.
The online platform PSi uses this concept to weed out randomness from collective choices and to estimate the group’s uncertainty around a decision.
Offering a fresh perspective on deliberative democracy
The web application offers a way for civic organisations to engage their local residents in their local decision-making through audio discussions. Citizens use their voices to speak with other residents about local issues, such as opening a new park or access to medical resources. Citizens have access to data that is made available by the civic organisation organising the debate. PSi can scale citizen-to-citizen voice conversations to thousands of people simultaneously. Without deliberation ending up in chaos. If you have attended a town-hall meeting or your building’s residents’ meeting, you might find this hard to believe.
On PSi, each citizen is asked how they would solve a specific community issue. PSi facilitates the conversation among large groups of people by breaking the discussion into small groups. Each small group has, by chance, slightly different characteristics. For example, there are different proportions of confident and shy people, or people favouring one option over the other, or male and female participants. And so, by chance, each conversation can end up in a slightly different direction and cover slightly different angles of the same topic.
By discussing the same set of proposals across many small groups, PSi aims to average out the randomness while keeping what is shared across discussions, namely the objective value of ideas discussed. This process is akin to a procedure in statistics called bootstrapping. It allows us to know both the average preference in a group and how uncertainty there is about that preference.
Deliberation that does not scale
The cost of citizens assemblies and other deliberative processes means that civic organisations and governments cannot regularly engage the public. Thus, citizen participation and deliberation is often a one-off exercise. Existing online platforms can provide more affordable solutions. Still, they tend to focus primarily on text (e.g. surveys, posts, comments and votes), significantly limiting the depth of deliberation.
In addition to cost, another problem is that deliberation does not scale. Discussions with many people are inefficient. People put less effort because they feel that someone else will step in (a phenomenon known as diffusion of responsibility). Disagreement is more challenging to resolve in large groups, and conversations can end up in deadlocks or polarization.
PSi was designed to overcome these limitations by offering a natural way for many people to converge to a decision. On PSi, each citizen is asked how they would solve a specific community issue. PSi facilitates the conversation among large groups of people by breaking the discussion into small groups, called Tables, and fostering consensus reaching among diverse ideas.
In smaller and manageable discussions, people feel they are discussing with a handful of other citizens. Its automated facilitation enables even very large communities to deliberate using their voice but still quickly converge to a bottom-up decision. Lowering the barrier for deliberative democracy will allow local governments to engage more often in citizens consultation. Thus participatory design can become standard practice rather than a box-ticking exercise.
Who supports PSi
PSi is supported by the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation fund (Media Futures program) and Imperial College London’s Enterprise Lab. PSi won the Grand Prize at the Imperial College London’s Women Entrepreneurship program. PSi is currently in beta and will be tested with communities across the UK. If you are an organiser of community events and are interested in PSi, please contact email@example.com and its co-founder, Niccolò Pescetelli.