On the occasion of the upcoming release of LiquidFeedback 2.0 Marc Strassman (Etopia News L.A.) interviews Andreas Nitsche on the history and future of the project. They talk about concepts, new features, current and future users of LiquidFeedback.
Strassman: It's 12.02 p.m. in Los Angeles on Monday the 25th of June 2012. I am Marc Strassman, reporter for Etopia News. It is 9 p.m. in Berlin where I am about to speak to Andreas Nitsche, co-developer of LiquidFeedback. Thank you for talking to us on Etopia News.
Nitsche: Thank you very much. It's great to be here.
Strassman: What were you doing professionally before you developed LiquidFeedback and are you still doing it now?
Nitsche: I am a computer scientist and CEO of a company and work in a team providing data base solutions: like enterprise resource and planning, point of sale applications, reservation systems. That kind of stuff. And yes: it's what I am still doing.
Strassman: Where did get the idea for LiquidFeedback, where did the idea come from?
Nitsche: One of the underlying concepts, liquid democracy basically transitive proxy voting has been around for a while. It was first suggested in internet forums in the United States. I believe around the year 2000. Back in 2009 the growing Berlin Pirate Party wanted to perpetuate the chances for every party member to participate in both the development of ideas and decisions. And they thought transitive proxy voting could be a promising idea. We got fascinated by this idea and to make it work in a political context we added a genuine democratic proposition development process and preferential voting.
Strassman: Who got together to develop it?
Nitsche: The core team consists of four people. The other developers are Jan Behrens, Axel Kistner and Bjoern Swierczek. We have worked together in several projects for some years now. So we are talking about a well-oiled machine. We receive contributions, in particular translations for adding new languages and we are very glad some developers started to create additional frontends and smartphone apps.
Strassman: What were your intentions and hopes for the program?
Nitsche: When we started we thought of political parties as opposed to civic participation. This was for obvious reasons: as of now political parties prepare most political decisions and where if not in parties will you find so many people interested in political affairs. Wouldn't it be great for ordinary party member to participate in what they are interested in and (using a delegation) still make sure their vote counts for their wing the party in all other fields. The intention was to help strengthen inner party democracy and make parties more attractive to citizens as well.
Strassman: Why did you make it open source?
Nitsche: We believe Democracy needs trust and in order to earn this trust, democratic decision making using the internet needs to be transparent. By making our project Open Source, we allow anyone to inspect our code and we allow anyone to make necessary changes for a particular use case. Of course we are aware not everybody can inspect the code but everybody can ask somebody he trusts to do so.
Strassman: Since it’s open source, does that mean that it’s free?
Nitsche: You are right Open Source doesn't necessarily mean "free" but in the case of LiquidFeedback it does. We used the very liberal MIT license which allows everybody to use it.
However the setting up, the configuration and the operation of a LiquidFeedback systems requires some skills. Depending on the use case further customization or additional components may become necessary. To some extend we give some free email support. We also offer consulting, lectures and workshops. And we can point in the right direction if somebody needs hosting and doesn't want to care about technical questions at all.
Strassman: What is the organizational relationship between the Public Software Group, which publishes LiquidFeedback, and Interaktive Demokratie, which supports its use?
Nitsche: As you said LiquidFeedback is published by the Public Software Group and this is all the Public Software Group does: publishing open source software.
The developers of LiquidFeedback have teamed up in the Interaktive Demokratie association to promote the use of electronic media for democratic processes.
Strassman: What does LiquidFeedback let its users do?
Nitsche: Every user can start an initiative, support initiatives, suggest enhancements for existing initiatives, start alternative initiatives and can vote on all available alternatives in the end of the process. And a user can transfer his vote to make it count for his own wing in a given issue.
Strassman: How are policy issues and positions introduced?
Nitsche: Users can bring up an issue by starting a proposition (or an initiative as we call it). If a user starts an initiative not assigned to an existing issue it is a new issue which will be accepted for dicussion if at leat one of the initiatives in the issue reaches a predefined quorum. This way we check if the participants think an issue is worth discussing. At this point we do not filter out individual initiatives but rather check the whole issue. If the issue is accepted all assigned initiatives will be discussed.
Down the road there is another quorum when it comes to voting. At that point (after all discussion has taken place) individual initiatives without a minimum support will not be in the voting process.
Strassman: How are the initiatives discussed discussed?
Nitsche: The discussion takes place elsewhere but the users can support one or more initiatives of an issue, they can suggest modifications of the draft and assess suggestions of other users. And as said before the can start an alternative initiative.
Discussing is a social process and we didn't even try to draw it to a single instance that dominates the discussion. Instead we want to organize the process and measure the support and try to predict the development of support if an initiator accepts certain suggestions.
Strassman: You use some complicated algorithms to do that sometimes. What are those?
Nitsche: The most complicated algorithm is probably the voting process itself, it's the Schulze method for the preferencial voting.
Strassman: How are final policy issues decided?
Nitsche: There may be initiatives based on the same basic idea which could turn out as disadvantage for that idea. [Example] What we is with the Cloneproof Schwartz Sequential Dropping (the Schulze method) we allow to express preferences. You can say if your favorite doesn't win you want to support something else. [Example] You can have it visualized in our youtube cannel lqfbmedia. The video is called 'Preferential Voting English'.
Strassman: How does the delegation of one’s vote work?
Nitsche: A delegation can be seen as a transferrable power of attorney for both the discussion process and the final voting. The delegation can be made by unit, area or issue and be revoked at any time. Regardless of existing delegations a member can participate in a discussion and/or the voting which disables the delegation for the given activity. This is the LiquidFeedback version of the rule: A proxy can not vote in the presence of the principal.
Strassman: What does the user interface look like?
Nitsche: I'd invite your viewers to visit our website liquidfeedback.org where you can find our mission statement, screenshots and can get access to our test system.
Strassman: How important a role does it play in the operations of the Piratenpartei Deutschland?
Nitsche: This is actually a question you should ask the pirate party. What we can see from outside is there are differences between the chapters when it comes to actual usage. In Berlin Liquid Democracy is part of the statutes which underlines the importance for the Berlin Pirates - while - on the federal level the function is less defined. Apparently (on the federal level) LiquidFeedback helps the members to get an idea of which propositions can get a majority within the party. Some board members declared they decide based in LiquidFeedback results and LiquidFeedback seems to be helpful for the preparation of party conventions as many propositions are prediscussed and maybe enhanced in LiquidFeedback.
Strassman: What other similar programs compete with LiquidFeedback and how do they compare in terms of their functionality and their user interfaces?
Nitsche: I don't see any similar liquid democracy program in terms of being designed to work with large groups with real conflicts using strict rules in a predefined process without moderator interference. To give you an example: We do not count on people working collaborativly. I mean it's great if they do but looking at politics you don't want to depend on that. I don't know any other software that follows this idea.
Strassman: How is access to LiquidFeedback controlled?
Nitsche: You are raising a very important question. Given the nature of the internet any installation without an access control can only be used for technical tests and not be taken serious when it comes decisions. Which makes a system basically useless if you don't have a working access control.
Currently we have two basic scenarios. One is we have an existing member data base of party or association. In this case we assign one invite code to every member record. The members receive their invite code by email and can register. If somebody leaves the party or organization the member data base sends a request to deactivate the corresponding account. In most cases there is additional ident information transferred to LiquidFeedback before the registration takes place. e.g. if you get an invite code and want to register “Marc Strassmann, Los Angeles, California” shows up automatically and is available to every user in the system.
The second possibility is civic registration. In this case citizens can sign up on a registration website. The passport/voter registration/SSN authority (or the like) confirms the status of the participant. A letter with an invite code is generated and mailed to the residential address. If a participant is no longer entiteled to take part the acount can be deactivated by that authority.
Strassman: In what languages is LiquidFeedback available now and in what additional languages are you planning to release it?
Nitsche: Currently we have English, German and Esperanto. In the next realease we will also start with Greek and Hungerian and we have seen some language files in Dutch, Italian, Portuguese and Russian from other organizations. We will be glad to add any additional language to the official release providing they are contributed with a CLA in order to apply the very same MIT license to it.
Strassman: How many users can a specific instance of LiquidFeedback support?
Nitsche: As we used the PostreSQL data base the number is virtually unlimited. However if you add more users you will at some point you will need more than one server. The concept does not withstand this solution but we didn't reach this point so far and therefor we are relaxed for now and cross that bridge when we come to it.
Strassman: You’re releasing LiquidFeedback 2.0 on June 29th which is only a few days away. What changes have been made in the program in this new version?
Nitsche: We added unit support which allows branches, chapters or regions like Santa Monica, LA county, Southern California, California, United States. We also made some changes to the user interface. It's easier to handle e.g. there are new customized timelines showing what is going on in the system. Finally we made a big progress in providing an application programming interface which will allow the introduction of alternative frontends and smartphone apps with more and more functionality in the next months.
Strassman: Are parties other than the Pirates using this software?
Nitsche: We gave presentations for mainstream political parties and we know some parties have installations. We don't know for sure what these installations are used for. So they might be test installations which we wouldn't consider as actualy "using" the software.
Strassman: Are your satisfaction from this work greather because of the technical aspects of what you’ve created or by the political impact that it has?
Nitsche: Neither nor (and at the same time both). The key challenge was the abstract organization of a social process. Pre-defined rules for the discussion and decision making process with a theoretically unlimited number of people who are all equal. Democratic self organisational within the system. Along the way you encounter intersting technical questions and of of course we are thrilled by seeing it actually work and this way having impact.
Strassman: What do you see as the future of LiquidFeedback?
Nitsche: We still hope many parties in different countries will use it. We also have associations like Slow Food Germany using LiquidFeedback. The scenario is similar to political parties. Obviously with different topics from time to time. LiquidFeedback is also used by corporations for developing employee suggestions for the CEO. In this case we are not talking about real democratic decisions which has be be taken into consideration when setting up such a system. The vanguard for this is Synaxon Inc. Now for the latest development: Meanwhile LiquidFeedback found it's way into civic participation. This was clearly not our intention in the first place but we are happy the Friesland county in Germany contacted us with brilliant ideas and together we developed a concept for this use case. We are looking forward to the official start of „LiquidFriesland“ in fall.
Strassman: I want to thank you very much for your work for talking to us about it today on Etopia News.
Nitsche: You are welcome. It has been my pleasure, Marc.