Peer Production of Public Functions

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Yochai Benkler:

"A major path of intervention of decentralized, voluntaristic systems is a set of efforts to use peer-based approaches to work around nonfunctioning or imperfect state institutions. These models are the mutualist equivalent of the “privatization” movement that sought, and continues to seek, to remove public actions from the responsibility of governments and locate them instead in the hands of profit-seeking, proprietary organizations on the theory that these kinds of organizations have “incentives” to deliver these services better and more efficiently than do government officials. I will not address here the enormous literature on the costs and benefits of privatization; rather, I note it here merely to identify the parallels between that move, which diagnosed failure on the public side and prescribed markets as a cure, and the move to supplant government functions with anarchic, voluntaristic models.

The poster child for the distributed model of fulfilling otherwise governmental functions is Ushahidi. Ushahidi was create in 2008, when a Kenyan blogger, Ory Okolloh, posted a blog post in the midst of election violence there: “any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps? Perhaps we can begin to collect information from organizations and individuals on the ground e.g. red cross, hospitals, etc. and start to build a tally online.” Another blogger following the situation from the United States, who had volunteered in Kenya, wrote: “The primary means of communication during an emergency in Kenya is via SMS.” Within a week, two Kenyan expats working in the United States, David Kobiah and Juliana Rotich, developed an open source platform, itself built using several FOSS components, that allows anyone, anywhere, to send in mobile phone or computer updates about their observations, and then mash them up with a map. The platform that began as a solution for election violence there became the system used to map locations of relief needs in as wide a range of locations as Haiti after the earthquake, Russian wildfires, or Washington, DC snow emergencies. In the Egyptian elections that preceded the 2011 Arab Spring, Ushahidi was used for citizenbased election monitoring, using a system that was adapted by Egyptian hackers for that purpose, and was later extended and used in Tunisia for that country’s first free election.

While Ushahidi emerged as a clear response to vacuum of functioning government of a “developing world” sort, mutualism has also been used to work around governmental bodies that are reticent to fulfill their role because of the standard failures of government in democratic society—incompetence, political interest, cronyism.

Perhaps the clearest example of this to date is Safecast, a response to the failures of the Japanese government and power company to produce reliable information about radiation levels in Japan after the Fukushima incident. Within days of the earthquake on March 11, 2011 in Japan, an email exchange among three people—Sean Bonner (Los Angeles), Joi Ito (Boston/Dubai/Tokyo), and Pieter Franken (Tokyo)—that began as checking in among friends and on family, shifted to consideration of radiation data and how to get it. Supplies of commercially available Geiger counters dried up almost immediately, and within the first month the three had brought together a network of developers and designers from Maui (International Medcom there produced highquality Geiger counters), Tokyo Hackerspace, Singapore, Boston, Seattle, North Carolina, and Portland, Ore., to develop both mobile and stationary Geiger counter units, and a system for dynamically communicating and mashing up their findings into maps under an open-access data license.32 Seed funding was obtained through Kickstarter, later filled out by a grant from the Knight Foundation. The result has been a significant international collaboration, delivering physical products and deployments, as well as information infrastructure, based on volunteer efforts and funding.

Safecast is as crisp an example as we have for how mutualism can serve as a successful workaround for failure (whether for lack of capacity or, more likely, for lack of political will) of a public body." (