Participedia is an open-sourced internet database of case studies on participatory democracy for the use of researchers and those with an interest in the field.
Problems and Purpose
Participedia is an open-sourced, online research tool and publishing platform for articles and case studies of real life examples of participatory democracy. It was set up by North American academics in response to a perceived gap in data collection on the rapidly developing global phenomena of participatory democracy.
Background History and Context
Created for the use of academics, journalists, consultants and even government organisations, to either view or contribute content, Participedia is the brain-child of professors Archon Fung of Harvard and Mark Warren of the University of British Columbia. Fung and Warren explain their aims:
The goal of Participedia is to be useful to scholars (and practitioners) as an open-sourced, real-time, cumulative qualitative and quantitative data repository about participatory and deliberative governance experiences. More broadly, we believe that Participedia is the first effort in the social sciences to build a large data set through a method that is both crowd-sourced and structured to produce relatively high quality, comparative information. It is an early effort to import a method now common in other domains and disciplines into the social sciences.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Fung and Warren created a global team of academics to make original contributions, discuss the direction of the project and oversee the design of the first website on a Mediawiki platform in 2009. Funding was received from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), in the form of a two-year Partnership Development Grant awarded in 2011. The second website, Participedia 2.0 (PP 2.0), was created on Drupal software by web developers Affinity Bridge, in partnership with the Social Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University in 2011. In 2012, the project received further funding from the Bertelsmann Foundation to develop a multi-language functionality on the site. In 2015 they received a Partnership Grant from the SSHRC to develop outreach of the site and for the 3rd version of the website (PP 3.0) to be developed by Participedia’s Design and Technology Committee in association with partners at Emily Carr.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
As an open-source web-based depository, those who can access and contribute to Participedia is in theory unlimited. However in practice, use of the site is mainly reserved for those within the field of participatory democracy, with a focus on the students utilising it as a learning device and first publication platform. The site and its database is contained because Participedia’ reputation is spread by word-of-mouth within the qualified communities and is not advertised, so the likelihood of it being found by chance by a non-expert is low. There is no current mechanism to prevent those without previous experience in the field from contributing, even though the aim of the founders was to keep the content professional through limiting access. In reality, it is very rare for such people to find or wish to contribute to the site. There is a point of contention, as to the hypercritical and undemocratic nature of a project that is notionally aimed at examining public participation whilst limiting the participation of the lay citizen because of their perceived lack of expertise.
Methods and Tools Used
Know what methods or tools were used? Help us complete this section!
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
For contributing authors, Participedia gives guidelines on how to write their articles, by providing recommended section headings and an advice sheet on what to include in these sections. The authors are given free reign over the content they produce, as long as it is useful to research and also accessible to those outside of the field. The key feature which provides ease of access and a good organisational structure is the ‘Case Data’ box on the side of the articles. This gives short precise information in categories, which can give the reader an overview of the main features and is also part of the site’s search engine facility. As Smith et al., say in their analysis of Participedia:
PP requests data across a range of fields including: geo-coded location; dates of operation; policy area; geographical scope; number of participants; methods of selection, participation, deliberation and decision; sponsoring organisations; and costs. Many of these variables capture dimensions of design choice. It is these structured data that form the basis of the search engine platform, which allows users to filter and limit search results.
In order to maintain the quality of the articles, Participedia has a permanent member of staff dedicated to refining and editing all articles. However, due to the nature of the site, there is very little they can do to standardise the quality of the content. Additionally they cannot prevent those with a bias from producing an article which does not objectively display the facts without inciting judgment. With a completely voluntary pool of contributors, without a system of regulation, there is a risk that poor quality content may be posted on the site. The decision to make this an online open-sourced project, a relatively new tool for social science researchers, increases risk. As Wiggins et al., conclude, crowdsourcing still poses a higher risk in the minds of many researchers because of the limited control that the editor can have over the content on such a public forum. This can be seen in the Participedia case, with the founders unwilling to open the forum to higher levels of lay participation. However, the opportunity to have access to such a large pool of professional contributors, through crowdsourcing, outweighs the risk of a few poor articles.
Although there is a discussion forum on PP 2.0 (.net), this has yet to be added to PP 3.0 (.xyz). even on PP 2.0 this was very rarely used and did not fulfil its potential to bring together professional from across the field to share opinion or insight, nor for the lay citizen to access the knowledge of these professionals in dialog. There is an opportunity to increase its use by placing it in a more prominent and accessible position on PP 3.0.
Consultation is the area outside of academia where Participedia is used the most. Both companies which advise legislatures and local administrators as third parties, and governing institutions themselves have recognised the site’s potential to inform their use of participatory democracy. This separates Participedia from other basic databases because these groups have not only consumed the data but some have contacted either the Participedia team or the authors of the articles to seek their advice in the implementation of methods they have been introduced to via the site.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The demographic of users and contributors to the site is predictably mainly in the academic field. From basic research using the information provided on PP 2.0, we can attain a picture of the member users of the site. Of the membership only 388 out of a total of 2997 have identified their job title (as of 11th October 2018), and the majority of these are the 205 students (this figure is a collective of all those who put student, including PHD candidates).  This is nearly four times the number of researchers who number 55 and they are followed by lectures at 46, thus academia accounts for 306 of members. Whereas CEOS, consultants and directors/managers only make up 74. This shows the intensity of the effect that academia will have on the content of the site and that word of mouth is very much working to gain attention for Participedia between fellow scholars, but that it has a lower effect in other professions or the general public. But we can also see that the site provides a useful platform for the young scholar whose contributions to the site may be their first work published on a professional forum, giving them an invaluable opportunity to experience the requirements of publishing research.
Participedia has also been used by those with the power to implement forms of participatory democracy themselves. The data collected by Participedia has been used by consultant companies, non-governmental organisations, and government agencies themselves in their own research before implementing participatory projects. For example, the Participedia team were invited to help in the design process of self-service training modules available online by the Public Engagement and Opinion Research team of the Canadian Privy Council Office. The modules of “public engagement in the policy lifecycle” will be used by municipal, provincial and national governments in Canada to educate civil servants using Participedia’s data module and cases from the site itself.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
As an academic research tool, Participedia is a unique and innovative project that is adapting to continue to be relevant in the fast moving field of crowd-sources, internet based research depositories. The design of the site makes it easy to use for a wide range of purposes, from those wishing to create wide ranging comparative analysis research projects to those just interested in reading about certain cases in their free time. The ‘Case Data’ boxes are particularly convenient as a means of refining searches to the user’s preference or in collecting wider data samples. The high quality of the cases also created a higher likelihood of return to the site, promotes interest in the field and shows those with no previous knowledge that there is much more to offer within the arena of participatory democracy than first meets the eye.
In order to continually improve the project throughout the construction of PP 3.0, the staff have had access to statistical data generated by Google Analytics about the demographics of users, both those who read the articles and those who sign-up and contribute. This information is used to strengthen certain aspects of the site and help tailor the experience towards the most users. It is also a useful research tool for the academics in charge of Participedia to see who are visiting the site, which type of people are coming back and what their interests seem to be within participatory democracy. This will aid research as correlations between areas where the content is most produced and where articles are most read can be calculated. For example, professionals may produce the most content on Participatory Budgeting but those just consuming data may be reading more on Collaborative Governance, which would highlight a possible difference in priorities in participatory democracy between those who theorise about its uses, and those who put it into practice. However, this information is not publicly available due to security restrictions to protect the users of the site.
This data could also help the curators of Participedia to design a campaign to bring in either more consultants, legislators or the lay public, depending on who they wish to attract. If more effort was made to widen its readership among those outside of the professional field, then Participedia has the potential to be a highly successful educational tool outside of academia. It is a tool which in the age of fast internet based research and learning, could be used effectively by those who wish to promote higher levels of citizen education and engagement in politics. For the site, this could have an impact at consumption level but not the contribution stage, which would protect the professional nature of the articles. However, it is important to recognise that as a project based on purely voluntary work and with limited funding, its potential is naturally curtailed.
 Fung, A. and Warren, M. (2011). The Participedia Project: An Introduction. International Public Management Journal, 14(3), pp. 341-362.
 SSHRC Midterm Review Committee (2017). The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Midterm Review of Partnership Grant for; The Participedia Project: a global partnership to create and mobilise knowledge about democratic innovations. Unpublished, pp. 1-23.
 Smith, G., Richards, R. and Gastil, J. (2015). The Potential of Participedia as a Crowdsourcing Tool for Comparative Analysis of Democratic Innovations. Policy & Internet, 7(2), pp.243-262.
 Law, E., Gajos, K., Wiggins, A., Gray, M., and Williams, A. (2017) Crowdsourcing as a tool for research: Implications of uncertainty. Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, CSCW 17, pp. 1544-1561.
 Participedia. 2018. Users- Participedia.[ONLINE] Available at: https://participedia.net/en/people. [Accessed 30 November 2018] [BROKEN LINK]
Warren, M. (2010). Participedia – a description of activity. For the application for SSHRC Partnership Development Grant. Unpublished, pp. 1-5.
Warren, M. et al. (2014). Excerpts from Partnership Grant Application, Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for; Participedia A Global Partnership to Create and Mobilize Knowledge about Democratic Innovations. Unpublished, pp. 1-56.
With many thanks to Dr. Matt Ryan, Dr. Patrick Scully and Scott Fletcher (BA, Hons) for their invaluable contributions and providing insight and information.