METHOD

Pol.is

Polis is an online tool used to gather open ended feedback from large groups of people. It is well suited to gathering organic, authentic feedback while retaining minority opinions.

Problems and Purpose

When considering the comment field at the end of a survey, or the comment section at the end of a news article, one can see that both generally allow participants to write out their thoughts freely. Consequently, this creates a burden on both survey research teams and comment moderators in terms of processing the massive amount of resulting text.[1] It is also difficult “to discern whether a given viewpoint is representative of the majority or not.”[2]

Polis “overcomes these challenges and produces meaning from open-ended responses.”[3] Using this online tool, participants can express their thoughts, and they can also agree and disagree with the comments of others, in real time.[4] As soon as someone writes, others can vote. Polis runs statistical analysis on these voting patterns, producing opinion groups and identifying the comments that brought each group together, also in real time.[5] It also highlights comments that found broad consensus among participants.[6]

This online tool scales to any number of participants, by combining crowd behaviour and machine learning. This way, “humans can do what they are good at - reading text and forming snap judgments, as well as comparing statements [while] computers can do what they are good at - finding patterns in large data sets."[7]

Polis' aims were for people to feel safe and listened to, while being able to “jump into a conversation at any time in its life-cycle.”[8] Polis did not want participants to feel intimidated by the complexity of what had already occurred, which meant discarding threading and direct replies, so that comments did not twist into an unmanageable nest.[9] Polis aimed for participants to “be able to get a sense of what others felt, and what the consensus was, in seconds.”[10]

Furthermore, Polis aims to preserve minority opinions.[11] As such, the platform chose not to use upvoting to invalidate downvoting, as other comment systems do, so as not to obscure the minority who feel differently.

In addition, Polis intended to "create a system that increased the number of roles available,” believing that it would result in more interesting outcomes.[12] Less than 1% of users comment with most opting, instead, to read but not interact. "Pol.is typically sees 10x more people vote than those who comment.”[13]

Finally, Polis also aims to restrict the power of individuals to ruin a conversation with bad behavior, and hopes to avoid the echo chamber effect that can characterize social networks.[14]

In more general terms, Polis tries to: “provide transparency, produce insight, and decentralize power in all kinds of organizations of people,” globally.[15]

Origins and Development

Polis was conceived during the Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements.[16] The founders were inspired by the communication challenges experienced by the organizers of these movements. According to co-founder Colin Megill, Polis’ objective was to create a “comment system to be able to handle large populations and stay coherent” in the context of ongoing public conversations.[17] If millions of people were going to be involved in a dialogue, the internet needed a tool which would scale up.

In Zuccotti Park, where Occupy protests began, public conversation tech used classic forums with topics and replies (see Occupywallst.org).[18] There was also “some prototype location-specific anonymous messaging, a preface to what FireChat would become in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement.”[19] A brief anonymous txt2projection installation, known as “Our Wall,” aimed to amplify ideas in and around the park without actually being loud.[20]

Occupy’s notable People’s Mic technology involved the crowd turning themselves into a speaker system to elevate the conversation to scale. However, “the modes of interaction in Occupy amplified individual voices into a cacophony, and out of that noise, the loudest discernible voices were the ones jockeying to speak on behalf of everyone else,” which is not markedly different from US speech-making personalities.[21] Few provisions were used to seek out quieter voices within the broader group or identify existing consensus points on the complex, divisive issues.[22]

Megill noted that their aim with the comment system was to handle large populations coherently,

“while preserving minority opinions and producing insights automatically. Artificial Intelligence made that possible. We wanted people to feel safe, listened to and be able to jump in and out as they please. Overall, we wanted to make it easier to successfully decentralize power in organizations of all kinds."[23]

How it Works

Pol.is is a survey technology where users can enter statements, which other users can express their positions on, clicking either “agree,” “disagree,” or “pass” in response.[24] Using real-time machine learning (artificial intelligence), “Pol.is clusters users who voted similarly into opinion groups,” visually defining them and identifying the points of consensus.[25]

Thus, Polis is a tool for gathering open-ended feedback from large groups of users. Polls can be either anonymous or linked to participants’ existing social media accounts.[26] The “graphic interface shows how opinion clusters emerge, cluster, respond, divide, and recombine; this is possible because pol.is creates and analyzes a matrix comprising what each person thinks about every comment,” defining minority opinions along with majority opinions.[27]

This technology only became possible in 2011 “with the advent of near ubiquitous mobile connectivity, the real-time web, web-based data visualization, and neural networks (where the computer learns the rules itself instead of being hand-coded by software engineers,” such as those used by the recommender engines of Netflix/Spotify)."[28]

Because any user can enter a new statement, agenda-setting power is held by the people, a critical advance on a sticking point for mass decision making. Polis can therefore be thought of as the online counterpart of paper-tech methods of 'open space technology'—or its watered-down version, called unconference which “maximizes the number of presenter-audience relationships, but does not attempt to support group decision-making.”[29] The 40-or so-year tradition of open space technology involves individuals writing out topics they hope to address on slips of paper, followed by group work to cluster and place them into a schedule for dedicated discussion.[30] Widely used, this method “should be given credit for being able to scale to many hundreds of people with a single ream of printer paper, some markers, and a bit of tape.”[31] In contrast, Polis is made for the masses.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Polis has gone beyond its origins from Occupy Wall Street. Its main goal in 2016 was its integration to vTaiwan, a political innovation in Taiwan that promotes the shortening of distance between representatives and those they represent. After “vTaiwan deployed pol.is, participation scaled a hundredfold, the complexity of issues grappled with increased, and the volunteer moderators were no longer needed during the “crowd-sourced agenda setting” phase of the project.”[32] Polis simplified it all, and then “after years of closely iterating with the vTaiwan team, pol.is was open sourced, greenlighting its long-term integration into governing processes.”[33]

In addition, Polis was been used by academics collaborating with the municipal government of Rome in 2016.

According to Colin Megill, Polis aims to

“change the relationship between citizens and governments in all levels in all places by making feedback something that happens automatically, not something governments have to “go get.” [The platform makes it] so simple to deploy on a daily or weekly basis that there’s no excuse to not find out what a given population thinks... [The use of Artificial Intelligence] will dramatically change the calculation for robust social research. Getting high dimensional, organic feedback from the population during a problem identification phase—as early as possible in the formation of rules—is categorically different from voting. In voting the cake is baked, and there are literally hundreds of issues at stake. The goal is to engage citizens far earlier, when everyone is arguing over the ingredients... It gives citizens much more leverage in shaping policy, and involves them at the phase the process is most accessible, and their input is most valuable as well. As the complexity of the economy increases, it’s critical to increase the speed with which governments are able to respond to regulatory demands in a collaborative, transparent, and sophisticated way. [Polis can] help governments move faster and with more confidence to meet complex challenges posed by new technologies, while embracing diversity of thought and balancing interest groups.”[35]

Since its inception, "Polis has been used all over the world by governments, academics, independent media and citizens, and is completely open source."

See Also

References

[1][2] Polis. (n.d.). the problem [[🏟 Polis]] solves. Roam Research. https://roamresearch.com/#/app/polis-methods/page/EK79EAAcB

[3] Polis. (n.d.). Motivation for the Polis platform. Roam Research. https://roamresearch.com/#/app/polis-methods/page/XUCaz4Cw-

[4] Polis. (n.d.). Motivation for the Polis platform. Roam Research. https://roamresearch.com/#/app/polis-methods/page/XUCaz4Cw-

[5] Public Voice (2016, Oct 3). Polis. https://www.publicvoice.co.nz/online-engagement-tools/entry/194/

[6] Public Voice (2016, Oct 3). Polis. https://www.publicvoice.co.nz/online-engagement-tools/entry/194/

[7] Polis. (n.d.). Motivation for the Polis platform. Roam Research. https://roamresearch.com/#/app/polis-methods/page/XUCaz4Cw-

[8][9][10] Pol.is. Motivation. https://docs.pol.is/welcome/Motivation.html

[11] Polis. (n.d.). Motivation for the Polis platform. Roam Research. https://roamresearch.com/#/app/polis-methods/page/XUCaz4Cw-

[12][13][14][15][16] Pol.is. Motivation. https://docs.pol.is/welcome/Motivation.html

[17] Miller, C. (2019, Nov 26). Taiwan is making democracy work again. It’s time we paid attention. Wired. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/taiwan-democracy-social-media

[18] Barry, L. (2016, Aug 11). vTaiwan: Public Participation Methods on the Cyberpunk Frontier of Democracy. Civic Hall, Civicist. https://civichall.org/civicist/vtaiwan-democracy-frontier/

[18][19][20][21][22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29]30][31][32][33][34][35] Barry, L. (2016, Aug 11). vTaiwan: Public Participation Methods on the Cyberpunk Frontier of Democracy. Civic Hall, Civicist. https://civichall.org/civicist/vtaiwan-democracy-frontier/

"Mission and Values," Pol.is, July 17, 2014 https://pol.is/company

External Links

https://pol.is/

https://docs.pol.is/

https://blog.pol.is/pol-is-in-taiwan-da7570d372b5#.vm4rr4e4y

http://civichall.org/civicist/vtaiwan-democracy-frontier/

http://g0v.asia/tw/

Notes