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School of Computing researchers develop a methodology to improve participatory democracy

The methodology is useful for representing citizens’ beliefs and preferences in the political decision-making process

[29 October 2008] Researchers from the Decision Analysis and Statistics Group within the Department of Artificial Intelligence at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid’s School of Computing have developed a methodology for improving participatory democracy that could be ready for the Spain’s next local elections due to be held in 2011.

Over 240 Spanish municipalities had a go at participatory budgeting in 2004, and it is estimated that by 2010 citizens will be helping to decide how to allocate 10% of the municipal budget. Until now, though, these participatory budgeting experiences have been carried through without the software to gather citizens’ opinions in real time and then clearly display their preferences as charts on politicians’ computers.

Organizing opinion via the Internet

The School of Computing’s research group, composed of computer scientists, mathematicians and statisticians, has developed this methodology using new technologies, particularly the Internet, as support for organizing and optimizing citizen participation. The methodology is now two-thirds complete and could be applied on the scale of either a municipality or a whole country.

The aim of this methodology is to add citizens’ preferences to political decision-making processes. This it does by establishing a number of questions that citizens answer over the Internet. Duly converted to statistical values, these responses indicate citizens’ opinions on the decision to be taken by politicians in the shape of a chart. A code system prevents people not on the electoral roll from participating.

The methodology represents participants’ beliefs and preferences, evaluating the different budget alternatives based on Dempster and Shafer’s evidential reasoning and ranking the alternatives using a notion of distance from maximum and minimum utility.

Participatory Democracy

Participatory budgeting is shifting the idea of democracy from representation, where citizens’ preferences are taken into account at election time only, to direct participation and discussion. This is an attempt at giving citizens a say in the decision on how to spend part of their municipality’s budget.

The Decision Analysis and Statistics Research Group has collaborated and is now actively participating in several research projects focusing on the development of software tools targeting e-democracy and, especially, participatory budgeting. They include TED: Towards Electronic Democracy, funded by the European Science Foundation (2003/06); eDemocracia: Apoyo a la Toma de Decisiones Complejas Basadas en Internet (e-Democracy: Internet-based Complex Decision-Making Support), funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (2004/07); Conceptos y Sistemas de Apoyo a la Democracia Electrónica (Electronic Democracy Concepts and Support Systems), funded through Madrid Regional Government’s IV PRICIT (2006/09); and Toma de Decisiones en Grupo con Imprecisión (Imprecise Group Decision Making), funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation (2008/2011).