Brunel University trials EMPATIA e-voting platform

Four European cities join pilot of system that allows the public to submit submit and vote on spending proposals

A team at Brunel University London is working with four European cities to test an online platform for a public vote on spending decisions.

EMPATIA app on tablet computerNamed EMPATIA (Enabling Multichannel Participation through ICT Adaptation), it will be used in Lisbon, Portugal, Ricany in the Czech Republic, Milan, Italy and Bonn in Germany as part of a £1.3 million pilot.

It begins tracking a proposal when citizens suggest ideas for public spending, then helps to filter out unworkable idea and can merge and refine others. The best ideas go to a public ballot, in which people use the app for the platform to cast their votes.

Users can also track the process of a spending proposal through the city’s bureaucracy, and receive reasons for any that were turned down.

The platform uses open source software and open data, and the project is backed by Europe’s Horizon 2020 research programme.

Change for government

Dr Uthayasanka Sivarajajh, a lecturer in operations and information systems at Brunel, said: “It could change how Europe does government. People are more comfortable voicing their opinions through an online channel.”

He added that it is intended to complement rather than replace traditional local government.

“You will still have the voice of the people, but at the end of the day some kind of logical decision still lies with the authority,” he said. “But this will help hold them accountable because people will see project progress in real time, so whether it is going through or has been turned down, and if it has, why. It is for a social good.”

The criteria used for deciding which proposals go to the vote are being decided by the individual cities.

Michelangelo Secchi, scientific coordinator for the project, said that EMPATIA has a number of configurable variables, such as categories of the issues it can cover and the rules for the votes. Also, each city defines how much of its budget it will devolve to proposals submitted through the platform and the rules for placing them before the public.

“In general terms, the chunk of budget oscillates between 1% and 5% of the capital investment, and in a few cases the discussion also touches the structure of current expenditure,” he said.

“The categories of issues more commonly discussed are centred on the use/reuse of public urban space, including public works, refurbishment and maintenance of parks, sport and culture infrastructures, and cultural initiatives.”

Socio-economic impact

The first stage of the project will involve an analysis of how many people use EMPATIA, what they feel about it, and what they think about the concept. It will also look at the socio-economic impact and ask if the councils save money compared with their current approach.

Sivarajajh said results of the pilot are due in December and so far there have been different responses.

“Italy’s pilot is facing challenges because of layers of bureaucracy, while Lisbon is well ahead,” he said. “The Germans are also keen and have a democratic engagement team to spearhead it.”