Roslyn Fuller, Founder and Director of the Solonian Democracy Institute, speaks with Colleen Hardwick, the Founder and CEO of PlaceSpeak, about her company, her time on Vancouver City Council, and the power of civic networks.
Republished from the Solonian Institute blog, May 20, 2023.
RF: Colleen, thanks for doing this interview. You are the CEO and Founder of PlaceSpeak, which is based in Vancouver. Could you tell me a bit about yourself and about PlaceSpeak?
CH: I started life as an urban geographer. My father was an urban geography professor at the University of British Columbia. So, I grew up in this world, but I’ve also been a film producer and a digital entrepreneur and most recently a Vancouver City Councillor. I would say it’s the sum of my experience that led to the creation of PlaceSpeak. Originally, I was trying to solve the problem of how to consult with people online within specific geographical boundaries in a provable way. And when I did a market scan, I could not find a solution. Online consultations were being manipulated by trolls and bots and all the things that we’ve seen happen in order to skew the results, so it became clear to me that in order to be legitimate, it was necessary to authenticate the online public consultation process. And that’s really what led to the creation of PlaceSpeak.
RF: Is PlaceSpeak predominantly used by Canadian municipalities or in other countries as well?
CH: Principally in Canada, although we’ve also had consultations in the United States, the UK in Northern Ireland, and in Australia in Tasmania. And it has been used at all levels of government. This is because the model, and this is really the key differentiator of PlaceSpeak, involves online proof of residency and, tied to that, its citizen-centered model. Once you’ve established where people live and the fact that they’re real, then the opportunity is created to inform them of all different consultations according to their preferences. So, it doesn’t matter whether it’s local government, regional, provincial, county, or all the way up to the federal government, because the people remain the same.
RF: It’s interesting, as you are talking about verifying citizens. A lot of people involved in public participation would see things from the other angle and often they really want to have people who aren’t citizens involved. There’s also sometimes a lot of effort to get minors involved in political participation. What do you think is the value-add, if you want, of checking that participants are citizens?
CH: I think it’s pretty clear that we live in a world today where the public process is manipulated. We’ve seen it in the United States in no uncertain terms, where we know that there are troll farms and we know that there are whole organizations, lobbying companies and otherwise, that have been created specifically to manipulate the online process, because that’s possible.
So the tension is in making it real online, authenticating the process whilst protecting individual privacy at the same time. I think it’s important to do both things. To say that we don’t require any authentication for participation is just to open yourself up to disaster. I would remind people that in our democracy, whichever level of government you’re operating with, you have to prove when you go to vote that you’re a real person, that you’re a constituent, that you’re on a voter’s list, that you have ID that proves that you are eligible to vote, and then you go into a privacy protecting place to cast that ballot.
So too, when we are gathering public feedback to influence decisions and policies, it is important for us to really be able to stand behind the fact that these are real people.
RF: Do you think that some of the emphasis on wide participation, or on trying to get the numbers of participation up and make it look like a lot of people have taken part while not caring too much if people are authenticated or not, stems from a place where authorities don’t really intend to take the consultation seriously, anyway? So they don’t worry about verification because the consultation itself doesn’t really matter?
CH: The unfortunate truth is that we tend to see consultation as a marketing exercise. The decisions have already largely been made, and the consultation process is a marketing exercise designed to manufacture consent. And being able to demonstrate large numbers is a way of achieving that. There’s a lot of money that goes into this. It’s a lot of advertising.
I draw a big line between market research methodology and public consultation, which have different ends. One is there to sell you stuff and to data-mine your eyeballs. And the other is there to genuinely gather your feedback to inform deliberation and, ultimately, outcomes.
RF: So how exactly does PlaceSpeak authenticate users – in the nitty gritty?
CH: There’s no silver bullet when it comes to digital identity authentication.
When I looked early on into online proof of residency, I came into contact with some expert organizations like the DIACC in Canada, which is the Digital Identity Authentication Council. And I learned from them about their digital identity ecosystem.
So, when designing our process, we knew that there was a tension with friction, because it involves putting up obstacles. People want instant gratification a lot of the time, and they don’t want to have to go through steps to authenticate themselves. But they do sign up, put in their address, geolocate themselves. And in the back end, the system is looking for GeoIP address fraud. We experienced that early on from China.
We use tools like MaxMind to detect any kind of GeoIP address fraud. We then use iterative identity where we ask people to verify their home phone and their cell phone, for example, for which we use Twilio. Ultimately, the objective is to tie in other levels of verification. I like the idea that people can have greater influence the more authenticated they are. But we are sensitive to friction, because there’s a tension between that instant gratification and authentication. So we want to encourage people to become more authentic.
And as there are consultations that are more controversial, you want to be more authenticated. But a lot of the stuff generally you just want people to be in there, so you put up fewer obstacles. So, there’s a sliding scale, as it were, and we see adding more and different ways of authenticating people over time.
RF: I was listening to a podcast about Estonia just the other day and they were saying something similar, because, of course, they run their national elections online. I think they had more than half the voters cast a ballot online in the most recent national election, which was just a few weeks ago.
They use a digital ID system, mainly involving ID cards with card readers, as well as mobile ID and Smart ID. What do you think about those systems? Some people might object to having an ID card, although they are a bit more normal in Europe. What do you think about those systems of verification?
CH: I’m very interested in Estonia. The Estonian folks spoke at the Digital Identity Authentication Council, and it was very interesting to understand what they have done.
I do believe that digital ID is desirable. I’ll use Canada as an example. I just did my taxes on the Canada Revenue Agency site using my banking ID credentials. So, the current state of play in Canada is that we manage our financial and related services credentials digitally, but for some reason we’re not prepared to apply the same thing to our democratic processes.
And I would point out, it isn’t just about voting. Democracy is about a spectrum of public participation designed to generate feedback as data towards evidence-based decision-making. So, the veracity of that underlying data, when we’re consulting or engaging with people, is just as essential in establishing the legitimacy of the process as with the act of physically voting. So, I think it’s important for us to continue to move in that direction.
I do know that there have been municipal elections in the province of Ontario that are doing online voting, for example. But voting is just sort of the end of the spectrum [the IAP2 spectrum].
And I believe that there are applications for digital identity all the way along.
I have a digital identity card in British Columbia for both my driver’s license and for my health card, for example. And I use that. It was also used during COVID, by the way, to further establish that people had gone through their various stages of getting their shots. So, I just point out that we’re using this, we trust it enough that I can trust it with my banking, with my taxes. Why can we not trust it with our democratic processes?
RF: To be the devil’s advocate, however, if you screw up your online banking and you give your code to somebody else, it just affects you. It doesn’t affect me and my money.
Whereas with voting, I could say, ‘Your computer may not be secure. You may be careless and your computer might then be used to enable votes that don’t originate with you and potentially flip an election’. Or unscrupulous people could go to nursing homes with a tablet and enter votes for a bunch of the residents without their full consent, and potentially flip an election that way. Maybe just a local election, but it’s something people worry about, because there’s a collective interest in the security, whereas with banking there’s only a personal interest.
CH: As I said, democracy is not just about voting. It is the end of the spectrum, the empowering end of the spectrum of public participation in a healthy democratic process. The argument that I would make is that it is through keeping people informed, consulting with them, involving them in conversation, collaborating with them in decision-making, and ultimately empowering them through direct decision-making like voting, that we have a healthy democratic process. So just emphasizing voting and nothing else, I think is missing the boat on what we should be talking about overall.
With PlaceSpeak, for example, although we have built PlaceVote as a fully encrypted, place-based voting system (and I might add that we have done all of this development with the support of the National Research Council of Canada in recognition of its innovation), it is the end of the spectrum, and I think we have to be careful not to put all our eggs in that basket. So, we are coming up with solutions, and you have to protect yourself against outliers. And we are certainly in a position to do that. Your example you used about going to seniors’ homes and trying to collect votes – that happens now. They go in with a bus and they load up the seniors and take them in or whatever. So, there are lobbyist organizations, political organizations that are doing everything they can to skew the outcome of elections, and I take your point, but we can put in efficient checks and balances.
RF: You mentioned commenting there and I just want to get back to that, because there’s also a huge debate around commenting. Some people think that anonymous commenting is better, because, of course, it preserves your privacy. Someone might feel threatened that if they say something, for example, against their employer in an online discussion, that they could be identified and potentially lose their job.
But at the same time, other people say that anonymous commenting has led to exactly the kind of trolling behaviour that you’ve described earlier, where of course some of these bots aren’t even real people, and even sometimes people who are real people are very antagonistic, more so than they would be if their name was on that comment.
What are your observations from having been involved with PlaceSpeak for so many years?
CH: Well, again, I’d concur. Aristotle reflected that democracy is about the persuasion of peers. And we need to be able to have that dialogue. But I can tell you that anonymity breeds contempt. That’s certainly been my experience. Without constraint, we’ve seen the rise of the trolls who hide behind anonymity. And as I mentioned before, there’s troll farms and factories and there’s hordes of bots, sock puppets, a whole new vocabulary about all the ways the system is manipulated.
So, what we did with PlaceSpeak is people do have to sign up and verify their real name, but you can choose in discussion forums to be anonymous. You just tick the little box that says ‘anonymous’. But you will be known in the back-end.
We set up moderation capabilities, but not because of profanity, but because of school districts, because maybe they were discussing children and vulnerable populations, and it wasn’t about profanity, but it was about protecting kids. So, we have moderation, we have the ability for people to appear as anonymous.
In Mexico City [where Colleen spoke on a panel organized by the Solonian Democracy Institute at the Global Forum for Modern Direct Democracy], I mentioned an example down in Elkhart County, Indiana, where there was an immigration detention center re-zoning.
And with that consultation on social media, on Facebook, the county commissioners’ Facebook page was like a bloodbath of trolls, racist trolls in particular. So he set up on PlaceSpeak, geo-fenced so only people within the county could participate, and there was a big uptake in participation right away. But despite the controversial subject matter, there wasn’t a single troll. It was a troll-free zone, which proved to me that people behave when they’re authenticated. They’re more respectful because they’re ultimately culpable.
And I think that, again, it’s the balance because it’s not an either/or situation. We need to know you’re real. We need to know you’re within the affected area. We can protect your individual privacy, as I’ve described, but at the end of the day, you are culpable.
RF: That’s very interesting.
Just to get back to something we didn’t go into earlier, but I would like to talk to you about in this interview, you were a City Councillor in Vancouver. That was for four years, is that correct?
RF: And were you independent or were you with a party?
CH: I ran with a party, initially. I, along with the majority of the other people, ended up leaving that party, but I did run with the party initially.
RF: What was the initial party?
CH: It was called the Nonpartisan Association.
RF (laughing): Okay, all right. So there’s a party called the Nonpartisan Association.
RF: That must be local to Vancouver …
CH: It was, yes. It’s been around since the ‘30s, I think, since the Depression.
RF: So what motivated you to go from being involved in film-making and digital consultation to actually running and getting involved in politics directly as an elected candidate?
CH: Well, I was 10 when my dad was elected to city council. My grandmother was one of the first women, if not the first woman, on the Park Board before I was born. So, there was a legacy in our family of public service. I grew up with that, but my joke is I ran away and joined the circus when I went into the film business and I steered clear of it, although I did follow in my dad’s footsteps academically. And I always kept a foot in, especially in urban land use and transportation planning, which is what, in part, led me to the creation of PlaceSpeak.
But it was a change election in 2018. There had been a party with a majority in control for a decade and their time had come and there was a sense of change in the air. So I felt at that particular juncture, it was the right time for me to get involved and give my direct leadership.
RF: Did the experience of being an elected councillor change anything about your views of politics?
CH: Yes. I grew up in the ‘70s. It was ’68 when my dad was elected and it was very much coming out of the ’60s. ‘Power to the people’ was the sentiment.
And the way that urban planning was treated, beginning really in the ’70s, and this carried up to the early 2000s, was that there was a big emphasis on community-related planning, community-focused planning. There were neighbourhood plans done, a tapestry of plans done across the city, involving the professional staff, but with thousands of hours of volunteer involvement to ensure that those plans were reflective of the nuance of their neighbourhoods and of a public process. So that was the legacy, it was very much a consultative process focused on neighbourliness.
And then fast forward to the present day, the pendulum has swung back to this very corporatist, top-down, deterministic, even autocratic approach. And so what I’ve seen happen is it go from emphasizing community planning to dictating what’s going to happen and basically steamrolling all of those community plans.
Over the course of my four years on council, I sat through over 250 public hearings. And often those public hearings were stacked with speakers hired by special interest groups, particularly the property development or housing production industry. And so the residents that would show up to speak, and many of whom had a history of being involved in community planning, were just completely side-lined.
It was hard to watch and it was hard to listen to the narrative which was ‘City Hall is standing in the way of housing development’, when out of 250 public hearings, 100% of them were approved and the public input was just marginalized.
I saw that in person at public hearings. I saw it online, because we get thousands of emails, often from email generators. We get online petitions. And then there’s the constant onslaught from social media. And in the political realm, of course, trolls are particularly horrendous. And having been on the receiving end, I can attest to the toxicity.
All of this just strengthened my resolve with PlaceSpeak and that it is mission critical that we make democracy real online. We have the opportunity to close the feedback loop in evidence-based decision-making and to build trust through transparency.
So I’m seeking an antidote to what I see as a very broken system. And I can say with the city of Vancouver, a lot of it is tied into the business and financial model of the city. It’s also a philosophical difference, where we now don’t really influence decisions during an election term. So, if we have an election every four years, we don’t listen to the public in between. And at election time, in the case of Vancouver, 65% of eligible voters did not vote. How is that a healthy democracy?
RF: I think something that has been overlooked in local politics, is that there’s the council and there’s the council, in the sense that there are councillors, who are elected, and that’s what most people think of under the term ‘council’. But then there’s the council in the sense of the civil servants who are permanently employed. What is the relationship between those two entities?
CH: Well, again, over the years, I’ve seen this change profoundly. There used to be a lot closer relationship between the elected councillors and staff.
This is a legacy that really goes back to 2008 in the crash, the financial crash. I saw it play itself out in the local government realm. During my term, it was even further strengthened – the inability of elected representatives to talk to staff. As councillors, we are prevented outright from having conversations between staff and the public at the same time. So, if I was trying to solve a problem in a neighbourhood, and I wanted to bring in staff and residents at the same time to try and adjudicate some kind of solution, that would be categorically prevented.
So again, in popular control and democratic theory, we elect representatives to represent us. So, they need to know what ‘us’ think. How do we know what people think? We hear from them in person, we hear from them online, and we need to be able to make that actionable. But my experience in the structure that has been promulgated by staff is that the council, the elected council, are basically there like a board to ratify the recommendations of staff. And they do that over the opinion of the people in the neighbourhoods constantly.
I tried to bring forward a motion called ‘strengthening representative democratic practices’ to try and ensure that the people that were speaking in council, for example, identified whether they were a Vancouver resident or not. And I had at least two councillors vote against that, because they felt that it didn’t matter whether you were a resident or not. And I think that’s wrong. I represent the people of my municipality, not the one next door, not the one across the country. But there seems to have been this notion that we don’t represent our people. We might represent people that speculatively might live here in the future. And if you unpack that, what’s behind it is almost always real estate development.
RF: That does sound grim, but I’ve observed pretty similar things here as well in Ireland.
What’s next for PlaceSpeak then, now that you are out of politics and back full-time?
CH: Well, PlaceSpeak really has two unique key differentiators. One is the online proof of residency that we’ve been discussing. And the other is its citizen-centered model, which ultimately enables the development of a civic network.
Initially, I focused on the government side of the equation. All of the tools that are there, if I’m a local government, or provincial, or federal, I set up a consultation topic, I map it out and say, ‘I want to hear from people within these areas’ and it segments all the data according to how you map it out. I upload content to inform and educate people, because considered judgment is a key part of the democratic process. We have a whole smorgasbord of tools: polls, surveys, discussions, etc, for gathering feedback and encouraging dialogue. And then we’re able to integrate it and promote it. So, it’s all very much focused on the client side, as it were.
Now what we want to focus on more is the individual side: Your individual profile and your ability to communicate not only with government, but with your neighbours. And we’ve seen of course, over the last decade, the growth of the social networks. I’m interested in civic networks, which are about geospatial relationships.
Another thing that I’ve noted is, over the years, we’ve seen the demise of local news reporting or media reporting. We used to have local community newspapers. We used to have television shows focusing on neighbourhood programming. All of that’s gone the way of the dodo. And what we’ve seen online is the roll-up of all of the different online media by corporations. Ultimately what’s behind that is revenue and profit, because they’re advertising based.
So, what if we had a way to deliver local news, what’s relevant in your neighbourhood, online, that used a different model than advertising? Because this is, again, this is the biggest problem that I see: as long as we’re using advertising-driven models, they’re going to continue to be used to mine people’s eyeballs, to make money.
Because that’s what it’s all about. So, I’m looking at innovating in the space of being able to provide hyper-local news and to enable more and more civic communication, because stronger communities will ultimately lead to strengthening our democracy.
RF: Okay, that’s great. That’s probably all we have time for, but do you have anything else you’d like to add?
CH: Just that PlaceSpeak is a certified B Corp. B Corps are social purpose corporations, and we ranked in the top 5% globally in the governance category. This is all focused back on building trust and that is our ultimate objective. I’m not trying to be Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, I’m trying to solve a complex social problem and find an antidote for it.
And I think we can all agree that our systems online are broken and we need an antidote.
This is why my research, which has been based both in academia and in the innovation of the National Research Council in Canada is really designed to come up with and create that antidote to what’s ailing our democracy. And that’s really our motivation.
RF: Thank you very much.