Using other digital platforms for SSNA: Decidim

In one of the forming consortia there are talks of using Decidim for deliberative projects. Could we perform SSNA on Decidim?

The general problem

SSNA is a general method. In theory, given API access, it can operate on data coming from any platform. The full form (the second S in SSNA) happens when the different units of text analyzed are utterances in a conversational environment; that includes blogs, Twitter, fora, chats and many other media. In practice, however, “platform culture” matters.

For example, you could in theory do SSNA on a chat log… but chats make low quality ethnographic material. Most posts are super-short things like “OK”, “LOL”, “Thanks man” and similar. Even those that are not will tend to rely heavily on contextual knowledge, because the writer knows exactly who is reading. Writers of blogs or long-form fora write at least in part for an audience of strangers, hence they take time to develop their arguments, justify their claims etc.

Additionally, the length of the post is a problem. As it is done on Edgeryders, SSNA induces an edge between two codes when they have been used to annotate the same post. If posts are very short, they end up being poor in codes, and therefore in connection between codes. The graph becomes very sparse. Of course, we could redefine our methodological assumptions, and decide that two codes are connected if they occur in posts that were written within 10 minutes of each other. In this case, we could even have directed co-occurrence edges, with the code annotating the later post liking back to the code annotating the earlier post, but not vice versa. But that’s tricky: any methodological assumption needs to be justified. We have made a justification for those we currently use, but any new one would need to be scrutinized from scratch.

On Decidim

Now, to Decidim. Decidim is not mainly a forum: it incorporates decision making tools. It seems more of a management tool applied to democracy (“a political network to make decisions… organize meetings, take pledges…”) than a tool for collective intelligence and sensemaking. In fact, they also market it to corporations, which are not democracies.

I tried to join a civic one, which is probably the most famous one: This contains several (currently 6) high-level participatory processes, which in turn contain proposals, which can be (1) commented, (2) upvoted, (3) “followed” (you get notifications on updates). The highest number of comments on a proposal of the * Plan Barcelona Interculturalidad* which is one of the six, is… 0, out of 296 proposals. Another of the high-level processes, the Plan de Barrios, is divided into several lower-level processes corresponding to each neighborhood (barrios). The maximum number of followers for a single barrio is 23. This barrio has 96 proposals: two of them have 1 comment each, 94 proposal have no comment. The maximum number of upvotes is 2.

Conclusion: on the up side, Decidim supports conversation on proposals. The conversation is threaded. The editor is very basic: no Markdown, no HTML. Currently, the length of comments is limited to 1,000 characters (this is probably easy to fix, since the code is open sourced.

On the down side, even on its home turf, Decidim has not managed to built a brilliant track record for participation. Commenting is almost non-existant in Barcelona – but this can be put down to the designers having priorities other than sensemaking through conversations. But also upvoting is sparse. Proposals, on the other hand, are many – but it feels like proponents are shouting in the dark, a democracy without a demos.

Decidim also contains other things, including a petition platform and 165 organos de participación. These are like neighborhood councils, city committes on single issues (like migration, or children) and so on. Here is a comparison:

(on 2020-12-17)
Accounts 44,266 6,436
Participatory processes 15 /
Organs of participation 165 /
Proposals 24.574 /
Threads / 14,279
Comments 26,786 73,109

Over 10,000 of the proposals are “accepted”, so I imagine decisions are made. Decidim measures its worth on this kind of activity, not so much on conversation. So, again, not really a tool for sensemaking.

Does anybody know better examples?

cc @amelia @anthonyzach

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This is pretty much my area of expertise. In fact, the Plato Project is in some ways an alternative to Decidim in certain contexts - specifically when used for place-based innovation for temporary and transient places. However, Plato could also be used on a city level, even though that requires some additional development.

Plato is being developed to use Discourse as its conversation engine. Comments can be read, posted, edited, and replied to on the Plato platform, but they are defacto topics and posts on a Discourse platform. We are building Plato specifically so that we can use the Edgeryders Discourse as a comment engine, relying on the Discourse API.

This means that if we were to develop Plato as a part of the Edgeryders offer, we would have a tool for working with participatory city development that also has a layer of ethnography and SSNA built in.

For an example of how Plato works in a similar way to Decidim, see this proposal for an art gallery exhibition at Blivande. In particular, note the comment thread and the way issues are worked through as the project is iterated to meet the guidelines. In the future version, this thread would also be accessible through Discourse as a topic. Any replies posted on Discourse also appear on Plato.

Currently, the comments are not powered by Discourse, but it’s next on our list and will happen in February.


I can add that we are building Plato this way exactly because most platforms like Decidim are good at tracking decision-making, but not very good at hosting long-form deliberation. Plato is built to tie together various topics, discussions and decisions that happen over time and relate to the the same thing. It’s more organic and network-driven, and also includes the network-mapping capabilities of the Plato Realities project.

BTW @alberto also the italian government has adopted decidim, check, but still unfit to SSNA.

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Thanks @federico_monaco. That seems a bit more used for conversation, I think some proposals even have 8 comments. But yes, same concept.