I was curious how Google Maps knows the traffic conditions that it tracks with green and red map overlays. How could I find out?

Of course I Googled it and learned that a primary source of data for Google’s maps are smartphone owners using Google Maps. These smartphones send anonymous location information to Google, and Google uses this anonymous information, which will generally include plentiful data from smartphone users who are moving on roads, to create its database.

How cool is that? The term for this kind of information gathering is “crowdsourcing.” Rather than having specialized or dedicated devices or people calculating traffic or whatever phenomenon is being scrutinized, crowdsourcing allows crowds to deliver the answer(s).

Another term for crowdsourcing is “wiki.” Wikipedia, wikileaks, wikispaces, wikinomics, wiki everything. If we look up wiki on Wikipedia, we learn that there are hundreds of uses for “wiki” now, a word that originally came from Hawaiian and means “really fast.”

Crowdsourcing and wikis are not a new concept, even though they are often discussed as though they are. Markets are also a form of crowdsourcing, specifically for setting prices of goods and services. Free market supporters look to crowds (markets) — not the government — to figure out the appropriate price.

But what about crowdsourcing government more generally? What about some kind of wiki-government?

This could take many different forms and is spreading as an idea.

It’s no secret that the United States has some pretty obviously anti-democratic features built in to our system. For example, the Senate itself is a deviation from strict democracy. Unicameral (one chamber) systems are more democratic because they allow the will of the people to be achieved without two chambers watering down the wishes of the electorate. The Senate was, in fact, created as a “cooling saucer” for the “passions of the people” in the House. The Senate, with only 100 senators, vs. 435 Congress members, also provides more power to small states and thus a disproportionate voice to citizens of small states.

Another well-known distortion of democracy is our Electoral College system for electing presidents. It’s a winner-take-all system that requires each state to choose one candidate for president. It would be more democratic to allow individual votes to count in the actual election, rather than only in how each state’s Electoral College representatives cast their vote.

A far more serious problem arises in our system, and almost all others, in the form of lobbying and corruption. Jack Abramoff, an uber-lobbyist until his spectacular fall from grace in 2006, describes very well in his recent book and interviews how our system is fundamentally corrupt.

Abramoff claimed in a recent 60 Minutes interview that he effectively “owned” about 100 of the 535 elected representatives of Congress. How? Abramoff had a deep bag of tricks, but it seems that his most effective trick was simply to offer elected officials and staffers lucrative jobs when they left public service.

Abramoff was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy in 2007 and served 3½ years in jail. He has written a tell-all book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist, and is making many public appearances to try to educate the public about what he did and how the system remains essentially unchanged even though Congress made a show of “fixing” the problems revealed by the Abramoff scandal.

In the same 60 Minutes interview, Abramoff offered many surprising insights into how Washington works:

Abramoff: I think people are under the impression that the corruption only involves somebody handing over a check and getting a favor. And that’s not the case. The corruption, the bribery, call it [that], because ultimately that’s what it is. That’s what the whole system is.

Stahl: The whole system’s bribery?

Abramoff: In my view. I’m talking about giving a gift to somebody who makes a decision on behalf of the public. At the end of the day, that’s really what bribery is. But it is done everyday, and it is still being done. The truth is there were very few members who I could even name or could think of who didn’t at some level participate in that.

When asked if Washington had fixed any of the problems that allowed Abramoff to be so successful in his lobbying, Abramoff replied: “Could you do the same thing [today] that I did? Yeah. No, the system hasn’t been cleaned up at all.”

We are now at a point in the development of various software packages, access to the Web and online security that we can start to seriously consider wiki-government fixes to these problems. Online voting, in particular, has the potential to dramatically improve our democracy by expanding the potential for direct democracy in many exciting ways. Through an expansion of direct democracy we devolve power back to the people and thus dilute the influence of elected and unelected officials — as well as the lobbyists who try to influence them. By spreading power far more thinly, through expanding voting rights for the people, corruption may be made far more difficult.

One timely effort to improve our democracy with new online tools is Americans Elect, “a nonpartisan nonprofit whose only mission is to let the American people directly nominate their choice for president.” Americans Elect is running a professional operation to create a viable third-party candidate for the 2012 presidential race. Its website allows any registered voter to vote on who the Americans Elect candidate will be, and the actual candidate will be elected purely by online votes.

This is a good start if it succeeds because we are sorely in need of a viable third party. Two-party systems are often little different than one-party systems because in either system viable candidates must belong to one of the established parties. There are obvious differences between Democrats and Republicans, but the scope of debate on many key issues, such as foreign policy or the basis of our domestic economic policies, is very narrow.

Online Voting

Online voting could and should, however, be taken much further. It is the first key ingredient of wiki-government. The second key ingredient in wiki-government is allowing online voting in regular elections.
I first began following and writing about wiki-government about a decade ago (I used to call it “effortocracy”; other terms used now include “e-democracy,” “electronic direct democracy” (EDD), “cyber democracy,” “collaborative governance” and many others). Since then, the idea has grown significantly, particularly outside of the United States.

Online voting has been surprisingly slow to catch on in the United States, primarily because of perceived security risks. Many still feel that a paper trail, from using paper ballots, is the surest way to protect against voter fraud. A very public failure resulted when the District of Columbia tried a pilot program allowing overseas military members to vote online. With little advance notice, a team from the University of Michigan hacked the system and changed literally every vote cast.

But hacking is a risk in every online endeavor, and innovative solutions are possible for any problem. With commerce increasingly moving online, to the tune of many hundreds of billions of dollars, I have no doubt that security issues with online voting can be overcome. Every voting method has security risks, so the fact that online voting presents new risks should not be a deal killer.

A number of companies now offer secure online voting systems, including free sites such as BallotBin.com and paid sites such as Balloteer.com, SimplyVoting.com, VoteNet.com and EveryoneCounts.com.

Despite the risks, wiki-government is catching on fast in places other than the United States. More than 80 communities in Canada allow some form of online voting. In Estonia, national elections permit online voting — and have since 2007. Fully 25 percent of votes are cast online. If an entire nation can do it, why can’t communities in the United States and around the world start to do so?

Expanded Voting Rights

The third key ingredient in wiki-government is an expanded voting system that allows voters who want to vote on additional issues the ability to do so. Why can’t electronic direct democracy be allowed for all types of decisions, far beyond traditional voting practices? Could wiki-government eventually allow a reduced reliance on elected and unelected government officials?

The traditional rationale for having elected representatives is that it takes full-time professionals to make important decisions on behalf of the electorate. But this rationale clearly fails today in the face of increasingly educated and passionate voters, armed with computers and the Internet. Would anyone today seriously argue that our elected officials inherently know better on any issue than the aggregate of voters themselves?

Over time, cities, counties, states and even the federal government could allow voters to decide issues that would normally be decided only by elected officials, or by government bureaucrats. There will very likely always be a role for professionals in government, but online voting and enhanced direct democracy go very far in limiting the need for full-time government employees.

For example, a multifamily housing project that would normally be voted on by a city planning commission could be voted on by those voters who expend the extra effort to weigh in on this type of project. These votes, aggregated, could represent an additional “seat” on the commission. Similarly, city councils or county boards, or even state and national legislatures, could have “seats” comprised of aggregated votes.

Wiki-government would allow those with the interest and time to become truly involved in policy and politics, with no privileged background or wealth required. All that would be required is a computer with a good Internet connection, which is increasingly free in many parts of the country.

We live in exciting times!

Wiki-government represents a forward-thinking system that would go a long way toward eventually fixing some inherent problems in our democracy. While enhancing direct democracy is generally perceived as a left-wing issue, those who support free markets as the appropriate means for guiding economic activity should, if consistent, also support the “voting market” that wiki-government will create.

Why isn’t a person’s online vote as good as her dollar?

— Tam Hunt is a frequent Noozhawk contributor and Santa Barbara-based philosopher, lawyer and biologist. Click here for his blog, Thought, Spirit, Politik.

Tam Hunt is a lawyer and a writer. The opinions expressed are his own.