When the next round of global climate negotiations begin this week in Doha, Qatar, will anyone be watching, or care? Expectations for the talks are already dismally low, as only incremental steps toward a new climate deal to be decided by 2015 are hoped to be made. Major political transitions in the world's two largest emitter of global-warming inducing gases - China and the United States -- mean that we cannot expect much by way of much-needed game-changing proposals in Doha. So what are the more than 7,000 civil society members and 1,500 journalists (myself included) in attendance going to do to make their opinions count and to hold their governments accountable for accomplishing something in Doha? Well, there's a new app for this, and it's called DecisionMakr.
Having attended many of these negotiations in the past, I find myself questioning the value of emitting even more carbon to fly halfway around the world to attend another COP meeting. As an observer, my time spent at these conferences is usually relegated to the corridors, where we hope to bump elbows with negotiators and deliver our two-minute elevator pitch. I've spent hours in the back of general plenary sessions trying to make sense of diplomatese and the platitudes that have been carefully prepared by foreign ministries and restrict the ability of nations to compromise on difficult issues. After two weeks of these meetings, my head is usually spinning and it's challenging to distill what just happened.
When I knew I'd be attending Doha this year, I started thinking about how to make better sense of what goes on at a huge and hectic conference like these UN meetings. Naturally, technology -- in particular, social media, came to mind as a potential solution to the problem. I first started using blogs and Twitter while attending the watershed Copenhagen climate negotiations in 2009. With around 50,000 observers, nearly 100 heads of state, and close to 200 countries represented, it was chaotic and difficult to keep track of what was happening. Particularly with high-intensity drama including secret negotiation texts, exclusive back-door meetings, developing countries suspending talks and staging a walk-out, Twitter became an invaluable tool to receive up-to-the minute updates, crowd-sourced from the multitudes of civil society observers and journalists who were "live-tweeting" events as they were unfolding.
But after a conference ends, one is left with hundreds of thousands of tweets, but not a good way to hear the signal through the noise. So I pitched the idea of a smartphone app that leverages crowd-sourcing via Twitter to give observers a way to assess the quality of negotiation statements and policy proposals with ratings that could then be averaged to produce a final score. In this way, both observers and negotiators can have a real-time record of a speaker or country's actions at a conference, and a ranking that provides an indication of how the public felt about their statements in relation to others'. In the Environmental Performance Index -- a biennial ranking of environmental policy results in 132 countries -- we've seen how rankings matter and how powerful they can be in terms of galvanizing action amongst leaders and laggards. Through an app, I wanted to see if we can generate the same type of data and accountability for negotiators -- in a similar way to how user feedback ratings influence how we shop on retail sites like Amazon.com, where we eat using restaurant guides like Yelp.com, and where we travel and stay using feedback from other travelers at tripadvisor.com.
Teaming up with developers and engineers at Pariveda Solutions at the Social Good Forum Hackathon sponsored by AT&T, I developed a smartphone and web application called DecisionMakr that will be the start of a social (and academic) exercise in Doha to see whether we can use technology and social media to hold negotiators more accountable. One singular rating along with a log of all statements and proposals will add greater transparency to these at-times opaque negotiations. While it is difficult to distill how two weeks or more of deliberations often end in one single negotiation text, the app will provide documentation of the shifting positions of countries to allow outsiders to better understand how the end result came to be. We hope that leaders will see their ratings and feedback, and respond as a result.