Vertical democracies

By Janette Corcoran
Democracy, the art of thinking independently together, may be the missing element for vertical village wellbeing, but are we prepared to risk the cost?
Strata living is claimed to have its own fourth tier of government, namely the owners’ corporation committee (OCC). This is because the OCC is an elected group, imbued with decision-making power over the common areas of a building. And just like other levels of government, our own fourth tier faces growing issues of constituent disengagement and disillusionment.
In view of this, perhaps a leaf could be taken from the government sector handbook as to how to redress resident disconnect. One much bandied-about notion is participatory democracy which is promoted as a remedy to the growing disillusionment of citizens with their political institutions.
The central idea is that through the use of tailored technology, every citizen can have a direct say in how they live their life, for example, the prioritising of budget items.
However, according to NESTA, a global innovation foundation, there are few real instances of participatory democracy. And rarely do these initiatives involve actual collaboration with citizens, and very few ever hand over real decision-making power.
As to why this is so, charges are levelled against administrators for their reluctance to relinquish power (which may indeed be so). However, there is another key element of participatory democracy and this relates to what is needed from us in order to “participate” – namely, our data. To “participate” requires transparency which involves the supply of our profile and “track record”– Who are we? What are our affiliations? What is our experience?
And perhaps we, citizen-residents, are not so ready to provide such data, not least because of what can be done with it once provided.
Consider the current discussion around My Health Record, the digital log of all our health information which can be viewed “securely online, from anywhere, at any time”.
In changing this system from an opt-in to an opt-out arrangement, we have until October 15 to action our preference. Many have already decided to opt-out, citing concerns over the risks of access by unauthorised parties – with arguably the weakest link being the 900,000 health professionals who will have access to this data but who may not keep their computer security up to date.
In terms of strata living, we of the Vertical Villages are already quite familiar with supplying our data in return for benefit.
Indeed, when we decide to live in high-rise strata, we agree (tacitly or explicitly) to a great deal of data being collected about our activities, ostensibly for the purposes of ensuring our ongoing security.
For example, in most Vertical Villages, common areas can only be accessed by registered FOBS (e.g. car parks, gyms, lifts, etc.) with subsequent usage recorded by CCTV. This means there is a trail of where we have been (and possibly) what we have done!
In addition to real-time monitoring to detect questionable behaviour, depending upon the sophistication of the system, additional data analysis may also be undertaken to determine usage patterns, such as peak gym times (and short-stayer lift usage!).
This information is undoubtedly useful for confronting assumptions (e.g. “nobody will use the gym after 9.30pm”) and improving decision making. And when the data is aggregated and deidentified, residents generally are untroubled by this use.
However, the situation changes when individuals are tracked and separate profiles compiled (the only benefit being to confirm an alibi – “no officer, I was home alone that night – look at my building’s CCTV”). And currently there are great advances occurring in video content analysis where this material can be automatically analysed to detect and determine temporal and spatial events.
In addition to this, more professional “on-boarding” in Vertical Villages have seen an increase in the amount and type of data collected about residents (for the purposes of better service):
What are your preferred contact channels? (So we can best communicate with you);
Do you have pets? (So we can supply relevant council updates to you);
What is your car registration? (So we can identify strangers’ vehicles); and
Do you have a bike? (So we can plan better storage).
And this data is now formally recorded. Once again, aggregated, this is very useful for informing OCC decision making, but the creation and scrutinisation of an individual’s profile is another matter entirely and brings into question, whose eyes are on this?
This now takes us to the realm of participatory democracy, where the use of new digital tools promise easier engagement of a broader range of residents, who can then provide new insights, and thereby improve the quality of decision-making and grow the overall wellbeing of our Vertical Villages.
Tools already in use include online voting, such as Strata Vote which is described as a platform that allows lot owners to digitally vote in their strata meetings. The offer here is that associated documentation is available online, with secure log-in, voting and confirmation of all outcomes. There are also a host of other more general systems and tools, which expand into the area of co-design where online facilities enable residents to contribute, debate and build upon each other’s ideas for improving the operation of their building.
Skating past the issue of robust resident interaction, the key concern here is similar to that raised with My Health Record – how secure is the weakest link?
With all those granted access to these new data-laden systems (which will increasingly contain sensitive data and confidential discussions), how sure can we be that everyone will keep their computer security up to date?

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