Using big data and AI to promote citizen participation

Stefano Rimini applied to Pioneers to further his knowledge of climate action and artificial intelligence. He helped further develop CITBot, an AI tool, adapting it to promote citizen participation in climate action. After a successful testing period, CITBot has won a micro-grant to develop it further. Stefano also hopes the debate surrounding AI as a tool for citizen awareness and democratic participation continues to grow.

As we say in Italy, “da cosa nasce cosa (out of one thing comes another)” – at Pioneers, I felt like the ideas I had became a reality when I started talking through them with fellow participants. If you’re thinking about applying to Pioneers, be ambitious, don’t wait, and do it now!

Stefano Rimini, Pioneer 2020

Stefano Rimini was motivated to apply to Pioneers to improve his understanding of the social impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and digital platforms: “As a Social Policy Expert, part of my career has involved political and civic engagement – but I wanted to further explore using civic AI in Italy. I also wanted to further improve my climate change knowledge – throughout my career I have seen things through an environmental lens, but I wanted to learn more.”

Pioneers helped expand Stefano’s thinking on climate action and systems innovation: We had a lot of meetings and Workshops in the first week, there was a lot to learn, but it was  stimulating and interesting,” says Stefano. “I had not heard of systems innovation thinking before and the tools are very useful for everyday life – I’m still using them in my job as a Policy Advisor to the European Parliament,” he adds. 

Stefano’s placement at Italian political organisation EUMANS  focused on AI and civic participation: “I had been developing a project on increasing participatory and direct democracy at a local level, specifically focused on social and environmental issues. The project has two pillars: firstly, adapting existing democratic tools for people can use at a local level to contribute to sustainable decision-making (petitions, campaigns etc.) and secondly, creating new technological tools to develop democracy participation such as AI and big data.”

In his placement, Stefano worked on a tool called CITBot, a machine-learning software based on AI. Owned by the Luca Coscioni Association and developed by AI experts Revevol, Stefano helped adapt it so it could be used for participatory democracy: “AI is used to predict a system’s behaviour, such as water resource management or profiling users on social networks to predict their choices. The debate surrounding AI as a tool for citizen awareness and democratic participation is in its infancy, but it can be used to engage citizens in climate actions, to control or monitor public funds or make algorithms more transparent for citizens. This was the inspiration for developing CITBot and the Placement helped turned my idea into a reality.”

Stefano hopes tools like CITBot make citizens and governments more aware of the relevance of AI as an engagement tool and allow it to be used for participatory democracy –  especially climate action. “Created in Italian and English, it works as personal assistant for civic engagement which can be embedded on websites. The users can chat with the bot by writing questions in a dialogue box about different issues including democratic tools at European and local level, transparency, climate action and citizen assemblies,” says Stefano. 

CITBot was presented at a Citizens Take Over Europe event in January 2021 with 50 European civil society organisations, aimed at recruiting volunteers for the testing phase. The event was a success and CITBot won a micro-grant from EIT Climate-KIC´s alumni community to develop it further. “For the follow-up, we are drafting a feasibility study for an experimental project on Artificial Intelligence and Political Rights, looking at the transparency of public funds through citizen participation. The grant will finance a series of interviews with stakeholders such as universities, research centres, governmental and non-governmental organizations. I am also working on a project to develop a new version of the software.”

As well as CITBot, Stefano participated in a Group Project, working for the EU CIVITAS Handshake project: “I really enjoyed collaborating with my team to research how to improve sustainable mobility in a range of European cities – despite it mostly taking place online, the Group Project was an interesting and meaningful experience.”