Saturday, March 31, 2018

A Rating for People's Representatives!

Many of us are now used to rating goods and services. The dosa you had in a small restaurant seemed to be the best you have eaten in some time? You write a few lines of review for a site that rates restaurants and give it 4.5 or 5 stars! You thought the driver of the Uber or Ola cab you took to the station could have been more helpful. Ok, give him only three stars!
What about you CM, or your MLA, or your councillor? Why not rate him on a number of dimensions? Voting for/against them once in five years is not good enough. We ought to share our opinions about their deeds and failures almost every month.
The way a leader is to be judged is no doubt very important, but as this is a blog in the field of science and technology, our first priority would be technical issues in designing a rating website. I would suggest the following design objectives:
Credibility: it should be difficult to fool the website and manipulate the data going in
Authentication: The site should ideally work on “one citizen – one vote” principle
Privacy: People who provide ratings may not want some shady company or hackers, to sell a record of their ratings. A good design involves careful consideration of privacy on a site which insists on authentication. One simple design would be to have ratings come in only through SMS messages. No prior registration is required. We can ensure that a cell phone can vote on an issue only once. It can give a rating only to the persons/offices in the state from where it sends a message. I will assume that most users do not care too much about hackers finding out how one’s cell phone voted. After all, in most countries, we are not so scared of the government as to keep our political opinions a secret.       
Simplicity: The system should be based on a good trade off – not too complex to drive users away and not so simple that it can be fooled easily
Accessibility: The system should be accessible from a smart phone. This will deny access to a significant fraction of the Indian population, but it would enable you to build a working system easily. The trade off in this dimension could be examined and different choices can be explored by different groups. What is the value of a smart phone when the votes are cast by SMS? The user can use a smart phone to read the web pages which will help the users to select the issue/person they wish to rate. If the web pages support it, they could answer multiple questions giving answers in the form of a numeral in the range 1-5. The system could summarize answers to six questions, for example, as 325-45 meaning that the six questions were answered as follows, giving ratings on a scale of 5, where 5 is excellent and 1 is very poor:

Question 1: Answer 3
Question 2: Answer 2
Question 3: Answer 5
Question 4: Skipped
Question 5: Answer 4
Question 6: Answer 5

The website would also give a unique ID to the person or office rated, for example SRM for Srinivasan Ramani. The user has to send an SMS to a given number reading, for example as
   SRM 325-45
Why send an SMS, and not submit the answers on the Webpage itself? The security mechanism provided by the cellular network identifies the sender’s cell phone number reliably. In my opinion it is reliable enough for the application and is simple enough to implement. It is also worth noting that the cellular network sends with the SMS the sender’s phone number, the time of sending, and the location from which the message is sent. A computer receiving the messages can use all this information to process them suitably.
The answers I have given to some of the design questions above are not binding on you. You may make your choices. A system like this makes sense only when it operates with a large number of users. So, you need to plan for scalability and reliability. The systems should work round the clock, round the year. Lastly, you need to decide on what your business model would be? Who would pay the bills after the system scales up?
Now, we can turn to the nature of comments and ratings we would like to collect. I have some suggestions about what questions we can ask about representatives and service providing offices but again, in your project, you are free to make your own choices. Please treat my questions as examples what you could ask.
Questions about a people's representative
·        Is he a visionary leader?  (Here and in the following, I merely use “he” to refer to the representative. It can obviously be a “she”).
·        Has he been effective in getting a few major problems solved?
·        Is he known for his integrity?
·        Does he have cronies or sons who are not exactly assets to society?
·        Does he communicate his ideas well?
·        Does he do this frequently?
·        Has he kept his electoral promises?
·        Are you likely to vote for him next time?

Questions about specific issues
·        Should your state have prohibition?
·        Should we ban children below ten being given rides on two-wheelers on city roads or highways?
Questions about specific offices that provide a service
·        Is a given bank branch helpful and efficient?
·        Is a given college a good place to send students to?
·        Is there corruption in a given hospital?
As, I see it, each of these questions is a like raw nerve. The pain-signals of our lives travel through these nerves, but do they bother the person who is responsible for the pain? Usually no! The nerve does not run far enough to touch him.  
Making the ratings public, and highlighting them during election time, are important to make the system sit up and take notice. 
Getting people to rate their representatives and their governments is not exactly new. You can see what other websites offer in this area. Visit
There is a lot of room for innovation, but the basic idea is simple: public feedback makes the high and mighty accountable. App-based taxicab services are responsive to people's problems. We should demand that people's representatives and government services be equally responsive.

Srinivasan Ramani

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