Page Contents:
What basic uses is Deme designed for?
Who is Deme designed for?
Why is Deme being created?
How does Deme compare to alternatives?
How does Deme reflect the needs of real groups?
What agendas lie behind Deme?
How secure is Deme?

Deme has been recently rewritten in the Ruby on Rails web framework, and as such the current architectural release contains only skeletal functionality. As always, Deme is a free and open-source platform for online deliberation. Deme will allow groups of people to discuss, brainstorm, collaborate, and make decisions together, at their own convenience, via the World-Wide Web. Groupspace.org is a host server for Deme, and is currently offered on a prototype, as-is basis for groups to use free of charge. In the future, we envision that groups will either host Deme on their own servers, or choose to share costs with others for a site such as Groupspace.org. Our intention is to create an alternative to commercially-owned sites where the users do not have collective control over the server.

Please bear in mind that this is an architectural release of Deme, with limited functionality. Check back often, as new features will be added regularly as they are developed.

Deme is being developed for groups of people who want to make decisions democratically and to do at least some of their organizational work without having to meet face-to-face. It will provide the functionality of message boards and email lists for discussion, integrated with tools for collaborative writing, item-structured and document-centered commentary, straw polling and decision making, and storing and displaying group information. It is intended to be a flexible platform, supporting various styles of group interaction: dialogue and debate, cooperation and management, consensus and voting…

Groups that might find Deme useful include advocacy, service, or civic organizations, trade union groups, neighborhood/homeowner associations, religious organizations, university groups, social clubs, loose groups of activists, and “online communities” (those whose interaction takes place primarily on the Internet). We especially have in mind small-to-medium sized groups of between 2 and 200 people, who interact outside of the Internet (i.e. in “real life”), and who have some purpose or mission that requires collective decision making. Although it is particularly aimed at civil society groups, government organizations should be able to use it as well.

At present, Deme exists in an English language, text-only version, and the software needs much further refinement to make it accessible to all those who might want to use this platform. We hope that by releasing these early versions, we will make contact with more people who can help with us with this refinement.

We have been unable to find nonproprietary software that allows groups of people to use the web to do, asynchronously, much of the decision making that presently goes on in face-to-face meetings, and whose form reflects the way groups function in real life.

“Asynchronous” means that individual members can participate at their own convenience rather than everyone having to be online at the same time. Email and message boards are examples of asynchronous groupware. “Synchronous” tools such as chatrooms and video-conferencing allow people to meet across distances, but do not address the most common problem faced by civil society organizations: namely, that their members have conflicting commitments, and that often they cannot all meet at the same time, or cannot all devote the same amounts of time to a meeting.

-> How does Deme compare to alternatives (i.e. other groupware and face-to-face meetings)?

Many groups are currently using email lists, Usenet newsgroups, or web message boards for asynchronous communication. But these platforms make it difficult to move beyond the sharing of information and opinions, toward collaborative work and group action. Some commercial services such as Yahoo! Groups and MSN Groups provide richer environments for interaction, with features such as group-level file storage, announcements, calendars, polls, member databases, and lists of links. And phpBB, which is also widely used, packs many useful capabilities into a free and open-source discussion tool. But these platforms lack key features needed for collaboration and for integrating the different aspects of a group’s work.

In a face-to-face meeting, group members can all look at the same section of a document (e.g. by-laws, the budget, a flyer, a press release) as they discuss whether it should be rewritten, and proposals for revision can be recorded and reviewed by everyone — through oral commmunication, on a display screen, or on paper. Nonverbal and distributed signaling (nods, yeses, an informal show-of-hands…) can help attendees convey and assess each other’s reactions, gauge whether everyone is following along, and decide when to move on. When a decision needs to be made, the group in a face-to-face meeting can use its preferred method for doing so, which might include voting (either by roll-call or secret-ballot), testing for consensus, or more elaborate procedures that may be prescribed in a group’s constitution.

Our survey of available groupware concluded that, prior to our project, there was no web-based platform that approached having the kind of integrated toolset needed to substitute for face-to-face meetings. We also found no tools with the flexibility that is really required for each group to customize the environment for the particular way it conducts business (e.g. by supporting many different voting methods).

That said, many of Deme’s features have appeared in some form in other tools. Web-based tools exist for document-centered discussion (e.g. Quicktopic), collaborative authoring (e.g. wiki software such as TWiki), polling and integrating email with message boards (e.g. in Yahoo! Groups and phpBB), petition signing (e.g. PetitionOnline), survey design (e.g. Zoomerang), event scheduling (e.g. Meetup), and many other useful applications for groups. Furthermore, interface designs have been developed to address the multiple points of focus that characterize group meetings; e.g. flexible split-screen interfaces in desktop applications such as the FreeAgent newsreader and the D3E discussion environment.

(Links for most of the tools mentioned can be found here.)

We wanted to develop a platform that integrated many of these interface ideas and was entirely web-based, so that, ideally, a group’s members could log into the platform from any computer on the Internet.

Designing Deme for web access was a response to people’s mobility (not always using the same computer) and the need for the tool to be usable on public computers, especially for those who do not have their own. Free distribution of the software in an open-source form addresses growing concerns about large commercial sites such as Yahoo! over issues such as group autonomy, members’ privacy and free expression rights, and the fact that proprietary sites place future access provisions outside of users’ control, and may subordinate them to corporate priorities.

Above all, we wanted a design that is grounded in how offline groups actually function. For example, groups often have multiple committees or ad-hoc subgroups that must report to the whole, so we have built in the capability for each group to add an indefinite number of “meeting areas” accessible from the group’s home page. These multiple deliberation spaces, which can correspond to working groups or topics within one group’s space, are a feature that both Yahoo! Groups and MSN Groups lack.

Real groups also often engage in networking with other groups to form associations, coalitions and so on. Although this networking is not yet implemented, we are designing Deme to allow (a) meeting areas to be shared across groups, (b) groups to be attached to other groups in networks and hierarchies, and (c) members’ and groups’ identities to be preserved across installations of the software.

Deme was inspired by participation in and observation of commmunity and nonprofit organizations, grassroots activist groups, neighborhood associations, church committees, university meetings, and labor groups. These groups have different structures, sizes, levels of openness/closedness, and decision making styles, but all share a need to deliberate on decisions and all have face-to-face meetings. We have tried to build enough flexibility into the basic design of Deme to accommodate all of these types of groups, with more flexibility and customizability planned for the future.

Despite our aim of providing a tool that many types of groups can use, the Deme project grew out of specific concerns about enhancing participation in deliberative discourse, and about empowering people such as residents of the low-income, multilingual community of East Palo Alto who face many barriers to civic involvement. A report prepared by PIECE researchers in the summer of 2002 attempted to make the case for the potential of online deliberation to help democratize and build social capital and trust in East Palo Alto.

In an academic context, our work generally aligns with the perspective known as “deliberative democracy”, which holds that democracy can only be enhanced by tying social decisions to thoughtful, fair, and informed dialogue among stakeholders, rather than through the filtering and manipulation of raw public opinion by power holders.

A common theme of participant-observations leading up to the design of Deme was that the need to make group decisions in face-to-face meetings often serves as an excuse for inner-circle, nontransparent decision making at many levels in society, ranging from small informal activist organizations to the U.S. Government. Deme is being designed to help eliminate that excuse, so that stakeholders can legitimately demand to be included in decisions even if they cannot be present at face-to-face meetings or are not in an executive body. Our hope is that tools like Deme will eventually change the culture of democracy to one in which we expect more participatory inclusion from institutions and more participation from ourselves.

You can learn more about the thinking behind Deme in our white paper.

There are three questions to address when it comes to security:

  1. Can people compromise my identity and post items in my name?
  2. Can I restrict unwanted people from viewing the information in my groups?
  3. Can people compromise the server and view/edit/destroy the data on my groups?

Regarding compromising one’s identity. The Deme login code uses SHA1 digested passwords with randomized salting, a very common and trusted technique for securing authentication data. Login passwords are hash encoded, which means that even if someone breaks into the groupspace.org server, the intruder cannot find your password on our server. We would bet there is a way to compromise the identity of a user in Deme, but it would require much more effort than it would ever be worth to anyone.

With respect to restricting access to group information, currently only group users can view group data. This is still not much help as any user can join any group. In the near future we will implement a more robust permissions scheme that will allow administrators of groups to restrict who can join groups and view group data. Even with strengthened permissions, we are sure there will be unanticipated ways to attack. To be blunt, we have full confidence that if a very-determined, intelligent hacker wanted to view your data, he or she would eventually succeed. We cannot guarantee the safety of your data. You use Deme at your own risk. With that said, Deme is secure from people linking to your group page without your permission and from people browsing the site in a normal fashion. Deme is also secure from websearch indexing (so people will not see your sensitive data in Google searches).

Finally, with respect to people compromising the server to manipulate data. This was addressed in the answer to the last question. Highly motivated hackers could probably damage your data. Do not store any information on Deme that is sensitive enough to motivate an individual to compromise our server. We do regular backups of server data, so hopefully if your data is compromised we will be able to restore it to its original state. However, we make no guarantees to this end.