Our democracies are under attack, and Open Data may hold the key to restoring national resilience

October 24th 2019

My wonderful colleague Niki Roach interviewed me earlier this week on the topic of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, what they mean to me, and how I believe we at AxiaOrigin can help to support businesses to engage with them. Earlier this week, we heard from Tim Ip about why he’s passionate for SDG10: Reduced Inequalities.

Here’s what I had to say….

Firstly – tell me what your favourite SDG is!

16. Peace, justice and strong institutions

And of all 17 SDGs, at a high level why is this one so important to you?

Because I believe that strong institutions are imperative in preserving freedom and democracy, which are so closely linked to peace and justice. In the Western world, we find ourselves in a time of rising populism, where populations are vulnerable to outside threats which sow seeds of cynicism into the minds of their citizens, and mistrust for institutions (such as that of the free press) through campaigns of delegitimation.

And we have seen the dangers associated with this – the dismantling of age-old institutions corrodes national resilience, and leaves a nation in a vulnerable position where personal freedoms come under threat. In the USA for instance, we’ve seen how the democratic process was compromised in 2016 in just this way, through the dominance of pro-cynical discourse, the proliferation of fake news and hostile bots which undermined the country’s academic, journalistic and political institutions.

In the UK we have seen similar division and fragmentation of our population during the 2016 Brexit referendum. I consider it really important that we maintain strong institutions as a nation, so that we can develop and maintain resilience as a nation in the face of uncertainty.

And how do you feel that you can impact on the delivery of this goal – at an international, national or local level?

At a national and local level, I believe we at AxiaOrigin can help local authorities and central government to support vulnerable communities in times fraught with uncertainty. For example, in the aftermath of an event like a no-deal Brexit, it will be important for local councils to support their communities and connect with them on a level which truly takes into account their emotional response and wellness to preserve national security.

We are able to harness open source data which gives us instantaneous access to thousands of data points. These can be analysed to support local authorities as they seek to engage and connect with their communities and build societal resilience. We can support this by:

  1. Understanding which parts of the country are most vulnerable to allow cynicism to permeate their community, and which parts are most resilient to uncertainty
  2. Assessing the influencers and “interest villages” (common ground in spite of variations in characteristics)of these two groups
  3. Developing learnings for local authorities as to how to communicate and engage with vulnerable communities, taking lessons from resilient communities on how to bridge this gap.

And what are you hoping to do about it first?

Our first step is to work together as a team to develop and test our hypotheses about how vulnerable communities and be detected and tracked online using open source data. In doing so, we can iterate and improve our methodology continuously. This will be especially important as community behaviour changes so quickly in response to rapidly changing events in our country and globally.

Have you given any thought to the challenges that you might face along the way? Tell me a little about your thoughts if you have – along with how you might overcome them.

There is, in some cases, still a public perception of doubt and mistrust in the analysis of open social data. We are always careful to point out how our approach to analysing data is ethical, intended for the public good, and never breaches legal or ethical boundaries. In some ways this challenge is a microcosm of the wider issues threatening society in the area of this SDG. We will overcome it through loyalty to our values, coherently communicating and evangelising these principles so they are clear to see for all.

And finally, any words of advice for anyone reading this that feels inspired by what they’ve heard you say?

My advice to anyone inspired by reading this is firstly to reach out to us and share their thoughts on what we are trying to achieve through our approach and methodology. We are always open to sharing ideas and learning from others.

Secondly, consider the following advice the next time you are met with an oppositional point of view from a friend or colleague, a divisive piece of journalism, or a confrontation on social media from someone provoking disharmony: remember that you have a choice in how you respond to conflict, and that your choice has an effect on those around you, which may be profound and lasting.

Our society needs socially conscious and emotionally intelligent citizens who will respond with compassion and understanding to oppositional points of view. This is a hugely difficult thing to do – it requires courage and humility on a daily basis. But we need to all take steps to consciously avoid the cynical “race to the bottom” mindset championed by populist information campaigns. This toxicity threatens both our institutions and our communities. Yet perhaps most crucially of all, at an individual level it strikes at our hearts, and serves to challenge our perception of the intrinsic goodness of our fellow citizen.


Marios Kyriacou | Co-founder