PSi started as an idea. It is now a fully functioning audio software product that we are ready to test with real communities.
The journey of PSi started in March 2020, weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic, as cities began to lockdown. The quiet late afternoons in our sunny apartment in Kreuzberg, Berlin, helped us focus on our ideas. We wanted to found a startup that could provide a digital solution for communities worldwide struggling to work together quickly and at scale.
During this time, one problem was apparent; local communities badly needed a tool to coordinate people around very concrete issues. Cities and local communities struggled to get masks, groceries, hand sanitisers to adjust to this new normal. Importantly, communities needed a way to bridge gaps between opposite opinions; they needed to reach consensus, not just express opinions.
That spring, people worldwide had transitioned from face to face interactions to entirely interacting on Zoom and social media. Zoom shares had ballooned, suggesting that people needed new digital tools to get their work done, even if they were not physically together. Anyone who has been in a Zoom call with more than ten people realises that those large meetings tend to be inefficient. Several reasons contribute to this problem:
- People are less engaged and less motivated to contribute because they feel that someone else will step in (a phenomenon known as diffusion of responsibility).
- The time needed to hear everyone’s opinion and discuss how it fits the overall agenda increases dramatically with more people.
- Conflict is difficult to resolve when you have too many people with contradictory preferences and points of view.
A challenge with the new level of interaction on social media is the impact of homophily in local communities with contrasting views. Homophily is the observation that people interact more frequently with like-minded people (Gillani et al. 2018; McPherson et al. 2001; Aiello et al. 2012) than they do with people who have the opposite views, different values or belonging to separate information silos (Pariser 2011). Homophily has been replicated in many contexts online. It contrasts offline interaction, where casual daily encounters force people to interact with neighbours, colleagues and others. These types of offline interactions are not chosen based on common interests. Early experiments on polarisation in psychology tell us that homophily in social interaction leads to the extremisation of people’s average views, which is an online context means people get entrenched in big value systems’ ideologies and a ‘us vs them’ mentality (Myers and Lamm 1976; Del Vicario et al. 2016; Turner 1985).
Building a solution with MediaFutures
We realised that Zoom and existing social media platforms aren’t suitable tools for community dialogue and decision making. We wanted to design a platform that supports a new type of online dialogue and fosters consensus from opposing views. We started to develop a prototype for a software platform that could help teams and communities in their decision-making, coordination and problem-solving. By September 2020, we had already fleshed out the idea and resolved several technical issues.
We found the Media Futures program and the track Startups for Citizens (SfC) seemed an excellent fit for our civic-minded platform. So we pitched our solution to Media Futures and successfully secured a place in the START phase of the program. During this phase, we built our wireframes, refined our pitch and talked to experts and potential customers. In May 2021, we successfully pitched to secure a place in the program’s second phase, the BUILD phase, which allowed us to build our platform, PSi.
PSi is an acronym for People Supported intelligence. PSi is a platform where local civic organisations such as your local council can engage with their communities to discuss challenges that they care about. PSi:
- is an audio platform because people solve problems better they can deliberate issues together.
- uses automatic group facilitation so that people’s ideas are funnelled into one collective solution.
- is scalable so that no matters how many people are in your community, the same result will be achieved.
PSi makes it easy for local governments and communities to make public consultations, participatory decision-making and decentralised governance part of their standard daily practice.
Participating in the program has been a fantastic journey, made of highs and lows, challenges and solutions. Thanks to the incredible network of partners and collaborators, Media Futures made us turn our idea into a real product.
Thanks to conversations with the Open Data Institute (ODI), we understood the data ethics constraints of our product, especially as we developed an audio platform to host citizen conversations. With the ODI support, we completed the Data Ethics canvas. We mapped our data ethics ecosystem to understand what services and parties we relied on to provide our services. As well as map data flows and what was necessary or not necessary to provide third parties.
Conversations with KU Leuven supported our journey in understanding GDPR, privacy as well as IP regulation. We have now invested in protecting our IP.
Finally, in partnership with Eurecat (Barcelona) and with King’s College London, we are planning an empirical evaluation to disseminate the strengths of PSi. We will compare PSi to traditional tools for civic engagement, such as surveys and forums.
Thanks to the support of Media Futures, we were also successful in another accelerator program sponsored by Imperial College London’s Enterprise Lab. We won the Grand Prize at the Imperial College London’s Women Entrepreneurship program that helped us connect with the startup ecosystem in London. We also joined with key stakeholders, such as Agora. We presented our startup at 4YFN, one of the biggest startup conferences in Europe.
During a summer of intense work, rapid prototyping and testing cycles, interviews with people around a broad range of industries and skillsets, we have turned an idea into a minimum viable product (MVP).
We strongly recommend that startups at the beginning of their journey apply to Media Futures. Our top tip is to make use of the network of partners who hold a valuable amount of expertise. The more you engage, the more you’ll learn. And for a startup at the beginning of its journey, there is a lot to learn.
Niccolo Pescetelli & Georgina Denis
Co-founders of PSi