A Participatory Archive to Document a Participatory Constitutional Process: An Interview with Cricket Keating, Katrín Oddsdóttir, and Eileen Jerrett
An introduction to our campus spotlight on the University of Washington.
In 2011, Iceland drafted a new constitution using a historic, participatory process. Although stalled in Parliament since 2012, activists are still hopeful that the new constitution may be adopted. Iceland’s constitutional process has since become a model for other efforts at participatory democracy around the world, but evidence of the process itself is in danger of disappearing. In this interview, the minds behind KRIA (The Icelandic Constitution Archives) discuss their efforts to preserve documentation of the different phases of Iceland’s constitutional reform process. Filmmaker Eileen Jerrett (director of the acclaimed documentary film Blueberry Soup), Cricket Keating (Professor in the Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies Department at the University of Washington in Seattle), and Katrín Oddsdóttir (who sat on the 2011 Icelandic Constitutional Council) discuss their work together and with international collaborators to build and preserve an online, accessible archive of material related to the reform process. KRIA works to collect and make available primary sources and academic literature relevant to Iceland’s constitution, and serves as a resource to academics, journalists, and activists from around the world. Perhaps most exciting is how KRIA’s form echoes its content—the project makes use of crowdsourcing and public participation in much the same way as Iceland’s constitutional reform process did.
—Taylor Soja for EuropeNow
EuropeNow KRIA (The Icelandic Constitution Archives) is a collaborative project about a uniquely collaborative event. How did Iceland’s constitutional reform process begin in 2011 and where does the constitution stand now?
Cricket Keating The story starts way before 2011, when in 930 A.D. Icelanders gathered to set laws and settle disputes in an open-air assembly—the Althing—marking Iceland as one of the world’s oldest democracies. Iceland was an independent commonwealth until the thirteenth century, when it fell under Norwegian, and later Danish colonial rule. It gained independence from Denmark in 1944, but has continued to be governed by a constitution written by the Danes. Therefore, since independence, there has been a push to rewrite the constitution. Fast forward to January 2009, when this push intensified during the large-scale protests that developed in response to the collapse of Iceland’s banking industry during the global economic crash. Not only were the protests successful in challenging the authority structures of the government and the banks, they also came to be known as the “parliament of the streets” for their role, along with a variety of grass-roots and civic associations, in articulating and formulating an alternative vision for Iceland. In November 2009, a group of these organizations, collectively known as “The Anthill,” organized a National Assembly held in Reykjavik. Fifteen hundred representatives attended from all parts of the island, including twelve hundred who were randomly chosen, to discuss their vision for the future of Iceland, discussing questions such as “How do you see future Iceland?” and “What do you want to see in the new Icelandic constitution?” In the visioning sessions, organizers sought to create a framework that would foster the participants’ autonomy, creativity, positivity, and sense of free discussion.
In response to the protests and drawing on the participatory model of the Anthill’s National Assembly, in June 2010, the Icelandic Parliament passed an act authorizing a group of citizens to write a new constitution for Iceland. The government-initiated approach to crowd-sourcing the constitution was multi-phased. First, a nine hundred and fifty member randomly selected group, with participants ranging in age from eighteen to ninety-one and roughly equal gender distribution, met to discuss what values the new constitution should embody and what issues it should address. Parliament appointed a committee of seven experts to assemble a 700-page report on best practices in constitution writing as an advisory document during the drafting process. Additionally, this Constitutional Committee organized the 2010 National Gathering and Constitutional Assembly elections. The second phase of the crowd-sourcing process took place when the people of Iceland elected a twenty-five-member Constitutional Council, from a pool of 523 applicants. Any citizen who met the requirements to serve in Parliament could apply provided they could obtain the qualifying number of signatures and that they were not already Members of Parliament. The council met over four months beginning in April 2011 to write the new constitution, drawing upon the visioning work of the earlier phases.
The council fostered public participation in the constitution-writing process in several ways. First, the council live-streamed its weekly meetings on its website. The constitutional drafts were posted online for people to comment on as they were being made. In addition, the group regularly used social networking technology to garner people’s input, using platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr to solicit comments from the public, all of which were displayed on its website, and could be commented on by other members of the public. The council considered the comments and proposed changes to the draft document accordingly. Minutes and votes from meetings regarding changes to the draft were also posted on the council’s website. Finally, a semi-formal collective called the Constitutional Analysis Support Team (CAST) analyzed the drafts throughout the process, resulting in a “stress test” that citizens could watch and participate in, looking for gaps and omissions in each draft. The final constitutional draft, comprising nine chapters and 114 articles, was completed on July 27, 2011 and approved by consensus.
On May 24, 2012, Parliament voted to send the draft constitution to the people for an advisory referendum to decide whether the draft should be used for a new constitution, thus initiating the third phase in the participatory constitutional process. The referendum was held on October 22, 2012 with 66.1 percent voting yes. Since 2012, however, the Parliament has blocked the proposed constitution going forward based on Icelandic law, which stipulates that the only way to change the constitution is through parliamentary approval and a general election with results further approved by the newly elected Parliament. The Icelandic people have not given up though, and the struggle to get the constitution passed is ongoing.
EuropeNow Katrín, you were elected as a member of the Constitutional Council in 2011. What was it like to participate in the process of writing the new constitution, and how has it shaped your thinking about democracy and government since then?
Katrín Oddsdóttir It was an amazing experience in so many ways. The novelty of working with twenty-four other individuals who did not practice the conventional party politics, but rather tried to use consensus methodology and crowd-sourcing to figure out ways that were best for the nation was liberating. Politics tends to be a zero-sum game, but when a group of people is created to do one task with no chance of being re-elected in any way, the dynamic is, in my opinion, much more beautiful and healthier compared to what you see in ordinary party politics. There was something truly magical about these four months and how we were able to reach a common constitution that each and every individual among the twenty-five was willing to sign, despite holding very different political opinions.
It shaped my thinking about democracy in a way that cannot be undone. Once you realize that there are ways of doing things differently, it becomes very painful to look at the version of democracy we are stuck with, which, in my opinion, is undermining the belief people have in the wisdom of the crowd. In a way, I have come to realize that democracy, the way we know it, hardly is in any way democratic, as so many other things than the will and the ideas of the public run the show. I believe that with the new constitution much will improve for Iceland. For example, some of its articles introduce direct democracy, breaking up this hostage situation where the power that should belong to the people rests mostly with the political elites. Also, while nature is not even mentioned in the current outdated Icelandic constitution, the new text has the most progressive article on the protection of nature which I have seen. The new constitution also increases transparency and accountability, both which are good medicine against corruption. It places the ownership of the nation’s natural resources where it belongs: with the nation itself. With Iceland in the wake of the fourth Me Too wave, I am proud to say that the new constitution also bears the marks of being written by women who have, as a social group, been historically excluded when it comes to constitution writing in the world. An example of this is article 10 of the new constitution that says: “Everyone shall be guaranteed security and protection against violence of any kind, such as sexual violence, inside and outside the home.” Although the new constitution brings us great and necessary changes, it is not perfect. I believe that we need to go even further in deepening democracy to make it truly meaningful, not only here in Iceland but around the globe.
EuropeNow Democracy and the role of citizens within it is a topic on the minds of many people around the world. To what other constitutional reform processes can we compare Iceland’s case?
Cricket Keating There are many examples we can use to compare Iceland’s processes. In the past twenty years, struggles to build more open and inclusive models of democracy across the world have resulted in the emergence of constitutional processes that have expanded opportunities for people’s input, dialogue, and decision-making. Other notable participatory constitutional reforms processes have taken or are taking place in Chile, Kenya, Nepal, Ecuador, Sudan, Fiji, and Ireland. These efforts have generated renewed hope and invigorated debate about the potential for building more inclusive, citizen-driven, and citizen-centered models of democracy. In 2008, for example, Ecuadorians rewrote their constitution using a participatory process geared towards inclusive representation and direct citizen involvement. For another example, within Europe, Ireland’s participatory constitutional reform process resulted in constitutional amendments that legalized same-sex marriage and decriminalized abortion. Right now, Chileans are rewriting their constitution in a way that aims to involve citizens at all stages of the process– including authorizing the writing of a new constitution, participating in its drafting, and ratifying the final draft. In Chile, in order to increase the inclusivity of the process, there is gender parity in the Constituent Assembly and seventeen out of its 155 seats are reserved for indigenous groups.
EuropeNow Eileen and Cricket, how did you each come to be involved in Iceland’s constitutional story, and what initially drew you to study and document the constitutional reform process?
Eileen Jerrett I was drawn to Iceland in 2009 following the economic collapse. The atmosphere in Iceland was optimistic, innovative, inclusive, and open to change. The upset over the banking collapse transformed into this remarkable window of time there, where citizens outside the political sphere brought forward fresh perspectives on the type of society they wanted. Large-scale citizen forums took place, a citizen-driven Parliament-approved constitutional process, and technology was being used to foster citizen input in a way the world had never seen before. I had the honor of witnessing and documenting this historical process. From that experience, I made the film Blueberry Soup in which I share with cross-national audiences this Icelandic story, which is not over since the constitution has yet to be ratified by Parliament. The citizen’s efforts to bring it to fruition are remarkable and part of the overall picture. Therefore, we are still gathering material to date, making KRIA a living and growing archive.
Cricket Keating I first got interested in participatory constitutional processes in general because of my research into the2008 Ecuadorian constitution. What really piqued my interest in Iceland’s participatory constitution writing process in particular was a panel discussion led by Agora, one of the groups that was involved in organizing the 2010 National Assembly. I was very moved by their description of the visioning process and, as a feminist democratic theorist, I wanted to learn more. That led me to researching Iceland’s participatory constitution-writing process and to co-writing an article about it with constitutional scholar Susan Burgess. Susan told me about Eileen’s film Blueberry Soup, and when I saw it, I knew I had to meet her. It is great luck that we both live in Seattle—which also happens to be Reykjavik’s sister city in the US. Eileen brought me into the fold of the organizing work being done world-wide to get the word out about Iceland’s participatory constitution-writing process and to support the ongoing efforts to get its new constitution passed.
EuropeNow How did the idea to create an archive documenting the constitutional process come about? When did work on KRIA begin?
Eileen Jerrett Global efforts to build an open and inclusive model of democracy have resulted in the emergence of constitutional movements. These have aimed to expand opportunities for people’s input, dialogue, and decision-making. Preserving records of these movements is of vital cultural importance. In Iceland, although the constitutional process created many digital artifacts, some of them were disappearing. Locating this content was a challenge. And researchers, journalists, and activists often contacted us looking for it. I think people were coming to me because I had gone through a similar investigative process when making Blueberry Soup and could point out what I found. We knew there was a growing demand for this information, and as the demand grew, the material was disappearing. In an effort to find the right way forward, we invited activists, scholars, Icelandic Parliamentarians, and the 2011 Constitutional Council members to take part in a brainstorming session at the University of California Berkeley in 2018. The event helped create a collaboratively informed understanding of where material existed, what needed to be preserved, and how it could be made accessible. That gave us the blueprint for KRIA, which has been refined repeatedly through community input.
EuropeNow What kinds of artifacts were produced by the constitutional reform process? In other words, what is preserved in the KRIA archive? Is everything a born-digital artifact, or are material items also catalogued?
Eileen Jerrett KRIA is divided into milestones and themes identified through collaborative workshops and conferences held in Iceland with researchers and the community. There is an excitingly diverse set of artifacts in the KRIA archive. To understand a community-driven process, information made by and for the community needs to be represented through a collective lens. Our aim was to capture the social, political, and emotional environment that led to the constitution, the writing process itself, and where the constitution stands today. In the collection, you will find television interviews, songs, process journals, newspaper articles, conference transcripts, parliamentary documents, technical mind maps (outlining how social media was used), films, paintings, recordings of the constitutional sessions, scholarly reports, petitions, protest footage, and much more.
EuropeNowHow has KRIA evolved over time? Who are your main partners and collaborators (institutional or otherwise)?
Eileen Jerrett In 2018, we began testing platforms, plugins, and outreach strategies. The aim was to find technology that made it easy for the public to navigate the archive, had reputable stability, and would be free to access. We hosted a series of crowdsourced metadata tagging events using the open-source platform Omeka, resulting in 1,329 unique tags. The project’s interdisciplinary nature connects civil society, activists, academia, the digital humanities, and journalists. KRIA is a collaboration between the Icelandic Constitutional Society (Stjórnarskrárfélagið), the University of Iceland, the University of Washington, and Build-Up (an NGO combining peacebuilding best practices, participatory methodologies, and digital technologies to identify and address emergent challenges). Our partners play key roles in informing how the collection is described, accessed, and shared. Our interns have been working on attaching thoughtful descriptions to each item in the collection, making it easy for the public to find.
There are two online repositories where the archive is currently available:
- Archive-It, which is a platform that allows institutions and communities to capture, build and preserve collections of born digital content. Through the user-friendly web application, Archive-It partners can harvest, catalog, manage, and browse their archived collections. Archive-it generously donated their subscription service to KRIA, making it possible to preserve 4,000 websites connected to the Icelandic constitutional reform.
- Zotero, which is a free, easy-to-use tool to help collect, organize, cite, and share academic research and writing. This is a way for us to organize and make known what has been written on the 2011 Icelandic constitution without breaching the paywalls surrounding the research. The Zotero collection helps us make known 260 closed or paid access research papers that we could not preserve within the aforementioned Archive-It collection. Basically, the KRIA Zotero collection is an online bibliography about Iceland’s 2011 constitution process.
And, beginning in Fall 2022, a third repository will be available, at the University of Washington. A version of KRIA will be hosted by the University of Washington’s Special Collections Library in 2022; items found online and donated to the collection will be available to the public through the University’s online collections.
The KRIA archive serves as a global community resource. Its audience consists of researchers, activists, journalists, and politicians all looking to learn more about how the Icelandic constitutional process came to be, the type of community input received, and where the constitution is today. Our mission is to make this archive easily findable and usable by blending traditional archival standards with open-access technology.
EuropeNow From where did you draw inspiration for your crowdsourced archival project? How many people have participated thus far?
Eileen Jerrett From the beginning, it was evident that an open and participatory archive was needed. Since the 2011 constitutional process was made through civic engagement; it made sense that the archive would be as well. It was important that we used a participatory process to ensure the archive’s language, descriptions, and navigation were broadly accessible and reflective of the community that made the constitution. Between community workshops, social media outreach, and metadata tagging events, we have had over 1,200 participants engage in the archive creation.
EuropeNow Eileen and Cricket, you collaborated on this project in the summer of 2020 and worked to make KRIA’s content accessible to students in the classroom. What were the results of that collaboration? How has KRIA been used in the classroom?
Cricket Keating We have used KRIA in the classroom in a couple of ways. The first is by introducing students to the idea of participatory archiving through it and other activist archiving projects (for example, the Activist Archivists of the Occupy movement and the Archives for Black Lives group that grew out of the Black Lives Matter protests) and by teaching students about some of the nuts and bolts of how do it. In a class on democracy and technology, we had a class “tag-a-thon,” in which students engaged with KRIA by working together to identify the artifacts in the collection.
We also use KRIA to introduce the idea of participatory democracy to students by having them “try on” the process used by the National Assembly in the lead up to the constitutional assembly. After reading about the process and watching Eileen’s film (and other short videos that show the Assembly’s participatory process), they write their own answers to the general questions that the assembly members answered and then work in small groups to see if they can come to consensus around their ideas. If the students agree to it, we save their responses in the archives themselves. In this way, they are not only learning about this important democratic experiment but are becoming part of it themselves. Drawing on these experiences in the classroom, we are building a shareable digital lesson plan that we will make available on KRIA for people to use in their classrooms to teach about participatory constitution-building, as well as participatory archiving.
EuropeNow What does the technical work behind KRIA entail? What digital humanities approaches and technologies do you use, and how did you prepare (or how do you still learn) about this more technical side of the work? Are there any ongoing technical challenges?
Eileen Jerrett As a community-driven archive, we have to make sure the technology we are using is affordable, yet highly sustainable. This presents unique challenges but certainly helps us see the wide array of tools now available to empower communities to preserve their own heritage. We have been using the FAIR data principles (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Re-Usable) to guide our process, making it so the public knows the archive exists and has easy access to its contents. An important issue we have faced in this process is the accessibility and ephemerality of born-digital cultural heritage materials because of rapid technological changes. For example, there were large repositories of content that had gone offline, articles that had been removed, and informative websites that expired. Through the help of the Icelandic community, the Internet Archives, and the Icelandic Web Archive, we have recovered and preserved thousands of items that we thought were lost. This was a game-changer for our work. Before using these digital recovery methods, I was trying to track down site owners, publication editors, and citizens with Tumblr images from pivotal events that had gone missing. Recovering these sites was a beautiful moment in our work, knowing that a wealth of missing blogs, articles, and interviews were now safe and accessible again.
An ongoing issue we continue to face pertains to the public comments made during the drafting process. The constitutional council used a Facebook plugin that at the time did a great job at connecting the community with the work. However, in the last few years the plugin has stopped working; thus, many of the original comments have disappeared. We have been trying to workshop this problem with Facebook directly and looking for solutions to bring this once public facing deliberation online again. To build an archive in the inclusive, open-ended spirit of the participatory constitutional reform efforts themselves, the project team members are in dialogue with Icelandic community members about the stewardship of their cultural heritage. By engaging in such dialogue, we hope to encourage content donors to play a central role in determining the framing of the contents in the archives.
EuropeNow Do you have a favorite object in the online archive?
Eileen Jerrett I am a huge nerd for this process, so of course I would like to talk with you all day about the incredible artifacts in this collection. But one that stands out immediately is an interview with Guðrún Pétursdóttir, Chair of the Constitutional Advisory Committee. She discusses the beautiful way the Icelandic National Broadcaster RÚV showcased each of the 525 Icelandic citizens who ran to become one of the twenty-five elected to rewrite the nation’s constitution. Each candidate was given up to five minutes to say who they were, the region they were from, and their platform. For Guðrún, “this is the most beautiful radio program any nation has ever had. It was like a love declaration from 500 people.” She is right that the interviews are incredible and give a sense of the diversity of citizens who ran to be a part of writing the constitution. RÚV has generously allowed us to include all 525 interviews in the archive.
Cricket Keating There are so many, it is hard to choose. My favorite thing about the archive overall is how it keeps me learning about the process. My favorite particular item is a database that has all the participant’s responses to the National Assembly’s visioning questions. Through the database, we can learn about the political insights of those thousand Icelanders who came together to share their ideas and visions for their political futures—learn about what they came up with at that incredibly difficult but also fertile time for imagining new grounds for political collectivity.
EuropeNow Finally, what comes next for KRIA?
Eileen Jerrett For KRIA, there are some very exciting launches coming up. To meet the varying needs of the archive’s audiences, we are building multiple iterations of KRIA, all of which are open to the public. Building on the collections available on Archive-It and Zotero, we have the upcoming launch with the University of Washington’s Special Collections. After that, the next step is to make metadata descriptions available in Icelandic and then give the collection to the Icelandic National Archives (Þjóðskjalasafn Íslands), the University of Iceland (Landsbókasafn Íslands – Háskólabókasafn), and the Consortium of Icelandic Libraries (Landskerfi bókasafna hf.). And after that, we will curate an interactive documentary-style website of KRIA to provide an immersive experience through the story and point visitors out to content. Travel safety pending, we will host community events in Iceland and Seattle to celebrate the launch. KRIA also has a wonderful team of interns going through the archive right now and posting exciting finds on our social media. You can also follow those sites to be notified of KRIA’s upcoming releases, official events, and participatory happenings.
Cricket Keating Our long-term vision is to have KRIA linked to other participatory constitutional archives around the world. We are gathering materials and looking to partner with others who are either involved in these processes or interested in them. Please contact us if you are interested!
Katrín Oddsdóttir, a Human Rights lawyer and activist, was one of the 25 elected to sit on the 2011 Icelandic Constitutional Council. As the Icelandic Constitutional Society Chair, Katrín is a prominent voice in Iceland’s growing citizen-drafted constitutional movement.
Eileen Jerrett is a filmmaker who started following the Icelandic constitutional reform process in 2009 while making the documentary Blueberry Soup. She is actively involved in connecting the global community to the historic Icelandic citizen-written constitution, which led to the creation of KRIA.
Christine (Cricket) Keating is a professor in the Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies Department at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her research is in the areas of democratic theory, decolonial theory, and feminist theory. In her work, she explores ways in which people have both imagined and struggled to build more inclusive and egalitarian models of political collectivity. She is currently writing a book called “Participatory Constitution-building in Transnational Feminist Perspective,” which focuses on the feminist involvement in participatory constitutional reform processes in Ecuador, Iceland, and Sri Lanka.
Taylor Soja is a PhD candidate in British and imperial history at the University of Washington, and beginning in fall 2022 Assistant Professor of History at Illinois State University. Her work has appeared in Gender & History, and her research is funded by a Mellon – Council for European Studies Dissertation Completion Fellowship. She is also committed to digital and public history, and co-directed the project Digital World Wars.
 The constitution is available in English here: http://www.stjornlagarad.is/other_files/stjornlagarad/Frumvarp-enska.pdf
 View KRIA’s Zotero collection here: zotero.org/groups/2383526/kriashared/collections/WU7WUAVA
 Listen to the interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9JvUskkzYQ&ab_channel=KRIAIcelandicConstitutionArchive
 Instagram: instagram.com/kriaarchives/
Published on April 18, 2022.