Monthly Archives: July 2007

Biog-o-matic

One of the posts in the recent Knowledge Jam on technologies for collaboration for social change suggested the CollectiveX platform as a space for creating online communities or practise.

I've just been exploring it for a client, and:

a) It looks like a really easy to set up platform with good support for RSS feed agregation, online discussions, file sharing, networking and member profiles. (If you're looking to be up-and-running inside a couple of hours with a community website for a small team – and you're not anticipating needing to add any particular advanced features in the future – then it seems well worth a look.)

and

b) It has one of the most fantastic features I've ever come across in an online community system. It writes my biography for me.

BioBuilder from CollectiveX

No more copy and paste from a standard bio that doesn't quite fit the tone of the site. No more trying to work out what to write in the large white 'about me' form field. Nope. I simply fill in a few fields about where I work, my core skills and interests… and bingo… one biography:

Tim serves as Director at Practical Participation.

Prior to joining Practical Participation, Tim served as Praticipation Team Trainer at The National Youth Agency.

At present, Tim is a member of Oxfam Youth Board. He serves on the board of The Enfusion Network.

Tim attended Oriel College, Oxford where he studied PPE and earned a Bachelors degree in 2006.

Tim's core expertise includes social media, web development, creative participation processes and information management.

In his personal time, Tim enjoys exploring social media use for social change, social justice campaigning, political philosophy and philosophy of language and cooking.

Hmm, think I might use this one on the blog…

Our role is just to understand. Hmmmm….

Shakuntala Banaji's brilliant presentation (the only presentation I saw during the event which contextualised itself in terms of the three elements of the event: Youth, Politics & New Technology) raised the question of whether civic society research, and included in this e-democracy researchers, are looking to support a citizenship which believes all (citizen) action oriented to political change is the excercise of Citizenship, or whether we are looking to a vision of citizenship with an implicit of explicit notion of citizenship as 'political action oriented towards an (imagined) public good'?

One reply made the suggestion “The role of the researcher is not to endorse one view or the other, but is to understand.”. Nonsense.

(1) E-democracy research involves looking at projects that take place. It often involves helping set up and pilot those projects.

If asked to pilot a program supporing to support a group of right-wing campaigners in political co-ordination that could realisitically lead to success – would you?

And

(2) No e-democracy tool is entirely neutral. There is no view from nowhere.

If designing/piloting a re-purposable e-democracy tool that could either have a functional bias towards generating 'public good' outcomes, or that could be functionally designed to leave equally open morraly abhorent outcomes (or, more mildly for example, was designed to prioritise generating conflict without providing the means for its resolution) – could you be neutral with respect to which it is preferable to create?

The researcher has to implcity endorse one approach or another when the researcher is involved in pilots. And surely, in the interest of integrity – that implicit endorsement is better off in the open and subject to exploration itself.

(Caveat: (2) needs a bit more development / explication – although I think it contains a solid enough argument to warrant being included. Do not let it distract from the intuition between (1) though.)

Costs of entry and consequences of committment

Stephen Coleman's questions during Q&A sessions at the Young People, New Technology and Political Engagement conference have probably sparked more posts here than any other inputs.

This time, after a presentation on a web forum in Slovenia that achieved 100 contributions, "Why should a Member of Parliament care if 100 self-selecting people, quite possibly many of them friends of the person running the consultation – have posted on a message board?".

The simple answer seems to me to be: exactly the same reason they should care that 100 self-selecting people, quite possibly many of them friends of the person convening the meeting, turned up to the local town hall meeting and had their say.

But – this raises a more interesting question. Should (excepting the empirical aside that there are not many public meetings where 100 people get to speak - even if 100 may attend) the 100 online voices count for as much as the 100 in-person voices? After all – those who have turned out in person, we may argue, have put in more effort to participate – and so must have a stronger preference for the issue.

Members of Parliament responding to large letter-writting campaigns often comment that the hand written letter means more, and has a stronger impact on their decision making, than does the form-letter simply signed by a campaign supporter. The higher the 'cost of entry', in terms of time and committment, to a political act – the greater weight, it seems, it will have with decision makers.

Oh no! Surely this then means that our efforts to make democracy more accessible just make the views shared through low-cost-of-entry political acts easier to ignore.

Unless perhaps:

a) We think e-democracy is about more than having a say – and should really be about deliberation and making better policy. In that case, if there are voices not represented in policy making, our e-democracy efforts are about making sure these voices can input into deliberation – and that may mean lowering the costs of participation for a particular group. However, we must ensure these voices can carry weight in deliberations – and that the dillution that seems to occur from lower costs of entry in lobbying is not matched in deliberation.

b) We focus on using e-democracy to equalise costs of entry – and make sure that those being lobbied understand the effort that has gone into a political act. Young people are excluded from many forms of local democracy. They are not voters. They have often not had the opportunities to develop the skills to input into a structured political process (especially when youth is combined with disadvantaged backgrounds). So where it might be very easy for me to participate in an online forum – and slightly more challenging to input into the local strategy through a town meeting. For a group of disadvantaged young people, inputting into an online forum is very challenging – and that they successfully do so should make their input worth as much as my input at the town hall.

This said, we still need to make sure the 'quality' of input, in terms of its functional applicability in addressing a topic within the political remit of the authority it is directed to, is equal in both cases if we want to talk of them being given equal weight – but this, of course, is a big further question…

Knowing what workers need to know – and when they need to just get out the way…

Just been in a fantastic keynote by Brian Loader on 'Cultural displacement or Disaffection? Reassessing Young Citizens, New Media and Civic Engagement' (which I believe is the topic of his chapter in his recent edited collection). I think for a sense of the presentation – it's probably best to point to the book – as I'd be hard pushed to capture everything in notes.

However, an interesting discussion emerged in Q&A. Stephen Coleman related experiences of how the 'operating at a distance' enabled by internet technology (e.g. in online contributions to select committees and online MPs surgeries) supports those who might not be confident to contribute in person to input into the political process. I asked afterwards if this applied to young people – with a positive answer. What is most interesting, however, is to look at whether 'operating at a distance' changes the need for worker support. We know young people often identify their desire for youth worker or adult suport in order to input into decision making when we're looking at in-person participatoin. But do some groups who want support in person find they don't need or want it 'operating at a distance'? In Stephen's example of women contributing to a select committee on domestic violence – it was found that some women were only confident to use the 'at a distance' methods with their refuge support workers and trusted others. I imagine the picture may be the same for some groups of young people – but more exploration would certainly be of interest.

This gets me thinking. Identifying:

  • what skills workers and adults need to support young people in taking advantage of the opportunities created by online interaction,
    and
  • when workers and adults should just get out of the way

seems key to making sure e-democracy leaves no-one behind, and allows all groups to make the most of the opportunities potentially opened up…

Gaming in e-democracy

A presentation by Ben Whitnail of Delib on games and narrative in e-democracy:

  • Just because young people are on the internet and you are on the internet – doesn't mean you're going to meet.
  • The big question: why would anyone want your content?
  • Online is about choice, driven by search, people find what their looking for – not what you want to present to them.
  • Casual games act as a motivation for people to come and visit your content.
  • Games are growing as a marketting tool. Branded games. Viral games.
  • Games are great communication tools
    • Incentive and reward
    • Structure and narrative
    • Interaction and exploration (for education / informing)
    • Inputs and information capture (for consultation)
    • Personalised, shareable experience (for peer-to-peer collaboration)
  • "You could learn a lot about someone from watching the way they play the Sims"

Types of games:

  • One-to-many: Demgames – simple narrative but sophisticated ideas are shared.
  • Many-to-one: Budget Simulator – priority setting mechanisms for budget consultations – with feedback about the impact of choices
  • Many-to-many: Pimp my Party – game for the a conservative think tank that introduces serious questions mixed in with 'fun' questions
  • Sharing – MyAbodo

Key elements

  • Every game has a clear proposition at the start. E.g. captain campaign – "this game is about winning public support for your issue"
  • Inputs and interactions – feedback tools

Q&A:

Q: Can we take what is said in a game and use it to inform policy.

"You said you wanted more Parks in your game – That's where we've spent the money…" "But I only said that in the game!"

You have to frame the tool in context. If you tell people their views will feed into decision making – then the users have to be accountable for their views.

Reflections

In games you provide input, and you see the consequences. In consultation, you provide input…. and you don't get to see the consequences for a long time. What about in-person games with young people and councillors looking at local planning? Participative simulation games?

Is the feedback about choices made in budget simulator democratising or giving too much power to councils to decided what the impact of certain budget decisions will be? Budget simulator is a mixture of consultation and educating citizens. Do we need consultation pure? Or can we have this mixture…

Are we starting from youth…

I'm at a conference on Young People, New Technologies and Political Engagement.

The title of the conference is the right way round – but most of the parallel papers I've listened to have been presented back to front. They seem to have started from Politics and Technology – with only a passing reference too or understanding of young people.

Unless we start exploring e-democracy for youth engagement from an understanding of the 'objective' processes of youth development, from young peoples subjective experiences and from the perspective of the political issues facing young people – we're going to keep on missing the point.

We need to define the population we're talking about. We need to understand if anything makes this group different. What are the features of this population, either as a generation cohort, or as a stage of life – that makes their engagement with democracy or with democracy through technology different from that of any other population?

Afternoon papers….

Three presentations at the Young People, New Technologies and Political Enagement conference looking at different ways of engaging citizens and young people online:

Google turns up over a billion online forums – and there has been a lot of rhetoric in the past about using online forums to support e-democracy deliberation – but Kerill Duanne's research seems to show online forums are not working to help political deliberation online. They're inactive or inneffective. So do we need better designed spaces?

Sophia Collins told us about the more structured, time limited and fascilitated 'I'm a Councillor'. Can this engage young people in democracy? What about beyond the time when I'm a Councillor is running? It seems to have been successful at engaging 'the greys' – those who wouldn't otherwise be getting involved. It seems that the 'big brother' time-limited vote-one-person-out-a-week interaction of I'm a Councillor engages young people and meets a need young people feel in getting to know and trust political representatives – but should we always be having to manufacture these opportunities to build trust? How can they be made an organic part of the political process? How can we build on the positive experience of I'm a Councillor?
Also look at: http://www.bigvote.org.uk/outcomes

Anna McDermott from Brisol shared information about Bristol's 'Viewfinder' video consultation project (drupal based by the look of it..) where video was used to launch an online consultation process. Responses to a consultation can be sent in by text, through the online forum, or as video. The project team seeded the site with content gathered through outreach work creating video interviews (it would be interesting to know how many videos were directly submitted to the site…). The site hosted an discussion on the Bristol young people's manifesto which fed into the Bristol young people's select committee. Some reflections on video below.

From the discussion that followed:

  • We can move away from a defecit model – 'this technology is the panacea for engaging this particular group' – and can simply admit we all have different access preferences – and we need multiple-channels of communication to be able to engage people with different communication preferences. (And we need these to be integrated – with different pathways into the same process.)
  • Video inputs might be used to 'back up decisions that are made' – rather than influencing the decisions. It's a equivelent the the 'free text' option on a survey. But is the free-text analysed well enough? Is it consultation-lite without the substative element? How can we make sure people going down the video input route still get the option and are encouraged to contribute to consulation-stats after inputting via video/free-text discussion?

Short reflections:

  • There's a lot of looking at the role of citizenship in promoting e-democracy – but there seems to be a lack of looking at spaces where young people should have power and a right to input. The way to build in e-democracy seems to me to be to build it around Setion 6 rights of young people to influence Local Offer provision, and other local activities. Where power is given, it's harder for it to be taken away.
  • Video can carry a lot of information – but I wonder if its not too much. I can't process 15 video inputs as quickly as I can 15 text-inputs to a consultation or a dialougue – and so the risk is I can hear less views… Do we need better technology to allow analysis of video? Or is video mainly a red-herring technology in consultation and e-engagement – useful only in a limited range of situations? It certainly seems useful to give information – but how is it for gathering information? Bristol transcribe video inputs into text reports – but also make the videos available for decision makers to watch to understand an issue on a deeper level.
  • The design of tools matters. In the same way physical space affects the way interaction works – the 'public digital architecture' (by which I mean how it works for the user, not back-end systems architecture) really matters. But the power matters as well (if not most of all…)

Stephen Coleman on The Policy Challenges of E-Citizenship

Professor Stephen Coleman has written widely on e-democracy, and has looked a lot of young people and e-democracy.

In his opening keynote, Stephen proposed dealing with the anxiety both manfest and latent in our fears about politics being in decline and crisis, and just not working right – by opening up spaces online for young people to engage not just in talking to young people and being heard – but in gaining power and influence.

Stephen's focus appeared to be on encouraging government to lead in creating spaces for young people to participate in real, relatively unconstrained and politically effective discussions, disagreements and deliberations. His vision sounded, on some levels, a radical one – calling on government to allow space for young people to question the very foundations of citizensip – and for government to accept that a legitimate outcome of the discussions that take place could be civil disobedience and a rejection of legal frameworks – and thus discussions leading in these directions should not be supressed and the space should be maintained. However, it seems to me that this is driving not at the creation of government owned spaces – but a recreation of the commons and a creation of a digital dialogical commons – space 'owned' by civil society and not government. Governments role is not to supress this – but as a bureaucracy and with its bureaucratic logic – government is surely not best placed to provide it?

A couple of other reflections jotted in the margins of my notes:

>Drawing on a recent dialogue on Big Brother, Stephen identified that young people might be turned off by the 'symbolic practise of politics' – the grey suited Question Time debates – but that young people are not a-political or apathetic because of that. There seems to be an interesting question in this about why other groups are not turned off by the 'symbolic practise' – and that is perhaps because other groups see that participation in those symbolic practises in a means of accessing power – but for young people, either they cannot see that this would be the case – or the power is not available to be accessed.

>In questions, the issue of how to ensure the already engaged, or those with an axe to grind do not dominate the discussion. Stephen's reply seemed to suggest that we should take this as a separate issue from opening up the spaces. Opening up the spaces is one issue. Making them emancipatory for the excluded is another. This seems a very Schumpetarian understanding of democracy – and not one I'm overly comfortable with. I would argue we cannot disagregate opening spaces up from considering their emancipatory aspects. We may find we have to sequence to create spaces before we make them emancipatory -but this must be a decison reflectivly arrived at with considerations of building a free and fair democracy in mind.

I hope I've not misinterpretted Stephen anywhere. As mentioned, I'm almost-live blogging – so I'll return and fill in links / tidy up posts later this week.

Online forums and hacks (of the journalist variety)

In a presentation about a local Finnish youth website: Vaikuttamo.net

In research conversations with journalists in the local area where the website is based – it was found that all the journalists interviewed used the site as a source for stories. In the case of young people calling for a skating hall in the town – it sounds like journalists were taking young peoples discussions and views from the online forum and putting them to decision makers to get answers on their behalf – and to keep the campaign going in a way that led to a skating hall being built… (!)

That raises some interesting questions:

How many local journalists are picking up positive stories from your local youth website? Is there anything for them to pick up? How can a local youth discussion forum provide positive space for young peoples' voice to cross over into the mainstream media? Or are we going to need some Finnish journalists before we can see the same happening here?