Digital Government 2010
I just got back from the Digital Government (DGO10) conference in Puebla, Mexico. It was canceled last year at the height of the H1N1 scare. The conference was excellent – its a small conference, kind of a family of sorts. The venue was the Universidad de las Americas (I roomed in a dormitory there with my advisor Alan Borning).
It worked out quite well that the conference was previously canceled, as this year I had a lot more to talk about on the panel at which I was presenting: Information Technology and Public Deliberation: Research on Improving Public Input into Government. We each gave 20 minute introductory presentations.
My goal was to convey that (1) involving participants in the process of sorting through what other people are saying can help address sensemaking challenges as well as improve the experience of participation, that (2) Reflect is awesome, and that (3) previous approaches to deliberative technology have been heavy-handed and that interfaces which nudge people toward certain kinds of behaviors haven’t been terribly well explored. Here’s a narrated slideshow (it has substantial overlap with my CHI DC talk):
The other panelists were Peter Muhlberger, a political psychologist who has tenaciously studied deliberation, sometimes by collaborating with techies on new deliberative technologies, and Mark Deckert, a CS PhD student from UCSC working with Warren Sack.
Peter, the chair, made an introductory remark about the panel’s position with respect to the rest of the conference: most of the focus to that point was on the delivery of e-services, rather than public discourse. The panel thus served as a bit of a counterbalance to the rest of the conference. This is likely partially due to DGO’s inertia in the e-government context.
The core of Mark’s presentation was about Metavid, an open archive of congressional hearings that Mark helped to build. Mark’s thesis work is about building a discussion platform around Metavid for inviting real scientific experts (and explicitly representing their expertise) to comment on so-called expert testimony in congress (whom are often NOT real experts). The goal is to improve the public discourse around scientific policy making by grounding the discussion with scientific expertise.
Peter ended the presentation portion with a fascinating talk. It had two parts:
- Technical description of The Deliberative E-Rulemaking Project (DeER). They’re trying to create a methodology and supporting technical framework for online multi-level deliberation, where small groups talk, representatives from the groups deliberate at a higher level, etc, trying to get information and discussions to then propagate back down and between groups. Some of the technical components they’re building out are automatic summarizers and discussion facilitation software agents.
- The frustrations that Peter and his colleagues have experienced in their attempted collaborations with government agencies. Multiple (unnamed) federal agencies led the team for months (six in one case) to believe that they wanted to engage in a serious online deliberative exercise, but then bailed at the last moment when it became clear that they could not control the outcome. One agency even went out and found 80 participants who already agreed with the agency’s desired outcome and suggested that they form the pool of participants. Experiences like this occurred under agencies headed by directors appointed by both Bush and Obama. The result is that Peter and colleagues have largely not been able to test out many aspects of their technical platform because it requires far more data to learn and act (NLP / AI approaches). This really made it clear just how long of a way we have to go to make headway in the public “participation” and “collaboration” aspects of gov 2.0.
The Passport One last thing to say. I had an adrenaline pumping adventure leaving Mexico. With 1 hour until my flight (its 6am), I managed to leave my passport in the back seat of my taxi, which I discovered as I tried to check in. This was doubly bad, as I don’t speak Spanish. An airline attendant took me to a back room, where we started calling random taxi companies after we failed to contact the Universidad (who employs one taxi service). After 30 minutes of fruitless calling, I ran outside to check if the passport had fallen out of the taxi when I stepped out. Nope. But I ran into some students from the Universidad who happened to speak English. They asked their taxi driver about which service the Uni operated. He knew: Taxi FAM. I ran back inside and had the airline attendant find their number. Not in the phone book. But airport info knew it. Got into contact with the taxi service, where we learned that the taxi driver had found the passport and could get it to the airport in 20 minutes. 150 peso (<$15). I give a $20 bill to another airline employee who goes and waits for the taxi, while the other employee gets me through security and customs without my passport, contingent on the passport arriving. I wait. 15 minutes later, I see the airline employee sprinting in with my passport in front of him, where its passed through security. I get it, shake hands with the original airline attendant (who had come through security as well to shepherd me), and ran to the plane (they were waving wildly at me to hurry). I get on and the plane immediately takes off. Well not quite immediately, but immediately enough.
Think its time for some rest? Not quite; I start wading into Cliff Lampe’s classic “Slashdot and Burn”, but quickly get caught up in a (largely one way) discussion with the Mexican gentleman on my right. I end up trying to decipher what he’s talking about (over his accent, the airplane noise, crying baby, and popped-ears) for the rest of the trip, trying to figure out if he’s a well-balanced man who has figured out some tricks to a happy life or a thriving criminal mastermind who is trying to educate me on how to beat the system and come out ahead. Whichever, he certainly had a methodology that I understood about 85% by the end of the flight. One second he’s talking about $.01 here, then its pushing a million over here. I’m still not sure what to make of him, but he gave me his number if I never need a tour around Houston or Puebla (he spends 15 days in Puebla, then 15 days in Houston, with offices and a home in each, within 20 minutes of the airport, on either side; he makes sure to show me the Houston area ones, as we land, which are visible).
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