Consultant Challenges Obama Activists to Use Web 2.0 Tools to Play Major Role in Government

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Grassroots political activists can now become active players in governmental processes, suggesting new legislation and evaluating existing programs because of web 2.0 tools including automated data feeds such as RSS or KML plus tools to turn that data into easily-understood graphic displays. Gov. 2.0 consultant W. David Stephenson of Stephenson Strategies challenged Netroots Nation attendees to test the approaches by becoming actively involved in the Obama campaign's "Listening to America" meetings and contributing data for discussion in the meetings.

use the power Web 2.0 tools give us to not just elect officials but to take active roles ourselves in policy making and keeping government accountable.

Web 2.0 consultant and theorist W. David Stephenson challenged political activists at the Netroots Nation conference Friday (Austin TX Convention Center, 9 AM) to "use the power Web 2.0 tools give us to not just elect officials but to take active roles ourselves in policy making and keeping government accountable."

He said there's an immediate opportunity for activists to apply the concept, creating visualizations of government data using Web 2.0 tools such as Many Eyes or Swivel to contribute to the "Listening to America" meetings the Obama campaign will host nationwide July 19-27 to help draft the Democratic platform.

Stephenson created a "topic hub" on Many Eyes (http://tinyurl.com/568obs) with a variety of data sets and visualizations on issues ranging from Iraq to global warming to spark use of the tools. He noted that Obama's white paper on technology specifically mentions data feeds and pilot programs to involve the public in decision making.

Stephenson predicted many government agencies will follow the District of Columbia's lead and release government data in easily-used formats such as RSS and KML, which in turn can unleash creative new approaches within agencies and involve the general public when citizens (or government employees) use Web 2.0 tools to turn data into easily understood visualizations that can be discussed and debated.

He said the ability to interpret data visually is critical, quoting data graphics expert Edward Tufte, who says "Often the most effective way to describe, explore and summarize a set of numbers -- even a very large set -- is to look at pictures of those numbers." Stephenson gave several examples of web sites that activists have created that illustrate the power of accessible data plus visualization:

  • a Google map pinpointing pothole complaints to the District of Columbia's DPW and tracking -- on a real-time basis -- the repairs' status today. He said this is an example of sousveillance: the public holds agencies accountable by documenting their performance -- or lack thereof.
  • illegalsigns.ca, which activist Rami Tabello created to embarrass Toronto officials into removing illegal billboards.
  • Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles, a collaboration between UCLA and community activists, combines and plots an a single map data on 7 "problem indicators" such as code violations or delinquent property that previously remained isolated. Seeing a single block where many danger signs are repeated should be a red flag to city officials to intervene quickly with coordinated services to halt the decline.

Stephenson concluded that "for years activists have demanded a seat at the table to help influence pending legislation, debate national priorities, and hold agencies accountable. Now the tools are available to allow this type of participation, and I challenge activists to use them and play a role in governing as well as electing new candidates."

Portions of Stephenson's presentation were originally part of a white paper on data streams and visualization that he co-authored for the nGenera Government 2.0: Wikinomics, Government and Democracy research program.

Stephenson Strategies provides Web 2.0 strategy services to government agencies and companies, with particular emphasis on strategies to empower employees and the public to play substantive role in policy evaluation and service delivery.

Stephenson's presentation is available online at http://tinyurl.com/5q3ywf

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DAVID STEPHENSON
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