Interactive Online Platform Levels Playing Field of Public Opinion

The U.S. State Department recently launched a Web visualization forum to foster open dialog on foreign affairs. Does such a platform have potential benefits for state and local governments

by / March 30, 2010

In the age of Government 2.0, where everybody wants their opinions to be seen and heard, a new federal platform, launched by the U.S. State Department in March, takes the word "viewpoint" literally.

"Opinion Space," hosted on State.gov, bridges the worlds of politics and social media in an interactive visualization forum, where users can engage in open dialog on foreign affairs and global policies.

"Opinion Space will harness the power of connection technologies to provide a unique forum for international dialog," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a statement. "This is an example of what we call 21st century statecraft and an opportunity to extend our engagement beyond the halls of government directly to the people of the world. I can't wait to be a part of this exciting new conversation."

Accessible to anyone around the globe, Opinion Space was developed jointly with the University of California at Berkeley's Center for New Media (BCNM), which had been exploring new interfaces for the past decade, said Ken Goldberg, professor and BCNM director. The collaboration, he said, came about through friends who had been involved in Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

"They were interested in using new media and new technology to have participatory democracy," Goldberg said. "We thought it would be interesting, the possibilities that we could have users enter opinions that would position them in this 2-D space."

This concept, he said, promotes healthy political conversations in two key ways: It reverses the idea known as "cyber-polarization," where people online tend to migrate only toward people who share their views; it also eliminates the one-sidedness of heated political debates, where "the people who are the most extreme shout the loudest and can drown out the moderates," Goldberg said.

"How do you get people talking who would otherwise disagree?" he said. "That's our biggest objective: We want people to listen to each other, and this site levels the playing field so you can explore the full range of conversation."

Developers, he said, used the idea of "collaborative filtering," mathematical formulas similar to models used by sites like Amazon.com to recommend books and movies. With that data, the site can highlight which users have posted the most insightful comments, according to the masses.

On the site, white orbs pulsate like stars against a dark blue background. These orbs represent users and their position on the global opinion map. You can click on one to see where a user stands on the given question and rate the comment. More than 16,200 opinions have been collected on the site in less than a month.

A new discussion question relating to foreign policy priorities will be posted every few weeks, but currently, users must answer this one: "If you met U. S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, what issue would you tell her about, why is it important to you, and what specific suggestions do you have for addressing it?"

Even though this particular site was designed to foster open dialog on foreign affairs, can such a platform be useful at the state and local level? No state or local governments have yet approached BCNM about building a similar site, Goldberg said, but he believes the tool would help those governments collect viewpoints and make informed decisions.

 

Russell Nichols Staff Writer