Knowledge mappers empower e-democracy?


Horst Rittel‘s IBIS scheme for argumentative dialogue was designed to scaffold participatory inquiry around wicked problems such as urban planning, with messy social, political and technical dimensions (2 key papers). Jeff Conklin‘s gIBIS (graphical IBIS) tool was one of the pioneering hypertext prototypes from the late 1980s. This used the exciting new graph layout capabilities of high-end workstations which only researchers got to play with in those days.

Our Compendium hypermedia knowledge mapping tool is the direct descendant of gIBIS, and our interoperable Cohere tool moves this into the Web 2.0/3.0 sphere. Meanwhile, other groups have developed Web tools around IBIS, which seems to be emerging as the lingua franca for lightly-structured deliberation tools (Debategraph; MIT’s Deliberatorium; others…) which go beyond simple commenting or threaded discussions. Participatory Urban Planning has, not surprisingly, continued to be a prime applications testbed for Compendium.

As well as innovating on the technical side, the core question on which we continue to work with Jeff and many others, is how to use such visualizations to genuinely add value to face-face and asynchronous dialogue, debate and deliberation over courses of action.  Since the emergence of gIBIS and other hypertext mapping tools 20 years ago caused the initial flurry of excitement with the Hypertext, HCI, CSCW and Design Rationale research communities, the widespread perception has been that these never really ‘took’, and embedded into everyday practice. However, the substantial body of work that has now been done to articulate the practices that make such tools effective (reviewed here, plus Jeff Conklin’s work on Dialogue & Issue Mapping and Al Selvin‘s work on the practice of Knowledge Art) has led to a significant user community, as this post helps to illustrate.

From a tech query to some bigger questions

This started out as a technical query to the Compendium Institute‘s discussion forum, about supporting a community planning inquiry. Subscribe to the forum if you want to follow the thread.

On 6 Feb 2010, at 00:27, _________ wrote:

Hi Everyone,

I’m trying to make IBIS maps of a local environmental-vs-property rights issue available to residents of my community in a form that will allow them to comment easily. My idea is to prepare a set of issue maps in Compendium, export them as Web Maps, and tinker with the HTML of the Web Maps so that when those pages are clicked on, the users are taken to a form with blanks to enter additional comments, optional email address, etc., and a “Send” button to send this all to me. I will then be able to read their remarks and figure out how to add them into the map.

Trouble is, I have no idea of how to write a script to do this. I am a complete newbie to scripting.  [snip…]

Here’s an extended version of my reply. The options are hopefully of interest to others engaged in the practicalities of supporting e-participatory projects. But you can see it leads into some bigger issues of interest to those of us now wrestling with how we provide the sociotechnical infrastructures needed to enable the higher order Collective Intelligence needed to tackle wicked problems (eg. yesterday’s CI workshop here at CSCW).

I can see 3 options for enabling community members to engage with Issue Maps in Compendium:

1. Forget a technical extension

In the name of speed (you say you have little time and no programming skills), and simplicity (for respondents) — just get them to email you (or come round your house and sit with a coffee around a big printout!) The key value you already bring is as cartographer: mapping the state of the debate, and acting as a translator of new responses, succinctly summarising and connecting contributions. If every node was numbered manually by you, then you might prompt them to provide the relevant node number(s).

By the way, whatever solution you go for, sticking one or more poster(s) of it on the wall at the meeting might work well as a low-tech/hi-touch way of engaging people — around the largest format, highest resolution display available on the market 😉  Tim van Gelder describes the successful debate poster he posted on the wall of a company in an industrial dispute case study:

2. Link to a web survey tool

If you can’t face lots of emails, provide a single link to a free web survey site like Survey Monkey. It could have just one question! (and invite people to provide the node number)

I guess you could create a web survey question for each core issue to provide finer granularity, or even for every node. But going finer grained might cause you trouble — everytime you add a new node, the expectation would be that there would be a new, specific link from the issue map to the survey for it, which could get you into a version/maintenance nightmare. This might work for any map that wasn’t going to evolve rapidly, however.

3. Add a technical extension


I don’t think you’ll be able to do this quickly without tech help. What you are asking for sounds pretty much like the Web Compendium prototyped as a fuller solution by GlaxoSmithKline. They wanted a simplified, intranet, web-only user experience in the IE browser, and built quite a complete solution. (However, they didn’t have a moderator in the loop)

They demo’d this at the 2005 Compendium Institute workshop (see p5 of the PDF proceedings). Note: their slides are linked from the web map (but all web map exports from this era are now only interactive in Apple’s Safari browser, due to a change in other browsers’ code).

We never got to fold this into a main release in the end, focusing instead on enabling distributed Compendium over the net (avail in the forthcoming v2.0 beta release), and Cohere, while others developed IBIS web tools like DebateGraph and Deliberatorium.

Web IBIS tools:

You’ve said you don’t think DebateGraph provides the layout control and look+feel you want. You can try Cohere, though this may not be quite right for you yet either. Here’s an example Cohere IBIS discussion. This lets anyone signed in connect new nodes to maps.

However, this excludes you from the loop as moderator of contributions, where you add Issue Mapping expertise, and this is a key value add.

A knowledge mapping cadre empowers democracy?

It’s an interesting question whether it is more empowering for a community to be able to say what they want directly in IBIS (with the risk that this just descends into IBIS-flamewars because they lack the skills of good listening and critical engagement), vs. going through a facilitator (whom one hopes, they have learnt to trust) who maintains the hygiene of the map. This is just a version of some of the oldest questions about democracy: using a more highly skilled elite group, to empower all by acting as a control over excesses – which if done badly, turns into silencing.

Another approach is to devise better methods and schemes for scaffolding debate, such as Jack Paulus’ TruthMapping, which claims to reduce the possibility for poor contributions without any supervision from a moderator, but at the cost of requiring more critical reflection from contributors — this is an overhead that “normal” members of the public, especially hot-headed ones of the sort you refer to in your community context, may not be willing or able to make.

Is a more expert group of knowledge curators always going to be needed?

In yesterday’s Collective Intelligence workshop, we had a breakout group specifically around the key  challenges for CI in tackling wicked problems. I summarised some of the points as follows, flagging the first point in the context of this post:

The holy grail seems to be the self-organising/maintaining sociotechnical CI infrastructure whereby no-one does anything much extra beyond what they need to do for their own work, and CI emerges “for free”. But we may be deluding ourselves when it comes to the higher order collective cognition that wicked problems require. Maybe we will always need a tier of knowledge curators to tune and maintain the hygiene of a CI resource?

Other points are appended at the end. This seems to be a central issue that we have to address. For example, some of the debate maps that David Price has created have attracted significant coverage and attention, and are demonstrating that members of the public can contribute to an issue map which grows, and maintains coherence, without moderation. However, David has played a key role in seeding those maps — a key role to get things going, and I believe that there are areas of the map that could now benefit from “curation” (Perhaps I can invite David to comment, and Mark Klein on experiences with Deliberatorium?). Certainly, we know from Wikipedia and many other user generated content sites that there are important social dynamics by which members rise in the ranks to become editors with different roles and permissions.

So, it may be that we shouldn’t be “ashamed” to admit that a cadre of skilled issue/debate mappers is a key element in the architecture of participation around authentic, participatory e-democracy. We recognise the need for accountants to help us manage complex financial assets. No-one thinks it strange that cartography is a highly skilled profession, necessary to manage the complexity geographical spaces for society’s needs. Thus, Knowledge Cartographers may be the new craft, guild, or profession that we need to cope with the complexity of conceptual spaces, as we manage intellectual assets.


Other notes from the CI wicked problems breakout group:

  • Sometimes there is a decision to be made, but much of the time it’s about sensemaking to just track the changing environment.
  • Such problems fundamentally require building common ground across diverse stakeholders – empathy with others needed as a backdrop for critical debate/argumentation. Lots of work on how we foster genuine dialogue.
  • Social media may have an important role to play in making antagonists into real people (co-location helps with this, virtual co-location may help) – social capital
  • How to accelerate the building of common ground – meosphere provides lists to select from – cf. Hive5 lists as a precursor to team building
  • A UX challenge is helping users to move from very low effort contributions (eg tagging; rating) to higher cost, more informative ones (connecting; explaining) – we may be able to go back to users to invite more input. eg. on something they’ve said/tagged
  • Patty Hinds (Stanford) – cross-site visiting helped improve distributed programming, since it filled in gaps about people
  • Can be critical to work from the specific domain representations as the start of common ground.
  • Mapping from science to policy/practice is often key (cf. Simone paper on the different “cosmologies”) – we see this in medecine, urban planning, environmental policy, etc etc — a significant mapping/contextualisation task

3 Responses to “Knowledge mappers empower e-democracy?”

  1. Simon
    Thanks for bringing the discussion to this blog.

    If my “specific need” for visual display of discussions is inappropriate HERE. Please state so, and I gladly keep this discussion ‘clean’
    [ha ha ha – obviously I think I am gate-crashing 😉 ]

    I coach, and believe “displaying/refelcting” the thinking of my clients to be THE most effective tool in my practice.
    Currently I do that in 1-2-1 through reflecting the “structure” of what they are saying – kinda holding the mirror to their discussion.
    Not ignoring the ‘content’ of their story – rather add visibly the structure of their thinking that is producing their story.

    This is the scenario.
    A client present a ‘problem’ – that becomes the IBIS Statement.
    Then as coach I ask questions.
    Then client provide statements – supporting/opposing – with ‘data’ where and when appropriate.
    In other words I need the client to be able to state their content – within the IBIS structure –
    and then I add/comment on their thinking structure as “moderator” – afterwards – then ask the next question.

    I “need” to take this level of coaching to the web 😉
    Compendium – provide the ‘best’ process for me (my current understanding)
    how do I use Compendium (or any IBIS system) – interactive – and not ‘delayed’
    as then the e-motion is severely deleted.
    (as it is already somewhat through not being 1-2-1)

    I also want to apply this in couples mediation on the web.

  2. This seems to be a remarkably rich blog posting. I wish it were embedded in a constrained wiki so that it could be extended in a form that allowed convenient browsing. My personal wish would be to have it laid out in a zoom world where mousing anywhere magnified the entire world the right amount to make the material at the mouse cursor readable. Automatically providing syntactically correct places to add more content need not consume much space to dilute the room for existing content.

    When Jef Raskin (in “The Humane Interface”) discussed a hospital information system which still used the two main mouse buttons to zoom in and out, he failed to mention that novices learned the system in less than a single minute of training. Even computer experts learned it in less than two minutes.

    I think it was so easy because for tens of millions of years our ancestors successfully made it back to the nest or we would not be here. The talent for geographical navigation is built in to our DNA. We don’t have trouble remembering where the couch or the fridge is or how to get there. It is much easier than learning paths through layers of drop down menus. I suspect that automating the zooming will make it even easier. I call it JustGo on my website, but no examples have yet been built, to my knowledge.

  3. Richard, are you talking Google-Earth in Dialogue ???

    Imagine that !!!

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