The craft + tech of structuring participatory deliberation

RSA kickoff webinar on deliberation

As a Fellow of the RSA I’m happy to draw attention to the important new series of webinars just launched, on the critical role that effective, participatory deliberation has to play in resolving complex challenges, even apparently intractable dilemmas — at many different scales, from an organisation, to a local community, city, regional or even international scale.

As happens sometimes, I ended discovering a colleague at my own university doing fantastic work! Check out Nivek Thompson and her Deliberately Engaging portal. In prepping some notes for her, I thought I might as well blog them in case of wider interest to this community.

Hypermedia Discourse

A lot of my work has investigated a particular way in which software can help make thinking visible, the focus of all my work. Such tools seek to “augment human intellect” in Doug Engelbart‘s memorable words (my tribute to his inspiration for my work, and what he thought about this [Visualizing Argumentation]).

Here are some examples of how this works:

  • Make aspects of the conversational structure visible. Once a phenomenon is visible, rendered in a visual language that provides helpful ways to reflect on what is unfolding, it can be talked about, and is an “improvable object”. The Hypermedia Discourse project prototyped and evaluated the potential of combining models of dialogue and argumentation, with hypertext functionality for connecting issues, ideas, arguments and documents. Since we were interested in discourse about wicked problems, differences in perspective were the default starting point.
  • Support online forum moderators/facilitators assess the health of the conversation. A well designed user interface helps online participants to structure their contributions in ways that can provide the software with new ways to check the state of the debate (not possible with conventional flat chats, or threaded forums), and reflect this back to participants and/or moderators (see the Catalyst project for example).
  • Help to track ideas. Hypertext systems (more powerful than the Web) provide flexible ways to keep track of ideas (nodes), not just information. Anna De Liddo’s doctoral research is an example of how this can provide new forms of accountability in the participatory process ((in her work, for participatory urban design).

An important strand of our work was examining the facilitator skillset and disposition required to make good use of visualizations in real time, to augment the deliberation. Spearheaded by Al Selvin’s doctoral research, this led to a book that set out the concept of Knowledge Art.

Collaborative Evidence-based Problem-Solving

More recent work led by Tim van Gelder at Melbourne University (an Argument Mapping philosopher and software entrepreneur) has broken new ground in a particular niche of the design space: how do you convene a team of citizens to tackle a complex problem, with the challenge of devising an evidence-based, plausible analysis of the best way forward?

They have just published exciting results demonstrating that some teams of volunteers recruited via Facebook performed as well as, and in some cases better than, teams of professional intelligence analysts. See the paper to appear in the Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision Making on the Hunt Lab website, and this CIC webinar.

The emergence of NLP to detect critical, reflective writing

Natural Language Processing (NLP) has in recent years emerged from the AI labs into the mainstream. This has been a recent focus of my work, in the context of giving students instant feedback on their drafts. This has yet to be deployed in the context of participatory deliberation, but here are some preliminary reflections on where the automated detection of shallow and deeper reflection might assist participants posting online to reflect on how they are reacting to challenges — from other people, or the turbulent life events that are threatening dearly held assumptions, and ways of life.

Might the growing potential of NLP to make sense of rich, narrative prose offer the optimal combination in years to come — playing to the respective strengths of machines and humans to make sense of the world?

Power tools (and new literacy?) for deliberation professionals?

I remain excited about the potential of interactive, usable visualizations to help tackle the limitations of individual and collective human cognition. I have also seen first hand how hard it is for people to learn to structure their thinking more carefully than firing off their thoughts in the usual way. The role of the deliberation facilitator can be absolutely critical to modelling and scaffolding stakeholders into more reflective modes of reflective dialogue and rigorous argumentation.

That provides the basis for a good conversation with the growing international networks of deliberation experts who will also be working increasingly in online or hybrid modes.

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