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Workshop - Apr 28, 2009
Scientific Foundations and Challenges
Research Challenges/Possible Projects
A Social Participation Scenario: Promoting Energy Sustainability
Harry Hochheiser, March 13, 2009 (DRAFT)
Barack Obama's presidential campaign brought a ray of light into
perceived darkness of civil engagement. After years when many -
particularly younger - citizens were thought to have "tuned-out" from
electoral politics, Obama's technically-astute team developed web and
messaging tools that engaged millions of people.
This success presents a civic opportunity and a research
challenge. If well-used technology can help motivate unprecedented
numbers of people to become part of cause or movement, can this
approach be scaled and customized to address other pressing societal
concerns? If so, the opportunity might be great.
The challenges are substantial. Although the technological pieces are
there, they must be developed by technically-savvy groups with
substantial resources. Can this model be expanded to support groups
ranging from neighborhood associations to national movements? How can
social participation tools support open discussion, democratic
debate, and free expression without being swamped by spam, trolling,
or other destructive behavior? What will it take to encourage
participation - can Obama's success be replicated without a
charismatic leader? How can we assess the success (or failure) of
both these efforts and the tools that support them?
These questions form the basis for the proposed research agenda
behind the National Initiative for Social Participation. This
scenario presents the use of social participation tools in the
development of a tool for community-based energy sustainability
efforts: The Springfield Sustainability Portal.
The Springfield Sustainability Portal:
President Obama made a commitment to energy sustainability in his
economic stimulus plan, including inspirational calls for green
technologies, energy conservation programs, and reduced energy usage.
However, an equally strong social stimulus plan is needed to change a
deeply ingrained "addiction to oil" and other bad national habits.
A core group of concerned residents in the small city of Springfield
took this cause to heart. The key team members of the Springfield
Energy Activists (SEA) include Susan, a 45-year old mother of two
teenagers who has long been a community activist, Jenny, a 20-year
old college student majoring in environmental sustainability, Bob,
a 67-year old retired executive who wants to play a leading role
in the community he has lived in for 40+ years, and Sam, a 33-year
old town council member with an computer programming background.
Their initial goal was to develop a web site that could be used to
inform community residents about sustainability strategies, discuss
strategies for increasing impact, and to support and encourage
others to join the cause. Dubbed Springfield Sustainability
Portal (SSP), this site would form the basis of a site that can
serve both as a comprehensive community resource and a focal point
for organizing and coordinating related efforts.
Although the group relied on Sam as their "computer expert", they
sound found tools that were powerful enough to let any of them work
on the technical aspects of building the Portal. They decided to
use the popular Social Participation Web Components (SPWC) tools,
with Bob and Jenny taking the lead on the technical development.
Bob and Jenny team used SPWCs drag-and-drop web development tools to
construct a multi-faceted web application, integrating tools from
several popular web sites. SPWC provided valuable advice on
constructing a social participation site that will engage users and
encourage increasingly higher levels of participation and
commitment. Initial components included:
- Introductions to the SEA group's priorities and activities.
- A membership sign-in and management facility, including tools for
including pictures, biographical information, and links. Pictures
of the organizing committee members put a friendly and familiar
face on SEA efforts.
- An annotated greenmap of local resources including community groups,
vendors, contractors, and schools.
- Curated sections for advice and ideas.
- Discussion and news areas.
- Links to relevant state and federal legislation
- Contact information for relevant legislators and government
- Cross-linking facilities allowing ties to popular social
- Links to the National Sustainability network.
The SEA team knew that the site would evolve, but they were
confident that the SPWC platform will help them expand the site as
Having implemented a web presence, the SEA team started to build the
community. With Susan acting as recruiting chair, The SEA team
members used "community finder" tools to analyze their email
archives, chat logs,and social networking connections to find
colleagues and acquaintances who might be interested. These
interactive tools examined individual social networks - both real
(as in social networking sites) and inferred (chat and email) -
looking for keywords or phrases, and identifying (where possible)
both direct friends and indirect acquaintances who meet specified
criteria, such as living locally, or having discussed sustainability
Once each SEA team member identified a group of people to invite,
the community builder tool helped them construct appropriate
invitations. The tool suggested text indicating why people are being
invited, and providing useful hints (based on accepted best
practices) on constructing compelling messages for various venues,
including email, blog posts, social networking status lines, and
text messages. Before blasting these messages out, each team member
followed the advice of the community builder and personalizes the
content, making it more appealing to recipients. After the contacts
were sent, the community builder monitored email, social networking,
blogs, and other media, in order to track which invitations were
accepted, and when.
Susan used the group coordination tools to track the success of
these efforts. A variety of interactive, online graphs displayed the
number of people joining on a daily basis, along with indications of
the source. Although Jenny's invitations initially seemed to be the
most successful, the group was particularly pleased when
significant numbers of members seemed to be joining based on
recommendations from members outside the core SEA group.
Using skills and contacts from his successful city council campaign,
Sam took the lead in old-fashioned organizing and
community-building. He spoke to like-minded groups, gave
presentations at community meetings, and meeting with people at
neighborhood farmer's markets, telling everyone who'd listen about
the need for sustainable behavior, and what they'd learn by
visiting the SSP.
These efforts began to show some results, as illustrated by reports
generated by the SPWC platform, which showed steady increases in
various metrics, including number of registered users, frequency of
visits, volume of posted materials, and visits by unique guests.
More importantly, interesting postings of ideas for saving energy
and living more sustainably generated discussion and engaged
participants. Community members exchanged tips for saving energy and
insulating homes. The commuting board was busy with listings for
carpools and people looking for partners for walking or biking to
work. Forums for discussing community issues led to energy-saving
proposals based on modifications to street-light usage and garbage
collection routes. "Top savers" listing of successful energy-saving
proposals and "idea of the week" awards encouraged friendly
competitions among active participants.
As the community grew, Susan and Bob became the primary
"administrators", as they worked to ensure smooth operations by
following public discussions, monitoring posted items, and
responding to messages from members concerned about inappropriate
behavior. Bob and Jeny would help out when needed. Fortunately, the
software tools provided substantial support for moderation and user
management. The SEA team was particularly pleased with the
reputation systems, which allow members to recommend each other,
and related reward systems, which that gave users points
for making suggestions, posting tips, or influencing other members.
In the hopes of minimizing perceived barriers to participation, the
SEA team made an early commitment to allowing multiple forms of
participation. Individuals were allowed to participate completely
anonymously, pseudonymously, or fully identified using their own
Differing feedback structures encouraged active users to move
towards full membership: although pseudonymous members can be
recommended by others, only fully identified members can accrue
points. Members who accrue sufficient levels of reward points
could be invited to join the growing community of moderators and
facilitators needed to help oversee discussions.
The incentives encouraging full membership served dual
purposes. Fully-identified members made the community stronger, and
they required less maintenance. As anonymous or pseudonymous members
are more likely to make offensive or inappropriate comments or
submissions, reducing their numbers minimized oversight
overhead. Platform-provided tools that flag content for potentially
offensive terms helped in this regard.
The original SEA team realized from the start that a successful
effort would build a community that they could not control, as
members would suggest new directions and request new features. Aware
of the potential damage that might result from overly heavy-handed
management, they augmented the Sustainability Portal to include
tools for proposing new initiatives. Following advice that they
received on the Social Participation Portal - a network for groups
administering social participation efforts - they started this
effort with a discussion on the site, and worked towards a consensus
that support of 10% of active members (those who had participated in
the last 60 days) was sufficient for starting a new effort.
Few were surprised when the first new initiatives that were proposed
took a more aggressively political stance. A discussion on the
relative merits of individual and community action as opposed to
legislative and regulatory efforts led some active contributors to
call for tools that would help members understand and participate in
relevant political processes. Once support for this proposal passed
the requisite 10% mark, the SEA team - who still controlled
technical aspects of the site - used the web component toolkit to
add required functionality. The "political action center" was soon
flourishing, with lists of proposed legislative and regulatory
initiative linking to action items for concerned community members,
debates over political strategies, and background information from
regional and national groups.
Although praising and promoting successful efforts had long been a
successful component of the sustainability portal, controversy
developed over a proposed space for "shaming" individuals,
businesses, government agencies, or others who were seen as being
noticeably wasteful in their energy practices. Mary, a long-term
community activist familiar to many in Springfield, was the most
vocal advocate of this approach. Mary argued that undesired
recognition would help urge bad actors to change their ways, but
others expressed concerns about privacy and rights of
response. Others worried about the rights of individual "whistle
blowers" who might want to point out concerns without fearing
reprisals from employers or neighbors. A deliberative process,
facilitated by site tools that provided coordinated views of
arguments and responses, led to a proposal designed to allow
constructive feedback while addressing the legitimate concerns.
The "worst waster" tools that arose from this discussion used a
variety of strategies to satisfy these goals. All submissions were
to be moderated by a group of members with sufficiently strong
reputation ratings. A set of criteria for rejecting submissions
would be posted publicly. Submissions involving individuals would
not be allowed to use names or exact street addresses, but street
names would be accessible. Businesses, government agencies, or
other entities could be identified by name. All posters would be
encouraged to identify themselves, but anonymized postings
indicating the reputation points of the poster would allow
well-regarded members to act as whistle-blowers without fearing
backlash. Finally, violators identified as "worst wasters" would
have an opportunity to respond. Those who changed their practices
could qualify for a "best to worst" list.
Some local businesses and national corporations were very unhappy to
be identified as "worst wasters". Complaints about the model were
the focus of much debate in discussion groups on the sustainability
This debate grew more heated when Jim, a vocal critic of the "worst
waster" segment became a candidate for the SSP "oversight board" that
had final say over portal policies. This board, which "met" monthly
in a synchronous meeting via a public online forum, with complete
transcripts of all decisions, adjudicated disputes and determined
site policies. As the founding SEA members had long since moved on
to other projects, the oversight board consisted of active members
who were periodically elected by full members. Only full members
were allowed to run for board positions, with statements,
pictures, and dedicated discussion groups providing members with
The campaign debate over the "worst waster" features erupted when
Larry, a long-time member revealed that Jim, oppositional candidate
was in fact an employee of a public relations firm hired by a
corporation repeatedly listed as a "worst waster". Aware that this
information might cause a ruckus, Larry showed the evidence to his
friend George, who was also well-regarded on the site. Using site tools
for affirming confidence in another member's statement, George
supported Larry's claims, and Jim's campaign was soon
discredited. Although Jim was not seen much on the portal after
that, some members speculated that the pseudonymous user "PrGuy"
was, in fact Jim.
As the Springfield Sustainability Portal continued to expand,
information sharing and ties with other like-minded groups helped to
increase its reach, while opening up larger scale information
sources to members. Links to comparable sites provided members with
information and suggestions from neighboring towns and counties,
while aggregated statistics regarding impacts helped drive the
development of regional coalitions that were able to play a forceful
role in state politics.
The portal itself soon became seen as a model. Using the same web
component software that was used to originally create the site, the
site maintenance team bundled the collective functionality into a
package that could be redistributed and easily redeployed by other
The challenges of sustainability were by no means conquered, but each
success empowered members to move further.
1 - End user configurable tools for constructing complex web sites
from common components.
2- Rich user models, allowing anonymous, pseudonymous, and
3- Reputation and reward schemes for various actions.
4- User contribute content and moderation facilities.
5- Support for online deliberation and group decision making
6- Integration with existing social networking tools.
7- best practices for motivating messages to encourage participation
8- Tools for examining multiple personal social networks for
understanding of shared interests and identifying contacts.
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