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Archive for the ‘YourView’ Category

In an excellent post Ben Rattray, founder of change.org,  suggest that technology can help improve democracy by addressing  what he calls three core needs:

  1. Mass Civic Participation: Citizens need effective outlets for expressing their voice on the issues that matter to them more often than every 2–4 years, and at the local as well as the national level.
  2. Responsive Government: Elected officials need to be responsive to citizen concerns and directly engage with them in a way that ensures they feel authentically heard.
  3. Trusted Information: We need a new channel of distribution for political information that elevates trusted sources to guide citizens as they take civic action — a trust graph for politics.

Later in the post he elaborates  the idea of a trust graph for politics:

This isn’t something we’ve yet developed, but since we believe it will be a crucial component of any successful democratic system and an important part of our future, I’ll outline our current thinking here.

The foundation of this trust graph for politics is based on asking each citizen to follow the people and organizations whose political perspective they most trust — whether they’re friends, public intellectuals, business leaders, former elected officials, or public interest groups.

We would use this data to create a trust ranking index, similar to Google PageRank. The measure of how trusted a source is would not be based simply on their total number of followers, but on the number and diversity of other highly trusted people who follow them, whose trustworthiness would be measured by the number and diversity of other highly trusted people who follow them, and so on. The result would be to surface the people and organizations of all political perspectives who are highly trusted both by the trusted members of that community and by trusted people with different perspectives.

There is a striking similarity between this concept of a trust  graph and the notion of “credibility” we implemented in the YourView platform.  

The challenge we tried to address with YourView was that of identifying public wisdom on major public issues. Our idea was to create an online forum  which would encourage large-scale participation in high quality public deliberation, and to divine from that deliberation a collective viewpoint  which gave more weight to those participants who had more credibility which we defined as a demonstrated capacity to effectively engage in public deliberation.  Credibility was calculated automatically by algorithms embedded in the platform.  These had a pagerank-like quality in that  one of the key factors in building a strong credibility score was contributing in a way that met the approval  of high credibility people, particularly those who disagree with you. YourView thus encouraged participants to engage productively with people of the opposite persuasion rather than just preaching to the converted. 

Now, with major funding from the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency we are embarking on a project to build a platform for crowdsourcing intelligence analysis.  our plan is that the new platform will use YourView -like mechanisms, though in much more sophisticated ways, to identify the best analysts and to take advantage of that information in various ways to improve the quality of the results.

My hope is that what we  develop and build in this project will be of sufficient generality that it will also be able to be used  to address problems of democracy in broadly the manner  described  by Ben Rattray  and in our writings on the YourView project.

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[This post is in response to a request from a colleague for “the best thing to introduce someone to YourView”.]

The goal of the YourView project was to develop a platform for identifying collective wisdom, focusing on major public issues, aiming to remedy some of the defects of democracy.  The platform was a deliberative aggregator, i.e. it supported large-scale deliberation and its aggregated outputs reflected that deliberation.  The project was active from around 2011 to 2014, with its moment of glory being when the platform was used as part of Fairfax Media’s coverage of the 2013 Federal Election.

The YourView platform is still alive and can be explored, though there has been no real activity on the site since 2014.  There is a collection of pages and links about the YourView project.

The best theoretical overview is Cultivating Deliberation for Democracy, particularly the second half.  The “The Zone” interview by Fairfax’s Michael Short is a good read.

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We knew things were pretty dire, but a new poll has put some numbers onto our fears.

The “Citizen’s Agenda” survey from the University of Melbourne has found that voters are “pretty appalled” at the standard of political debate, with 57% of voters saying things are getting noticeably worse. Not surprisingly, the overall level of interest in politics is sliding as well.

These numbers underscore the numerous criticisms made in recent years by people who’ve been in the political trenches. Diverse luminaries such as Barry Jones, Lindsay Tanner, and Malcolms Fraser and Turnbull have complained that public political debate has never been so bad.

What’s happening here? Why, when Australians are more educated and connected than ever before, is political discourse being degraded?

A natural instinct is to search for somebody or something to blame – some dark force degrading public discourse for its own greedy purposes. The news media and politicians are popular suspects; others point to campaign managers, advertisers and spin merchants; or to television, the internet, or mobile devices.

Alternatively, we can view the problem through the lens of a simple and familiar metaphor: that people are, increasingly, just not playing by the rules.

Consider chess – a game with a limited set of clear and accepted rules. Rule-governed play typically delivers a clear outcome, with everyone agreeing who won or lost.

If we think of public debate as a kind of game, then the rules are the laws and conventions of logic and disputation, as articulated by logicians and rhetoricians over the centuries.

Public debate is of course not a game. It is a deadly serious business, often literally so. But that just makes it all the more important that people respect the rules.

So what’s going wrong?

One problem is that people often don’t really know what the rules are. For the most part, they have never been educated in logic and disputation, and would be pressed to give any account of the rules. It’s hard to play correctly when you’re foggy about what’s OK and what’s not.

Second, there will always be incentives to cheat. This can be straightforwardly foul play, like a rugby player throwing a punch under cover of a maul. Witness climate change deniers who trot out the argument that temperature hasn’t increased since 1998, no matter how many times its flaws have been decisively exposed.

Worse than breaking the rules is subverting them. This amounts to changing the game, or even destroying the game entirely. This sounds extreme, but Paul Krugman and others have been accusing US Republicans of precisely this gambit – of “refusing to live in an evidence-based world.”

Third, there’s no effective umpire. There’s no authority or expert whose role is to judge what’s legitimate and whose calls are accepted by all the players.

Finally, we all suffer from the problem that our mental machinery is poorly designed for the task. Public debates can get complicated, and the brains bequeathed to us by evolution don’t have enough “RAM” to comprehend the evolving state of play. And we are all subject a wide range of cognitive biases which reliably lead us to make errors of logic and to violate norms of constructive debate.

Surveying these factors, the prospects for any substantial improvement seem remote. Three – the incentive to cheat, the lack of an independent umpire, and cognitive limitations – are deep features of what is sometimes called “the human condition.” Education can in principle help people know what the rules are, but is a slow and unreliable way to effect social change.

Fortunately there is another option.

Think of public debate as taking place in various arenas. The floor of parliament is one; commentary in the mainstream media is another. The internet has allowed the emergence of new online arenas such as the blog- and Twitter-spheres.

The subtle but critical point is that these various arenas promote or discourage playing by the rules in different ways. Twitter, for example, makes complex chains of reasoning almost impossible, and promotes follow-chambers in which contrary views are all too easily ignored or ridiculed. Another example is comment forums on news websites, which encourage trolling by having the discussion open to all, and allowing anonymity (via pseudonymity).

However the programmability of the internet makes possible a great variety of arenas, and new ones aimed at improving public debate, and democracy more broadly, are proliferating around the world. Oursay, a partner in the Citizen’s Agenda project, is just one example, increasingly prominent in Australia.

Some of these forums are being designed to gently guide participants towards higher quality participation in political debate. One way to do this is to scaffold “nudge” participants to stick to the rules more often, perhaps by giving greater prominence to those who do.

An example is the German “Faktencheck” (Fact Check) project, which works in collaboration with mainstream media entities such as Frankfurther Allgemeine Zeitung to host public debates on current political issues.

Our project, YourView, is another example.

Forums such as these will continue to evolve and play an increasingly large role in public political debate. Lindsay Tanner has spoken of a “revolt of the engaged”. This revolt can go beyond just online fundraising and petitioning; if the forums are designed correctly, it can start to halt or reverse the slide in the quality of public political debate.

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This is an excerpt from a chapter to appear in a volume edited by Margaret Simons on “new media entrepreneurs”. 

What is the bare minimum a citizen needs to know in order to have a reasonable, informed opinion on a major public issue? This is not a trick question. Boiled down to the basics, a citizen needs to know what the issue is, the basic facts, and the key arguments for and against.

Consider negative gearing of real estate investments. Perhaps you think it is wise economic policy, or perhaps you think it an expensive rort. Either way, you really ought to know what negative gearing is (not everybody does.)  You should know critical facts such as how much it costs the government each year, who gets the benefits, and what other effects it might have, such as making rental housing more available and affordable. You’d need to be aware of the best arguments for keeping it on one hand, and the best arguments for abolishing it on the other.

Of course, having the bare minimum knowledge does not automatically lead to a reasonable opinion, and ideally a citizen would know much more than the bare minimum about the merits of negative gearing as one component of an efficient, equitable and sustainable taxation system.  My point is just that unless you have at least the bare minimum then your opinion is seriously ill-founded.

The trouble is, citizens often don’t have this kind of minimum knowledge. Choose an Australian adult and a major public issue at random and chances are that if they understand the issue at all they will be ignorant of key facts,  or misinformed and unaware of major arguments.

For example, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of negative gearing; indeed I’d even negatively geared the occasional investment. But when I sat down to draft a succinct summary of the pros and cons of negative gearing as a tax policy, I immediately discovered how incomplete and uncertain my knowledge was. It took the better part of a day of reading online, filtering, digesting, sorting and drafting to come up with a short written summary of what I needed to know. Only then did I really appreciate how half-baked my previous views had been.

Now, I will not rehearse here the reasons why this kind of ignorance is a problem for democracy. Nor will I heap blame on the usual suspects. Nor will I hand wave about how the schools, or the government, or the media, or someone should be doing something about it. Finally, I will not indulge any utopian fantasy of a fully informed citizenry.

Rather, I’ll make a simple suggestion.

It is not too hard for someone with suitable expertise to assemble the bare minimum information on a given issue in a short article with a fairly standard structure. You could call this a “backgrounder,” or an “explainer”. I like the phrase “issue clarifier”.

The suggestion is that for all major public issues, these clarifiers be produced and made easily accessible. Then, any interested citizen could rapidly obtain the most essential information on any issue whenever they wanted it. This alone wouldn’t solve the ignorance problem, but it would surely help.

An issue clarifier is a journalistic product. Writing issue clarifiers is a kind of journalism. Doing it well requires broad awareness of the political landscape, the ability to research, analyse and synthesize, and to write succinctly and clearly for a wide audience.  In our democratic system, we usually regard journalism as having a special responsibility for keeping the citizenry informed. Since issue clarifiers would obviously be useful in this regard, they should already be a mundane feature of the media landscape.

In short, my suggestion should be redundant. But it is not. Nowhere in the major media can you easily find such clarifiers. Very occasionally, something along these lines appears, but it is quickly lost under the torrents of news, the deluges of opinion, and the tsunamis of mass distraction such as sport, cooking, fashion, celebrity gossip, and so forth.

Why? Partly because issue clarifiers can be a bit  dull. They aren’t breaking news; they don’t exploit our appetite for the latest, freshest and most titillating.  Unlike opinion pieces, they don’t incite our tribal instincts. Being even-handed, they don’t comfort by stroking our prejudices, or enrage by challenging our convictions. The media survive by attracting attention, and issue clarifiers will generally struggle to compete.

It might also be argued that issue clarifiers are superfluous. The media already provide far more information and debate about major public issues than could ever be conveyed in a short issue clarifiers. Why add to this abundance?

It was once said that there are two ways to keep decision makers in the dark. One way is providing too little information; the other is providing too much. Similarly, the vast quantity of fast-changing news and vigorous debate in the media may actually be counterproductive, with respect to the goal of helping the public be basically well-informed on most major issues. Rather than educating, the net effect may be to bewilder and alienate; or to leave people under the illusion that they have much better knowledge than they do.

This can be seen as a market failure. There’s an obvious public good, the provision of issue clarifiers, not being addressed by “business as usual” in the Australian media. So, following the adage that a problem is merely a situation which has not yet been turned to your advantage, there is also here an opportunity. Can a new media player t this empty niche?

This is one way of looking at the YourView project…

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A recent survey in the US presented voters with three different plans with regard to the looming “sequestration“, without telling them which political party was behind each plan.  47% of Republican voters preferred a plan called The Balancing Act.   This plan, it turns out, was the one offered by the progressive Democrats.  And the Balancing Act plan was the most popular overall.

Further, a clear majority of Republicans rejected the plan put forward by their own leadership in House.

These results indicate a kind of mis-alignment.  On this issue at least, a substantial portion of the US population supports the Republican party even though their own views conflict with the party position. Crudely put, they’re supporting the wrong party on this issue.

What about alignment more generally?  To what extent do voters support – and vote for – the parties whose platforms are the best overall fit to their actual views?

I’ve been searching for data on alignment in the Australian context.   For example, how many Liberal voters have sets of views which are in fact more similar, overall, to the platforms of Labor or the Greens?  Or would have, if they had a chance to systematically consider what their views were, independently of how the parties stand on those issues?

This being the real world, where nothing is perfect, we can assume that there is at least some degree of mis-alignment.   At least some people, probably unknowingly, vote for the “wrong” party.

But how many?  And in what direction, if any, does mis-alignment tend?

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any data on this.  However I did find something which provides at least a clue.

The above-mentioned survey uncovered a second kind of mis-alignment.   The Balancing Act plan had received the least attention in mainstream media’s coverage of the sequestration issue.  So the national public debate was framing issues in a way which tended to exclude the option which voters found most attractive.

What about Australia?  How well do the political debates in the national mainstream media  accommodate the range of views held by the public?

On his Pollytics blog, Scott Steel wrote a very revealing post about this, called “What Australians Believe.”  After a lengthy and nuanced discussion of polling results, he concludes:

What comes out from this broad snapshot is that what Australians believe about the role of government in our society and economy isn’t necessarily what our institutions believe or practice, and probably hasn’t been for a while. Our beliefs as a country are certainly far removed from many participants in the national debate that pretend to speak on behalf of our population and on behalf of our interests.

Whatever the faults, foibles or otherwise of these national beliefs – and this isn’t an exercise in either support of, or opposition to them – our national debates on the role of government in our society and economy are becoming increasingly isolated from what the majority of the country actually believes.

Our public debates assume that the benefits of privatisation have reached a conclusion – the public believes that privatisation was and is a catastrophe and that government should own a larger sector of the economy because we trust government more than large private sector corporations.

Our public debates assume that smaller government and less regulation is universally beneficial – the public supports substantially higher levels of regulation on just about any topic you care to name and struggles to find something they’d like the government to become smaller in.

Our public debates assume that economic reform has been such an obviously beneficial thing to ordinary Australians that it no longer needs explaining – the public believes that corporations took all benefits of that reform, leaving them with little more than a casualised workforce and reduced job security.

In short, Steel seems to have revealed a quite dramatic mis-alignment between the actual views of Australians and the national public debates.   If true, this strikes at the heart of our democratic system.   Steel pessimistically concludes:

If we keep having our national debates like this – excluding larger and larger sections of our population and ignoring what they believe – they won’t be national debates, we’ll just be talking among ourselves generating ever increasing quantities of public opprobrium, contempt and general unhinging. If you haven’t noticed – this is where we are at right now.

Indeed.  Recent years have seen a chorus of complaints about the quality of public debate, and at the same time increasing disengagement by citizens from political parties and from politics more generally.

The mis-alignment between public debates and what Australians believe is not of course the same as mis-alignment in party support and in the polling booth.  But it surely strongly suggests significant such mis-alignment.  It would be strange if people ended up always supporting the parties which best represent their views, when those views tend to be sidelined in public debates which frequently reference party positions.

But this is just speculation.  What I’d like to see is real data.  Does anybody know of any?

Also posted on the YourView blog.

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While in Northern Virginia last week for a workshop on critical thinking for intelligence analysts, I was able to also do a couple of presentations at The Mitre Corporation, a large US federally-funded R&D organisation.  Audience including Mitre researchers and other folks from the US intelligence community.   Thanks to Steve Rieber and Mark Brown for organising.

Here are the abstracts:

Deliberative Aggregators for Intelligence

It is widely appreciated that under appropriate circumstances “crowds” can be remarkably wise.  A practical challenge is always how to extract that wisdom.  One approach is to set up some kind of market.  Prediction markets are an increasingly familiar example.  Prediction markets can be effective but, at least in the classic form, have a number of drawbacks, such as (a) they only work for “verifiable” issues, where the truth of the matter comes to be objectively known at some point (e.g. an event occurs or it doesn’t by a certain date); (b) they encourage participants to conceal critical information from others; and (c) they create no “argument trail” justifying the collective view.

An alternative is a class of systems which can be called “deliberative aggregators.” These are virtual discussion forums, offering standard benefits such remote & asynchronous participation, and the ability to involve large numbers of participants.  Distinctively, however, they have some kind of mechanism for automatically aggregating discrete individual viewpoints into a collective view.

YourView (www.yourview.org.au) is one example of a deliberative aggregator.  On YourView, issues are raised; participants can vote on an issue, make comments and replies, and rate comments and replies.  Through this activity, participants earn credibility scores, measuring of the extent to which they exhibit epistemic virtues such as open-mindedness, cogency, etc.. YourView then uses credibility scores to determine the collective wisdom of the participants on the issue.

Although YourView is relatively new and has not yet been used in an intelligence context, I will discuss a number of issues pertaining to potential such usage, including: how YourView can support deliberation handling complex issue clusters (issues, sub-issues, etc;); and how it can handle open-ended questions, such as “Who is the likely successor to X as leader of country Y?”.

Hypothesis Mapping as an Alternative to Analysis of Competing Hypotheses

The Analysis of Competing Hypotheses is the leading structured analytic method for hypothesis testing and evaluation.  Although ACH has some obvious virtues, these are outweighed by a range theoretical and practical drawbacks, which may partly explain why it is taught far more often than it is actually used.  In the first part of this presentation I will briefly review the most important of these problems.

One reason for ACH’s “popularity” has been the lack of any serious alternative.  That situation is changing with the emergence of hypothesis mapping (HM).  HM is an extension of argument mapping to handle abductive reasoning, i.e. reasoning involving selection of the best explanatory hypothesis with regard to a range of available or potential evidence.  Hypothesis mapping is a software-supported method for laying out complex hypothesis sets and marshalling the evidence and arguments in relation to these hypotheses.

The second part of the presentation will provide a quick introduction to hypothesis mapping using an intelligence-type example, and review some of its relative strengths and weaknesses.

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Prediction markets can be a remarkably effective way to divine the wisdom of crowds.

Prediction markets of course only work for predictions – or more generally for what I call “verifiable” questions.   A verifiable question is one for which it is possible, at some point, to determine the answer definitively.  For example, predicting the winner of the Oscar for best picture.   This is what allows the prediction market to determine how much each player wins or loses.

The problem is that many issues we want addressed are not verifiable in this sense.

For example, decisions.  Would it be better to continue to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, or should a military strike be launched?   We can speculate and debate about this, but we’ll never know the answer for sure, because one path will be taken, and the other never taken, and so we’ll never know what would have happened had we taken the other path.

Wouldn’t it be good if we had something like a prediction market, but which works for non-verifiable issues?

Amazon.com book ratings are an interesting case.   Whether a book is or is not a good one is certainly a non-verifiable issue.   Yet Amazon has created a mechanism for combining the views of many people into a single collective verdict, e.g. 4.5 stars.   At one level the system is just counting votes; Amazon users vote by choosing a numerical star level, and Amazon averages these.   But note that Amazon’s product pages also allow users to make comments, and reply to comments; and these comment streams can involve quite a lot of debate.   It is plausible that, at least sometimes, a user’s vote is influenced by these comments.   So the overall rating is at least somewhat influenced by collective deliberation over the merits of the book.

Amazon’s mechanism is an instance of a more general class, for which I’ve coined the term “deliberative aggregator“.   A deliberative aggregator has three key features:

  1. It is some kind of virtual forum, thereby allowing large-scale, remote and asynchronous participation.
  2. It supports deliberation, and its outputs in some way depend on or at least are influenced by that deliberation.  (That’s what makes it “deliberative.”)
  3. It aggregates data of some kind (e.g. ratings) to produce a collective viewpoint or judgement.

YourView is another example of a deliberative aggregator.   Yourview’s aggregation mechanism (currently) is to compute the “weighted vote,” i.e. the votes of users weighted by their credibility, where a user’s credibility is a score, built up over time, indicating the extent to which, in their participation on YourView, they have exhibited “epistemic virtues,” i.e. the general traits of good thinkers.

Many other kinds of deliberative aggregators would be possible.   An interesting theoretical question is: what is the best design for a deliberative aggregator?  And more generally: what is the best way to discern collective wisdom for non-verifiable questions?

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