My initial investigations into potential case studies and examples of e-participation initiatives has proved very fruitful indeed. I have been ably assisted in my trawl of the hundreds of examples currently available by the website e-participation.net – a useful database of e-participation initiatives in the UK, Germany and EU. Aiming to “show diverse developments and highlight examples of good practice” as well as trying to “encourage people to join one of these projects or to start their own“, this site is the perfect launching pad for my work. The site allows project teams to upload details of their own e-participation initiatives and allows users to tag and rate the projects. I have been able to look at a number of projects so far, with some posing great potential. There are locally targeted projects, such as TalkSwindon and HighlandLife, as well as UK national initiatives like the BBC Action Network and petitions.pm.gov.uk and EU forums such as legese.org. There are initiatives targeted at specific communities, too, such as LondonTeens, the Northern Ireland Youth Forum and HeadsUp. All of these examples, and many more warrant close inspection, a process that I am currently engaged in. I am hopeful that a range of case studies will prove to be suitable to the kind of research I have in mind. I am looking at the structure of the content, as allowed by the interface of the web site used to present the initiative as well as topic of conversation and community behaviour.
Another interesting example that I stumbled across is the UK Police initiative to harvest ideas about cost cutting and efficiency savings. Aimed at internal personnel but available to all via the internet this site has a similar structure to recent government initiatives such as SpendingChallenge and YourFreedom websites in that it allowed participants to publish ideas and comment on the ideas published by others. Like the other initiatives, the system suffered from submission of spam postings as well as inflammatory, and possibly deliberately overstated, comments and at first glance a lack of deliberation as comments seemed to be individual statements of opinion rather than interactions of discourse. Unlike the the other initiatives, the police review seeded conversations with initial questions and did not allow voting on comments. The example could prove useful if comparable systems are identified as it was aimed at a particular user group which may behave in contrast to the general public when participating.
Following on from the thoughts I had about Scott Wright’s research about “Third Spaces“, I researched a number of such for comments and interaction facilities. One particularly interesting example was found at Amazon.co.uk where it looked as though the facilities for discussing products had been adapted to become general discussion boards, categorised into a number of different themes, including a very well used politics section. The interface was designed to allow interaction through reply facilities and the social “path” of a conversation was recorded through username, date of posting and previous message responded to. There was also a facility to mark whether a post “adds to the discussion”, a measure of usefulness of contributions and, in aggregate, quality of the debate. These marks are also recorded against a user profile, raising the potential of a profile “respect” model. On the whole, the parts of the forum that I looked at seemed remarkably deliberative and discussions existed about particularly topical themes (for instance “Will a degree bring graduates enough income increase to pay for the degree?). It will be interesting to see if these “third spaces” can provide successful models for deliberative interface design or whether other factors are involved in fostering deliberation, such as the communities drawn to different platforms.