Nine ideas for political, civic engagement from Knight’s election convening

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November 1, 2011 by Elise Hu

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The challenges to a well-informed democracy in today’s hyper-connected world are clear: Disengaged audiences, “filter bubbles” in which the information voters get is what they tend to agree with, and a lack of productive political discourse online.  But what can the media and technologists do about it? A year out from the 2012 presidential election, Knight Foundation brought together some of the brightest thinkers on these issues to brainstorm ideas.

First, the group identified its priorities:

1. Creating new tools or data to meet people’s information needs

2. Increase transparency of information about civic institutions

3. Encouraging place-based political discussion

4. Accelerating productive discussion and healthy partisanship in civic discourse

5. Creating a public access network that engages via new media forms

6. Popping the “Filter Bubble”

7. Creating new rituals for civic engagement

8. Helping journalism moderate (and curate) political debate

9. Creating a new visual language around policy/politics

10. Creating new interfaces and tools to encourage civic/media literacy and fluency

11. Reaching and engaging groups who aren’t regularly online

Smaller breakout groups took these concepts through rapid, collaborative brainstorming, and came up with concrete ideas to improve political journalism and communication going forward. Here’s a sample:

Get Purple Campaign: A campaign to improve civic and political discourse that uses smart technology and media to break the cliched red state, blue state divide.

Online Election Day and a Voting Month: There was talk about the need for new “rituals” around electoral activity. As things are now, some voters only begin to pay attention to what’s on the ballot in the days before an election. So why not extend that period in which they’re seeking out information by holding an online Election Day, a month earlier? Just as a straw poll can provide momentum or predict a candidate’s success, might an organized Internet vote that took place several weeks before Election Day increase participation?

Siri for Politics: She’s the girl of the moment — Siri, the the voice-based virtual assistant for every iPhone 4S owner. What if there were a Siri to answer a voter’s question about politics? Programmers could create readily available answers to common political and policy questions using data and reporting that’s already public. Then, this personal political information assistant would be available to answer questions on demand.  “How does the 9-9-9 plan work?”, for example. Siri for Politics likely This probably couldn’t answer questions that get too nuanced, but it could give basic context, and serve an explanatory function for voters that incremental news coverage doesn’t always provide.

Audience Annotation: Tools like DocumentCloud are already making annotating, uploading and sharing documents simple. Why not put annotation in the hands of voters who read political information, so they can highlight and share which phrases or claims make them angry, or how they feel about a particular part of a story or speech? This may be a simple way to get at what voters are really feeling about the news and information they read.

My Political Dashboard: Personalization is the “it” thing to do in technology today, so the idea here is to create a hyper-personalized information center for citizens in the form of a dashboard. Built-into the default dashboard would be a sample ballot including the most local of issues and candidates, a voter’s precinct and polling place information, important election dates ahead and an overview of all the measures and candidates from which a voter will be choosing. But this can go further, with...

“Mint.Com” for Voting: Just as Mint.com, the online budgeting tool, allows users to enter in all their assets and link up with their bank accounts so the program can visualize a user’s budget and offer saving tips, this tool could help a voter make choices by taking in information about his or her voting history, political preferences and more. It’s simple: You input your data, it tells you candidates and issues that are relevant to you, shows you your political preferences and helps you understand relationships between how you think and how public policy could be affected.

Follow the Other Side: Breaking out of the filter bubble was a key concern among participants. One technological suggestion was building a tool to let someone from an opposing point of view give a Twitter user 25 people to follow from the other side, allowing that user to see updates from people with other perspectives. This would last for, perhaps, only a 24-hour period. It would insert diversity into a user’s stream without it taking over forever, but give a window into opposing views and provide a foundation for possible discourse.

Agreement Finder: FactCheck.org’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson said the places of agreement between candidates and advocacy groups are most likely to lead to legislation or affect governance once folks are in office, but the press almost always focuses on areas of conflict.  So the brainstormers came up with an “agreement finder,” or a “common denominator filter.” It would be a tool that identifies common ground on issues between parties and people through what they have said publicly or through data of previous votes and decisions. The goal? To help voters understand similarities, since those are most likely going to turn into real laws or budget decisions.

Chat Roulette for Politics: There are those who snicker at the notion of Chat Roulette, since the real thing has been undermined by suggestive behavior. But what if a similar kind of communication tool was designed for those who wanted to talk issues and candidates? Users could fill out their ideological background and interests, then get on a web cam, and the “roulette” program would pair a user with someone from a different point of view to chat with.

These are just some of the ideas that the group in Miami came up with last week. To look back on the day as it was happening, we created a Storify of the tweets, multimedia and posts about the elections meeting. Check it out. And we’d love to know what you’re thinking about these starting points. Give us some feedback on what the group came up with in the comments or by tweeting @knightfdn.   

“We are about trying to get ideas out and making them happen,” Knight Vice President for Media Innovation Michael Maness says. To that end, John Bracken will share Knight’s thinking on next steps in this space later in the week. 

Elise Hu covered the event as a freelance blogger for KnightBlog. She is the digital editor of StateImpact at NPR.

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