(This new seeding project has just been accepted for funding from the Institute for Broadband Enabled Society (IBES) at the University of Melbourne. Led by VeRSI and myself, it is a short project with results available towards the end of the year or early next year).
Summary of Proposal
The Internet is recognised as a vital component of our political information systems. Although extensively used by governments and civil society groups, its effects upon political processes; particularly deliberative political processes, currently remains relatively unknown. Emerging research suggests that the Internet’s capacity to easily produce information has also led to data overload, undermining its deliberative potential. With the advent of the National Broadband Network the ‘data deluge’ promises to intensify increasing the need for political information—in its various guises—to be delivered in much more meaningful ways. This is especially important for younger audiences who are increasingly abandoning broadcast media in favour of online political information.
This project is an iterative study and design of an online ‘Political Issues Analysis System’ (PIAS) to assist users’ research and analyse political issues. It will deliver information about important political topics (ie. environmental issues, socio-economic issues, immigration, government policy etc.) using important data sources within a coherent ‘deliberative’ framework. It will evaluate the needs of users to comprehend political issues through the application of a number of semantic indexing and data matching tools and design a prototype system. It will do this in part through five public workshops using the University of Melbourne’s Usability Lab; each workshop focussing on a particular issue utilising particular tools and methods. It will in tandem uncover recommendations to assist in the design of a unique software tool that fosters user-driven processes to effectively filter and visualise online political information obtained from government data-sets (partly within the ‘Government 2.0’ policy framework), the media, NGOs, historical data, and other user-generated online sources; (blogs, video etc).
The outputs of the research will be a working prototype as well as a report documenting the research outcomes with a series of recommendations for further research. This project may lead to the first major study of online deliberative processes within Australia; competitive within the ARC’s Linkage or Discovery scheme. The work will be of benefit to governments, community groups and other major producers of political sites and the users of such sites. The project is within IBES’s Social Infrastructures and Community theme and in particular, adheres to IBES’s and VeRSI’s shared aspirations ‘to make existing and available data more accessible’. In summary the broad aims of the project are:
- To explore the evolving applications of online political information tools in an Australian and International context (especially in the analysis of broadband-enabled video and audio)
- To examine deliberative processes with a number of stakeholder groups using semantic indexing methods and various communication tools at the University’s IDEA Lab.
- To build, test and provide further recommendations for a ‘Political Issues Analysis System’ (PIAS)
Through these processes we address the following research questions:
- How can we better understand online deliberation in the international and Australian context and what tools need to be developed to assist this?
- How can we better design deliberative ‘ideas’ using data and online analysis tools that will involve people in a meaningful and inclusive way in consequential goal-orientated political processes?
Approach and Outcomes:
The combination of theoretical groundwork, empirical study, and the design and implementation of the PIAS, will make an important contribution to the emerging body of research on the nature of political information on the Internet and in particular, the use of government data within it. Of chief significance is that the research will make explicit and open up to critical analysis the dichotomy between the availability of government and other data sources and effective online deliberative design. By consciously foregrounding information abundance as a condition of the present ‘information revolution’—through a unique fusion of political theory with semantic analysis and clustering tools—new perspectives will emerge and fresh research areas in design will open up.
The approach, then, is both innovative and unique because it combines the theoretical sophistication of Politics and Media Studies with the technical proficiency of Humanities Computing, eDemocracy, and Information Systems to expose important issues of online political information to critique in ways that were previously unavailable.  The work will open up theoretical and technological pathways towards a more genuinely identifiable (and sustainable) online political engagement and democratic structuring.
Technology and potential collaborators:
Potential collaborators for this work include the UK’s mysociety.org. They have developed some of the UK’s most well-know sites including TheyWorkForYou.com and its local derivative, OpenAustralia.org. The open source solutions, API, raw data and results will be collaboratively developed and shared with mysociety and OpenAustralia to complete the PIAS. Likewise, solutions developed through the ‘inquiry into Improving Access to Victorian Public Sector Information and Data’ as well as the Federal ‘e-Government Strategy’ will be investigated and may provide potential collaborators. In essence the PIAS is a ‘parsing’ project; to parse structured government and other data sets to extract and deliver meaningful political information to a general audience. It will explore ways to crawl, cluster and analyse unstructured data contained in blogs and other ‘unofficial’ sources including video and audio (perhaps using XPROC processing).
The broad samples obtained through the PIAS iterative design workshops and subsequent prototype will provide a unique model to analyse web-based dialogue, agenda setting, and responses to official government positions on important political topics. This work may be up-scaled at a later date to include other collaborators; particularly the Pollsters who may be eager to invest in such a system.
One of the first major agencies to coin the term the ‘Data Deluge’ was the UK’s JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee): Briefing Paper, Data Deluge: Preparing for the Explosion in Data, 1 November, 2004 <http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/briefingpapers/2004/pub_datadeluge.aspx
> (Accessed 14 May, 2010).
 See: Clare Kurmond, Readership Decline Continues for Papers, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 14 Mat, 2010
< http://www.smh.com.au/business/media-and-marketing/readership-decline-continues-for-papers-20100513-v1tk.html> (Accessed 14 May, 2010).
Interaction Design Evaluation Analysis (IDEA), Department of Information Systems, University of Melbourne,
< http://disweb.dis.unimelb.edu.au/research/interactiondesign//usability_lab.html> (Accessed 14 May 2010).
 Carson, L ‘Avoiding ghettos of like-minded people: Random selection and organisational collaboration’ in S. Schuman, (ed) Creating a Culture of Collaboration, ed. Jossey Bass/Wiley.pp.418-423.