Facilitating mass collaboration in assessments

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Web workspaces will bring science and citizens to policy-making

The Internet has overturned the ways of making business and communication. In the near future, Internet will also overturn the policy-making and bring science and citizens as its seamless parts. This development will affect all sectors of regulation and policy-making. Policy-making is simple in principle. First, a problem that should be jointly tackled is identified. Then, ideas are generated about actions to solve the problem, the actions are assessed, and finally a decision is made and actions are taken.

The actual decision-making should be left to those who have the authority to do the decision. In contrast, anyone can - in theory - participate in the identification of problems, generation of ideas, and assessment of actions, i.e. the actual policy-making, in an open civil society. Participation has been a severely underutilised opportunity, but new web-based workspaces for mass collaboration are overturning the status quo. On the one hand, they utilise the knowledge and visions of a large group of people. On the other hand, they can organise this information into science-based assessments.

Although policy-making is simple in principle, it has many practical difficulties that prevent optimal work. There are always numerous policy options, but despite this a majority must be found among a discordant group of decision-makers behind exactly one option. Therefore, it is practical to agree on some issues beforehand. The discussion on these issues is discouraged during the policy-making process, and the decisions are made according to the base line. It is also common that the best options are ignored, and the effort is put to promoting the option that is believed to have chances to be elected. This has been a way to make sure that at least some suitable option is elected. But when there are a lot of practical constraints, the resulting policy is mediocre at best.

In web workspaces, it is possible to search for the best policy alternatives, because the participants are not bound to pre-defined constraints. This is a way to learn what could have been achieved if the political constraints didn't exist.

The political discussion is mainly performed in committees and other political bodies with the size of a few dozen at most. However, most of the wisdom always resides outside the committee, irrespective of how it is formed. Internet has broken the restrictions about the number and physical location of people who can effectively participate in a political discussion and information exchange. Today anyone can immediately bring up her own knowledge and opinions available to everyone else. However, despite the avalanche of blogs, the monopoly of policy-making has not slipped out of the hands of politicians. This is because no-one has resources to organise blogs into a coherent description of an issue. Web workspaces are finally making it easy enough to collect and organise information into a useful form for policy assessments. This is possible even without restricting participation in any way.

In science, open access journals and web databases are already routinely being used as sources of information. In the future, the actual scientific work will be done more and more in web workspaces. The same workspaces can also be used for policy analysis. Such a workspace, Opasnet (http://en.opasnet.org), has been developed especially for promoting societal decision-making.

How do these web workspaces work?

In a web workspace, everyone shares her own information with everyone else, and utilises information provided by others in her own work. A workspace looks a lot like Wikipedia, but it is more strictly regulated. The information structure and code of conduct are designed to build a large, coherent whole based on small, fairly independent pieces of information. In a web workspace, precise questions are asked: What is the impact of the price of alcohol on the consumption? What impacts does an exemption to the dioxin directive have on public health in countries that are allowed to market Baltic herring? What are the health impacts of new amendments to EU GHG trading system within the population of greater Helsinki? Which are the causal pathways that mediate these impacts? Scientifically defendable answers are sought for these questions. Poor answers are constantly being rejected and better ones are being developed. The questions, the answers, and the reasoning behind the answers are being recorded in detail. Answers are being improved in collaboration, until they satisfy the information need at hand.

Web workspaces are based on a few basic principles. The work is performed openly, and everything is subject to improvement. Anything can be freely criticised, but only on the grounds of three things: illogicality, irrelevance in its context, and a conflict with observations. Uncertainties and causal dependencies are systematically and explicitly expressed. The main tool here is probability, especially conditional probability distributions and Bayesian nets.

Open workspaces are not an obvious choice in science, and they are being criticised. On the one hand, the scientific quality is doubted. However, peer review can be applied in workspaces just like in open access journals. On the other hand, scientists don't participate in web workspaces, because other scientists don't do it either. Mass collaboration does yet not bring similar scientific merit as traditional articles. This is a more severe problem and will be alleviated only when the effectiveness and efficacy of web workspaces have been clearly demonstrated in one area, and the merit has been given to the participants.

It could be easier to overcome the latter problem in policy-making than in science. In both areas, there are people who hope that their participation will improve decisions and consequently the world. However, in policy-making, it is probably easier to find a critical mass of people whose survival does not depend on the accumulation of merit. When the critical mass of people find each other in a web workspace, a political revolution will start.

We need that revolution. Global food crisis, increase of the population of the world, climate change, oil dependency in all sectors including agriculture are each a major challenge. Now we should develop compatible policies for all of them at the same time. We urgently need the thinking, information exchange, and information synthesis by thousands of people.

No committee can do that, but web workspaces can.

Facilitating mass collaboration

To facilitate the synthesis of diverse knowledge and plurality of views in assessments, the collaborative workspaces require functionalities that support mass collaboration, e.g.:

  • Facilitating communication between participants
  • Facilitating documentation and representation
  • Dealing with disputes
  • Managing openness
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Facilitation of mass collaboration by means of a web-based collaborative workspace [1].

In fact the collaborative workspace is the location of storing, manipulating and representing the target of work, the description of reality. It enables the participants to send their messages by making their contributions to the description and other participants to receive these messages. Enabling this communication through the target of work is the primary function that the assessment workspace needs to provide. In many cases, managing openness can also turn out crucial in practice. Providing tools to manipulate external data within the workspace in order to help the participants to create and support ones contributions may be convenient and efficient, but in principle secondary, for the assessment workspace.


  1. Harrer, A., Moskaliuk, J., Kimmerle, J., and Cress, U. 2008. Visualizing wiki-Supported knowledge building: Co-evolution of individual and collective knowledge. WikiSym 2008 Proceedings [Online]. Available at: http://wikisym.org/ws2008/proceedings/research%20papers/18500052.pdf [Accessed 31.10.2009].

See also