Tag Archives: wiki

How GCPEDIA will save the public service

GCPediaGCPEDIA (also check out this link) is one of the most exciting projects going on in the public service. If you don’t know what GCPEDIA is – check out the links. It is a massive wiki where public servants can share knowledge, publish their current work, or collaborate on projects. I think it is one of two revolutionary changes going on that will transform how the public service works (more on this another time).

I know some supporters out there fear that GCPEDIA – if it becomes too successful – will be shut down by senior executives. These supporters fear the idea of public servants sharing information with one another will simply prove to be too threatening to some entrenched interests. I recognize the concern, but I think it is ultimately flawed for two reasons.

The less important reason is that it appears a growing number of senior public servants “get it.” They understand that this technology – and more importantly the social changes in how people work and organize themselves that come along with them – are here to stay. Moreover, killing this type of project would simply send the worst possible message about public service sector renewal – it would be an admission that any real efforts at modernizing the public service are nothing more than window dressing. Good news for GCPEDIA supporters – but also not really the key determinant.

The second, and pivotal reason, is that GCPEDIA is going to save the public service.

I’m not joking.

Experts and observers of the Public Service has been talking for the last decade about the demographic tsunami that is going to hit the public service. The tsunami has to do with age. In short, a lot of people are going to retire. In 2006 52% of public servants are 44-65. in 1981 it was 38%, in 1991 it was 32%. Among executives the average ages are higher still. EX-1’s (the most junior executive level) has an average age of 50, Ex 2’s are at 51.9, Ex 3’s at 52.7 and Ex 4’s at 54.1. (numbers from David Zussman – link is a powerpoint deck)

Remember these are average ages.

In short, there are a lot of people who, at some point in the next 10 years, are going to leave the public service. Indeed, in the nightmare scenario, they all leave within a short period of time – say 1-2 years, and suddenly an enormous amount of knowledge and institutional memory walks out the door with them. Such a loss would have staggering implications. Some will be good – new ways of thinking may become easier. But most will be negative, the amount of work and knowledge that will have to be redone to regain the lost institutional memory and knowledge cannot be underestimated.

GCPEDIA is the public service’s best, and perhaps only, effective way to capture the social capital of an entire generation in an indexed and searchable database that future generations can leverage and add to. 10’s of millions of man-hours, and possible far more, are at stake.

This is why GCPEDIA will survive. We can’t afford for it not to.

As an aside, this has one dramatic implication. People are already leaving so we need to populate GCPEDIA faster. Indeed, if I were a Deputy Minister I would immediately create a 5 person communications team whose sole purpose was two fold. First to spread the word about the existence of GCPEDIA as well as help and encourage people to contribute to it. Second, this team would actually interview key boomers who may not be comfortable with the technology and transcribe their work for them onto the wiki. Every department has a legend who is an ES-6 and who will retire an ES-6 but everybody knows that they know everything about everything that ever happened, why it happened and why it matters. It’s that person everybody wants to consult with in the cafeteria. Get that person, and find a way to get their knowledge into the wiki, before their pension vests.

Lessons from the Globe and Mail's Policy Wiki

I’ve been observing the Globe Policy Wiki with enormous interest. I’m broadly supportive of all of Mathew Ingram’s experiments and efforts to modernize the Globe. That said, my sense is that this project project faces a number of significant challenges. Some from the technology, others around how it is managed. Understanding and cataloging the ups and downs of such this effort is essential. At some point (I suspect in the not too distant future) wikis will make their way into the government’s policy development process – the more we understand the conditions under which they flourish, the more likely such experiments will be undertaken successfully.

Here are some lessons I’ve taken away:

1. The problem of purpose: accuracy vs. effectiveness

Wiki’s are clearly effective at spreading concrete, specific knowledge. Software manuals, best practice lists and Wikipedia works because – more often than not – they seek to share a concrete, objective truth. Indeed “the goal” of Wikipedia is to strive for verifiable accuracy. Consequently, a Wikipedia article on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi can identify that he was born on October 2nd, 1869. We can argue whether or not this is true, but he was born on a specific day, and people will eventually align around the most accurate answer. Same with a software wiki – a software bug is caused by a specific, verifiable, set of circumstances.  Indeed, because the article is an assemblage of facts its contributors have an easier time pruning or adding to the article.

Indeed, it is where there is debate and subjective interpretation that things become more complicated in Wikipedia. Did George Bush authorize torture? I’ll bet Wikipedia has hosted a heady debate on the subject that, as yet, remains unresolved.

A policy wiki however, lives in this complicated space. This is because the goal of a policy wiki is not accuracy. Policies are are not an assemblage of facts whose accuracy can be debated. A policy is a proposal – an argument – informed by a combination of assumptions, evidence and values. How does one edit an argument? If we share different values, what do I edit? If I have contradictory evidence, what do I change? Can or should one edit a proposal they simply don’t agree with? In Wikipedia or in online software manual the response would be: “Does it make the piece more accurate?” If the answer is yes, the you should.

But with is the parallel guiding criteria for a policy wiki? “Does it make the policy more effective?” Such a question is significantly more open to interpretation. Who defines effective?

It may be that for a policy wiki will only work within communities that share a common goal, or that at least have a common metric for assessing effectiveness. More likely, Wikis in areas such as public policy may require an owner who ultimately acts as an arbiter deciding which edits stand and which edits will get deleted.

2. Combining voting with editing is problematic.

The goal of having people edit and improve a policy proposal runs counter to those of having them vote on a proposal. A wiki is, by definition, dynamic. Voting – or any preference system – implies that what is being voted on is static and unchanging; a final product that different people can assess.  How can a user vote in favour of something if, the next day, if it can be changed into something I may disagree with it? By allowing simultaneously for voting and editing I suspect the wiki discourages both. Voters are unsure if what they are voting for will stay the same, editors were likely wary of changing anything too radically because the voting option suggests proposals shouldn’t change too much – undermining the benefits of the wiki platform.

3. While problematic for editing, the Policy Wiki could be a great way to catalog briefs

One thing that is interesting about the wiki is that anyone can post their ideas. If the primary purpose were to create a catalogue of ideas the policy wiki could be a great success. Indeed, given that people are discouraged from radically altering policy notes this is effectively what the Policy Wiki is (is it still a wiki?). Presently the main obstacle to this success is the layout. The policy briefs currently appear in a linear order based on when they were submitted. This means a reader must scroll through them one by one. There is no categorization or filtering mechanism to help readers find policies they specifically care about. A search feature would enable readers to find briefs with key words. Also, enabling users to “tag” briefs would allow readers to filter the briefs in more useful ways. One could, for example, ask to see briefs tagged “environment,” or “defense” taking you to the content you want to see faster.

Such filtering approaches might distribute readers more accurately based on their interests. In a recent blog post Ingram notes that the Flat Tax briefing note received the most page views. But this should hardly come as a surprise (and probably should not be interpreted as latent interest in a flat tax). The flat tax brief was the first brief on the list. Consequently, casual observers showing up on the site to see what it was all about were probably just clicking on the first brief to get a taste.

Wikipedia: Community Management as its core competency

Last week Paul Biondich lent me The Starfish and the Spider and I just finished reading it (I know, I didn’t put it in the sidebar). Indeed, a number of people I respect have had great things to say about it – John Lily suggested the book ages ago and I remember reading his review and wanting to pick a copy up.

Tons of exciting ideas in the book. One that excited me most related to an idea (articulated by many people) that I’ve been trying to advance – namely that Community Management is core to open source. Specifically there was this exciting piece on how Jimmy Wales, the “catalyst” behind Wikipedia, spends his time:

Jimmy focuses a great deal of attention on maintaining the health of the Wikipedia community. “I go to speaking engagements all over the world at conferences, and everywhere I go I meet Wikipedia volunteers,” he told us. “Usually we go off to dinner and talk shop about Wikipedia. The Wikipedia gossip is the same all over the world-just the characters are different. The problems that affect community are always the same problems.” When he doesn’t meet the members in person, Jimmy spends “a ton of time writing e-mails internally, to the community, touching base with people, discussing issues that come up on the mailing list.” But “as far as working with Wikipedia, I don’t write articles. Very, very little do I ever edit. But I do engage with people on policy matters and try to settle disputes. (page 112 – paperback edition)

It could be that in starfish organizations the role of managers and leaders isn’t to tell people what to do, but help settle disputes, grease the wheels and make sure that groups are working well. Is this to say other expertise are not needed? Not at all. But it is great to see another take on how soft skills such as dispute management, facilitation, negotiation and mediation may be essential for sustainable success of starfish organization (like open source communities).

Political wikis and constitutional movies

So last week in a post entitled “simple, online, deadly & political” I blogged about “scandalpedia” a site created to highlight the problems and failed promises of the Conservative Party. In the brief post I wondered aloud how long before a similar wiki would appear to tackle McCain and Palin.

Apparently, not long.

Today I stumbled upon McCainpedia, a site run by the democratic party that tracks and exposes the campaign trail lies of John McCain and Sarah Palin. Holding someone to account over what they are saying is not dirty politics – it’s accountability (something all the more necessary since the press has been inconsistent in holding McCain to account for his predilection for truthiness)

On a separate note I finally watch the movie “The Queen.” I’ve been eager to watch it since Andrew Potter wrote an incredibly insightful review that also made the movie even more enjoyable to watch. If you haven’t seen it, or even if you have, I highly recommend reading Potter’s comments.

Open Source Legislation

The American Sunlight Foundation – which seeks to reduce corruption by using the power of information technology to enable citizens to monitor Congress and their elected representatives – has recently put its draft legislation online.

In a sense the draft legislation, entitled the Transparency in Government Act 2008 has been open sourced in that it can be read and commented on by anyone. Of course some may disagree since the process is not a wiki – people cannot edit the document directly (which would be much cooler) but it is nonetheless very interesting model. Indeed, the Sunlight Foundation very much views this project as an experiment.

Private members bills are allowed in Canada… one wonders how long before some intrepid MP uses this approach refine his or her proposed legislation and build popular support?

The long tail of public relations disasters

 “To create minor public relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike.”

Virgil Griffith, on why he created WikiScanner

The article below appeared in the Financial Post yesterday – thank you JJ for the hook up.

Admiteldy, this group is hardly that big, but you can imagine that 10, 20 or 50 of these popping up and it could start to become a pesky burden for a large oligarichal company, like, say, a Canadian bank.

I suppose this could be the longtail of protest and dissent. Made possible because the internet allows these frustrated consumers to band together.

Hey, this just came to me. You know who else benefits from this technology? Lawyers in class action suits.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Facebook helps rally dissent over ABCP losses
Scotiabank AGM

Jim Middlemiss, Financial Post Published: Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Facebook site created to advocate on behalf of retail investors in asset-backed commercial paper is gathering steam and members plan to take their message to the floor of the Bank of Nova Scotia annual general meeting today in Edmonton.

ABCP investor Reid Moseley plans to attend the meeting on behalf of Bank of Nova Scotia shareholder and independent Ontario financial analyst Diane Urquhart. Along with fellow ABCP investors Brian Hunter and Layne Arthur, the trio plan to attend today’s meeting to raise questions about the bank’s participation in the ill-fated, $35-billion non-bank ABCP market, which seized last summer.

The men collectively have more than $1.2-million of ABCP in their investment accounts with Canaccord Capital. Canaccord was sued last fall by two British Columbia holders of ABCP and in its legal response, the financial investment firm denied liability and blamed the bank’s related company, Scotia Capital Inc., which sold Canaccord the paper it then distributed to its clients. Canaccord has disclosed it has $269-million in exposure to ABCP, which is believed to be spread among 1,400 investors.

“We’re trying to get the proper proxies sorted out,” said Ms. Urquhart, adding she has identified as much as $770-miillion in ABCP held by retail investors at Canaccord and the credit unions.

“The reason we’re going to Scotia is that Canaccord received its non-bank ABCP from Scotia Capital Markets and … Scotia is a party joined to a lawsuit relating to Canaccord’s allegation that Scotia is an expert and it relied on Scotia and it has joint responsibility.”

As well, she said, most of the Canaccord investors who have come forward on Facebook are holders of paper in the Structured Investment Trust III, and Bank of Nova Scotia is the issuing and paying agent. “They were an instrumental party to the operation of the trust.”

Bank AGMs have a question-and-answer segment and the men plan to use Ms. Urquhart’s proxy to make a statement and “request that Scotia pay up money,” she said.

Mr. Arthur said he has 25% of his net worth, mostly proceeds from the sale of a family farm, tied up in ABCP. “All the brokers tell me how safe it was,” he said of the $434,000 he has invested in ABCP. “They didn’t realize what the heck it was,” said Mr. Arthur, who plans to attend the AGM and hand out a letter the group was crafting late last night.

Brian Hunter, who started the Facebook site, said “we’re just trying to get our voice heard.” It’s believed to be one of the first times investors have galvanized around a social networking site to organize and push for compensation.

The site now has 56 participants, including some non-ABCP holders, such as journalists, lawyers and analysts. “It’s been very good and a little bit cathartic to find out there are others with the same problem,” Mr. Hunter said. He said Facebook is “a very, very simple tool that allows you to communicate with a large number of people with very little effort. It’s a good way of sharing information and blowing off a little bit of steam.”

Copyright © 2007 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.

Open Cities – A Success…

Finally beginning to relax after a hectic week of speeches, work and helping out with the Open Cities unconference.

Open Cities was dynamite – it attracted an interesting cross section of people from the arts, publishing, IT, non-profit and policy sectors (to name a few). This was my first unconference and so the most interesting take away was seeing how an openly conducted (un)conference – one with virtually no agenda or predetermined speakers – can work so well. Indeed, it worked better than most conferences I’ve been to. (Of course, it helps when it is being expertly facilitated by someone like Misha G.)

Here’s a picture chart of the agenda coming together mid-morning (thank you to enigmatix1 for the photos)

There was no shortage of panels convened by the participants. I know Mark K. is working on getting details from each of them up on the Open Cities wiki as quickly as possible. Hopefully these can be organized more succinctly in the near future (did I just volunteer myself?).

There were several conversation I enjoyed – hope to share more on them over the coming days – but wanted to start with the idea of helping grow the Torontopedia. The conversation was prompted by several people asking why Toronto does not have its own wiki (it does). Fortunately, Himy S. – who is creating the aforementioned Torontopedia – was on hand to share in the conversation.

A Toronto wiki – particularly one that leverages Google Maps’ functionality could provide an endless array of interesting content. Indeed the conversation about what information could be on such a wiki forked many times over. Two ideas seemed particularly interesting:

The first idea revolved around getting the city’s history up on a wiki. This seemed like an interesting starting point. Such information, geographically plotted using Google Maps, would be a treasure trove for tourists, students and interested citizens. More importantly, there is a huge base of public domain content, hidden away in the city’s archives, that could kick start such a wiki. The ramp up costs could be kept remarkably low. The software is open sourced and the servers would not be that expensive. I’m sure an army of volunteer citizens would emerge to help transfer the images, stories and other media online. Indeed I’d wage a $100,000 grant from the Trillium Foundation, in connection with the City Archives, Historica and/or the Dominion Institute, as well as some local historical societies could bring the necessary pieces together. What a small price to pay to give citizens unrestricted access to, and the opportunity to add to, they stories and history of their city.

The interesting part about such a wiki is that it wouldn’t have to be limited to historical data. Using tags, any information about the city could be submitted. As a result, the second idea for the wiki was to get development applications and proposals online so citizens can learn about how or if their neighborhoods will be changing and how they have evolved.

Over the the course of this discussion I was stunned to learn that a great deal of this information is kept hidden by what – in comparison to Vancouver at least – is a shockingly secretive City Hall. In Vancouver, development applications are searchable online and printed out on giant billboards (see photo) and posted on the relevant buildings.Development application According to one participant, Toronto has no such requirements! To learn anything about a development proposal you must first learn about it (unclear how this happens) and then go down to City Hall to look at a physical copy of the proposal (it isn’t online?). Oh, and you are forbidden to photocopy or photograph any documents. Heaven forbid people learn about how their neighbourhood might change…

Clearly a wiki won’t solve this problem in its entirety – as long as Toronto City Hall refuses to open up access to its development applications. However, collecting the combined knowledge of citizens on a given development will help get more informed and hopefully enable citizens to better participate in decisions about how their neighbourhood will evolve. It may also create pressure on Toronto City Hall to start sharing this information more freely.

To see more photo’s go to flickr and search the tags for “open cities.”

Wikinomics: A book on the internet for your parents

Just finished reading wikinomics and have reviewed it here. My advice? Definitely wait for the paperback and consider skipping it altogether. I’m an open-source and wiki fan and I found the book wildly wide-eyed and optimistic. Moreover, it is filled with unsubstantiated claims about the future of the economy and corporations. Most frustratingly, for a book about mass collaboration, the authors never get granular about their definition of collaboration…

Read it all here if you are interested. Plus here are a couple of alternative books that are much, much better, especially this one, which I’ll be talking about more soon.

Wiki's and Open Source: Collaborative or Cooperative?

This is a follow up to my previous post Community Management as Open Source’s Core Competency which has become the most viewed post on this site. I’ve been meaning to follow it up for some time, sorry for the delay.

Online communities, and in particular their collaborative nature, have been generating a lot of buzz lately. But are online communities collaborative?


The more I reflect on it, the more I suspect the answer is a qualified no. While at present there is a tremendous amount of online cooperation, this is not the same as collaboration. This is not to say the cooperative capacity of online communities has not been a boon, but simply an effort to recognize and concern ourselves, with its limits.

I suspect the world’s most interesting and challenging problems cannot be solved in isolation from, or even in cooperation with ,others. Elegant and effective solutions (those most useful to users or consumers) likely benefit from, and probably require, an interplay of ideas and perspectives. Consequently, for those involved in online collaborative projects – such as Wiki’s or open source – understanding the distinction between cooperation and collaboration is critical. If online communities cannot foster collaboration then they will fall short of the hype and ambitions they have set for themselves. Conversely, communities that figure out how to enable their members to collaborate (as opposed to merely cooperate) may end up having a decisive advantage.

Defining the problem

Why distinguish between collaboration and cooperation? Because the subtle difference between these words describes a lot about where we are versus where we need to be vis-à-vis online communities. Admittedly, Websters’ defines the two words very similarly. However, I would argue that collaboration, unlike cooperation, requires the parties involved in a project jointly solve problems.

Truly collaborative processes enable differing and possibly conflicting views to merge and create something new and previously unimagined (think of Hegel’s thesis and anti-thesis coming together in a synthesis). Many online projects – offered up as collaborative – do not meet this standard. For example, some on-line projects, particularly open-source software projects, break problems down into smaller pieces which are tackled by individuals. Sub-dividing a problem and allowing a network of volunteers to opt-in and provide solutions it is a highly efficient. However, those involved in the project many never need to talk, exchange ideas or even interact. Indeed tricky problems may often end up relying on a single clever hacker, operating alone, to solve a problem. While this can be part of a cooperative effort – people with a common goal contributing labour to achieve it – I’m not sure it is collaborative. Equally, many wiki’s simply replace old information with new information, or rely on an arbiter to settle differences. This is at best cooperative, at worst competitive, but again probably not collaborative. (Side note: Please understand, I do not mean to belittle the incredible success of online communities. Indeed the achievements of open source projects and wiki’s are remarkable. However, my concern is that cooperative approaches may only be able to solve a specific, and limited, problem type. Cultivating collaborative communities may be necessary to solve larger, more complex and interesting problems.)

Why Open-Source systems tend to be cooperative and not collaborative

My guess is that unlike cooperation, online collaboration is rare. Why? Probably because online collaboration it is hard. Few people should find this surprising since face to face collaboration can itself be pretty hard. (I make a living off helping people do it better…) People approach problems with, among other things, different assumptions, stated and unstated goals, and data sets. Effective collaboration requires people to share these differences and resolve them. Anyone who has ever been to a business meeting (even among colleagues from the same company) knows that the process for achieving this is often neither self-evident nor easy. Numerous issues can sabotage collaborative efforts – including those that have nothing to do with the substance of the problem. For example, our ideas often end up being linked to our identity. Even just modifying our idea, or worse, adopting someone else wholesale, can feel like admitting someone else is smarter or better – something that may be difficult to do, especially in a voluntary community where your value and credibility is linked to your capacity to solve problems or provide ideas.

From what I can tell online projects only exasperate the challenges of face to face collaboration. Without personal relationships, trust, body language or even intonation, it is easy for communication to break down. Consequently, it is difficult for people to resolve differences, exchange ideas, or brainstorm freely. In short, it is difficult to collaborate.

Successful online projects seem to manage this by being either a) small – relying on a tight-knit community whose strong relationships enable them to collaborate; or b) large – achieving success by doing the opposite of collaboration: separating problems into discrete pieces that individuals can handle alone.

In the large group scenario, interaction may often be limited to peer review processes where criticism – not constructive problem-solving – is the dominant form of dialogue. Consequently, interactions are limited, and usually arbitrated by some central authority. This has the benefit of capping the level of conflict but the discourse among members may remain highly combative.

Such tension can be healthy: collaboration is inherently conflictual. Most ideas spring from parties sharing differing, conflicting perspectives and jointly working to develop a solution that meets both their interests. Eliminate all conflict and you eliminate the opportunity for new ideas. However, too much conflict and the opportunities for collaboration diminish. Large communities – particularly those involved in projects that have some cache – are insulated from the inevitable burnout and frustration that causes members who skin isn’t “thick enough” to drop out. Other community members jump in and fill their spot. It isn’t pretty, but it is sustainable, in a manner of words.

Some recommendations for community managers

Consequently, the goal of online communities should be to determine how to manage, not eliminate, conflict.
So far, to be collaborative – to enable people to work together and jointly solve problems – online communities appear to have two options: (please send others!)

1) Build relationships between their users – stronger relationships can (although not always) enable people to overcome breakdowns in communication. However, building relationships generally takes time and is to scale. To date, the voting system on the Omidyar network – which rewards those perceived as having ‘good’ behaviours and ideas – is the most effective I have seen to date. Although the behaviours are not defined, one can presume that those with higher ratings are likely to be more trustworthy and easier to collaborate with than those with lower ratings. However, this system does not help users develop collaborative behaviours or skills, it simply rewards those who are already perceived as being more collaborative then the mean. Consequently, users with poor collaborative skills, but possessing expertise or substantive knowledge essential to the success of a project, may struggle to contribute. Even more troubling, the vast majority of your users could be inept at collaborating, and this system will do nothing to raise the bar or improve the community. It will only highlight and identify who is least inept.

2) Develop online communities with built in methodologies and processes that encourage or even compel users to jointly solve problems. Here one can imagine an online community that forces users to work through Chris Argyrisladder of inference. While likely more difficult to design, such a system could compel users to be collaborative (possibly even regardless of their intentions).

A lot of the theory around collaborative decision-making is explored in greater detail in negotiation theory. This post is part of my continuing effort to flesh out how (and even if) negotiation theory can be applied to online collaborative networks… I promise more thoughts in the future – in the meantime please send or post yours!

One closing note – if there is a compelling link between negotiation theory and collaborative online networks then it would suggest a new interesting area for inter-disciplinary studies. For example, Stanford has the Centre for Internet and Society and the Gould Negotiation and Mediation Program. It would be interesting to know if these two centres believe they share this area of mutual interest. Maybe I’ll work up the courage to email Lawrence Lessig and ask…