Why should you attend a scientific conference? We think that the following three reasons play a role:
You need a certain number of publications to get your Ph.D., tenure, contract renewal or research positively evaluated.
You want to meet others in the field to keep contacts for positions and project partners.
You are interested where the field stands compared to your own work.
The 6th International Conference on eParticipation held at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland (https://www.tcd.ie/) on 2nd and 3rd September 2014 was ideal for us to pursue these goals. In particular, we wanted to learn how we can improve discuto and the accompanying services, as according to the organizers, the principal aim of the conference was to review research advances in both social and technological scientific domains, seeking to demonstrate new theories, concepts, methods and styles of eParticipation with the support of innovative ICT. The conference program comprised sixteen presentations in four sessions on Social Media and eConsultation, Review and Analysis, Engaging Citizens Online and Software Platforms and Evaluation, plus a workshop on eParticipation in Slum Upgrading.
Where do we Stand Now in Practice?
The conference started with an exciting opening keynote on Open Data Participation by Dominic Byrne, CIO of Fingal County Council (http://www.fingalcoco.ie/). Fingal county is the part of the Dublin near the airport, and Dominic vividly described the challenges and benefits of opening up local government with electronic means. Faced with budget cuts, open data and citizen participation helped him to do more with less. App contests based on open data engaged citizens in monitoring the county and allow them to adopt streets to keeps them clean. Dominic also described the efforts to coordinate open data initiatives nationally and the challenge to keep these data up to date. He also stated that new methods for actually involving citizens in local design tasks are needed. Interestingly, a similar point was made by Titiana Ertiö and Sampo Ruoppila from Turku University in the session Review and Analysis, who stressed the potential for mobile applications to participate right at the location where joint decisions have to be made.
Social Media and eConsultation for Participation
The first session of the conference delfed into the use of Social Media and eConsultation for participation. Andrea Kavanaugh and her coworkers from Virginia Tech showed that contrary to traditional Internet web sites also lower education / income groups can be reached via facebook. She therefore proposed to locally aggregate and filter facebook conversations to infer open issues, problems and opinions. Yannis Charalabidis and his coworkers from the National Technical University of Athens presented a project where social media data is used to characterize experts involved in policy making, while Marius Rohde Johannessen from Buskerud and Vestfold University College showed that while social media usage has significantly increased in election campaigning in Norway, social media usage is no predictor of election success. The last presentation in this session was by us. Based on the data presented in https://www.discuto.io/en/blog-entry/eparticipation-top-down-bottom-or-both we reported our findings about participation rates and votes and comments per participant of an eConsultation. Using regression analysis, it turned out that one can expect 11 votes and 1 comment per user, 1,6 votes per paragraph, and 0,6 comments per paragraph in private eConsultations. This additional engagement effect of smaller private projects is however offset by a much higher variation of participation rates in bottom up projects.
Review and Analysis
A general theme of the conference was that participation rates for special eParticipation sites are still quite low when compared to the soaring usage of facebook and other general social media sites. On the other hand, designed as advertising platforms these systems lack many features that are necessary for in depth eParticipation and making proper use of the data mined from there is hard. This was also exemplified by Asbjorn Folstad from SINTEF who reported about the role of political party websites and Elena Sanchez-Nielsen from Universidad de La Laguna, who reported about a large-scale EU-project on immigration. An important point made in this presentation was that it is vital to cooperate with already existing off-line groups and to find a proper offline / online mix in process management.
Engaging Citizens Online
A more technical approach to this issue is to use argumentation theory as the basis for semantically rich ontologies for eParticipation and to devise graphical representations of the debate to enhance user experience, as exemplified by the talks given by Anne de Liddo from Open University on network interfaces for deliberation and Lukasz Porwol from INSIGHT @ NUI Galway - The Centre for Data Analytics on semantic deliberation models.
A social issue hindering eParticipation is lack of trust. Maria Wimmer and coworkers from Koblenz University presented a theoretical model of the concept “trust”, while Stefano Stortone and coworkers from Milan University argued that a firm statement that the citizens alone make the decisions is necessary to secure participation. As a proof Stortone reported about the success of the BiPart participatory budgeting platform in Italy.
Software Platforms and Evaluation
Evaluation remains an important problem, too. While there exist elaborate frameworks like the one presented by Maria Wimmer in session Software Platforms and Evaluation, getting the participants to provide the numerous informations needed to feed these model is very hard. On the other hand, many evaluation models used in official rankings like the one presented by Rodrigo Sandoval-Almazan from State Autonomous University of Mexico only rely on services offered, and neglect usage.
eParticipation in Slum Upgrading
Claudio Torres from UN habitat concluded ePart sessions with showcasing a slum upgrading project in Kenya. Claudio and his team are using a mixture of offline and online participation tools to have slum dwellers engaged in this project and to shape the course of their environment. At the same time UN Habitat is supporting the government in ameliorating framework conditions to establish property rights and to improve the rule of law.
Key Take Aways
Summarizing, we think that based on ePart 2014 one can summarize the state of the field as follows:
Culture matters, and it changes much slower than technology progresses. Learning to trust eParticipation takes time.
Social Media is suitable for mobilization and (maybe) listening in, but not for deliberation.
Given the difficulty of evaluation, learning about the determinants of participation and the proper design of systems is hard, especially as official rankings and success reports often remain silent about the participation actually achieved
What do you think? Give us your opinions!
Where to Learn More
If this short survey has aroused your interest in eParticipation you should read the papers in the proceedings of this conference at
http://www.springer.com/computer/general+issues/book/978-3-662-44913-4 (full papers) and http://www.iospress.nl/book/electronic-government-and-electronic-participation/ (ongoing research papers).
For those of you interested in our work please check
http://www.ebooks.iospress.nl/volumearticle/37392 for the article and
http://www.slideee.com/slide/presentation-held-at-epart2014 for the presentation.