Designing for Deliberation

   Todd Davies, Stanford Symbolic Systems Program

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design

Asynchronous communication tools such as email, message boards, blogs, and wikis are convenient for many types of two-way communication, even for large groups. For small, technically skilled, or very like-minded groups, they can even be serviceable for deliberative decision making of the kind that is associated with face-to-face meetings. When these tools do not lend themselves to group decision making and a face-to-face meeting is impossible or inconvenient, then synchronous communication -- e.g. commercial meeting software, or combining IRC with a pastebin, or conference calling as participants sit at their computers -- can often suffice for deliberation. But this leaves a large class of situations, which I will describe, in which groups need or would like to deliberate online but do not have good tools for doing so.

Deme (pronounced "deem") is a free and open web-based tool that we are designing to help fill this deliberative gap. It is being built for groups like the advisory boards, consortia of small nonprofits, block clubs, and residents' committees that we have worked with as part of the Partnership for Internet Equity and Community Engagement (PIECE), a joint project of the East Palo Alto Community Network and the Symbolic Systems Program at Stanford. A set of characteristics shared by these groups is very common in civil society, and if better tools could be developed to help them organize, set priorities, and mobilize, the result could be democratizing in areas such as community planning, labor unions, faith communities, service organizations, political advocacy, and academic life.

I will describe the assumptions underlying Deme, and some design choices that follow from them. I will also attempt to situate our work within the emerging, very interdisciplinary field of online deliberation. And I will demonstrate some of Deme's capabilities as they exist in the current, alpha-stage version. A new version, addressing user-friendliness through "AJAX" and a redesigned interface, is in development and will be presented at CodeCon 2006 in February.

This is joint work with Brendan O'Connor, Alex Cochran, Andrew Parker, Ben Newman, and Aaron Tam.

I began my career as a computer scientist in the Artificial Intelligence Center at SRI International (1985-'91), working on topics such as learning by analogy, commonsense reasoning, and neural networks. I studied the psychology of judgment and decision making under Amos Tversky (Ph.D., Stanford, 1995), taught psychology at Koc University in Istanbul (1996-'99), and returned to Stanford in 2000 to be the coordinator and a lecturer in the Symbolic Systems Program. Since my graduate student days, I have been involved in a number of grassroots political groups, with a particular interest in how they make decisions and could be organized more effectively. Since 2002, I have been working with staff at the Plugged In community technology center in East Palo Alto and with Stanford students to study and enhance community participation there through the Internet. In 2005, I organized the Second Conference on Online Deliberation: Design, Research, and Practice / DIAC-2005, held at Stanford, and joined the board of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, serving as Vice President. My general interests concern psychological and technological approaches to group decision making and the foundations of collective behavior.

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