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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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March 15, 2010, 10:30 a.m.

Global opinions, visualized: The State Department’s “Opinion Space”

How much do you agree with the following questions?

1. The most urgent security threat to the United States is a terrorist armed with a nuclear weapon.
2. Continuous diplomatic efforts are required to produce lasting, sustainable peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
3. Climate change poses a threat to political stability around the world.
4. Investing to increase food production in other countries will ultimately benefit me and my family in the future.
5. The best way to advance a country’s economic development is to empower its women.

We’re not asking; the State Department is. If you go to State.gov and answer the questions (via a ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’ slider), you’ll see your answers plotted as a single dot on a broad constellation of lighted, white orbs — some static, some pulsing. You’ll see where your opinions fall next to the opinions of others who have answered the questions…people, ostensibly, from around the world.

Welcome to Opinion Space, the State Department’s opinion-mapping tool — a collaboration with Berkeley’s Center for New Media — that launches, officially, this morning. The site describes itself as a “discussion forum designed to engage participants from around the world”; and, fittingly enough, the map it produces — in which every participant represents a point of view — is based more on geometry than geography: Its layout is constantly in flux, with each respondent plotted according to the responses of others. So if you find your own dot on the far right side of the constellation…no need to subscribe to The National Review just yet: The point is to transcend traditional liberal/conservative dichotomies. As the site puts it: “Opinion Space is designed to move beyond the usual left-right linear spectrum to display ‘constellations’ of opinions.”

New ways of generating input

That display, however, is only half the goal. The other half is more open feedback via a comment box asking for users’ responses to a specified question. (The inaugural query: “If you met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, what issue would you tell her about, why is it important to you, and what specific suggestions do you have for addressing it?”) The site asks its users to rate each others’ comments, Digg-style, with the hope that the most insightful contributions will rise to the top. After Opinion Space has been up and running for a month, its coordinators plan to cull the hundred highest-rated recommendations and present them to Secretary Clinton and her staff.

The site’s immediate aim, says Ken Goldberg, a new media professor at Berkeley and the Center for New Media’s director, is to “find some good ideas that the State Department can act on” — diplomacy meets the wisdom of crowds. But it’s the approaches underscoring the project that may prove more meaningful. One of those is to find new ways to leverage the Web’s connective power to overcome the dilatory effects of Web-enabled scourges like cyber-polarization — and to re-imagine opinion itself as something that can be shared and even quantified. There’s information overload; but there’s also opinion overload. Too often, Goldberg told me, we “simplify things down to extremes where your position gets reduced down to ‘for’ or ‘against'” — to the extent that nuances, the atomic units of opinion, get lost. “It’s not that people are stupid,” Goldberg says, “it’s just that they’re overwhelmed.”

Opinion visualization suggests the same benefits that data visualization does: comprehensiveness, comprehension. And, yes, complexity. Simply to see “the sheer idea of diversity out there, on one plane,” can be eye-opening. And not just visually. “If you find someone far away from you who you find insightful, that means a lot,” Goldberg says. In rating comments, users are asked to separate agreement-with-argument from validity-of-comment: “How much do you agree with this comment?” is the first question the site asks in its feedback request; “How insightful is this comment?” is the second. That disaggregation — sympathy on the one hand, validity on the other — is a core premise of Opinion Space. As Katie Dowd, the State Department’s director of new media, put it to me: “Talking over the coffee table, we can agree to disagree but ultimately learn from one another.” Opinion Space, she says, is a test of whether that same tolerance can be leveraged online.

Mapping opinion in multiple dimensions

The project has its roots in Eigentaste, the eigenvector-based collaborative filtering algorithm that Goldberg and his colleagues developed in 1998. Back then, they applied the algorithm to Donation Dashboard, a tool that provided users with customized portfolios of charities based on their ratings of particular non-profits. They started thinking about how the algorithm could be used not just for recommendations, but for visualization — to map a range of opinions.

One challenge for such a map that lives on a State Department web page: figuring out which opinions to solicit in the first place. “It’s very delicate, as you can imagine,” Goldberg points out, “because there are so many issues, and protocol is everything — if you just phrase it wrong, you can create an incident.” At the same time, range is required, since “it works best when there’s a real diversity of opinions.” The final five questions were selected, Dowd notes, with the goal of “taking a breadth of issues” — and with the Department’s primary foreign policy objectives in mind.

Those questions will remain the same for the foreseeable future — “we really want to see how we keep people coming back,” Dowd says, and static questions make for a nice control factor in the Opinion Space experiment — but the open-ended discussion question will change every three to four weeks, meaning that the tool will test two different forms of user engagement over time. “Test” being the key word. As TechPresident’s Nancy Scola put it, “At this point, Opinion Space looks very much proof-of-concept. But what’s striking is that it seems a lot more like something that you expect coming out of the MIT Media Lab than the United States State Department. It’s a redefinition — or, really, one more tweak in a continuing redefinition — of the mission and means of U.S. development and diplomacy, and it’s been happening under the purview of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a pretty quick pace.”

At this point, indeed, it’s hard to know whether Opinion Space will redefine diplomacy or turn out to be another of Politics 2.0’s bright, shiny things. But the ideas anchoring the experiment are sound, and the goal inspiring it — comprehension, not just for world citizens, but for the people attempting to quantify their viewpoints — is a worthy one. “We really like the potential for this to scale,” Dowd says. For the State Department, the aim is “to reach a bigger audience and increase our transparency.” But opinion-mapping is a tool with applications that could extend far beyond statecraft. Through the project, “we’re hoping that we’ll understand these kinds of dialogues better,” Goldberg says — “and that we’ll be able to develop some new tools from them.”

POSTED     March 15, 2010, 10:30 a.m.
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