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Jan. 29, 2009, 8:37 a.m.

The Policy Wiki: A social experiment

After about 15 years writing about business and technology for both the print and the online versions of the Globe and Mail (a daily national newspaper based in Toronto), I moved into a newly-created job a few months ago as the Globe’s “Communities Editor.” It’s still evolving, but in a nutshell my job involves thinking about, developing and implementing new ways of interacting with our readers online, as well as helping to improve some of the ways in which we already do that — such as the comment feature on our news stories, which we were one of the first newspapers in North America to offer, but which needs some additional features in order for it to be truly useful.

As part of that mandate, I helped launch a site called the Public Policy Wiki several weeks ago. A joint venture between the paper and the Dominion Institute (a non-profit agency dedicated to improving the dialogue about public policy in Canada), it’s a combination of a traditional wiki — that is, a publicly-editable resource similar to Wikipedia — and a public discussion forum, with comments and voting features as well. In many ways, it’s a kind of social-media mashup aimed at pulling in suggestions from readers and other concerned Canadians about public policy issues (the Obama administration has also experimented with this kind of idea, with what it called the Citizen’s Briefing Book).

Right from the beginning, the wiki was designed to be an experiment — something we could learn from, and get ideas for future projects involving social media of all kinds. My approach was to adopt something similar to the “rapid prototyping” approach used by many online technology startups: get something out the door in beta, and see what happens. Of course, as many people who have worked at newspapers probably know, this isn’t exactly the kind of thing that traditional media entities are used to doing — not to mention the fact that the last time a newspaper experimented with a wiki (the Los Angeles Times in 2005) it ended rather badly.

Nevertheless, with the help of some open-minded editors and developers, we managed to pull the project together fairly quickly, using the off-the-shelf wiki software called TikiWiki. If I could give any other newspaper editor or staffer working on a similar experiment one piece of advice, it would be this: Hold onto the idea of what you want to do and charge forward relentlessly, and get something out the door as quickly as you can, despite the inevitable roadblocks that will be thrown up by some of your paper’s senior editors and IT people. If someone comes up with a reason why you can’t or shouldn’t do something, find a way around them and do it anyway.

The first issue we tackled in the wiki was the Canadian economy and the federal budget, which was tabled this Tuesday (Jan. 27) in the House of Commons. We provided several expert opinions from economists and policy advisors, as well as several prototype “briefing notes” aimed at specific policy proposals. Registered users could then vote for the analysis or proposal they liked the best, comment on them, or edit them using the wiki tools. In just two weeks, we had over 100,000 pageviews and more than 800 readers signed up and voted, commented and edited — and created over 30 detailed briefing notes. On budget day, we sent the two most popular notes (based on a combination of pageviews, comments and votes) to the Finance Minister.

Getting 800 people to register may not seem like a lot (although 100,000 pageviews in just two weeks is pretty respectable), and there’s no question that we were hardly bombarded with traffic to the site. But I think that is a result of a number of factors — including the fact that not everyone feels passionate enough about the economy and the budget to put together a detailed policy proposal. That said, I think the issue we chose and the serious way in which we framed the project helped to encourage thoughtful responses, and in fact the vast majority of the contributions we’ve gotten so far have been intelligent, well thought-out and (for the most part) well intentioned.

We’ve moved on now from the federal budget, to what could prove to be a more controversial topic: Canada’s policy on and approach to Afghanistan. It will be interesting to see whether we can maintain the thoughtful and intelligent tone that we set with the first wiki. But one thing is for sure: We will be learning a lot no matter what happens.

POSTED     Jan. 29, 2009, 8:37 a.m.
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