Has web-technology only brought one real innovation to politics?

Analysing social media. Like trying to drink from a firehose.

The five ‘Translation Layer’ events that we’ve organised have attempted to break down the different kinds of innovative technologies that have changed politics in recent years. Four of the events cover the applications of technology.

With apologies to the excellent speakers who have (or will) be addressing these issues, it seems to me that the first three on that list (below) are tools that have enabled us to do something that we were already doing – but doing it bigger / faster / better / more. The only wholly new item is the fourth one – social media analytics. This is also the subject of our next event on Tuesday evening.

The fifth – Andy Williamson’s ‘Policymaking in the Cloud‘ (last Tuesday) – looked at how the methodologies of the web have changed the way policy-makers operate, and their potential to do their job effectively.

Four ways policymaking is changing

I think that it’s important that politicians and policymakers understand that web-enabled innovations have only provided four new types of policymaking tools.

They need to understand the underlying political questions that these concepts pose, and they need to know what their working attitudes and ethical approaches are to them; They are

  • Open data and visualisation
  • Collaborative authoring
  • Gaming
  • Social media analytics

Using data to make problems easier to understand is hardly new. The opening slide at every presentation I’ve ever seen about open data has always been John Snow’s 1854 Cholera Map. Sure, new demands have been created. The wrangle around who owns the data and the demands for transparency are game-changers. But, in itself, it’s not a new concept.

I’d say something similar about collaborative authoring. ‘Compositing’ is hardly a new idea. Every political anorak must be excited that there is now free software to do this, and that it can be more efficient and inclusive. There’s no doubt that access to these tools has created new demands and opportunities. But it’s an incremental, rather than revolutionary change.

Gaming is a more nebulous question, of course, but we’ve always watched games to draw out useful conclusions – and role playing games are a well-tested management tool. As Albert Camus said on the t-shirt,

“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football”

But the final issue – social media analytics – is the one that introduces something entirely new.

Of course, we’ve had opinion polling for a long time. Over the past few decades, focus groups have helped provide richer information from the public. But we have never had a firehose of human sentiment that we can analyse until now. Never before have we had the incentive to invest in tools that allow us to analyse the comments that millions of people volunteer every hour of the day.

It is already changing policymaking in profound ways. In some cases, investment companies regard the firehose as a more reliable authority than an expert in forecasting value-changes. Health authorities are able to predict epidemics. There are so many other applications of this information. I’m not going to spoil Nick’s talk for you now, but follow this link to get your ticket.


About Paul Evans

Living in London but working all over Britain and Ireland, Paul is the curator of the Political Innovation project. On twitter as @paul0evans1, blogging mainly at the Local Democracy blog and working mostly for Memeserver Ltd.
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