I was privileged to moderate a session on the effect of the real-time Web on the United States Congress today at Congress Camp. Congress Camp is an innovative unconference that brought together technologists, Congressional staffers, open government advocates and citizens here in Washington, D.C. Based upon the lively discussion and interaction in the audience, I’d judge the session a success. I was grateful for the opportunity and learned much more than I contributed — a perfect outcome.
What changes because of real-time?
“No sleep.” At least one person in the audience feels pressure to keep up with constantly tracking news. When he awoke, he needed to check replies to catch up.
Determining what is important in in the context of constant, escalating noise is also a serious and growing challenge.
Disaster tracking is both an opportunity and a challenge. The example of the recent wild fires in California came up, particularly the use of social media to track the #StationFire and aggregate resources in the absence of adequate coverage from local news media. The challenges of discerning the truth of breaking reports contributed by non-official sources is also at issue, like evidenced by reports of shots on the Potomac from a recent Coast Guard training exercise.
Open questions raised for debate:
What should the outcome of using real-time platforms for Congressional offices be?
Does linking to blogs posts or retweeting others mean a Congressional office is validating the views expressed therein?
Should the digital outposts of government agencies, representatives or, crucially, investigative bodies, law enforcement officers and regulators, follow back people or friend them?
Does following constitute an endorsement?
One interesting answer posited to that last question is that by not following anyone, transparency is preserved since private messages cannot generally be sent without that action.
(If you have answers to these questions, by all means chime in in the comments.)
Issues for further thought:
Fact-checking, validation of identity, authentication and sourcing in real-time are elemental challenges for journalists and staffers alike, to say nothing of citizens. Expertise and wisdom matter but judging the veracity of opinions is difficult for everyone.
Congressional hearings represent an opportunity to gather feedback in real-time. That said, those testifying need better tools to filter, aggregate, analyze and ask then ask good questions in return. The cycle of feedback also stretches from real-time platforms to users to blogs and then on to law firms. The need for “real-time,” in this context, is created in bursts.
Validation of government accounts is a growing need. One attendee said that a Congressional office had emailed @Carolineat Twitter and heard back that as the “account was not likely to be impersonated,” the need for validation wasn’t pressing. Correct, verifiable attribution is a need for constituents, journalists and Congress alike.
Disinformation in real-time is a legitimate risk. #IranElection was raised as an example by a member of the conferee. Hashtag spam is also a problem for trending events.
The issue of closed circles of advisers, consultants and aides making policy decisions outside of the public eye also arose. The tension between gathering information from a district’s constituents versus involving the Web as a whole was clear, however, given that accountability and political realities meant staffers needed to target their listening efforts with care. Given that no one has a monopoly on good ideas, however, casting a broad net for feedback has significant utility for gathering sentiment analysis or technical solutions.
Real-time may also mean that offices need both to re-engineer business processes and re-allocate internal resources to monitor and contribute to the stream of news or risk missing important information.
There’s an opportunity for staffers and media alike to aggregate information about events, opinions and issues, and then collaborate with the online audience for editing the results. Even institutions like the New York Times can be challenges by large, complex events, however, so community management is a growing need.
One potential area where the online audience could be of particular use is crowdsourcing the process of reading a bill. Constituents and other people online can help to read and flag issues with bills, which could be extremely useful if and when short time lines between submission and votes crop up.
Use the persistence of accounts, history of links and the trust of the community as a measure when decided to attribute or pass on information in real-time, including interaction with community.
Use hashtags to organize conversations, with clear definition and communication about the choice before initiating.
Pull the RSS feed of those discussions back into blogs in sidebars, or wikis.
Aggregate those conversations, comments and wikis in a permanent, persistent place. Twitter search, for instance, does not stick around.
GovTwit.com is a directory of government Twitter accounts.
Memeorandum tracks conversations in the blogosphere.
Really Simple Syndication (RSS). Congressional offices and many other agencies are already released documents into feeds.
Use Google Reader to track relevant feeds and subscribe to persistent searches for certain hashtags.
OpenCongress has a wealth of resources, including the ability to moderate comments up and down
Google Moderator can be used to solicit feedback and provides a way for users to vote on suggestions for questions in virtual town halls.
Partnering with media organizations, like the Wall Street Journals, can help filter for good questions for Congressmen in a useful forum, with built-in distribution.
Google Alerts can be used for targeted phrases, like the names of bills, staffers or representatives.
Tweetbeep is like Google Alerts, except for Twitter.
Driving questions or feedback from social media platforms back to landing pages where constituents can send authenticated feedback is a way to validate identity. Interested parties can also be linked to wikis to help curate information about events or issues.
The real-time Web offers challenges, opportunities and many novel scenarios for citizens and Congress alike. Issues of identity, veracity and transparency are substantial and will need careful attention and consideration. That said, there’s a large body of conversation and engaged electorate that can be tapped into for collaboration.