Extensions to CommentOnThis.com

Since I launched www.commentonthis.com in December, there have been a number of people who’ve asked about future expansions. Here are some initial thoughts on the directions it wont go, but which others may wish to take similar sites which I’d .

CoT does what it does – lets you comment on specific paragraphs of selected PDFs which we’ve put up. There are no immediate plans to expand it to commentsonthis.com to arbitrary documents. However, the process by which they are converted is pretty much document independent.

You take a PDF document, and run it through a text converter. Then it gets edited to clean up page footers/headers and other bits, and add in markup for section headers. Then it gets processed again which puts it into the database for comment. While the process is a pain in the neck for most documents, it’s not particularly complicated.

While, currently, the whole thing is done through scripts and editing is done via a text editor, there’s no reason it can’t be done through scripts and a wiki, hence be done in the browser.

Which means, that we can easily get to a point where people can publish arbitrary documents, and have them be commentable and linkable at a relatively fine granularity. There would need to be various proceedures put in to avoid spam, but the addition of some security and hooks for anonymity (https to hide what you’re looking at, and serverside hooks to avoid some traffic analysis attacks, plus whatever you need to do to be tor, or anything else, friendly).

For various reasons, you often do not want the original documents to be fully wikied, but want them to be commentable and linkable down to the paragraph level.

However, if you then automate the process, such that you can put up and start cross linking a set of documents and running tasks over them.

As another possible application, do we know any projects which will start getting documents in which people deem to have value and which may be usefully commented on and linked to? Yes, we do.

Does anyone want to run with this idea? I’ve not got the time to build it, but I’m happy to help.

posted: 15 Apr 2007

[this isn’t a fully formed idea, and is posted here more as a note than a well formed piece]

I had the opportunity to hear Sir Gus O’Donnell (Cabinet Secretary) speak locally about and around the future of the Civil Service and some of the ongoing reforms (Slides). There was also the recent Radio 4 Documentary series on the civil service “Shape up Sir Humphrey” which covered similar issues.

Gus spoke about his addition of the “4 P’s” (Pride, Professionalism, Pace and Passion) to the core civil service values of honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality, and used the example of Number 10’s Petitions as a measure of interest/engagement, with its 7000 petitions and over 2 million signatures.

People, demonstrably, will engage on an issue which is of interest or impact, and where the barriers to engagement are lower than their level of interest in the topic. Signing a petition was one of the most popular forms of political engagement in previous surveys. As an aside, it will be interesting to see that change there is levels of participation recorded in the ongoing surveys done by various organisations, as a result of the 1.8 million signatures of the traveltax” petition . An internet tracking company released their statistics that visitors were generally older than your average internet user (source).

PM Petitions was built by one of the most, if not the most, transparency focussed and politically independent NGO’s in the UK – mySociety. Transparency is ingrained in the system, both by source code availability and by design of interfaces such that it is not easy to accidentally do the wrong thing. Additionally, petitions are approved or rejected based on clearly defined and published criteria, and the decisions are made by civil servants rather than politicians or those with political agendas. Petitions that are rejected are shown on the site (as much as legally possible) including the reasons for the rejection (jokes, party political, outside the remit of the PM, etc).

That’s reality.

However, not only is the perception different, it is also seems divergent. Despite protections above, and while the distinction between civil servant and the labour party may be blurred when you’re sitting on the opposition front benches, the widespread belief and default position, seemingly, is that the email addresses would be abused – without actually thinking about it. At dinner with a group of friends recently, the topic of petitions came up, and I mentioned my involvement in mySociety and enquired whether people thought their data would be abused (over half had signed a petition, and about half of the rest weren’t UK residents). A number were expecting that their data would be – until (and possibly after) I asked the question about whether they had signed the petition with a unique email address created and used only for that purpose. All but 2 of the signers had used unique email addresses (it was a very technical group) – so if their addresses were ever abused, it would take any of them a total of few seconds to look at the address the abuse went to and track it back to petitions. At which point, to put it mildly, all hell would break loose as they told people and the online petitions process lost all credibility. While the majority are not as paranoid about tracing email sources as my group of friends, it only takes one person (or a few people) for it to be certain to get traced. Although the people I was talking to understand that point, their default assumption was their email address would be abused for political purposes.

That’s just a convenient example, another (with even more anecdotes and even less data) would be the generic responses to “terrorism threats” ; vague warnings/arrests/etc; the BBC news “have your say” message boards and conversations of people in the street have far more people saying that they just don’t believe it. While you always have the crackpots and conspiracy theorists, doubt seems to be going mainstream. While critical thinking and careful examination is good, outright disbelief in a message because of the messenger, is in the the longer term, damaging. When this government talks about certain topics, it is in danger of wanting to push one message, but people hear the direct opposite.

Gus spoke about the standards of the civil service, what they work for and do, and spoke with not just the perception of conviction, but seemed convinced. I’m inclined to believe that he is right in practice, that said, the perception seems to be otherwise.

While talking about reform, is that message going to be heard as intended when filtered through the ears of the listeners and general public? How does and how can the government message on important issues of infrastructural relevance, when the credibility is low, and saying gone thing gets heard as the opposite. Reforms to make the civil service more efficient and changing for the 21st century may be seen to have other reasons and impacts.

Managing in that (this) environment of cynicism and distrust, for whatever reason, is hard, and I’m not sure there’s any sense that perception matters. While it can not and should not be everything, it is the context through which changes are viewed.

A question for further debate then becomes, in the era of PM Petitions, WriteToThem.com, TheyWorkForYou.com and DowningStreetSays.com, what else could (or should) the NGO sector be doing to at least provide an opportunity for the divergence between perception and reality to stop growing, and hopefully stand a chance of the two becoming as close to equal as practical.

There are practical ideas; Blindside.org.uk does some of it, IdealGovernment.com does some. There are probably many isolated conversations, going on in one place or another, yet the larger conversation needs to happen, in public. One of the comments in the talk was that people don’t want to work for the Civil Service because the pay is fantastic or there are nice perks. The thing Gus most pushed when doing a brief recruitment diversion was the problems you get to work on solving. Is one solution to the credibility deficit to have more of these people able to make their voices heard? According the slide (no14) showing results from a 2005 Mori poll, Civil Servants are trusted by 44% of the population (up 20% on 1983), while politicians at 23% (up 2% on 1983). Rather than the person who speaks on ID cards being the minister responsible who spouts talking points (which, in the case of ID cards, are often rapidly discredited), but the civil servant who is responsible for doing the work itself

Could the WebCameron practice of letting people vote on a question and having it asked to the Conservative leader, be extended to other particular areas (PMOS would be a candidate). Not to spin or push agenda, but to look to get factual information our amongst those who are listening. While there is always the potential for special interests with a web following (www.order-order.com) to push an agenda, questions which get real answers on difficult issues may help to match the credibility of a policy to the reality.

This is necessarily a long term strategy, some parts of which will be easier than others.

posted: 02 Apr 2007