Monday, December 15, 2008

"Open for Questions" is already the best interface the public has ever had with President, but I want more!

We've got the first round of responses to the new Open for Questions feature on, and it looks like we have ourselves a legitimate new tool to interact with the government. I love the idea of being able to ask the government tough questions. At the same time, I already can't wait for this tool to get better, because it has loads of problems right now.

Let's start with the good:
  • They answered the top five questions, with no skipping. This is pretty cool, that when they ask us to vote on questions, our vote actually matters! It's also refreshing to see that the top five questions were all nicely worded and free from partisan vitriol. One good sign for the future - they even answered the marijuana question that made it to number one on the list. Obama's answer is pretty safe politically, but it's great that he is directly addressing an issue outside the mainstream if it makes it to the top of the list.
  • The answers are not evasive. They are not quite as direct as we might like, but that's understandable. The real trick will be if they can find a way to expand and provide more detail on questions that surely deserve it (the transparency and education questions especially need more space to be answered properly).
  • The participation was pretty good! I don't have a point of reference, but 20,000 participants casting over a million votes is a pretty good start. I can't wait to see where this will go when news really gets out about it - and I can't wait to see how they scale the system up.
  • As a proof of concept, it looks like the tool is effective. Though many issues still remain, I'm pretty optimistic that this tool will evolve and grow quickly as participation picks up. I stand by my previous post that this tool will be a real game-changer.
And what needs improvement? There are some technical points:
  • The system still has the potential to be swarmed. As we saw throughout the primaries, dedicated supporters of a candidate or issue are capable of harnessing their web-wide community to flood polls and social news sites like Digg to reflect their views. Ron Paul supporters were famous for this, but the most entertaining incident is definitely this one. I have mixed feelings about this issue. On the one hand, democracy means letting people have a voice, and if you can assemble a massive crowd that should count for something. On the other hand, a crowd on the internet is different from a crowd in real life, and we need to protect against abuse as the system grows.
  • Google Moderator is not really scalable to the levels needed. Due to the issue above, and the fact that people can submit questions about anything at all, it's hard to see how Google Moderator (the tool used for the job - what? you didn't realize Google was involved?) will have a hard time keeping up. Even at this scale, I had a hard time finding if the question I wanted to ask had been posed previously. And though they present random questions for you to vote on, it's hard to see how you can get your question to the top without being one of the first, or using swarm tactics.
  • There are some legitimate privacy issues that need to be resolved. Jon Pincus, a social networking technology expert, writes on his blog about the need for better privacy considerations on Open for Questions. I usually think privacy concerns are overblown, but this is a little different. Pincus quotes an email he received that really got me thinking: "Google could (conceivably - and especially for those of us with gmail addresses) use a record of this data to really get involved in people’s personal political predilections." It raises frightening thoughts of McCarthyism or even scarier scenarios involving political imprisonment. Now, I don't think we have to worry about that any time soon, but if the government is able to build a database of all your political views, that is a loss of privacy I get a little worried about.
There are also some improvements I'd like to see that are not technological:
  • The answers should come from Obama himself. I've said this before, and I still think it's true. The answers from the staffers definitely open up a new kind of interaction with the office of the President-elect, but nothing would be as powerful as hearing the answers from Obama himself. This could mean that he incorporates answers into his weekly address, or just that the answers written on the website were signed by him. Either way, I hope we get that sort of interaction later.
  • We need follow-up questions! What can I say? Give me an inch and I want a mile. This is already pretty exciting, but I want to be able to push back when the answers don't quite satisfy. We should be able to give feedback on the answer, maybe in two dimensions: agree/disagree and complete answer/want to hear more.
It seems to be the way I end every post, but all I can say is that this is exciting stuff, and I can't wait to see what comes next!

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