When Anil Dash needed a new mobile phone, he asked his Twitter followers and Facebook friends for suggestions. He received several recommendations, but he was surprised by a response that included a link to a paper listing popular mobile phones and how much radiation they emit.
That experience showed Dash how social networks can help people not only answer questions but also consider issues related to their questions that may not have occurred to them otherwise.
The power of social media to deliver unexpected answers is at the heart of AAAS’s Expert Labs, said Dash, the project’s founding director. Dash discussed Expert Labs’ history and future plans during a 17 June meeting with staff at AAAS.
Expert Labs, supported by the MacArthur Foundation, strives to connect policymakers with the general public, researchers, and academics to address policy issues. It helps policymakers ask questions, provides platforms for them to ask questions, and offers tools to help analyze the answers, Dash said.
In 2009, Dash founded the Policy Innovation Network to build networks allowing policymakers to request input from the general public, researchers, and academics. However, the idea for the project came together at the same time that social networks, especially Facebook and Twitter, were becoming increasingly popular. Instead of building new social networks, Dash chose to use existing networks and the Policy Innovation Network became Expert Labs.
“Typical public response methods and mechanisms like e-mail or even fax usually get fewer than 100 responses,” Dash said. “We’ve been able to draw that into the thousands and even approaching tens of thousands of responses.”
For example, the White House wanted to ask what the United States’ technology priorities should be, so Expert Labs put the question on Facebook and Twitter. Within 24 hours, they had received thousands of answers including one from a student who suggested putting textbooks on tablet computers—and another from actor John Cusack, who advocated for the development of a hot tub time machine.
Policymakers frequently ask if making it easier for citizens to comment on public affairs will just increase the amount of unhelpful ideas they receive. “What we’ve seen from a metrics standpoint is a radical increase in the number of responses and frankly, the percentage of public responses that are valuable probably remains the same but when you increase the corpus of responses, you’re getting a lot more ideas in the door,” Dash said, adding that more responses mean that more people are engaged in the process.
Expert Labs plans to increase public participation in the policy process with ThinkUp, “a brand new technology platform that is free of cost, open-source, that anybody can develop on, and is used to connect on different social networks and to collect responses from conversations,” Dash said. ThinkUp was created by a diverse group of developers all over the world. After installing ThinkUp, a user can ask questions on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites while ThinkUp collects and organizes the responses so they can be searched, archived, or even plotted on a map.
“ThinkUp runs on everything from a public Amazon cloud infrastructure to things like NASA’s Nebula platform which a lot of government agencies use,” Dash said. “And with one click, they can deploy this technology there, take care of their record-keeping requests for social media, and they are able to access that information on any standard Web browser. If you’ve have a brand new iPad, you can get to it. If you’ve got, like most federal agencies do, a big old Windows PC that’s been kicking around for a couple years, you can get to it there, too.”
ThinkUp will make it easier for government officials to analyze feedback they receive from constituents, but it will also lower barriers to participation in the policy process, Dash said. “Even if you’re very interested in a policy question, if the burden of effort to respond to it is writing a letter, putting a stamp on an envelope, putting it in the mail, it feels like you’re doing the bills,” he said. People are much more likely to get involved “if it’s just along reading updates from your friends on a social network or seeing the photos your friends have shared on Facebook,” Dash added.
The first version of ThinkUp is expected to launch within weeks and Dash has spoken about it with officials in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Municipalities, including the cities of New York and Chicago, have reached out to him as well. Dash has encouraged the Federal Communications Commission to consider using ThinkUp to collect feedback about the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger.
Ultimately, he hopes to prove that software development and the Web “can be about something more meaningful than wasting time online but instead deliver the promise which we were told was the reason these technologies were created in the first place.”
“The reason we have the Web and the reason the Internet was created was to enable communications,” Dash said. “It was created from the efforts of government to communicate with itself and with citizenry. That’s where we got this technology from. There’s no reason we can’t return to that vision decades later and return the favor.”
Watch an interview with Anil Dash, founding director of Expert Labs.
Learn more about Expert Labs.
Learn more about ThinkUp, an open source web application developed by Expert Labs.