Negotiating shared responsibility for community information

This week’s Interviews with Innovators show is a conversation with Raymond Yee, author of the recently-published Pro Web 2.0 Mashups.

The book is chock full of good examples. Even if you’re an experienced developer of mashups that involve Flickr, del.icio.us, Eventful, and the various mapping services, you’ll learn helpful strategies for using these services individually and in combination.

What we wound up mostly talking about, though, is the vast space of information that’s not currently available to be mashed up. That might be because the information isn’t online at all, or because it isn’t online in a form that’s tractable.

As a kind of social experiment I’ve been tackling this problem in my local community, with particular emphasis on calendar information. In this week’s interview, Raymond talks about tackling the same kind of problem with emphasis on geographic information. Both cases can exemplify a pattern that I’m calling shared responsibility.

Consider, for example, the public library. It hosts a variety of events, some of which are its own (children’s story hour) and some of which aren’t (an AA meeting). Who’s responsible for putting these events onto the library’s public calendar?

Clearly the library should publish its own events. But it needn’t necessarily feel obliged to publish other organizations’ events. In the case of AA meetings, for example, the library is only one of about a dozen venues around town. Shouldn’t AA publish its events to those venues?

We have the tools and services now to enable this kind of small-pieces-loosely-joined approach. In this case, acting as a proxy for AA, I published its regular meetings to Eventful. One of those meetings happens at the public library. So now when you visit the combined calendar, events at the library show up from multiple sources. One is clearly identified with the library itself, others are identified with the various groups using the library.

Of course nothing prevents the library from choosing to authoritatively publish all of the events that it hosts. But it’s useful to show how that can be a choice, not an obligation. If we take a decentralized, small-pieces-loosely-joined approach, information management chores that look insurmountable can turn out not to be.

6 Comments

  1. This is great. I’m going through a similar data supply creation process in my community, under the MashableCity.org project. I’d love to trade notes at some point.

    cheers,
    Matt Gillooly
    Founder, MashableCity.org
    Product Manager, FuseCal.com

  2. I enjoyed your podcast discussion with Raymond Yee a whole bunch… Regarding your “political and social process” observation to get people on-board. I can identify with this frustration. I don’t particularly consider myself the “sharpest tool in the shed” (other people think this also), but utilizing communal calendars and wikis to improve communication and drive toward some end point seems pretty intuitive to me. My Dad always said “Give a difficult job to a lazy person and he’ll find an easy way to do it”. He specifically had me in mind when he said those things. I’ve led many of the folks in my son’s Boy Scout Troop to this water, but I’m having a challenge in getting them to drink. Some sip, but generally question what may be lurking in this Kool-Aid.

    Getting folks on-board is one thing, but cultivating the “shared responsibility” you discussed is tough to do unless you can find something to motivate them, or take the fear away from the change. Whatever degree of success I’ve been able to achieve I owe to several things:

    1) Make it easier to grasp what you want them to do. Do the demo (thanks to your help with how to do a screencast). This allows them to go at their own pace, repeat the instructions as many times as necessary, and avoid any inhibitions/embassment that comes in groups larger than two people.

    2) Help them to understand that the technology is not bleeding edge, at least won’t require any of their blood. Show some examples where it’s working. A flowchart help me at this point. Get them to agree to a pilot. Implement it fo a limited time/scope to exorcise the fear factor.

    3) Appeal to their own self-interests.
    Convince them it was their idea. “You know, if we could do this way, you can implement you want to do but can’t now because we don’t have enough people. Getting your implemented will really help. Damn good idea, Bob.” (Machiavellian, but it works.)

    4) If these approaches don’t work, find another bunch of folks who might be more progressive and appreciative of your ideas. The thrill of making progress is a heck of a lot better than being frustrated and hoping that they will see the light. Go work for a competitor (another Boy Scout Troop) and get your revenge by making it better than the one you left.

    I’d love to implement a mash-up for my son’s school, one that we can use to arrange carpools. I would envision that we could take the home addresses and the pickup/dropoff preference and make the information available to parents. This may not be the type of thing that a principal would initiate, but its something that should be considered. (I just filled up my car with gas. Can you tell?) I’d like to see this developed and made available to all the school systems. Google could really make a contribution here.
    Do you know if something like this already exists?

    Sorry for the long post, but I really enjoyed the podcast.

    Thanks.

    Rick

  3. Jon,

    In this interview you began to touch upon the reality that much data is not available for mashups.

    I wonder if you would be interested in exploring an analogy that may be sociologically drawn between monetary banking and ‘information banking’?

    That is, what is the technological and sociological tipping point for a critical mass of internet users to become comfortable with posting their private and valuable information online in an ‘information bank’ as they are already accustomed to doing so when they deposit their money into the hands of a third party monetary bank?

  4. > critical mass of internet users to become comfortable
    > with posting their private and valuable information online
    > in an ‘information bank’

    I think the emerging online services that support personal health records will create that tipping point.

    But that’s not actually the point of what I’m doing here. For this project I’m focused on information that already is being posted online, in hopes that people will discover and attend the events being advertised. The problem is that the method chosen to publish online — a web page, a PDF file — isn’t the best way to ensure that the information gets around to all the places it should.

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