Tags for democracy

In A tale of two dams I proposed using a tag, WestStDamKeene, to coordinate public discourse about a decision we need to make here in Keene, NH. Should we repair the Ashuelot River Dam on West Street, or remove it?

On the day I wrote that post, it was the only document on the web containing the 14-character string WestStDamKeene. A few months later I mentioned it again in Awakened grains of sand1, which considers what we can do when we invent names that are unique to the web — and that can be found by searching for them.
So now a Google or Bing search would find two documents on the web containing the tag WestStDamKeene.

Yesterday I tried that again and was delighted to find a number of results, notably from two local organizations deeply involved in the decision about the dam: the City of Keene [Google, Bing] and the Keene Sentinel [Google, Bing].

Among the links that turn up in a general search for WestStDamKeene is this pointer to minute 40 of the two-hour city council meeting on Oct 6, 2011, when discussion of agenda item F begins. That happens because the title of item F is Ashuelot River (West Street) Dam (onlinetag: weststdamkeene) – Department of Public Works.

This makes me very happy! The City explains:

The City of Keene has embarked on a new online initiative to streamline information sharing with the citizens of Keene. The City will be “tagging” certain projects or initiatives that have generated a significant amount of community interest. This initiative will be a collaborative effort with the Keene Sentinel, which will be applying the same tag to their articles. The tag assigned by the City can be used to search all online content associated with the item through the search engine of your choice.

And it adds:

As you collaborate with others online to discuss City projects, you are welcome to tag your posts, emails, articles, etc. with the same tags. For example, if you belong to a Keene neighborhood group, and you have information to share regarding the West Street Dam project on the group’s Facebook page, make sure to include “weststdamkeene” in your post. Your post will then appear in a Web search alongside City and Sentinel tagged content.

If others follow that advice and join in, my happiness will increase.

1 Cliff Gerrish’s poetic response to Awakened Grains of Sand also made me very happy.

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9 thoughts on “Tags for democracy

  1. Jon, While I understand using a short abbreviated special set of characters is valuable in a limited character environment like Twitter, I fail to see the value in the broader search atmosphere of Bing and Google. A search ANDing the appropriate words should be quite sufficient. Getting the data on line to begin with is possibly the value here regardless of the attempt at providing some sort of special key or tag. Help me out here. I just want to make you happy ;-)

  2. Getting the data on line to begin with is possibly the value here

    It’s a great start. Now suppose you want to inform yourself about this topic, and maybe also engage with it. You’d like to be able to pull together all that’s relevant. But it’s scattered around the web. The city publishes docs that it knows are relevant to the topic. Likewise the newspaper. Other potential contributors to the discussion: the state government, environmental activists, neighbors of the project, city historians, etc. A lot of this will be online, nowadays, which is great. But how will you find all that stuff?

    Some years ago, tech conferences began doing something interesting. The first order of business, after telling people where to find the bathrooms, was: “The tag for this conference is _______.” That meant anybody contributing to the event, on their own blogs or in the press or on Twitter or on Flickr or wherever, could contribute /in their own online spaces/ with the knowledge that what they contributed could also federate with other contributions.

    It was, and is, a remarkable thing that’s gradually spread to other kinds of conferences: in education, government, etc.

    This is only that same idea applied to the even more decentralized discourse that forms around public issues in a community.

    A search ANDing the appropriate words should be quite sufficient.

    It isn’t, for two reasons. First, a search for a tag that was coined for the purpose is inherently much more precise. Second, the agreement to use the tag for the purpose is critical. When people use the tag it sends a strong signal: it’s an intentional act that binds the document to the topic for which the agreement was made.

  3. A search ANDing the appropriate words should be quite sufficient.

    If I search for just the tag, and everything relevant is not tagged, which is quite likely even under the best of circumstances, I come up short. Even possibly biased. I guess I have gotten used to sifting through more than is relevant. I do find that I discover things that I would not have discovered with a narrower search.
    It is quite different than if I am looking for a specific narrow identifiable thing, a song title, for instance.

    1. The focused search and the broader search aren’t mutually exclusive. It may make sense to do both. But the former, again, finds a set of things that have been /intentionally declared/ to belong in the result set.

      a specific narrow identifiable thing, a song title, for instance

      Exactly! For a topic around which a decentralized set of documents will gather, an agreed-upon tag is just that: an identifiable title.

      1. “…an agreed-upon tag is just that: an identifiable title. …”
        key word, identifiable. The general case is that we are transferring the metadata to the visible text when there is no metadata support system. So for your blog post you have the ability to put in the special tags as well as normal words for those other systems that look at the metadata. So the discussion boils down to ‘should we embed special metadata in the text itself outside the metadata system. In effect, that is making a Twitter like post out of all other posts and reducing the need or desire for a metadata system at all.
        I note that on Google there are 271 hits on “weststdamkeene” (maybe another one now ;-) and 11,800,000 on “west st dam keene” but at least the first page is pretty close to the same set of responses (only a cursory check).
        I am trying to get my hands around the value of the effort to create and spread the special tag. Perhaps when the subject is not as clear or as easy to identify as this subject..

  4. Suggestions for tagging things like discussion forums or e-mail mailing list messages? Is it sufficient to include the tag text in the message/post, or is there an adopted convention for doing so, like #tag ala Twitter or [tag] or ?? I never had the need to tag blog posts (my blog died from my failure to feed it new posts…) so I am way behind on tagging.

    1. Is it sufficient to include the tag text in the message/post

      Yes, doesn’t need to be any harder than that. The system you’re using may or may not support an official tagging mechanism, but for this purpose that won’t matter. If your tag is (initially) web-unique, it’ll be indexed and findable.

      There is, of course, always the risk of spam. This is an open channel, all open channels are vulnerable. But if that becomes a problem, it’s straightforward to create a whitelist using the site: prefix to web queries.

  5. transferring the metadata to the visible text when there is no metadata support system

    For the web at large, there /is/ no metadata support system.

    Perhaps when the subject is not as clear or as easy to identify as this subject

    The subject in this case isn’t the dam, it’s a specific issue before the city at the moment: should we repair or remove the dam? Documents specifically related to that issue are what the tag is (or should be) used to identify.

    That being said, I can see that newspaper isn’t quite doing that. The first 3 titles on Google when searching the tag at the moment are:

    1. Water training held for firefighters at dam – SentinelSource.com …
    2. DAM DEEMED DEFICIENT – SentinelSource.com: Local News …
    3. Keene dam work delayed – SentinelSource.com: Local News …

    Of these, only #2 meets my criterion. (#1 is unrelated to dam repair, and #3 refers to a different dam)

    But if people were actually relying on “site:sentinelsource.com weststdamkeene” to retrieve #2 but not #1 and #3, which nobody is yet, then feedback would correct that problem.

    Now, it’s true that the newspaper has its own metadata:


    and so does the city:


    So if you want the best merged set of docs from those two sources, and if you know they’ve agreed to use the tag in the same way, then you should merge those two queries.

    Freetext tagging doesn’t aim to replace that mechanism. It aims to augment it, enabling anybody who’s writing in any context (blog, Facebook, forum post, whatever) to address something to the topic, to do it much more reliably than without use of the tag, and yet to retain authoritative control over their own words.

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