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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Jon Udell: Motivation, context, and citizen analysis of government data

I ran across this blog post by Jon Udell on del.icio.us and I think Udell and Willinsky are on to something here:
...these are only views of data. There’s no analysis and interpretation, no statistical rigor. Since most ordinary citizens lack the expertise to engage at that level, are governments that publish raw data simply asking for trouble? Will bogus interpretations by unqualified observers wind up doing more harm than good?

That’s a legitimate concern, and while the issue hasn’t yet arisen, because public access to this level of data is a very new phenomenon, it certainly will. To address that concern I’ll reiterate part of another item in which I mentioned John Willinsky’s amazing talk on the future of education:
Willinsky talks about how he, as a reading specialist, would never have predicted what has now become routine. Patients with no ability to read specialized medical literature are, nonetheless, doing so, and then arriving in their doctors’ offices asking well-informed questions. Willinsky (only semi-jokingly) says the Canadian Medical Association decided this shouldn’t be called “patient intimidation” but, rather, “shared decision-making.”

How can level 8 readers absorb level 14 material? There are only two factors that govern reading success, Willinsky says: motivation, and context. When you’re sick, or when a loved one is sick, your motivation is a given. As for context:
They don’t have a context? They build a context. The first time they get a medical article, duh, I don’t know what’s going on here, I can’t read the title. But what happened when I did that search? I got 20 other articles on the same topic. And of those 20, one of them, I got a start on. It was from the New York Times, or the Globe and Mail, and when I take that explanation back to the medical research, I’ve got a context. And then when I go into the doctor’s office…and actually, one of the interesting things…is that a study showed that 65% of the doctors who had had this experience of patient intimidation shared decision-making said the research was new to them, and they were kind of grateful, because they don’t have time to check every new development.

When your loved one is sick, you’re motivated to engage with primary medical literature, and you’ll build yourself a context in which to do that. Similarly, when your neighborhood is sick, you’ll be motivated to engage with government data, and you’ll build yourself a context for that.

Web 2.0 already is putting government data in reach of the person who is both educated and motivated - think GovTrack, OpenCongress, WashingtonWatch, and even the staid Thomas. Blogs and the state of the world are adding some motivation - is it enough? Even if it is, in his happy embrace of Willinsky's thesis, Udell does gloss over one of the points in the example - that the patient was able to build the context that enabled them to access the more technical and demanding research only by first finding more accessible articles from lay sources, that they could then build their context from. And then the patient goes to the expert - the doctor - to finish out the knowledge-building that they need to satisfy their concern.

So what does this mean for civic engagement? Of course motivation is a crucial ingredient, and access to accurate, timely information is essential. But, as Udell's post suggests, the bridge from motivation to the successful construction of knowledge for effective action, will require a gateway to context-building - the accessible lay articles that can get the motivated citizen a foothold for the climb.

Clearly, blogs can contribute to that gateway role, and some bloggers certainly do. Whenever a blogger points directly to a bill on Thomas (with a working link, ahem - the badge of the true wonk being the ability to make a working link to Thomas, heh), they are opening the gate for their readers. Hopefully, more and more political and civic bloggers will start thinking consciously about their gateway role, and how they use Web 2.0+, creativity, and anything else to open that gate wider and make it more enticing for their readers to walk through.

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