World Streets. Paris, 5 January 2005
Editor’s Note: It is not easy to get bright committed people who are working very hard on specific problems that are right before them, usually with neither time nor resources as needed to stretch beyond the challenges and priorities that are tying them up at any moment, to consider how they might somehow better “combine” – particularly if we are talking about something other than preparing an article for a professional journal or traveling somewhere to swap ideas and experience with others. The universe of virtual networking is quite a blank for most of us when we step much beyond email and the usual newsgroups, a black hole down which they really don’t wish to either peer or, eventually, entirely disappear (that being one of the dangers of the internet and group communications).
Here we have an example of the latest in a half year long dialogue between us and a wonderful program to which we are trying to make a modest contribution: GATNET – a virtual discussion on gender and transport issues for the development sector which was set up earlier this year to share lessons learned and to exchange new ideas and information by field workers spread literally all over the globe.
Truth to tell, our ideas and urging for better and more extensive networking are thus far being greeted with a certain amount of skepticism and/or lack of immediate interest, since most of the group appear to be more or less happy with what they have. I for one however sincerely believe that they need to do more and better, and this letter to the group of this date is my latest attempt to see if I can rally support for this good cause. (But am I too heavy-handed in this? For you to judge.)
I have been following these discussions about the future of GATNET with considerable interest – not least because it is right in the middle of two of my principal life challenges. Now the problem that I am having has to do with the discussions about (a) a “Gender database” and then (b) matters of intellectual property. These are to my mind important issues, which I would hope we/you will not chose in haste to resolve too quickly. Let’s start with the first of these:
It’s my best guess (tell me I’m wrong!) that what is needed here is not so much a “database” (I hate that word, sounds like a pile of dead animals or detritus of a mindless bureaucracy) – but a viable, multi-level, accessible and smiling communications platform. Such a platform would to my way of seeing all this provide the following tools:
o A forum or “café” for swapping ideas, leads, comments (along the lines of what we already have with Dgroups)
o An easily accessible, rapidly searchable Message Center (and database, if you will).
o A library for sharing documents, reports
o A handy “library” for URL references
o An image library
o A facility that allows members to identify themselves (privately) to the group so that as one reads a message or comment, we can click to the person (yes visual identification is a real help in respectful, cheerful communications between colleagues)
o Quick translation capability
o Free telephony (one on one and group for conferences). And if possible with support for
§ Fast parallel doc transfer (ftp)
§ Chat (valuable support for parallel communications of info that is best handled in print, including accurate, checkable email addresses and URLs)
§ Voice mail and messaging
§ Capacity to handle group conferences as well as one-on-one calls
§ Ability to handle dial-up connections
o Free videoconferencing: for one-on-one and groups, with all of the above attributes as well)
A few other things that need to be factored into the group work platform, including (and this list is not definitive by any means)
· Virus and Spam-free – as close as we can make it
· Layered accessibility – including to non members – but to what? Worth a thought
· Full and easy search-ability is important – otherwise our platform cannot perform its vital reference functions.
Another thing to consider is the matter of “moderation” if any. In our collaboration on this, I have not seen too many problems along these lines – other than perhaps too many messages which are sent to the group which really should be handled as personal communications (bearing in mind that the members of the group are busy people and we should be VERY careful about imposing on there time. Not only that, it’s our experience if there is too much, let us call it, low level communication, the busiest and perhaps most important members of the group tend to increasingly ignore the messages in a crowded work day – which would be a true pity since we have indeed so many important and useful things to share with each other.
One form of moderation which is absolutely critical is in the matter of voice or video group conferences. These tend to work best when (a) the members of the group are already comfortable as regular users of the technology in the one-on-one mode and (b) the moderator (yes we do need one) organizes things in advance with an clear agenda (bullet points), discussion timetable, and one would hope a commitment to see to it that if the matters under discussion are important (otherwise why bother?) that a short report on main points, agreements, next steps will be shared ASAP).
Our own long practice, which by no means do I regret, has it that anything that appears anywhere in the platform is in the public domain – and caveat lector. Under The Commons: Open Society Sustainability Initiative we have since our first internet conferencing and sharing programs starting in 1987/88 thought and acted in terms of what is now often called the Global Commons approach to our work and that of our world wide collaborators working on the agenda of sustainable development and social justice.
Now I am not at all sure if this can be done within Dgroups, which is not intended as a criticism but it does as you might well imagine require time and resources – and I simply am not aware of how much of either they have.
The initial Dgroups program statement says that their solution is “simple, non-commercial (no ads), respectful of privacy, and targeted at low bandwidth users in the South”. All of which is absolutely vital, and indeed should be at the heart of anything that we undertake to do or use along these lines.
· I would really love it if they were able and wanted to work with us to create such a versatile lively open platform, which would be a major extension of their own good work to date – but again it’s a matter of resources, time and the desire to take on such a challenge.
· And under any circumstances any such development should be carried out in a close working partnership with GATNET (The customer is always right, or something like that)
As I have indicated we here at The Commons are always ready to lend a hand, but at the same Tim we certainly do not want to get in anyone else’s way. The fact is that we have the advantage of long and I think rather good experience with this kind of challenge, and so far have managed to work on it without the benefit of any external financing (though I do in fact intend shortly to make the rounds to see if we can fund the overall Commons program). This has given us the enormous advantage of compete independence, of both private and public institutions and interests (and agendas. . . of which there are quite a number of subterranean ones that we can see and which are not always acting in the true public interest).
Anyway, if you go to our still-in-progress working site http://www.xwork.org (New Ways to Work in an Information Society) you will see that we have popped GATNET into a place of honor precisely for this open group rethink. You’ll see.
Note: What we have here in place thus far is far form complete. And moreover we have considerable reserves about numerous parts of this at the level of today’s tools and the ways we are working with them. But I think the critical point is that by and large they are dong the job, and what is more we have some pretty good ideas about how to improve.
If you would like to see an example of a forum in which this group work approach is time tested and working pretty well, I can point you to the World Carshare Consortium at http://worldcarshare.com. This forum brings together more than four hundred of the leading practitioners and thinkers in this field (which is, you may be surprised to know, an important part of the sustainability agenda when it comes to transport in cities) – with the acid test being that we have seen a number of very specific things happening in various places around the world which would either have never taken place or taken pace at a considerable lag, precisely because the network . . . works.
That’s it. Here you have my best thoughts, and while they are far from the specifics of our important concerns here, at come point we need to make sure that we have our housekeeping in its best possible shape.
PS. A final word on “group intelligence” in the virtual world such as we are talking about here (and indeed in doing). In the first place, it is not at all what one might conclude if one listened only to those who take the lead in the discussions. In cases like this there is a lot of experience, IQ and close-to-the problem knowledge and competence out there, and while we may not always hear from them at any point they are there and definitely with views and ideas of their own. So, if that’s true how does one tap this wonderful source? Well, if we are in the same physical space we can invite them to tea or coffee, and then just natter on together – knowing that in time these views and problem-solving capabilities will come out. Failing that, we can try to create a virtual space where we can come close to doing the same. One option that comes to mind is simply to pick up the Skype and spend a few minutes together, thinking out loud on ideas and problems that perhaps do best in such more direct (and private) conversations.
Which is my way of saying, dear friends, that I am aware that if I am making a lot of noise about all this these days, I am very aware that you have a lot more hands-on knowledge and experience in the bottom-line matters, and I am grateful that you are giving me a chance to try at least to part of the solution. Warm regards to you all.
# # #