Web 2.0: Second verse, different than the first

Community sites, workspaces can open roads to collaboration

People who are coming into work now, their default mode is to share and collaborate.' 'Bruce McConnell, Government Futures

In December, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner gave a lecture in the virtual community Second Life as an animated version of himself. According to the blog 'New World Notes,' Posner's avatar 'was beset on all sides by humanoid animals, supermodels and intermittent fireballs''not your typical audience for a lecture on intellectual property rights.

It's one example (albeit a little far out) of the federal government's move to embrace a new generation of technologies that fall under the banner of Web 2.0, a catchphrase for a collection of tools that, among other things, encourage a high level of social interactivity and collaboration.

Indeed, Web 2.0 relies on user participation and data sharing.

Interactivity has always been a hallmark of the Web, but only recently has that quality formed the core of a critical mass of Web sites. Personal home pages have given way to blogs and MySpace profiles. People needing information on a particular topic can head to Wikipedia, the user-created encyclopedia with more than 1 million entries, making it the largest online repository of general knowledge. Podcasts and video-sharing sites such as YouTube allow everyone to be a broadcaster.

Now, federal agencies are beginning to adopt some of these methods, said Bruce McConnell, president of Government Futures, a consulting firm that's testing many Web 2.0 tools and advising agencies on how to make that transition.

He and co-founder Margaret Anderson see a cultural shift leading to the rise of Web 2.0 in government. Organizations in general are becoming more virtual, more peer-to-peer, and less hierarchical, McConnell said, and Web 2.0 tools are just enabling that change.

Agencies that have taken the plunge have found these new approaches changing the way they work and interact.

Moving target

Web 2.0 'is a constantly moving mix of technologies and techniques,' McConnell said, but they have some things in common that put the focus on group interactivity.

It uses Web-based applications instead of software that resides on individual desktops, therefore avoiding problems with compatibility and the need for frequent software updates.

It also harnesses the power of collaborative intelligence. Instead of information flowing one way from a content provider to the user, the users create the content. A wiki, for example, encourages participants to edit the information on a site, creating pages that are constantly corrected and refreshed with new information.

Last year, the intelligence community began a wiki called Intellipedia to aid in the sharing of information among agencies. The hope is to avoid the lack of communication that preceded the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In October, Government Futures released a report outlining some trends that are driving the move to Web 2.0 technologies. Traditional IT spending is expected to drop 10 percent to 25 percent over the next three years, making it necessary to do more with less.

The demographics of the federal workforce are also changing. 'People who are coming into work now, their default mode is to share and collaborate,' McConnell said, 'while the default mode of the people who are leaving is to do your own work and try to make sure you get credit for it.'

Political forces are demanding that government be more transparent and responsive. Some agencies, such as the General Services Administration, are conducting their work online so interested parties'and the public'can follow every step of the process.

The idea of running online communities is nothing new. Electronic bulletin boards and news groups existed before the Internet and could be accessed through a dial-up connection. E-mail listservs and online discussion forums have existed for years.

But until recently, the tools available to build a community (such as ways to manage picture galleries or discussion threads) weren't closely knitted together. 'They don't talk to each other,' said U.S. Army Maj. Steven Schweitzer, who runs the technical side of two online forums called CompanyCommand and PlatoonLeader. 'They're like these little separate applications that are sitting inside your community that people can click on. But the pictures don't connect to the discussion, and the discussion certainly doesn't connect to the pictures.' Now, software exists that better integrates these individual tools.

GSA's Office of Intergovernmental Solutions uses this kind of software for a shared online workspace. It includes a portal home page, a wiki, a discussion forum and a shared-file repository. 'It's easier than sitting around a table with paper,' said Susan Turnbull, head of the Emerging Technology Subcommittee of the Federal CIO Council.

Work in the office used to be done the conventional way, via teleconferences, e-mail and face-to-face meetings, Turnbull said. They added the collaborative work environment to make the interactions more efficient. What's more, since the mission of her office is to foster communication and collaboration among government IT officials, adopting a Web 2.0 solution themselves made sense.

Now, instead of e-mailing a huge document around to hundreds of colleagues, participants can post it on the workspace and invite comments. The discussion forum automatically logs all the e-mails sent about a particular project so everyone can follow the conversation. The wiki can be updated with news, upcoming events'anything someone wants to share.

'It's all about sharing,' said Turnbull, who also helps oversee the Collaborative Expedition Workshop, a monthly meeting to introduce new computer technology to federal employees. 'We're helping to transform from 'need-to-know' to 'need-to-share' and working toward 'build-to-share.' ' Web 2.0 practices, she said, are a way to do that.

It takes a village

CompanyCommand and PlatoonLeader, two professional discussion forums for Army officers, are examples of Web sites where the participants 'build-to-share.'

Supported by instructors at the Military Academy at West Point, the site offers company commanders, past and present, a space to discuss issues relevant to being in charge of a platoon. It has about 6,200 members and about 60 volunteers serving as topic leaders.

The support team carefully structured the site to foster a sense of community. People who want to join are screened to ensure they belong in the group, and the forum is password-protected to encourage participants to speak more openly.

Also, posted comments are accompanied by a profile (called a 'dog tag,' in military fashion), so readers can place the posting in context. 'You're never getting the information without seeing the author,' said Lt. Col. Peter Kilner, one of the site's co-founders. An interview with a member is always featured on the home page, so 'when you log on, you see the face of a peer,' he adds. 'Lower down on the front page, you can see the last 20 people to join. It gives them the sense that they're going through this with other like-minded people.'

Kilner sees the site as more than just a meeting place for company commanders to share ideas. 'We don't really recruit [topic leaders] so much as we're helping them live out their professional identity,' he said. 'If we find someone that's really passionate about marksmanship or understanding Iraqi culture ' what we do is provide a means for them to live out their passion, and by doing so, serve their fellow company commanders. Everyone wants to do that.'

Government Futures recently launched several prediction markets, a different type of tool that also allows people to express their opinion on a particular topic.
A prediction market acts like a stock market or betting pool to aggregate opinions on the likelihood of a specific event. For example, one market asks if participants think Congress will change the new daylight-saving time law, and another asks whether some federal agencies will still be under a continuing resolution on March 15. Participants get a pot of play money to buy or sell stock, based on whether they think the market is high or low.

'If the questions are properly phrased, and you have a broad enough base of participants, you get very accurate predictions,' said McConnell. 'The general thought is that if you bring together a lot of people who are generally knowledgeable, as a group their opinions are going to be as good or better than the top five experts. We're betting the company on the idea that there is a wisdom to the crowd.'

People can also post comments, as they might do on a blog. And even though only
a small number of people might actively contribute'to a forum, a prediction market or an online survey'many others simply read and follow the conversation.

These lurkers are also part of the community, said Anderson. 'The other 98 percent are participating mentally, even if they're not adding their own information.'

On CompanyCommander and PlatoonLeader, 80 percent of members never post
comments. 'In interviewing people who were, quote, 'lurkers,' I found people who felt a tremendous sense of identity and belonging,' Kilner said. By telling others about what they read on the site, 'they're participating in a lot of offline ways that are really powerful.'

Another way lurkers contribute to the community is by rating items, e-mailing articles and simply clicking on links that contribute to popularity rankings posted on the home page, Schweitzer said.

Anderson thinks that, in time, wikis, prediction markets and even Second Life will become 'ho-hum''just another set of tools people use to communicate, network with each other and collect information.

'People will resist it,' McConnell added, 'but in the end, technology will find its place. You can't ever put the genie back in the bottle.'

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