The Independent’s experiments with debate visualisation tool: Q&A

For several months The Independent has been experimenting with Debategraph – a mindmapping tool that allows you to visualise various perspectives on big issues, and add new ones. From ‘What should the Labour Party do next?‘ to ‘The Future of Newspapers‘, the tool branches out from the initial question to sub-questions and responses.

You can see one of the maps embedded below.


I asked David Price, co-founder of Debategraph, some questions about the partnership and experiences with the tool:

How did you get involved with The Independent?

We were lucky enough to pilot a very alpha version of Debategraph with Prime Minister’s Office when Jimmy Leach was at Downing Street, and we kept in touch when Jimmy moved to The Independent.

What’s your background and what does your job involve?

I co-founded Debategraph with Peter Baldwin, who was a cabinet minister in the Keating administration in the Australia; possibly the first — but hopefully not the last — cabinet minister to retire to a code web application.

After doctoral research at Cambridge on organizational learning and environmental policy I worked in the TV industry; first in documentary production and then as a public policy advisor/consultant with a focus on public service broadcasting. We were drawn together by our shared interest in using the web to help people think collaboratively about complex problems facing society.

As you know, there’s no job description for a two person web start up beyond “everything that needs to be done”; although the main focus of our work is on the continuous development of the ideas and implementation underpinning Debategraph and on supporting and championing the emerging community of collaborative visual thinkers.

How have the debates on the Indie gone so far? What has worked well and not so well?

We have been delighted with the way that the debates are working. The first map in series “What should Obama do next?” started before the inauguration with a few seed questions and policy positions and is still growing as a cluster of interrelated maps with well over 1,000 elements covering a broad range of policy issues.

The map on the crisis in Gaza, which was being developed at the start of year while the crisis was unfolding, demonstrated that collaborative visual mapping can handle subjects in which the flow of dialogue is characterised by strong emotions and fundamentally different world views.

And the map on climate change is showing how the ability to embed live versions of the maps on different websites can enable different communities (e.g. climate change activists and climate sceptics) to engage constructively in the same debate.

The map in the series that I would like to have seen maturing faster than it has done so far, is the one on the Middle East Peace process — and we are starting to explore the possibility now of using this map as means of facilitating dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian students later this year.

What have you learned and how have you responded to how people have used the technology?

One of the joys of working with the collaborative maps is that you are constantly learning new insights about a wide range of subjects in compressed and context relevant way.

With respect to the technology, the best web applications are living processes, co-evolving with their communities, and this has been the pattern with Debategraph from the outset — with, typically, multiple updates being released each week in response to feedback from the community.

With visual mapping tools there are essentially two interwoven learning curves: the art of visual mapping and artefact and artifice involved in the tool. The ultimate goal is to hone the latter to the point at which it frees the mind to focus fully on the former.

We have come a long way with this since our first iteration, have some significant changes in the pipeline for this month, are still bursting with ideas for further improvements. The other learning point for us has been that the community always seems to find and build on latent pliability in the tool in creative and unexpected ways.

How has the relationship with the Indie been organised? How involved are they?

We have been working with digital rather than the print team at The Independent — although we’re excited by the potential for the display of the maps on the printed page as well — and Jimmy is the perfect champion: happy to create the space for experimentation, happy to the let the process build naturally, and happy for other sites to share the maps as well.

We talk about the ideas for the next maps in the series and discuss the progress with the existing maps, but the content of the maps as they develop has always been left to the discretion of the community. So, from our perspective, the relationship has always been light-touch and enabling.

What is the business model?

We are part of the wave of social entrepreneurs whose primary motivation is to build something that’s useful and meaningful in helping humanity address the challenges emerging in the 21st century (and we think that creating a new kind of public space in which people can distil, explore, evaluate and mediate all of the salient perspectives on these challenges is both meaningful and necessary).

As it develops, Debategraph is also becoming increasingly useful for facilitating and tracking private sensemaking within groups, organizations and networks, and at some point we will switch to a paid model for new private mapping (the ability to build public maps will always be free).

In the meantime, we are starting to be paid to produce maps for people and to advise and train teams about the how to use collaborative maps within and between organizations.

And any plans for an easier way to embed? iframe excludes a lot of potential users.

Yes: different ways to embed the maps are on the development list (although we haven’t set the dates for the release of these yet). And, as you may have seen, Seven Sigma has just released a free webpart that lets you embed Debategraphs on the Microsoft SharePoint platform.

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