Dan JellinekEditorThursday 9 January 2014

Sink or swim? Research helps policymakers survive information ocean

Time to boost policymaking? The Elizabeth Tower, House of Commons, by Paul Clarke http://paulclarke.comSome politicians remain wary of the internet: but could it yet become their friend and help them avoid embarrassing mistakes? This is one aim of a project to help politicians and officials harness the vast information expanses of the internet to improve public policymaking at all levels, run by a European consortium led by the University of Southampton.

The three-year "Sense4us" project, funded by the EU, unites seven academic, technical and civil society organisations to research, build and test two web-based tools.

The first tool will help policymakers collate and summarise information from multiple sources including official data, open data and citizen-generated data, highlighting what is relevant from the vast wilds of information that now exist. The second will try to simulate the impacts of different policy options before they are adopted, to help policymakers choose the most effective and avoid unintended consequences.

The consortium is led by the University of Southampton IT Innovation Centre with the Open University Knowledge Media Institute and the Hansard Society, in the UK; University of Koblenz-Landau - Institute WeST (Web Science and Technologies), and the GESIS-Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, in Germany; Government To You (Gov2u), in Greece; and eGovlab at Stockholm University in Sweden.

Two of the academic partners - Open University and University of Koblenz-Landau - are focusing on honing techniques for semantic searches: gathering, filtering, analysing and summarising information for policymakers. This will include analysis of sentiment - how people react to certain elements of a potential policy.

"It's about sorting the wood from the trees", Steve Taylor of the University of Southampton IT Innovation Centre told UKAuthority.com this week. "There are lots of possible untapped sources online such as open data, data published by institutes and think tanks, forums, blogs, social networks - some of it relevant to a particular policy. We are looking at how to get hold of it and present it to policymakers to help them be better informed."

The third academic partner - University of Stockholm - will develop techniques to help simulate possible outcomes of a policy across a range of variables, Taylor said. "So for example if you raise taxes by a certain amount, you could look at how it would affect people using buses - if they could no longer afford cars."

Overall, the project will be careful not to pre-judge results, he said. "The whole project is a research project, so by its very nature the outcomes are unknown. The idea is we build a web-based demonstrator tool so users can log in, play with it, control it."

While the academic partners will undertake research and develop the tools, the other partners will undertake live testing with policymakers at all levels of government, Taylor said. National government policymaking will be covered by the Hansard Society; Gov2u will deal with European level policy; and the GESIS-Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences will focus on local policy.

"We want to take the demonstrators out to end-users who can play with it and offer feedback, so we are sure we are addressing the questions that they want answered."

At the end of the three-year funding period, the team will assess the prospect of continuing development on a sustainable commercial basis, he said. "There may be ongoing development, if we discover something that is in high demand. The ideal situation would be that it would be taken up by a commercial company."

It is clear the need for such tools is unlikely to diminish, Taylor said. "With the advent of the internet and information overload, it is very difficult with the resources available to make sure you have a good range of information, and that you haven't missed something. Hopefully tools like this will help find those bits of missing information, as well as helping to make those vast amounts of information that are available, more comprehensible."

Pictured: Time to boost policymaking? The Elizabeth Tower, House of Commons, by Paul Clarke http://paulclarke.com
Sense4us: www.sense4us.eu