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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Participatory Web for Environment

I'm in Rome at the moment, at a large conference on Web 2.0 for Development, and I wonder whether anyone is having similar discussions in the environmental field. There's a lot of excitement in the room, people speaking of the joy of exploring, of sharing - but also an awareness of the challenges: This is not a discussion about new tools, it has to be a discussion about communication and learning within and amongst organizations, and we need to foster openness, and participation and trust.

The buzzword of the morning was 'aggregation': Blog tools are great to collate the history of an organization and its activities, wikis can help to make implicit knowledge explicit, and all other media can supplement the information flow (links, pictures, video, audio, slides). Some of the beauty is in finding intelligent ways of presenting the wealth of information, and they can be software driven. Ismael Peña-López has a summary of the presentations.

Participatory web environments are far from new: Newsgroups and list serves have existed since the beginning of the web. New tools make it easier for people to direct their own flow of information, and make sharing and searching easier. I believe such a 'participatory web' needs three things to function:

  1. An issue (what unites us?)
  2. A target audience (who do we want to collaborate with?)
  3. A constant feed of information (what can we learn together?)

Managing this communication centrally is very difficult and time consuming. Yet, it always needs contributors, and guardians. There is a trade-off between quality control and community driven processes.

There's no shortage of information in the environmental community, but I sometimes feel that we're not doing too well in using it. IUCN's experts and scientists remain in their own corners. But knowledge is created through exchange and adaptation. How can we encourage this communication? How can we convince people of the benefits of contributing their information? How can we ensure quality in community driven processes?

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