Short Description:

Virtual world environment to offer government entities and interest groups an on-line space for conducting citizen consultation. In short, this project will use the metaphor of the “county fair,” a familiar civic event in the life of a community. This will be a place – like a meeting tent, a town hall or even a shopping mall – where groups can congregate online. The aim of this project is to design a space where interested parties, such as trade associations, activist groups and scientific experts, will be able to set up virtual booths for presentation of information and deliberation as well as advocacy.

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Democracy Island

Current projects include the following:

The Advantage of Virtual Worlds Technology

Virtual worlds offer the opportunity, unavailable with earlier technologies, such as weblogs, for people to get together, deliberate, exchange ideas, inform each other and contribute meaningfully to the process.

The technology offers a number of advantages.

First, virtual worlds allow players to create individuated characters with unique identities. By acting through avatars, players take on a role distinct from yet related to their own identity. This allows players to create “public” characters who think and act as members of a community, rather than merely private individuals. That avatar, like the citizen, can choose to behave in public-spirited ways that the avatar’s creator might not. The avatar as a persona can be likened to the citizen – a legal and moral personage distinct from the private individual – who thinks about and advocates the public interest. Also, the ability to play a role as an avatar opens up possibilities for the simulation of different stakeholders within the process.

Second, the graphical interface of a virtual world allows users to explore the environment and interact with other people and information. Not only can participants easily create graphical objects, but they can also imbue those objects with intelligence and cause them to communicate ideas. In other words, participants can easily develop their own simulations, models, examples and illustrations.

Third, the ability to visualize oneself and the larger community of practice congregating to engage in rulemaking enhances civility and a sense of commitment to the process. Virtual worlds take videoconferencing to the next level and bring it to everyone’s desktop. People tend to be more civil when confronting another person, even in the form of an online avatar. Experience with graphical virtual worlds has proven this point. Also the visual nature of virtual worlds reintroduces the value of “seeing” the group that is essential to deliberation and lost in the current rulemaking process.

Fourth, everything in a virtual world is recorded and can be controlled, where necessary. So it becomes easy to ensure that participants vote only once or select only one policy position from the “argument tree.” Desired rules and methods can be simply and easily built into the “physics” of the virtual space.

Fifth, a virtual world allows us to recreate a familiar environment from the “real world.” People understand the idea of a “county fair.” They are familiar with getting together to hold an event. This has the advantage of acclimatizing non-technical people to use of an on-line space. We can exploit the cost-saving and convenience of the Web while making the experience accessible to the technologically-challenged.

The wonderful thing about virtual worlds is that participants learn as much from each other as from talking to any official source of information. Also, players can and do create for themselves. We fully anticipate that we will get members of the virtual world community to assist in developing the final product.

We have a relationship with the leading virtual world company, Linden Lab, maker of Second Life. As a result, we can, with ICAIR’s help, acquire a large and dedicated area (Democracy Island) in which to begin building the rulemaking fair. Linden Lab will not only work with us to provide the space and the tools for our civic space but, if ICAIR enables this endeavor, we will be able to enlist the help of their user-community to build these virtual civic spaces. Second Life’s thousands of participants are active creators within the virtual world and capable of creating all of the required content at reasonable rates.

We have a working-relationship with one of the major rulemaking Federal agencies, the Department of Transportation (DOT), that will assist us in tying the experiment to a real world rulemaking. We anticipate that DOT will be our first client with other agencies and interest groups to follow. We have also done work with the Federal Initiative on e-Rulemaking that is responsible for moving agencies to the Web. Part of the work of this project will be marketing to the various agencies and interest groups with whom we will be working to stage these fairs.

The Principal Investigator on this project, Prof. Beth Simone Noveck, is the founder of the Democracy Design Workshop at New York Law School. She is a leading expert on electronic rulemaking, electronic democracy and on the use of new technologies to promote the citizen participation and civic deliberation. She is the creator of Unchat®, software for democratic deliberation, a tool she successfully took to the commercial market. Her last technology design project, the Cairns Project, was funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Council of Europe and America Speaks. Professor Noveck is the organizer of the “State of Play: Law, Games and Virtual Worlds” conference series, which attracts leading thinkers from the technology, game design, the legal profession and politics to New York each year. This year’s State of Play conference (October 29-31, 2004) will be an ideal opportunity to showcase Democracy Island and develop clients for the fairs, if funded. Professor Noveck and her collaborators have relationships with designers and democratic theorists who will help create an optimal layout for the fair and develop options for innovation and creativity by others in that context.

Over the years, the legitimacy and effectiveness of government has suffered as the process of developing rules has migrated towards routine routing of paper among bureaucrats. The online rulemaking fair can re-introduce the excitement of conversational government. It’s hard to ignore the other side of an argument if it is embodied in the form of an avatar prepared to discuss the issue in real time. It’s easier to get engaged if background information is presented in the form of a game. It’s easier to tell what informed citizens think the government should do if they are empowered to take unambiguous action after having engaged in discussion.