Oct 16 2013

Some ideas about a tool for community reflection

One initiative I took on as part of the IFAD synthesis project got going due to a conversation with Philipp Grunewald where we were wondering how a community like KM4Dev could guide a researcher’s activities.  Philipp was willing to give 2 hours a week to the community in some kind of research effort, but wanted to find a topic that was useful or valued by the community, rather than pushing a researcher’s perspective on the community.

We experimented with http://allourideas.org (or “wiki surveys”), a tool for public opinion and consultation, and indeed we got new ideas and some interesting guidance on the most popular and resonant ideas.   The ideas that we came up with to seed the inquiry seemed to  stimulate new ones but did not swamp or block the thinking.  I think that this tool could be useful for  KM4Dev in the future and it might play a useful role for other free-standing communities  that are long lived and have grown large enough that too much conversation is a bigger problem than not enough.monthly-km4dev-dgroups-posting-sep2000-to-feb2012

If all of us shared all of our ideas on the Dgroup and then started working on ranking them we would all go mad, end up devoting all our time to KM4Dev, or (most likely) just give up.  And the main topic of KM4Dev is knowledge management and sharing in development organizations, not how can one researcher help out.   But the KM4Dev community has grown large  so that sometimes the “thinking together” that was its hallmark 5 or 10 years ago is difficult with the existing set of tools; this is not a reflection on present membership, leadership or community culture.  It’s just a limitation of the bandwidth that an email list affords.

If you think growing beyond what an email list will comfortably allow, consider the alternative. Should it grow smaller, somehow?  Divide up?  Shut out new people?  Only talk about the “truly important stuff”?  Move to another platform entirely?  Because the KM4Dev community is bigger, it’s also more diverse, which is reflected in the different languages (in the sense of different jargons that show up), interests, disciplines, knowledge, work-contexts, and motivations that you can see by following the discussions. This also makes the community all the more valuable, so dealing with growth is all the more important.

More about Wiki Surveys as a tool for communities

Basically Wiki Surveys is a tool that lies in between a closed form survey and an open-ended interview.   Open-ended interviews can yield rich detail and new categories but get very expensive fairly quickly.  Closed-form surveys (e.g., Survey Monkey or Google Forms) are limited by the questions we ask, which so easily miss the insight that a community holds.  Wiki Surveys is easy to use and I think solves some of the dilemmas between the two kinds of information gathering modes.  It is obviously a more involved and sophisticated tool, but it could become as commonplace in the way that http://doodle.com solves the problem of scheduling a large group.  , provided there’s some understanding of it (which is up to us to help with).

All Our Ideas is a research project based at Princeton University that is dedicated to creating new ways of collecting social data. You can learn more about the theory and methods behind our project by reading Matthew J. Salganik and Karen E.C. Levy, Wiki surveys: Open and quantifiable social data collection or watching a talk that explains the logic behind the tool.  The authors cite three characteristics of the Wiki Surveys tool that resonate with a community of practice context:

  • greedy: it incorporate both the information from prolific as well as non-prolific contributors; other tools force us to choose between the two; communities of practice inherently have to the balance both ends of such a spectrum, so why restrict contributions or guidance to one end of the spectrum or another?
  • collaborative: it allows people to suggest new ideas that had not been anticipated when the original question was formed; it’s in the interactions in communities that they produce new ideas, so shouldn’t the tools we use to consult with a community do just that?
  • adaptive: it uses what is known so far to guide the inquiry, insuring that new ideas are tested against previously submitted ones (and tries to test new ideas so that they have as close to “an equal chance” as possible).  Although deep and old roots make a community solid, it’s today’s insights that should guide the future, wo why would we allow our tools to be too constrained by past terminology or question framing?

The http://allourideas.org tool produces a score for each idea that’s submitted. The score is based on pairwise comparison with other ideas.  User-submitted ideas have an equal chance to “catch up” because they are considered somewhat more frequently.  The new, user-submitted ideas turn out to be quite interesting.  Salganik and Levy suggest that they frequently often contain two useful kinds of ideas:

  • alternative framing  of a problem where an idea is expressed in natural language, with a context that is different and useful.  For example, an OECD survey about education where the top idea was a very pithy and vivid, “Teach to think, not to regurgitate.”  It seems to me that the discourse in a community of practice is as much about framing problems in a new way as it is about “solving” problems.
  • novel information where information is brought to the process that is really new or different.  For example, a study for New York City suggested that docking ships that were not plugged into the electrical grid produced emissions equivalent to 12,000 cars per ship.  I’ve written about communities as effective mechanisms for gathering complex information from the landscape.


To ask the KM4Dev community we asked the question, “What topic would you like to explore with Philipp on behalf of KM4Dev in the next 7 months?”  We came up with a series of “seed” ideas that seemed reasonable but have found that the user-submitted ideas have higher scores than the ones we submitted. It turns out that user-submitted ideas often have much lower scores than the seed ideas because of the amount of variance in user-submitted ideas.  Some are very good (popular) and others are unpopular.


Red dots on the top panel are the scores for user-submitted ideas and the blue dots are “seed” ideas.

The voting is now closed, but you can see the results here: http://www.allourideas.org/grunewaldtopics/results.  I think there is a lot to think about in the results.  There’s no substitute for thinking about why, of the 32 ideas that were considered,  two of the most unpopular ideas were among the ones that we had originally proposed and seemed quite sensible at the time:

  • Self-awareness of community relevance
  • Relationships between KM4Dev and KBF (or other adjacent communities)

Most popular ideas were both user-contributed:

  • Does KM4Dev have to be a community? Or is it good enough if it is a platform that provides desired services?
  • Strategic KM4Dev — examples, analysis, orientation

It’s worth noting that http://allourideas.org uses the same strategy for tracking and showing geographic diversity as I did when I re-analyzed the data in a KM4Dev survey.


I think wiki surveys shows great promise for reflection and inquiry in a community setting.

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