Debategraph: A Web of Understanding Built on Argument Visualization

Debategraph allows individuals and groups of people to explore subjects and topics by taking and breaking them down into their particular and constituent issues. It offers the opportunity for deep and nuanced dialog in an age where so much debate is polarized by the mainstream media.

The Debategraph service is essentially argument visualization via the web. It provides the opportunity for transparent and reasoned exploration of a given topic by revealing the ideas and trending thoughts of participants and enabling both them others to take an informed and intelligent position in relation to those ideas and thoughts.

By surfacing all of the thoughts about a given subject a collaborative map is built of all the ideas that people could have about the subject. Other people can come in and join the work and the map is then expanded in a process of collaborative moderation. The map is alive and is constantly being reshaped by its community of users as ideas become pooled together.

The project was started four years ago by David Price, (pictured left) who has a Phd in organizational learning and development, and Peter Baldwin an ex-Cabinet Minister of the Australian Government with the brief for Health and Employment. (He is also responsible for the coding of the debate graph site which makes him a somewhat unusual politician.)

Driven by the perception that the current way that we handle complex problems is not up to the complexity that we are creating them as a society David and Peter came to share the same vision: Taking maps of knowledge and putting them on the web in a way that people could build them collaboratively. Together they could rate and sift ideas and open up a new type of communication.

David explains further, “If you can open up the thinking of everyone in this way then everyone can explore the ideas that other people are thinking. The nature of the map allows you to add responses immediately in context as opposed to a stream of comments on a blog where you have a linear sequence of text. The site is a little like a wiki. The idea is that both the structure and the content of the map are completely fluid so you can start anywhere with any particular issue and then expand out to cover particular topics.”

Debategraph is being used by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Office in the UK and at The White House in the US. The Independent newspaper has also commissioned a series of graphs covering a number of subjects.

Christiane Amanpour, while still at CNN before moving to ABC had a debate graph made of her last interview series. For instance, in the ongoing story of Afghanistan on separate occasions she interviewed Hamid Karzai the President of Afghanistan, Hilary Clinton the US Secretary of State and General McChrystal who was in command of American military forces int the country at that time.

In a conventional series of interviews, regardless of how interesting each individual one maybe, there is no cumulative sense of knowledge gained or lessons learned. By using Debategraph it is possible to link ideas in a virtual space that may separated in the real world both physically and temporally. Points of agreement and contradiction can now be distinguished readily and directly in a useful and determinable manner.

David adds, “With the map you were able to see how the next interviewee discussing the same topic could bring their ideas together with previous ideas to form a bigger topic with the inter-relationships of these ideas clearly defined. By the time Christiane’s series finished the map contained over 3,000 ideas.”

“What you are trying to do is to collaboratively organize people to distill a picture of a subject. You are doing that in a transparent way where people are working together on it. There can be a shared negotiation of the meaning of different parts of it. As that process unfolds the map both deepens, expand and is iteratively restructuring towards the best collaborative expression of the group that is working on that of the topic that they are exploring. It can be tremendously powerful in that it can draw every contribution into it and you can see the way it goes together.

How the maps relate to the graph

“We are cultivating not just the individual maps but each map is part of a single graph. An idea on one map can be linked across to an idea on another map. You’re looking to see which place is the natural centre in the graph for the particular topic. It might be a subset of a larger map or it might be a complete map of its own.

“You might start with an issue and a new topic will be introduced in the context of that and as you begin to work on that it something which is quite substantive in itself and can be split off to make a new map but can still be linked across to the original point. So you are only expressing any given idea once in the context of the whole graph.”

Other applications for Debategraph

Debategraph has applications for education as David explains, “In the context of a flow of knowledge in a university; currently you have a very inefficient process. Each year you bring in new set of students. You get them to write the same essays on the same sort of topics which is good for individual learning but there is no cumulative public good coming from that activity. Whereas if people work together collaboratively building maps the next iteration of students can come and build on from that process and learn from that process. Those maps are contributing to this public map of understanding.”

Creating this web of understanding has a vital role in helping society progress by reducing the waste of useless iteration and pointless repetition and being able expand and build quickly, efficiently and effectively on productive new ideas as they surface.

Debategrpah also has a role in mediation, conciliation and conflict resolution. By allowing people to express themselves it is possible to create an environment where it is possible novel solutions are able to emerge. It is a kind of listening technology because instead of people talking past each other the space that Debategraph offers allows voices to be heard.

As David points out, “Because you capture the ideas that people are saying and you put them in context people can see that their idea has been heard and if it has not been expressed correctly they can refine it. There is no guaranteed with this process that it will lead to some fabulous consensus at the end of it but what it does mean is a deepening understanding of each other’s perspective.”

Now that can’t be a bad thing.

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