Next steps for the Number 10 e-petitions

In a pub after the 2007 eCampaigning Forum, Tom Steinberg of mySociety laid down a challenge. Though out of the media headlines, the Number 10 e-petitions engineered by mySociety are still getting tens of thousands of visits a day. Tom's challenge was "what's next?" - how do the people visiting and signing petitions get connected to something actionable? What about all the charities and non-profits that are campaigning and working on the same issues that people are petitioning about - how do people get connected to them?

Tom repeated the challenge a couple of weeks later at The Social Impact of the Web event at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce) - "we built, as a independent contractor, the Number 10 petition site... 25,000 people a day are coming... what I'd like to do is be able to point people to a debate about what happens next... petitions, a very low form of political engagement, can help get people more engaged..." Tom also triggered a conference debate about the relative primacy of tools versus people. He's an advocate for the disruptive effect of new tools - the things that the toolsmiths create challenge the way we do things. Several speakers from the audience challenged that, arguing that it's not the tools which are transformational but the people.

So here's my tool-centric attempts at an answer to Tom's challenge.

Option 1: Ask people to tag their petitions with relevant keywords (in the same way as for Flickr photos or other user-generated content). Link this to a Google Custom Search Engine which indexes a range of charity and NGO websites with relevant campaigns, and display the search results as action links. A proof of concept Advocacy Search was set up by Fairsay a few months ago. One catch here is the effort required to build the site list for the search, especially if refinements are used to provide targeted search (e.g. for 'Campaigns' or 'Advice'). On the plus side the Google CSE is set up to enable collaboration.

[disclaimer: proposing the use of Google tools in no way overwrites my opinion of their actions over China: see also Open Letters Shame Corporates For Their Complicity In China & Real-Time Revisionism]

Option 2: Use petition-tagging tied to an NGO 'action registry' which aggregates all the current advocacy and campaigning actions from the non-profit & NGO sector. Such an Action Registry is proposed as part of Fairsay's eCampaigning Tool (currently in Beta release). Another route to aggregating actions would be to develop a microformat for web actions (see also my proposal for a Prisoner of Conscience Microformat).

The broader debate about whether it's tools or people who are transformational segued in to another of the presentations at the RSA, when Bronwyn Kunhardt quoted Heidegger: "The social character of man is determined by his use of technology". An old pal of mine called Jeremy Weate wrote an excellent paper on this subject called Imaginalysis - or the Technologies of Place. Pointing out that "Heidegger claims τεκνε (techne) most fundamentally refers to ‘disclosure’ or ‘unconcealment’" he asserts that this understanding of technology implies that its meaning is forever contested. Since "the imagination is the conduit or schema by means of which what shows up in the world acquires meaning and significance" we are able to re-imagine the meaning of technologies, rather than seeing them only as the devices of the dominant order. Seems to me this is a tendency at work in all socially-conscious hacktivism (see also eCampaigning for Internet Freedom).