Information Seeking for the Political Process

Yesterday, I participated in a discussion about technology issues facing the next United States administration. The New York CTO Club, which is non-partisan, invited both presidential campaigns to participate, but unfortunately we only had representation from one of them. Still, it was an earnest, informed discussion that excited me despite my deep skepticism about the political process.

One of the issues we discussed was the challenge of communication to inform policy, whether from government to the population at large or vice versa. In particular, we discussed the problem of distilling countless emails to ensure that politicians, whose time is extremely scarce, are aware of the best ideas coming from citizen activists.

The conversation could have been about search and relevance ranking. Concerns ranged from managing near-duplicate documents (people often copy and paste letters from organizations) to anonymous authorship and reputation systems. Indeed, the issue of communicating about policy amounts to a collection of information seeking problems for politicians, non-political staffers, activists, and the general population.

I was happy to see some other folks agreeing that any relevance measure would be suspect, given the adversarial nature of the political process. What may be good enough for casual web search is surely inadequate when policy decisions are at stake. I see the implication as a need for transparent information seeking support systems that offer users control and guidance. Moreover, what is good for policy-driven information seeking seems broadly applicable to information seeking in general.

To be clear, any improvements to our current process of communicating between government and citizenry would be welcome. But we should not cut corners in our aspirations.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.