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RSS 2.0

How blogging can be a public service

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Monday, 4 January 2010


Who is Julie Hempenstall? She lives in Bendigo and she likes reading Australia's historic newspapers. The National Library has hoisted its collection on the net and had them digitised by computers. I can see what keeps her there.

Hard at work drafting this article, I just spent the past hour reading about early Sydney - about the Governor's plan for a school for Aboriginal boys and girls to "improve the Energies of this innocent, destitute, and unoffending race". It wasn't a raging success.

Anyway, the computer digitisation of that article was full of mistakes. Why? Optical character recognition isn't perfect even with clean print and certainly not with 200-year-old, stained, yellowed newspapers with antiquated fonts - or fontf as it was printed in 1788. But people such as Julie have pored over the articles and the library's clever ''crowdsourcing'' website allows them to correct mistakes they find.

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It's addictive. I found the obituary of an extraordinary Englishman, William Stanley Jevons, who was an architect of modern economics. He turned up in Sydney in his teens in 1854 and was a busy fellow. He became assayer to our mint, was a newspaper photographer in Australia (strictly a hobby) and the first to document the El Nino effect. Reading all the digitised mistakes, I just couldn't help myself. He didn't gain an honorary degree from the "Umversity of Odinburgh". It was the University of Edinburgh. Anyway, it's fixed now.

This bit of crowdsourcing has been a huge success. Without so much as an official launch:

  • In the first month in 2007 more than 200,000 lines of text were corrected in 12,000 articles. By the six-month mark, 2 million lines had been corrected in 100,000 articles.
  • At no point since the first few days has there been a time when text correction is not taking place. It goes on 24/7.
  • More than a fifth of users log in from offshore - with growing communities of participants from Britain, the United States, New Zealand and Canada. One of the top 10 correctors is in the US.
  • The top 10 text correctors were correcting significantly more text than all other users, spending up to 45 hours a week on the activity.
  • No vandalism of text was detected in six months, so no roll-back to previous versions or moderation was required.

Oh - and our Julie from Bendigo emerged as a leading contributor from early on in the project. When I last heard, she'd corrected more than a quarter of a million lines of code.

All this is a microcosm of how the world's governments are starting to get with the vibe of Web 2.0. Web 1.0 comprised websites and email. Today Web 2.0 is a platform of blogs, wikis and social networking tools for collaboration between all and sundry - often people who've never met and never will. Who knew that we've had an encyclopedia in us just waiting to get out on a wiki? We all know now.

But we've only just begun thinking about what Web 2.0 might mean for the business of governing. Julie Hempenstall gives me a way of explaining just one set of possibilities considered by the Government 2.0 Taskforce.

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For there are a two things we know about Julie's work. We know she does it for its own sake - after all, no one's paying her. And it's very likely that, in addition to this intrinsic motivation, she's also motivated by making some small contribution to the community. (All the respondents to the National Library's survey of major contributors listed this among their motivations.)

Now intrinsic motivation and civic-mindedness are valuable things pretty much anywhere - but particularly around government.

We still don't understand that much about intrinsic motivation or of how to maximise it in the workforce but it seems clear that it is critical to highly skilled activity. Eric S. Raymond, the author of a groundbreaking book on volunteer-built open-source software (such as Linux and Firefox), attributes much of the superiority of open-source modes of working to intrinsic motivation: ''Fun'', he says, is a sign of peak efficiency. Painful development environments waste labour and creativity; they extract huge hidden costs in time, money, and opportunity.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on December 18, 2009.



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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