Social media has amplified the power of (Bernard Levin’s) single issue fanatics. They are able to quickly galvanise an army to lobby on any topic. Some are entirely worthy but many are questionable. These forces are then directed at governments, bankers, business leaders – whoever they choose to get in their sights.
The sheer volume of signatories or, in extremis, activists suggests that they are representative of ‘the public’ at large. They aim to sway the press, the public as well as their primary targets. The truth is that the quieter voices in social media, as in society as a whole, quite often have the most meaningful things to say.
Other sources of ‘grass roots’ input are statistics and surveys. The first has shortcomings – lead time and interpretation skill being two. The second requires an intelligent set of questions and response options. The way these are phrased almost inevitably funnels the respondents’ answers.
Decision makers have to choose what to do at any time based on their best understanding of the information (or misinformation) available to that point. Whichever way they jump, they’re going to upset someone. But their job is to arrive at some sort of conviction then act on it in time for their actions to have a meaningful effect.
Ideally, their actions should address the real needs of those affected by them. But how often do you see decisions made which are total nonsense because they’re based on abstract principles rather than local context?
At a very mundane level, our local council decided to create a Jubilee Garden – benches, paths, an obelisk, trees and bushes. Had they asked the local park users – dog walkers and the like – they’d have learnt that the garden would end up as a magnet for graffiti, vandalism and litter. The thing’s not even finished yet and the local hooligans have already bent the steel security fences out of shape and scored the new benches.
Of course, this is trivial by comparison with tackling violence in an unstable country or providing the right support to the right people in an area hit by disease or social disorder. Decisions made at the centre may make sense to aid organisations or governments but, to the people on the ground, they may just miss the mark completely. Wasted money, wasted effort and increased disaffection. Not quite the desired result.
This blog is not in the business of promoting products or services but one in particular does point to a possible way forward. SenseMaker is a suite of software tools that helps extract meaning from large collections of personal experiences contributed by members of a community. These stories are triggered by a simple but carefully phrased open question. The teller of the story is then asked to add meaning, or metadata, in various simple ways – plotting their perspective between three variables, using sliders or clicking check boxes in a questionnaire. Without plunging into too much detail, a collection of this metadata is used to generates plots where the clusters reveal widely held feelings about particular issues.
A triad plot showing response clusters. Each individual dot leads to a story, enabling the researcher to drill deeper.
The process is reasonably speedy and the results are not only statistically valid, they are rich in context too. Rather than so-called experts analysing the stories and determining their significance, the respondents themselves do it. This is a profound change from traditional methods. And nothing is lost; the decision makers can drill down to the original stories and really gain an insight to how these previously powerless people experience the world.
Such insights, in the right hands, can lead to the right actions.