Some preliminary Notes on the Use of Video-Conferencing in Public Affairs Education

  • Literature:
    • Doggett, A. M. (2007). The videoconferencing classroom: What do students think?. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 44(4).
      • Survey-based assessment of student perspectives; students randomly assigned to online class or traditional class. Some minor interesting results.
    • Bryer, T. A., & Seigler, D. (2012). Theoretical and instrumental rationales of student empowerment through social and web-based technologies. Journal of Public Affairs Education, 429-448.
      • New technologies offer opportunities for modeling and simulating complex professional environments. This article offers a conceptual framework for using social and web-based technologies across face-to-face, online, and virtual world classrooms. Concludes with advice on strategically designing courses to empower students using technology.
  • Questions for discussion:
    • Models: group-to-group, vs. network of individuals
    • Queuing vs. talking-over
      • Hand-raising and talking stick
    • Wiki-platforms vs. static presentations (re: participant written feedback)
    • Distance handicaps

Some preliminary Notes on the Problem of Student Plagiarism in Public Affairs Education

Realizing Advanced Governance

Internationalization is a guiding principle in the strategic direction of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, as my colleagues and I strive to prepare students to be global citizens and future leaders.

In one of the courses I lead, Advanced Governance, this internationalization principle is realized through the participants that sit around the seminar table, and embedded in the content of the course and the exercises that animate the readings and discussions.

Advanced governance deals with broad questions about the manner in which authority to make policy decisions is distributed and stakeholder consent is obtained. In short: who has the power to determine what, and how will that power be exercised.

Governance is changing in front of us, whether through political and social forces, or the impact of new technologies. To be effective public servants, we need to understand this change and consider how to respond appropriately. The objectives of this course include providing learners with a framework through which to understand modern-day governance systems and arrangements, and to evaluate the effectiveness of these arrangements with attention paid to how they may help or hinder the achievement of desirable public policy outcomes.

The Participants

I’ve always been impressed by the breadth of global exposure that JSGS students bring to the classroom, and this year’s class is no different. It’s one thing to talk about governance or conflict resolution as abstract concepts. But where those discussions are animated by first-hand accounts of civil war, inter-state rivalries, extreme poverty, or rapid industrialisation, it causes me to be more careful in using words like “instructor” when describing what I do.

One thing I do with every class is have the participants identify “places we’ve called home” on a Google map. Different than asking “where are you from”, this allows participants to talk about their varied experiences that define them beyond their birth certificate. This year’s map, like previous versions, looks both similar and different than prior ones – but it’s always interesting (btw that one east of Madagascar? that’s Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius).

The Content

In the version of the course I teach, we spend very little time talking about the theory of governance, and more time focused on applied ways in which this changing notions of governance can be understood and acted upon. Topics include participatory budgeting, citizen juries and deliberative polling, electoral reform, the role of social capital in governance, governing common property and collective action problems, opening governance, the sharing economy and disruptive governance, collaborative governance, and using gamification in governance.

This content is explored in the standard graduate school seminar fashion, with assigned readings and group discussions. Participants take turns leading the seminar for one of the articles, and using examples to illustrate the concepts. It’s at this point where the global experience of the room becomes invaluable, providing real examples of governance challenges and pointing to successful implementation and future opportunities for the application of the ideas being explored. Students discuss their experience with different electoral systems, for example, or how social capital works at different scales and what can be done when social capital has been destroyed. There are first-hand examples of common property failures and successes, and recounting of experiences with disruptive governance like Uber. And these discussions always prove the universal rule: that everyone has a strongly-held view on restaurant tipping, leading to general principles on the tradeoffs between social norms and enforceable measures.

The Exercises

But what really animates the class are the exercises: mini-case studies, formal debates, experiments, and simulations. An “ultimatum game” determined whether a pair of students would each receive some share of two bonus point or walk away with nothing each (most pairs agreed upon an fairly equitable split). A “public goods game” saw more bonus marks allocated in exchange for a whole-group commitment to blitz the class discussion board with comments (though some last-minute whipping was required to enforce the group agreement and meet the quota). Unfortunately, an effort to fund an end-of-class cake through cash contribution commitments failed (though some Keebler elves worked on a solution to this collective action problem).

One of the exercises brought together the applied readings on participatory budgeting and the use of Internet tools to solve collective action problems. Participatory budgeting is a method for the public to provide input on how to spend real money on projects that matter to them. An example of a collective action problem is the funding of micro-loans by multiple lenders; this is something that the website Kiva facilitates.

Operating with a budget of $100, seminar participants used the Kiva website to identify potential loan recipients. Students then engaged in an in-class participatory budgeting discussion to advocate for their preferred options, seeking to persuade their colleagues that their preferred loan was a good choice based on different criteria: worthiness, a viable business plan, emotion, connection.

After making their pitch, the class voted for their preferred options (students could support any number of loans up to the $100 available). (This exercise was adapted from a much more ambitious project developed by my colleague Erik Johnston at Arizona State University.)

The class helped three individuals seeking Kiva loans, and donated $25 to the Kiva Foundation.

When these loans are paid back, and additional contributions are made to the base amount, future classes will be able to select Kiva micro-loan recipients in their own participatory budgeting exercise.

Besides being fun, this experiment helped to illustrate some of the concepts explored in the course readings and discussion, and served to bring the idea of internationalization directly into the classroom.


Should We Pay People to Participate?

Do citizens and stakeholders need to be incentivized to participate in government engagement exercises? If governments believe that engagement is necessary both for policymaking effectiveness and perceived legitimacy, we need to ask whether it’s enough to simply offer the opportunity for citizens and stakeholders to participate. Rather, we need to take seriously the challenge of how to create engagement opportunities that people want to engage in for reasons other than narrowly defined political self-interest.

Internet participants have over a decade of experience with receiving something of benefit as a result of their Web involvement (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010). These benefits include:

  • receiving a service of value from a “free” website in exchange for opening their data to a commercial company (e.g., Google services such as search, email, document management, or mapping; see Anderson 2009; Beresford, Kübler, and Preibusch 2012),
  • obtaining virtual rewards of intrinsic value through a gamified platform (Deterding et al. 2011),
  • getting positive feedback from other participants (Hearn 2010; Scissors, Burke, and Wengrovitz 2016), or even
  • earning monetary compensation for completing a digital action (Paolacci and Chandler 2014).

In the absence of real or virtual rewards or recognition, efforts to engage participants online will face diminishing success in the face of increased competition for attention (Wald, Longo, and Dobell 2016). Without a compelling argument for why citizens and stakeholders should engage, or a clearly perceived benefit from engaging, the impulse to get involved in policymaking will likely fail to translate into participation.

Does this mean that we should pay people to be involved in citizen engagement (Panagopoulos 2012)? Should we offer non-refundable tax credits for participating in engagement exercises? Should you get AirMiles for filling out a government survey?

Maybe not. But governments will need to consider ways of initiating engagement that provide participants with a reason and incentive to engage. If government continues to rely on an argument that people should engage in policy dialogue processes by implicitly referencing civic duty, it will increasingly draw from a very limited pool of hyper-engaged participants at the risk of representativeness and, ultimately, policy effectiveness and perceived legitimacy.


Anderson, C. (2009). Free: The future of a radical price. New York: Random House.

Beresford, A. R., Kübler, D., & Preibusch, S. (2012). Unwillingness to pay for privacy: A field experiment. Economics Letters, 117(1), 25-27.

Deterding, S., Sicart, M., Nacke, L., O’Hara, K., & Dixon, D. (2011, May). Gamification. Using game-design elements in non-gaming contexts. In CHI’11 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2425-2428). ACM.

Hearn, A. (2010). Structuring feeling: Web 2.0, online ranking and rating, and the digital ‘reputation’ economy. Ephemera: theory & politics in organisation, 10(3/4), 421-438.

Ritzer, G., & Jurgenson, N. (2010). Production, Consumption, Prosumption The nature of capitalism in the age of the digital ‘prosumer’. Journal of consumer culture, 10(1), 13-36.

Panagopoulos, C. (2012). Extrinsic rewards, intrinsic motivation and voting. The Journal of Politics, 75(1), 266-280.

Paolacci, G., & Chandler, J. (2014). Inside the turk: understanding mechanical turk as a participant pool. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(3), 184-188.

Scissors, L., Burke, M., & Wengrovitz, S. (2016, February). What’s in a Like? Attitudes and behaviors around receiving Likes on Facebook. In Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (pp. 1501-1510). ACM.

Wald, D. M., Longo, J., & Dobell, A. R. (2016). Design principles for engaging and retaining virtual citizen scientists. Conservation Biology, 30(3), 562-570.

Undocumented Citizen Engagement

I’m writing on the subject of citizen and stakeholder engagement, and I’m reminded that the word “citizen” can take on deep meaning in some settings.

“Citizen engagement” – or even when Government of Canada seeks to involve “Canadians” in consultation initiatives – does not require proof of citizenship or even residency. The term “citizen engagement” generally adopts a definition of citizen as a person concerned about an issue—a definition that coincides with terms such as “citizen science” (Woolley et al. 2016)—rather than having the status of a legally recognized subject or national of a state.

I’ve never heard anyone object to the term “citizen science” by complaining that non-citizens might be entering illegally. But I don’t think the term “citizen engagement” is used much in the United States. There, the term “citizen” can be especially jarring where concepts of citizenship, the legal right to reside in a place, and to have influence on social and political life are highly contested (Mossberger, Wu, and Crawford 2013).


Mossberger, Karen, Yonghong Wu, and Jared Crawford. “Connecting citizens and local governments? Social media and interactivity in major US cities.” Government Information Quarterly 30(4), 351-358.

Woolley, J.P., McGowan, M.L., Teare, H.J.A., Coathup, V., Fishman, J.R., Settersten, R.A., Sterckx, S., Kaye, J., Juengst, E.T. (2016). Citizen science or scientific citizenship? Disentangling the uses of public engagement rhetoric in national research initiatives. BMC Medical Ethics 17(33).

Consultation, or Engagement?

“Engagement” – when not being used to signal a prelude to marriage – as a replacement for the less enthusiastic term “consultation”, is a meta-concept for a general set of government-initiated opportunities for those outside government to be involved in policymaking processes.

While related terms such as “public consultation” have been prominent in the past, I have been asked to use the term citizen and stakeholder engagement for a forthcoming paper to signal a broad range of efforts by governments to communicate with those outside of government, coupled with opportunities for those outside of government to provide input into policymaking processes happening inside government.

The labels given these initiatives have shifted in recent years. In the seminal “ladder of participation” (Arnstein 1969), where the term “engagement” is not used, “consultation” rested on a mid-point bar as a form of tokenism, perhaps indicating why “consultation” has given way to various forms of “engagement”—though not Arnstein’s preferred terms of “partnership”, “delegation”, or “citizen control”.

Consider these graphs where the terms “public consultation”, “public engagement”, “citizen engagement”, and “stakeholder engagement” are compared:

Though the term “civic engagement” is dominant in Ngram and Trends searches, I didn’t include it because it connotes engagement by individuals in public life, rather than attempts by governments to engage people in the policymaking process (Skocpol and Fiorina 2004).

I also note that the Public Policy Forum avoids the problem of whether a participant in a citizen engagement exercise is a legal citizen by using their preferred term of “public engagement.”  However, I didn’t include that term here because of it’s different meaning, especially in the U.K where it centres on institutions like universities explaining to the public how they’re relevant.


Arnstein, S 1969 ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’, Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35(4):216–24.

Skocpol, T., & Fiorina, M. P. (Eds.). (2004). Civic engagement in American democracy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Policy Implications and Policy Impact

(notes from a presentation to a JSGS Research Student Working Group session – Monday March 13 2017)

It would seem natural that research in a school of public policy would have policy relevance. That aligns with the mission of the policy sciences as sketched by Harold Lasswell in 1951, building on John Dewey from a quarter century earlier when he described the policy as being oriented towards “the public and its problems”.

It’s likely we’re not doing basic research – we’re starting with an interesting public problem and working towards a public solution

  • Describe the public problem you are interested in
  • Now what is the public solution you are working towards?
    • You have just described the policy implications of your research

When I was struggling with my dissertation, I came across a remarkable essay by Henry Mintzberg, the dean of management studies at McGill University, called Developing Theory about the Development of Theory. Among the many gems in this fun little essay, Mintzberg talks about the problem orientation in all research:

  • “First, I start with an interesting question, not a fancy hypothesis. Hypotheses close me down; questions open me up. I have started with, for example: What do managers do?…  In my experience, the problem in doctoral theses, and subsequent research people do, is not that they bite off more than they can chew, but that they nibble less than they should consume.”

As I said, I take as assumed that your research is policy relevant. I would suspect that most research conducted by graduate students can be found to have policy relevance.

But what can you do to increase the policy impact of your research? While it may be relevant to public policy problems, what can you do to improve the possibility that some positive, real-world, impact may result from all your hard work?

My central message is that I can guarantee one thing: no one is going to call you up, or send you an email asking to see your thesis. No one with any decision-making authority is going to go to the library to check out your dissertation, read it and say aloud “my god, this is brilliant!!” If you choose to say “my words speak for themselves”, or “everything I had to say is in the thesis”, please be prepared for obscurity. Please know that no one, outside of your committee (and even then), and beyond your family (and probably not) will know about the brilliant work you did.

For those who know me or have taken a course with me, you’ll know that I focus a lot on social media as a new medium for the circulation of ideas.

In many of my courses, having a Twitter account and a public blog are course requirements. There are a few reasons why I do this, but the primary one is: if you are doing work that has some policy relevance, why should you and I (as the instructor) be the only ones who see it? If you are going to review a book, or write a briefing note, propose a policy response, or develop a governance solution – why not publish it to the world? Granted, only three other people may see it (this is part of a longer story about the economics of attention), but that’s three more people than would see it if you emailed an assignment to me and I sent it back to you.

So the first step in having policy impact from your research is telling the world about it. Create a blog if you don’t already have one, and post the things you’re doing. Also get on Twitter as a way of promoting your work and building a community of people interested in your work. Got your proposal accepted? Post a 300 word entry describing the proposal in plain language. Tweet about it a few times and tag a relevant Standing Committee of the Legislature or Parliament using their Twitter handle. If you see a relevant tweet, re-tweet it and casually mention your blog post that highlights your proposal.

As you make significant discoveries, pass milestones, or just read an article that you’re really excited about, Tweet about it or write a short blog post. You’ll find that you’ll start to build a following that will be looking forward to your thesis, who are waiting to see the results of your research. These are the people that be instrumental in getting your work noticed.

And when you’ve defended your thesis or dissertation, use your blog and Twitter to tell the world about it. Use a current event or news story to show how relevant your work is to real world situations. Tag important people who might be able to do something about it (Hey @PremierBradWall – I may have found a way for Saskatchewan to fix the deficit and the climate #winwin Again, not a huge number of people will notice, but it will be more than the number of people who will notice if you stick to the standard route and have it shelved in the library.

(And while were talking about the official version of your thesis – what’s with the “© copyright – all rights reserved” stamp on every dissertation and thesis. It’s one thing to be proud of your work, but this seems to be an invitation to people not to use your thesis for any further purpose. It is possible to share your thesis widely without loosing your control over how it’s used. Consider assigning a Creative Commons licence to your final thesis. The university may have a little freak-out, but it’s time they got used to it.)

How about traditional media? Newspapers love free content, but it does take some work to get an op-ed piece in the paper. Nonetheless, you can have a disproportionate impact on policy debates through a well-timed op-ed. See a piece I wrote with Daniel Béland on presumed consent for organ donation. Following on the Standing Committee’s recommendation against presumed consent, and the Premier’s musings that nudge theory might be used to increase organ donation, we wrote an op-ed piece that ultimately agreed with the Committee (to our surprise). This caused the Premier to back off his initial position and the Committee’s view still appears dominant. For guidance on how to write a good op-ed, check out

Social media and traditional media casts a very wide net, but it’s a net that has huge gaps in it. How can you more precisely target your research?

Proactively determine who is or might be interested in your research. Are there MLAs or MPs who have spoken about your issue in parliament? Are there journalists who have covered a similar story, or columnists who write about similar ideas? Find a way to get your work in front of them. Email is the most straightforward way. Send them the executive summary or the link to the blog post. If they want the full thesis, they’ll ask for it. Enlist champions and sympathetic parties throughout the research process. Are there advocacy groups who will be interested in your research? Let them know as you’re doing your research so they are looking forward to it when you’re done.

Be a teacher, even if you aren’t a teacher. One of the jokes about graduate study is that the defence involves the act of defending something you have come to loath. But I’ve found that even if that’s the case, it’s the stuff around the thesis that’s interesting. Find opportunities to tell people about the ideas you’re excited about and what you found through your research. Are there community groups who will be interested? Let them know about the work you’ve done and that you’d be happy to come and talk to them. Most groups are very happy to have outsiders come and speak to them. Parent/teacher night at most schools are always happy to have a researcher come and talk about their work if it’s relevant to the context.


Academic policy analysis has been cynically called “a solution in search of a problem.” But I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes our ideas are ahead of their time, and we must wait for windows of opportunity to open. I am currently doing research in what I call “strategically inventing the digital future”. The solution I’m proposing – that societies should more thoughtfully and with a strategic vision, choose which new technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and augmented humanity are embraced in order to create the future we want rather than fix the future we get – presupposes a future state or problem that has not emerged yet. Nonetheless it is still centrally focused on a public problem with policy implications. So your research may be ahead of its time; but that’s a good thing because you’ll be ready when that problem does emerge.

We should be aware of what kind of impact our research might have. If you are expecting that your elegantly crafted policy solution will directly translate into a cabinet submission that immediately becomes policy, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Actually, the more you suggest that you have the answer and it must be adopted as you described it, the less likely that anyone in a position of authority will listen to you. If you can somehow convince a Minister that your idea is actually their brilliant idea, they are more likely to run with it. Also remember the central lesson of rhetoric: that for someone to hear your message, the message must fit with their capacity to hear. Understand the perspective of the audience and tailor your message to their perspective.

Ao I think a more reasonable objective is that your work gets used to further support an already developing idea, or becomes one of the building blocks in a larger project. At a minimum, you can hope that your research serves an enlightenment function (as Carole Weiss called it in the 1970s), and in some imperceptible but important way changes the mental model of the person who reads it. As Mintzberg said “I admire researchers who try to build cathedrals, not lay a few bricks.”


29 Book Reviews by #JSGS882

I teach a graduate course to professional students in public administration called “Strategic Management in the Public Sector” (the syllabus can be found here).

Despite the very dry course title, this is a really popular (largely because it’s required) and – I think – well-received course.

Very little of the content has to do with classic theories of strategic management, public sector or private (someone will someday explain to me how classic public sector strategic management is any different than policy analysis).

What the course is really about is how to make your organization, those around you, and yourself more … awesome.

The first assignment involves a book review and some “social media engagement”. The book that the seminar participant chooses can be any popular press book related to the course content. Which essentially means most books. The only criteria for selecting a book is that it is: related to the course content; published by a reputable press; and not something the reviewer has read before. (“Steal Like an Artist” was quite popular this time – previously “Start with Why” was). To get an idea of the kind of book I’m thinking of, this suggested list is supplied

There are four parts to this assignment. Three tweets are sent out while reading the book to provide reflections as they occur and prime the audience for the coming review. We also tag the author of the book if they’re on Twitter – and occasionally they write back!

Then comes the book review itself, publicised with another tweet, and posted to the reviewer’s blog.

After all the reviews have been posted, seminar participant and other readers comment on the blog posts and reviewers attempt to engage in a conversation with their readers.

The final step is called a “report on engagement”: that is, what did the reviewer learn as a result of “writing in the open”. How hard was it to post one’s thoughts publicly, to get people to read their review, and to respond to comments. These reports are usually narrative, but often contain things like Twitter and blog metrics.

Well the reviews are in for the current version of this course, and are listed below alphabetically by book title.

Hope you enjoy reading some of them. And comments are really, really appreciated.

Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Ideas, Insight, and Content, by Mark Levy, reviewed by |  

Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Ideas, Insight, and Content, by Mark Levy, reviewed by

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, reviewed by

Crucial Conversations – Tools for talking when stakes are high, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler, reviewed by |

Drive – The Surprising Truth of About What Motivates Us, by Daniel H. Pink, reviewed by

The Entrepreneurial State: debunking public vs. private sector myths, by Mariana Mazzucato, reviewed by  

The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government, by Rosemary O’Leary, reviewed by

The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government, by Rosemary O’Leary, reviewed by |

A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age, by Daniel J. Levitin, reviewed by

How to create a mind: The secret of human thought revealed, by Ray Kurzweil, reviewed by |

If We Can Put a Man on the Moon…Getting Big Things Done in Government, by William D. Eggers and John O’Leary, reviewed by |

Liespotting: Proven techniques to detect deception, by Pamela Meyer, reviewed by

The Mindful Leader: 7 Practices for Transforming Your Leadership, Your Organization, and Your Life, by Michael Bunting, reviewed by

The Myth of Choice, by Kent Greenfield, reviewed by

The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Anu Partanen, reviewed by

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, reviewed by

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely, reviewed by

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, reviewed by |

Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonical, reviewed by

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir, reviewed by

The Silo Effect:The peril of Expertise and the promise of Breaking Down Barriers, by Gillian Tett, reviewed by

Start with Why, by Simon Sinek, reviewed by

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon, reviewed by | 

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon, reviewed by |

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon, reviewed by |  

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, reviewed by |

The Upside of Irrationality, by Dan Ariely, reviewed by

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, by David Graeber, reviewed by |

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, by Daniel H.Pink, reviewed by

Being digitally invisible: Policy analytics and a new type of digital divide

Citation: Longo, J., Kuras, E., Smith, H., Hondula, D. M. and Johnston, E. (2017), Technology Use, Exposure to Natural Hazards, and Being Digitally Invisible: Implications for Policy Analytics. Policy & Internet. Early View doi:10.1002/poi3.144

Policy analytics involves the combination of new data sources – e.g., from mobile smartphones, Internet of Everything (IoE) devices, and electronic payment cards – with new data analytics techniques for informing and directing public policy.

The concept of the digital divide has been around for some time now. Whether it focusses on basic ownership and access to digital tools, or the ability to use them effectively, the digital divide means that some people are not able to send information into or receive information across digital channels. If you haven’t got a computer, you can’t tweet about it.

The access part of the digital divide has diminished in recent years (mostly because of the falling cost of technology needed to get online, and efforts by corporations and governments to put mobile technology into people’s hands at low or no upfront costs), but the broader concept of who is represented online is still of concern to researchers and policymakers.

With the rise of new data sources (often referred to as “big data”) driving the possibilities for policy analytics, work undertaken at the Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University in early 2015 came to focus on those who do not use or own devices like smartphones, IoE devices and transaction cards.

We explored the possibility that people may be rendered digitally invisible if the signals from their daily actions are not generated or captured because they don’t carry the devices that “big data” presumes, and therefore don’t figure into policy analytics. Failing to observe the lived experience of those outside the “big data” world may result in policy analytics being biased, and policy interventions being misdirected as a result.

With my CPI colleagues Evan Kuras, Holly Smith, Dave Hondula, and Erik Johnson, we set out to determine whether the concept of the digitally invisible could be shown empirically by conducting an exploratory study with the participation of homeless individuals in Phoenix and the Phoenix Rescue Mission, in the context of extreme heat exposure.

The results of that work have been published in a special issue of the journal Policy & InternetIf you don’t have access to the online version at the publisher, the published version can be accessed here.

Do the digitally invisible exist? Perhaps surprising to some, homeless individuals in the United States have very good coverage in terms of mobile phone usage (this is partly a result of government programs, and partly because a mobile phone becomes a crucial technology when you don’t have a fixed addess). And public libraries and other access points provide computer resources and Internet access, leveling the digital playing field and lowering cost barriers.

Yet policy analytics is based not on active participation, as is the focus of the digital divide literature, but instead is based on passive data contributions (through “big data”). We think this is the key idea that distinguishes digitally invisible from the digital divide.

For those without a smartphone, without a bank account or credit card, without regular and ubiquitous Internet-connected computer access, living beneath and beyond the network of sensors, monitors and data capture points, their existence is being rendered increasingly invisible, with policy developed using a policy analytics approach biased against them, even if unintentionally. As a result, policymaking is blind to their existence and policy based on incomplete evidence will not reflect their reality.

We’re at the early stages of the policy analytics movement. But we argue that a contextual awareness and humility should guide the developing policy analytics approach, understanding that it offers only a partial picture of a reality that is influenced by the values we bring to the analysis. We recommend being vigilant in looking for those who are hidden and will do the same in our future work.

We look forward to your comments.

Review: “A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age”, by Daniel J. Levitin

  • A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age
  • Daniel J. Levitin
  • Publisher: Allen Lane, 2016
  • listing

While we’re still in the early days of 2017, I’m beginning to think that “gaslighting”, “fake news”, “post-truth”, and “alternative facts” are all possibles for word of the year. As these ideas consume us – causing us to ask whether Donald Trump’s supporters think his outright and brazen lies are true, or they like him because he so boldly lies and they know that he’s lying – Dan Levitin’s “A Field Guide to Lies” is disappointing because it resides in a bygone world of the gentlemen’s agreement: a world typified by the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was reputed (though, likely apocryphally) to have remarked: “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” Unfortunately, it is 2017, and Moynihan’s law seems to have been re-written as “everyone gets to have their own facts, as long as you state them with confidence and call the alternative ‘fake news’.” Also unfortunately, Levitin’s book is so quaintly 2015, in an era where things move fast and get broken with glee.

I picked up this book hoping for some insight into how to understand this phenomenon where a President of the United States is so comfortable with lying, and so reflexively calls that with which he does not agree “fake news”. Regrettably, I don’t think Levitin anticipated the depths to which our democratic discourse has sunk – I mean, who could have? – and so his book is a useful guide to critically assessing falsehoods, but doesn’t do much for our understanding of “the new normal” of the lie that is embodied by Trump.

Levitin is a neuroscientist and Canadian/American academic of renown, and his goal in writing this book – “how to spot problems with the facts you encounter” (p. ix) – is laudable. He cannot be faulted that the goal-posts were moved between the writing and the publishing, when ideas like “post-truth” and “fake news” appeared out of whole cloth. The publisher, hoping that the book was incredibly timely, is likely responsible for the title. (Update: I just received Levitin’s book “Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era”, interested to see how Levitin would take on this subject in this new book. Unfortunately, “Weaponized Lies” (paperback, March 2017) is 99.9% (I made that statistic up, but it’s close enough) the same book as “A Field Guide to Lies” (hardcover, September 2016), changing the title to take advantage of the buzz around the “post-truth era”, but doing little to address what is fundamentally different about this era (the introduction has been modified very slightly)). Levitin has noble objectives in explaining with care and clear prose how a skeptical reader should interpret statistics, information, and assertions in a media story. But if you’re expecting an explanation of this age of bonkers lying? Disappointment awaits, I’m afraid.

Also for a neuroscientist, the dearth of reference to the cognitive factors that influence how we perceived information is odd. Levitin almost reveals the depth of the “believing is seeing” problem when he says “the human brain often makes up its mind based on emotional considerations, and then seeks to justify them” (p. 124). But there is no follow-up into the reasons why we choose to believe obvious untruths, concepts such as motivated reasoning, often identity-based, which can help explain why some people believe in climate change and others are convinced it’s a Chinese hoax. What can explain the relative absence of the work of Kahneman and Tversky, when this book is all about the “slow” mode of the thinking when the “fast” mode now seems dominant?

Again, for a textbook on how to accurately and skeptically assess statistical findings, the presentation of information, and the validity of assertions, this is very well-written and concise. This will appear in the syllabus for many introductory statistics courses, and students should be grateful for its readability. His chapters on the proper use of statistical techniques, graphical presentation, probabilities, and data collection methods are clear and persuasive. He does miss the new technological advances that seek to address the “how numbers are collected” problems, but the chapter on “probabilities” will help you interpret what meant when they said Hillary “Clinton is a 71 percent favorite to win the election“.  Ahem.

It’s in part two of the book that Levitin ventures into more interesting territory, setting out questions about the fundamental nature of knowledge – that is, how we know what we know. Take the moon landing, for instance. How do we know this happened as reported, and isn’t an elaborate hoax perpetrated by an American government determined to win the space race at any cost? “We have three ways to acquire information: We can discover it ourselves, we can absorb it implicitly, or we can be told it explicitly.” (p.123). Option 1 isn’t available to us here (the moon landing, if it happened, happened a long time ago). Option 2 is also out of reach (I assume here he means observing things that happen to others, and inferring the same would happen to us). So we’re left with being told it happened, and believing it because we trust the person who told us that.

Ah, thus enters “the death of expertise“, introducing the greatest danger in the era of the bold lie. As a former great American President once said, when asked how he knew that letting a fire burn in a national park was actually good for the environment: “Because smart people told me.” One has trouble imagining the current president, no less fictional to many than that President Jeb Bartlett, saying he was going to do something because an expert told him to. In the Trumpian era, the expert is derided as either having a hidden agenda or lacking any common sense. With no experts to tell us so, we are left with being comforted by the convincing lie. Knowing how to properly distinguish between the mean and median and mode will be of little help in a world where reference to the Bowling Green Massacre threatens to sway public opinion.

You’ve likely heard a lack of preparation or sophistication framed as “playing checkers when the other side was playing chess”. Whereas bringing the wrong defensive tools to an argument is like “bringing a knife to a gunfight.” I’m afraid that studying Levitin’s book in today’s political context would be akin to coming to a gunfight prepared to play chess. You may feel good about your technical abilities, but you’re not playing the same game as your opponent. You’ll lose, while feeling righteous about it.