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From Occupy Wall Street To A Semantic Platform For Social and Political Discussion

By   /  January 2, 2012  /  No Comments

Occupy Wall Street, as a real-world presence, has been pushed off the front pages since the Zuccotti Park protestors were rousted out of their 24/7 encampment, with bands in many other cities also being given the heave-ho. But its spirit may virtually reconvene with the Tribeforth Foundation’s Project 99.

To be clear, what Brett McDowell and D’Arcy Cunningham of the Foundation are working on is more about building social democracy 2.0 than being affiliated with a specific movement and enforcing its viewpoint, though the two did meet face-to-face for the first time at the Vancouver, Canada version of Occupy Wall Street. And their plan is to realize that dream using semantic and open source technology.

They hope to help facilitate social and political conversations among individuals and groups by developing the software that Cunningham says will serve as a platform for community-oriented discussions, case-making, counter-arguments and reference checking. In the works now, it’s based in large part on the Semantic MediaWiki framework that was designed to turn wikis into flexible collaborative databases, with data residing in them easily publishable via the semantic web. “That’s the core,” McDowell says, but the plan is to build some extensions to optimize the front-end entry forms so that the end result is more beautiful and usable.

“This is to be about coming to terms with the larger ecosystem. We can’t solve global warming or economic crises as individual states,” says McDowell. “Unless we can plan with a common humanity we are not going to be able to deal with issues that are causing problems in everyone’s country.”

The work involves setting up a deductive reasoning calculator, “so that when you make a statement it breaks down its semantics, which are stored and which everyone can access, where evidence and inference can be tested collectively,” he says. The deductive reason calculator is also a relationships collection tool, he says, meaning that it will be responsible for finding new relationships between semantic data through its use, rather than simply being a mechanism to correct logical inference patterns.

Semantic technology in the next ten years “can have a deep impact on the political conversation if we manage this properly,” he thinks. The calculator will plug into the internal open content management system tools Tribeforth is developing, but the plan is to let any open-source oriented organization plug it into their CMS or enterprise solution, too.

It’s still very early stages for the effort, but Cunningham says that on the roadmap is exploring the ontology of debates, by breaking arguments and debates into their components and treating each one as a separate object related to citations in Wiki pages or scientific journals. “Through the discussions we create a network of relationships between objects,” he says. It also plans to enable tracking institutional reputations to better assess those institutions’ own relationships (regarding funding, for instance) and to bring more transparency to their viewpoints. It also plans to visually represent object relationships related to arguments.

“People’s cognitive surplus can be used properly to solve problems,” says McDowell. “We want to bring out the intelligence of well-meaning people so that bigger groups can really think together and come up as a unit with the best way to solve problems.”


About the author

Jennifer Zaino is a New York-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology journalism. She has been an executive editor at leading technology publications, including InformationWeek, where she spearheaded an award-winning news section, and Network Computing, where she helped develop online content strategies including review exclusives and analyst reports. Her freelance credentials include being a regular contributor of original content to The Semantic Web Blog; acting as a contributing writer to RFID Journal; and serving as executive editor at the Smart Architect Smart Enterprise Exchange group. Her work also has appeared in publications and on web sites including EdTech (K-12 and Higher Ed), Ingram Micro Channel Advisor, The CMO Site, and Federal Computer Week.

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