EDemocracy U.S.

Version 1.1
04 Nov 2003

E-Democracy.Org is looking for a few good geeks.  As an all-volunteer 100% citizen-based effort, we will expand and improve our use of technology based on your interests and skills. 

Join our technology committee today. Let us know what challenges you would like to help us meet. 

Help us with our identified needs or bring your bright idea to life through our organization and our thousands of active e-citizens. Our committee is open to e-participation from individuals, students, universities, non-profits, companies and governments anywhere in the world.

Monetary donations designated to support our technology developments will be used to secure services on sites like rentacoder.com. However, we expect most of our efforts will remain fundamentally volunteer-based.

Technology Priorities

As we enter our second decade, we are starting to outline our long-term technology vision along side our current needs.

Our Technology Base

In July 2003, we moved from a FTP-only HTML/CGI environment to a virtual server running in the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MYSQL, PHP environment). Our server comes with CPanel including Fantastico. This provides a pretty nifty web-administration interface and pre-installed tools. 

We run our high volume local community "mnforum.org" e-mail discussion lists using Mailman on a separate server through an arrangement with MAPNP.  We can host smaller Mailman lists on our "e-democracy.org" virtual server, but we do have bandwidth limitations.

1. Tweaks and Tools

This is our laundry list of tools we would like to install/adapt for our general use in the near future.  Some of these tools come with CPanel, but they may need to be adapted/updated. Others tools must be installed from scratch.  All of these tools need to work from our server and integrate into the look and feel of our site without advertising beyond courtesy credits.

A. Tell a Friend/E-mail this Page - A script that would allow site visitors to invite others to visit major sections of our web site.  We'd like the option to tailor/update the messages for each of our forums and major site sections.  E-mail this page might be used on other pages, but is not as important pre-CMS.

B. Link Out Tracker - We'd like to learn which links are most popular in our US Election 2004 site. We will use this to create a ranked list of the most popular election 2004 web sites. We are aware of AXS, but want know if there are PHP-based or other aggregate statistic tools that would better integrate with our available tools.  We do not want to slow down the link following experience significantly.  We would also like to have AWStats installed on top of the simple statistic tools we already use.

C. Link Checker - We need a link checker installed on our site to test the validity of the links on select sections/pages of our site (most of our old election links are dead from 1996, 1998, etc., but we leave those pages up for archival purposes).  A tool that would send weekly error reports to select volunteers would be ideal and ensure distributed link updating among our volunteers.

D. Wiki/Volunteer Group Tools - We need a simple document editing system for more internal drafting of our new forum rules and training documents.  We might also use such Happening tools to complement real-time teleconference-based Board and volunteer meetings. If an online groupware application supports a password protected place we can use use as a work zone and chapter/forum training center for volunteers that would be useful, but extensive development should wait for our future CMS.

E. Site Navigation - Site Map - It may take us some time before we adopt a comprehensive content management system with a site redesign.  Until then, we would like to clean up our current flat HTML site and add navigation links on the left column of most pages (perhaps something like we have on our home page).  We also need to create a simple site map page.

F. Civic Calendar System - While this would become part of our tool kit for local chapters, we would like to experiment with a web-based event calendar that could be used by our local forum participants to share event announcements now.  We would like produce a weekly event listing that would automatically generate a text-only e-mail to the appropriate community e-mail list.  Our server does come with a version of WebCalendar

G. Public Discussion Forums Database and Web Page - We want to build a database of local and political online discussions around the world - while they are extremely rare we are interested in helping people find city-wide forum like our own.  We need a web-based system to allow forum hosts/volunteers to enter quality information about their e-mail lists, web forums, and newsgroups. We'd use a set of fields from the proposed Open Groups directory standard - geography in particular. The initial output from the database will be a flat HTML file with links to active forums.  This data would eventually be integrated into the Citizen Net proposal below.  We currently have manual pages of links to US Political Discussions and links to other Minnesota forums.

H. Mailman Tweaks - We are running Mailman 2.1 at mnforum.org (or will be soon) and e-democracy.org.  We would like to following tweaks/abilities:

1) Web-based form on our main site that accepts e-mail from any page on our site and then ports it over to the sign-up page on mnforum.org where Mailman requests a password/account.

2) Tools that automatically convert incoming list messages from HTML into text-only messages that also strips all attachments.

3) Tools that automatically send specialized messages to bounced posts outside of our quantifiable limits - two a day per person currently (we would want to be able to set this number per list), KB size (exists in Mailman), lines of quoted text without breaks, and ideally allow us to create an additional limit on the number of total posts delivered in any one calendar week from the same e-mail address.  Limiting posting volume, in a content neutral way, is the cornerstone of our successful efforts to promote civility and slow the escalation of conflicts.  (We have 900 members on our Minneapolis Issues Forum, an amazingly large list considering its political/community focus.)

4) Any spam filtering tools with auto-replies that would instruct a legitimate sender to resend their message a certain way (perhaps via a web form if they can't get through with a certain post or have consistently malformed e-mail headers.  We need to be able to dump non-legitimate mail automatically due to the list manager time now required to weed through attempted non-member spam postings for member messages caught for some reason.

5) Automatic generation of list statistics so members can get an idea each week of aggregate posting trends. (Our goal is to encourage extremely frequent posters to self-limit their contributions.)

2. Key Election 2004 Needs

A. Election Web Site Submission System - A special submission form for 2004 election sites. Our goal is to make candidate web sites easier to find and election directory web sites more complete by distributing submissions to major partner sites.  Partner sites would both promote the use of the form and access data sub-sets for download of relevant submissions prompted by e-mail notifications. The system should include the ability to be notified about candidates by state, U.S. House, U.S. Senate, President or by theme (news, satire, etc.) for non-candidate sponsored web sites. 

An advanced version of this system would automatically submit such information to the Open Directory, Yahoo, Zeal, Google, and other top search engines. In 2002 for Minnesota-only, we e-mailed the text results of each submission to an internal e-list.  We could also download the data in tab-delimited format.

B. RSS Feed Presentation and Headline Scraping Tools - We plan to present headline links to new and frequently changing presidential candidate information on a single "Campaign Today" page.  This will be designed as a major complement to our Presidential Launch Pad - our goal is to save people the time it takes to stay/get informed.  We would create a non-partisan/multi-candidate RSS feed for other sites to carry if our headline scraping works well.  We are aware of the MyHeadlines tool and its template-based scraping features.

C. MyBallot.Net Involvement - Volunteer David Stein leads work on this MYSQL/PHP-based tool. MyBallot encourages citizens to generate a personalized list of candidates on their ballot, their polling place location, and the results page provides pre-set Google searches for more information on candidates and issues.  Opportunities include efforts to gather/convert data from your area for use of this tool in your county/state/nation and the promotion of national/global standards for government elections-related data (see post 1 and post 2 for more information).  Such standards would help ballot look-up systems (Publius, SmartVoter, government systems) expand the number of citizens served with this vital service.

3. eWeb - Usable e-mail web archives, future equitable discussion platform

We seek a fundamentally equitable online discussion system that allows citizens to participate via their preferred medium - e-mail or web on a completely equal basis. Full participation must be possible in an integrated fashion via both mediums. Web-only would be allowed for auxiliary functions like a member directory or personalized setting pages for multi-forum keyword tracking.

Our dedicated eWeb project page details our ideas for this project.

4. Content Management System - Site Redesign

We will develop a full project requirements document and process to prioritizes the elements of a comprehensive, data-base driven, web-enabled distributed publishing, personalized, and interactive environment for E-Democracy.Org.  This will involve a full site redesign. 

Let us know if you would like to join our review of content management systems (another source). We lean toward a comprehensive open source solution rather than a piecemeal approach.

5. Local Chapter Technology Platform

E-Democracy.Org seeks to help active citizens who would like to build an effective public issues forum in their community any where in the world. Think local "Chapters" based on the service club model of Rotary or Lions clubs.

We envision a set of tools for local use that help volunteers maintain local civic links, event calendars, a platform for web-centric online events (real-time Q and A interviews with local officials or policy experts or asynchronous consultation events that last two weeks or so) and a distributed fund raising and accounting system. 

While local Chapters could have their own web sites, our goal is to provide the functionality most chapters would require and establish a vibrant reciprocal technology development community within E-Democracy.Org.  Useful tools built or adapted for any one Chapter would become available to all Chapters.

6. Citizen Net - Global Directory of Local Links for Citizens

E-Democracy.Org is fundamentally about citizens.  We are about citizens coming together on the two-way Internet within real democracies.  We believe in local geography online.  We believe in building effective online discussions through our decade-tested legal, forum management, and technology-based model.

How does a small yet, sustainable volunteer-based organization scale beyond its core communities?  It shouldn't colonize.  It shouldn't export.  It shouldn't just "build it" so they will come. Instead, we must assist authentic interest among local active citizens who believe that our flexible model is the best way for them to bring the "issues forum," a two-way online public space, to their community. 

To target our outreach, we need a "Citizen Net."  Something online that provides real value to local citizens and democracies around the world.  Something that provides an opportunity for E-Democracy.Org to explain and demostrate our model, then gathers and helps organize those interested citizens.

What might we see on the E-Democracy website? Think the Roman Forum, the Greek Agora, the North American Town Square, etc. - a virtual representation of a multi-purpose public space surrounded by community institutions - government, education, the town hall or assembly, the newspaper, the market, etc.. Our goal is create a global database of local placenames (in multiple languages) and match them to local links gathered from sources like the Open Directory Project and other global resources

Each placename would have simple web page with reliable links around the edge to local community institutions and external sites where extensive local links exist.  In the middle we will promote the two-way online public space by providing a sign-up mechanism where local people can say, "Yes, I want to discuss local public issues online in my community."  Think Meetup for a gathering local people interested in meeting online to discuss multiple public topics.  (We will also encourage people to sign-up from our home page along with their geographic information.)  If we know of another vibrant two-way space that exists for that local community, we would link to that as well. We could also build a "Speaker's Corner" with links to local bloggers who are focused on local public issues. 

Will this work?  Aren't there hundreds of ghost town .com sites that tried to build a page for thousands of cities? What about the many independent community sites that already maintain local links? Our idea will only work if it is simple, reliable, and something that complements other authentically local sites. E-Democracy.Org has one advantage that many sites don't - we've been on the web since 1994. The search engines love us ... any new page we create seems to rank quite high. However, we do know that if a local community page doesn't show up in the top fifteen placename search results, then our "Net" system will not work well in that community.

Our goal is to use this "Citizen Net" to determine which communities have emerging interest. Then a new technological back-end would support our extensive chapter/forum development model. Once ten citizens in a community (by this we mean a local political jurisdiction or a region in a rural area) sign-up, our system would automatically e-mail this group and facilitate a connection among them via the web/e-mail to discuss the creation of a forum.  If forum leaders/builders do not emerge (meaning that 10 of 10 want to simply participate, not lead an effort), then the system would wait for an additional ten subscribers and try again. 

E-Democracy also has plans for a forum development training program. We never open a forum without at least 100 initial participants (no matter the population base of a town), a local forum manager, a forum charter tailored for the local community, and some sort of provisional E-Democracy chapter. For the most part, individual efforts are not sustainable and often viewed as politically biased. 

While developing local chapters/forums through traditional community organizing and service club expansion outreach requirements will also be explored, we need the intelligence that allows us to discover citizen interest and the ability to assist the formation of local efforts in a more organic way.

Once a local forum/chapter is established, the local page for a community would evolve into a value-added page maintained by the local chapter. We will also promote involvement among local people and political/community link gatherers in projects like the Open Directory, Zeal, etc. in order to contribute back to the community.

In the end, our expansion goals must be reasonable.  Let's just guess that there are 1,000,000 incorporated local places in the world (the U.S. has about 20,000). If our model spreads in our second decade to 0.1% of the world's cities/towns we'd have 1000 local issue forums hosted through E-Democracy and hopefully thousands of similar city-wide forums inspired by our lessons that we can link to as well. (We see a great opportunity to leverage the many "natural" neighborhood and sub-city e-mail lists that are everywhere, but totally under the radar.)

We see no route to saving local democracy in the information-age without scalable technology that supports effective citizen-based, non-profit, non-partisan activity.  Technology that brings people together from across the political spectrum for open public exchange in order to counter/complement the primarily one-way use of the Internet by governments, the media, and political groups. By helping build E-Democracy's technology base, you can help ensure that the two-way Internet is built into local civic life around the world.