The Future Melbourne wiki - "the city plan that anyone can edit"

Future Melbourne is a wiki I’ve been aware of for a few months now. The City of Melbourne decided to put their city plan for 2020 (replacing the one for 2010) into a publicly editable wiki for a month, as part of the public consultation process. There is a kind of summary of the project on the Future Melbourne blog, declaring it a success. There is also a short video with Mark Elliot whose company CollabForge helped the city customise and use the wiki (the wiki engine was Twiki).

I think Future Melbourne is an awesome initiative, but considering it garnered just 200 edits, it barely scratched the surface of what is possible with government-public consulting.

There seems to be an unstated assumption that people now generally understand what wikis are and how they work. I have not seen any study or survey with this kind of conclusion and until I see that, I would work off the opposite assumption. That is, I would have multiple free and highly publicised “what is a wiki? what is our wiki for? how can you use our wiki?” hands-on information sessions. To just say “come and edit our wiki” is not going to get the best response, because it assumes that the technology is familiar enough to be invisible — which it is not, even for enthusiasts. Either that or it is making the mistake of focusing on the tool instead of what can be achieved by using it (e.g. “contribute to (y)our city plan”).

The second thing which I think was not much explored was: what does an ideal wiki page look like when you are editing a city plan? Wikipedia works in terms of having one page per topic because of the NPOV (neutral point of view) policy. But asking people to form a NPOV city plan doesn’t make any sense. People can contribute by sharing their vision for what the city could be. But no individuals’ vision is more right or wrong than anyone else’s. For me, I would like Melbourne to be a cyclists’ paradise. Others may prefer a pedestrian’s paradise and still others may want a car-centric highway heaven. When we are all editing the transport policy page together, what rules can we or should we use to find a version of the page that is acceptable to all of us? Is that even possible? Or could there be multiple pages representing our individual wishes? How are they then to be understood in relation to each other and the rest of the plan? Which one is canonical?

I tend to think that neglecting this “ground rule” is not a good idea, and that with this kind of document a more simple “comment” or feedback approach may be better. You could use this in combination with allowing people to suggest new or expanded policies/goals.

I think this topic basically didn’t arise because of the low participation, but it is really something I would want to come to grips with before launching a wiki project with greater participation.

Another thing that makes me think a wiki is perhaps not the perfect tool for this is the short editing timeframe – one month. Wikis show their strengths over months and years and probably decades. For one thing the longer time scale allows for a community to develop. While in Future Melbourne’s case they had staff monitoring and responding to edits, and that’s good, certainly better than nothing, and probably the best you could hope for in a short time frame — it’s still something that reflects a top-down power structure. The reins may have been loosened a bit but they’re still ready to be snatched back up should things go awry. It wouldn’t hold a candle to a truly community-run/powered/managed wiki. You have to be in charge, have some power, to really own something, and it’s then that you become invested, engaged. It’s then that you care.

The City of Melbourne has made some bold steps but I think there are many more ahead. Once they start to be taken the relationship between government and the public will become very vibrant and interesting. And not a moment too soon, eh?

18 October, 2008 • , , ,



Re: info sessions — this seems like a common oversight. OTOH the project I’ve mentioned to you before will have some time/$$ in the budget for info and training — we don’t want the community to feel dependent on us.

Claudine · 18. October 2008, 19:54

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