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Virtual Agora Project

The Virtual Agora Project was a 3-year e-democracy project run by Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for the Study of Information Technology and Society (InSiTeS) and funded generously by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The research team, led by faculty members Peter M. Shane, Peter Muhlberger and Robert Cavalier, sought to develop and test software that would enable large numbers of citizens to use the Internet more effectively to learn about, deliberate and act upon community issues.

The Virtual Agora Project, which was named for the ancient Athenian marketplace, was launched in Fall 2002 at Carnegie Mellon University with a three-year National Science Foundation grant (since extended for a fourth year) to develop and test video, audio, and text-based tools to support collaborative information sharing and structured public discussion about civic issues. Central to the project is an extensive multidisciplinary program of research to help identify the factors that contribute to effective community engagement and individual empowerment through computer-mediated communication.

Originally housed at the Institute for the Study for Information Technology and Society (InSITeS) at the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, the Virtual Agora Project was led by Principal Investigator, Peter M. Shane, and co-principal investigators Peter Muhlberger and Robert Cavalier. (In the third year of the study, Professor Shane moved to the Ohio State University, but all research activity other than his own remained at Carnegie Mellon.) Although their concerns overlap, each investigator brought a distinctive set of interests to the project. Dr. Muhlberger designed the social science program, directed its implementation, and is principally responsible for data analysis. Dr. Cavalier is especially interested in the design of high telepresence online environments that help render complex issues subject to meaningful discussion by the public at large. Professor Shane is particularly interested in the incorporation of Virtual Agora-type tools in actual processes of government decision making.

The purpose of the Virtual Agora website, created in November 2006, is to make the methods, findings, and products of the Virtual Agora Project more directly accessible to researchers, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and other interested persons. Members of the team continue to pursue, through separate initiatives, the avenues of inquiry launched in the VAP.

Software Licensing & Availability

Both InSITeS and the CAAE Multi-Media Lab are eager for researchers and practitioners to make use of PICOLA/Delibera 2.0. Although Delibera 2.0 does not support the collection of clickstream data, as did Delibera 1.0, it is the more robust program and the program with which Professors Shane and Cavalier continue to work. Inspection licenses are available through Carnegie Mellon University. The inventors of Delibera, which was developed as an open-source product, agreed to make Delibera available on a royalty-free basis for civic, research, and educational purposes. The license covers the use, adaptation, and distribution of PICOLA/Delibera 2.0 and its derivatives, provided that any derivative distribution must also follow open source protocols.

PICOLA communicates with a Flash Communication Server installation. A browser with the (free) Flash player is required to run the client. Professor Cavalier hopes eventually to release PICOLA also in a “standalone” desktop application version that would not require Flash plug-ins to be installed. There are no other proprietary technologies involved.

Persons interested in working with and potentially licensing PICOLA/Delibera 2.0 should contact Professor Shane at shane.29@osu.edu.

The Virtual Agora Bibliography

The following papers authored or co-authored by Peter Muhlberger are based on the Virtual Agora Project.  These, as well as other work, are available through his web site (www.geocities.com/pmuhl78/):

Muhlberger, P.  2005.  The Virtual Agora Project: A Research Design for Studying Democratic Deliberation.  Journal of Public Deliberation.  Vol. I, No. 1: Article 5. (http://services.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=jpd)

This paper describes the general research goals and design behind the Virtual Agora Project, and relates preliminary findings from Phase 1 of the study.

Muhlberger, P. 2005.  Virtual Agora Project Report: Deliberated Views Regarding School Consolidation and Educational Improvements in Pittsburgh.  (VAProjectReportPeterM1.2.pdf)

This paper reports the views of Phase 1 participants concerning the specific policy choices posed to them in connection with the problem of overcapacity in Pittsburgh City Schools.  Increases in factual knowledge produced strong opinion change.  Although discussion did not shift mean opinion, it provided a significant motivating role and did reduce the variance in opinion among respondents.  The strongest differences of opinion among participants were by income.

Muhlberger, P.  2005.  Attitude Change in Face-To-Face and Online Political Deliberation: Conformity, Information, or Perspective Taking?  American Political Science Association, 2005 Annual Meeting.  (http://www.geocities.com/pmuhl78/AttitudeDelib.pdf)

This paper examines the Phase I data in an effort to disentangle whether post-deliberation opinion changes are due to the acquisition of information, enhanced experience in taking the perspectives of others, or some sort of conformity.  The data indicate that the most potent and consistently significant influence on opinion change came from the receipt of information through reading and having time to contemplate that information, with more limited evidence of the influence of face-to-face discussion and citizenship identity reminders.  The data do not support findings of polarization, i.e., a grouping of individual pre-deliberation opinions towards or beyond the mean pre-deliberation opinion of all the group’s members; they did reveal “group endpoint convergence,” i.e., the shift in individual opinions within the deliberative groups was closer to each group’s post-deliberation mean than was the similar shift in control groups, who received information, but did not deliberate.

Rather than simply solidifying initial group prejudices, groups in this project appeared to find their way to conclusions quite independent of their initial views. Although information more than discussion seems to have been responsible in this study for knowledge and attitude changes, the deliberative experience may yet prove important for inducing socially beneficial attitude changes extrinsic to the subject matter of the deliberation, e.g., interest in participating in civic activities and increased confidence in democratic decision making.

Muhlberger, P. 2005.  Democratic Deliberation and Political Identity:  Enhancing Citizenship.  International Society of Political Psychology, 28th Annual Scientific Meeting.  (http://www.geocities.com/pmuhl78/PolIdentity.pdf)

This paper uses Phase I and Phase II data to explore the impact of deliberation experiences on the participants’ sense of identity.  Deliberation is shown to enhance the salience of a “citizen identity,” an enhancement which did not reverse itself in Phase II.  Face-to-face deliberation was shown to have a larger and more significant impact than online deliberation, although reminders of collective identity were found also to have an impact, whether participants were deliberating online, face-to-face or not at all.

Muhlberger, P.  2005.  Should E-Government Design for Citizen Participation?  Stealth Democracy and Deliberation. (http://www.geocities.com/pmuhl78/dgoStealthV3P.pdf)

This paper uses questionnaire data from Phases I and II to test the so-called  “stealth democracy” thesis, namely, that the public has a preference for governance with little public input or deliberation because the public is rationally apathetic to politics and averse to conflict. It finds no correlation in this study between political uninterest or aversion to conflict and the preference for “stealth democracy.” Instead, there does appear to be a correlation between the intensity of “stealth democracy” preference and such socially problematic beliefs as a reverence for authority and an incapacity to comprehend the political perspectives of others. The data also suggest that online democratic deliberation diminishes these attitudes, including the preference for “stealth democracy” itself.  Instead, there does appear a correlation between the intensity of “stealth democracy” preference and such socially problematic beliefs as a reverence for authority and an incapacity to comprehend the political perspectives of others.  Because the data also suggest that online democratic deliberation diminishes these attitudes, public participation in e-democracy initiatives may reduce the preference for “stealth democracy.”  (An earlier related paper is Muhlberger, P. 2005.  Stealth Democracy, Apathy Rationales and Deliberation. International Communication Association, 55th Annual Conference. http://www.geocities.com/pmuhl78/StealthApathy.doc)

Muhlberger, P. and L. M. Weber. 2006.  Lessons from the Virtual Agora Project: The Effects of Agency, Identity, Information, and Deliberation on Political Knowledge”, Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 6.  (http://services.bepress.com/jpd/vol2/iss1/art6)

Although past research confirms that people learn in deliberative contexts, such research has not taken care to separate the effects of informative readings or other non-discussion information sources from the effects of discussion itself.  This paper demonstrates that discussion in the Virtual Agora project had no effect on factual knowledge above the effect of reading and contemplating, but that deliberation remains crucial as a motivator for acquiring information from non-discussion sources.

Muhlberger, P. 2006.  Report to the Deliberative Democracy Consortium: Building a Deliberation Measurement Toolbox Version 1.0 (http://www.geocities.com/pmuhl78/DDCReport.pdf)

This report, based in part on the Virtual Agora Project, offers deliberation researchers a set of recommended measures, survey questions, and practices for assessing the quality and consequences of deliberation more generally.  The report’s recommendations are grounded in theories of deliberation and of human agency, explicated in the paper, which the measures and survey questions are designed to test and illuminate.

Additional Writings

Although they are not based on Virtual Agora data, Peter Shane has additionally written the following essays on e-democracy during the course of the Virtual Agora Project:

  • Deliberative America,1 J. Public Deliberation, Article 10 (2005) (available at http://services.bepress.com/jpd/vol1/iss1/art10/) (reviewing Bruce Ackerman and James S. Fishkin, Deliberation Day (2004) and Ethan J. Leib, Deliberative Democracy in America: A Proposal for a Popular Branch of Government (2004)).
  • Turning GOLD into EPG:  Lessons from Low-Tech Democratic Experimentalism for Electronic Rulemaking and Other Ventures in Cyberdemocracy  (Review of Archon Fung and Eric Olin Wright, eds., Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance), 1 ISJLP 147-170 (2005) (available at http://www.is-journal.org/V01I01/I-S,%20V01-I01-P147,%20Shane.pdf), to be excerpted in Todd Davies and Beth S. Noveck, eds., Online Deliberation: Design, Research, and Practice (CSLI Publications/University of Chicago Press, 2006).

Additional texts, regrettably not available online, include:

  • “Introduction” (with John Podesta and Richard Leone) and “Public Information, Technology, and Democratic Empowerment,” in Peter M. Shane, J. Podesta and R. Leone, eds., A Little Knowledge: Privacy, Security and Public Information After September 11 (Century Foundation Press, 2004).
  • “Introduction: The Prospects for Electronic Democracy” and “The Electronic Federalist: The Internet and the Eclectic Institutionalization of Democratic Legitimacy,” in Peter M. Shane, ed., Democracy Online:  The Prospects for Political Renewal through the Internet (Routledge, 2004).
  • “Democratic Legitimacy and Digital Government,” in Ari-Veikko Anttiroiko and Matti Mällkiä, eds., Encyclopedia of Digital Government (Idea Group, 2006)

Resource Link: http://virtualagora.org

Peter Muhlberger, Visiting Professor of Political Science

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