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Catalyst Entry: “A Macroscope for Online Dialogue and Deliberation”

This tool makes it possible to engage in complex conversations online. Instead of comments shown in lists, a multi-dimensional dialogue map is generated from data provided by participants, showing the content and the energy of the conversation. Participants can find the places where they want to engage and do so in ways that are generative, including moving between small and large group modes.


Ben Roberts
Co-founder of The Conversation Collaborative and Occupy Cafe and highly experienced convener of virtual conversation via MaestroConference and text-based platforms

Bruce Schuman
Independent programmer, web developer, and Founder of The Purple Alliance

Pia Lizana
Independent Software Industry Consultant


The Macroscope supports a wide range of generative online dialogue and deliberation for civic engagement.  From open discussion to structured processes such as World Cafe to deliberative approaches that require voting and ranking tools, the platform allows conveners to create frameworks that suit their needs, are simple to use and can avoid the problem of divisive voices derailing a conversation.


Lucas Cioffi
Co-Founder of AthenaBridge
NCDD Board member
Lucas Cioffi has committed to prototyping a version of the macroscope based on AthenaBridge’s existing conversation mapping software. To remove any conflict of interest, he is not eligible to receive compensation if this project wins a Catalyst Award, because he is a member of the NCDD Board.

Bill Muse
President, National Issues Forum
Bill will participate in the “design conversations “ by sharing details about the processes NIF uses for in-person engagements and culling from that the core dimensions we would like to be able to translate to an online platform. He will also convene one or more groups for dialogue to test out the Macroscope prototypes we develop.

Peter Jones, PhD
Associate Professor, OCAD University, Toronto
Managing Director, Redesign
Peter will provide insight as a scholar of dialogue process and theory, as well as software and user experience in design and research.

Heather Tischbein
Board member: Co-Intelligence Institute
Owner, Dragonfly Dialogues
Roles: thinking partner, product testing (canary in the coal mine).

Bentley Davis
Founder: eExpression.com
Role: software development consulting (over 15 years experience in database, back-end, web and desktop software development).

Gavin Preis
Director of Marketing
Corporate Training labs
Role: conversation strategist / online conversation visionary who is creating new and dynamic methodologies in the vertical & horizontal conversations space. [Not an NCDD member]

Steven Starr
New Media Innovator, Film Producer , founder of Studio Occupy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Starr)
Role: design conversation contributor [Not an NCDD member]

Additional NCDD members involved in drafting the proposal
This proposal was drafted solely by Ben Roberts, but was informed by conversations with a variety of people at the October 2012 NCDD conference and in the ensuing months. More importantly, the design process will include conversations that bring in anyone from the D&D community and beyond that wish to offer their thinking to the core team that will spec out and develop one or more prototypes of the Macroscope.


Can we come up with something that does for online dialogue what the spreadsheet has done for numerical and data analysis? Can we create a simple, intuitive and highly flexible set of tools that allow for endless creativity in the way online conversations get structured and mapped? Can we make online conversation so dynamic that it takes on the addictive qualities of a massive multiplayer game? That is the goal of the Macroscope–a term Joel de Rosnay introduced to describe a tool that reveals the complexity of a thing. In the realm of online dialogue, a macroscope would allow us to have highly nuanced conversations of all kinds and purposes.

Ultimately, the plan is to create a tool set that can be plugged in or added onto existing websites built using platforms like Drupal and WordPress. Initially, in order to test out the concept, stand alone platforms will be created and used to convene a variety of different types of conversations. Assuming this experience confirms that the core ideas behind the Macroscope are sound, additional funding can be raised and a second iteration of the software can be launched. This can lead to a robust and highly intuitive set of tools that can be made available to the D&D community and the world at large and can be incorporated into new and existing websites wherever generative conversation is desired.

The precise business model under which this might be undertaken is yet to be determined. If a company is formed, the equity will most likely be shared among the three project coordinators, with a portion also given to NCDD in return for the support we will have received. It is also possible that the software will be offered free as a set of open source solutions. These decisions will be made by consensus among the three coordinators.

Here are the essential components of the Macroscope as currently envisioned…

Simplicity and Engagement

The Macroscope must be very easy and to use–it must create hospitable and engaging space. While it may allow a host/moderator/facilitator to play that role with far greater ease and effectiveness, the tool should allow the participants to naturally self-organize without the need for such oversight. Ideally, the conversation might take on the qualities of a game, where the goal is to participate in a generative fashion so that your posts gain recognition and show up more prominantly on the map.

Multi-dimensional Dialogue Map

Instead of online text-based comments being shown in long lists, there is a multi-dimensional dialogue map, showing not only the content but also the energy of the conversation that is emerging. The process works like this: participants are asked to take a minute to provide distinct sets of data at two points in their engagement in the conversation: when they read a post and when they write a post. Using this data, maps are automatically generated that allow participants to find the places within the conversation where they want to engage and then to participate in ways that align with their intentions.

Providing these two sets of data should take no more than a minute or so. The specific fields will be preset for a given conversation, but can be changed from one to another, depending on the needs and intentions of the dialogue or deliberation process to which participants are being invited. A set of templates can be developed that support these various processes. A “standard template” might also be developed for general use.

Note: it is essential to the vision of the Macroscope that the conversation be “self-mapping,” i.e. that the map emerge entirely from the information provided collectively by the participants rather than from the work of a moderator or map-maker.

For more details on the these data sets as they are currently conceived, see the Concept Details Hackpad at www.bit.ly/macrohack].

Small Group/Large Group

As we know from virtually all large group processes in the in-person domain, generative outcomes derive from the ability to move between smaller groups and larger ones. The Macroscope will allow participants (and hosts) to create their own groups of various sizes and invite others into them, while still having these discussions integrated into the larger conversational map.


In order to support deliberative processes, a set of voting tools will be designed. These might be triggered when a post is made that is flagged as a proposal.

[Note: please see the Macroscope Hackpads for more details on the project plan: www.bit.ly/macrohack]



The project coordination team will steward a process that will begin with collaborative design conversations, followed by prototype building and ending with field testing to establish “proof of concept.” The plan is to accomplish this over a three month period, taking approximately one month per phase. The $10K will be used to compensate the coordination team for their time and expertise. Coordinator Pia Lizana will use her extensive skills in software project management to ensure that the scope of work is completed as planned.

March: Collaborative Design Conversations

The coordination team will convene a series of design conversations including both the circle of collaborators that have signed onto the project, the wider D&D communities, and other people/networks that currently engage in active online conversations. Coordinator Ben Roberts will use his extensive experience with MaestroConference to host these conversations virtually. A web platform such as Hackpad will also be incorporated to support the asynchronous engagement of a broad community of design contributors.

The design phase will include an investigation of existing online tools, a survey of the D&D community to uncover diverse opportunities for online conversations and an analysis of the core functionality required to engage in them effectively, discussions about the various dimensions (i.e. database fields) that might be mapped, and brainstorming of ways that the data might be visually displayed in maps that are easy to navigate.

Using the harvest from these conversations, the current specs for the Macroscope will be refined, amended or perhaps even replaced, as decided by the coodinator team in a consensus process. The team will be supported in this decision by the input of collaborators who have experience in software development and dialogic theory. The commitment is to build something consistent with the specs laid out in this proposal unless there is consensus on specific changes.

April: Prototype Development

At least two prototypes will be built, one by coordinator and master programmer Bruce Schuman, and the other by collaborator Lucas Cioffi (based on the existing AthenaBridge conversation mapping software he has created). It is not necessarily expected that these platforms will be as simple or as elegant as might be required for a platform that will be adopted on a large scale. The goal is to create something that demonstrates a basic set of components and allows for evaluation of their potential to support powerful conversations.

May: “Proof of Concept”

Conversations using the prototypes will be convened via collaboration with partners such as the National Issues Forum and others in the D&D community, to determine if the basic inspiration for the Macroscope is sound. Benchmarks will include the degree to which participants find the process engaging and the quality of the conversational outcomes that emerge. The ultimate test will be the ability to raise additonal capital and/or convene a community of open source developers to create one or more versions of the Macroscope that are ready for widespread use.

Link to the page for this project on CivicEvolution:

Link to additional web presence for the project:

Questions? Email Ben at ben@conversationcollaborative.com.