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Debategraph is a social enterprise that combines argument visualization with collaborative wiki editing to make the best arguments on all sides of every complex public debate freely available to all, and continuously open to challenge and improvement by all.

It was co-founded by Peter Baldwin and David Price, who have been collaborating on Debategraph’s development on opposites sides of the world over the last five years –  and is evolving continuously towards the fulfilment of our long term vision for a new form of public communication.

For a great example of a Debategraph map, check out the interactive Debategraph of the Core Principles for Public Engagement at http://debategraph.org/flash/fv.aspx?r=16220 (also embedded below). Click on a principle to see the additional text on what the principle looks like in practice, and what to avoid.

What is Debategraph?

Debategraph offers a powerful way for communities to learn about, think through, and decide upon complex issues.

It does so by enabling communities of any size to externalize, visualize, question, and evaluate all of the considerations that any member thinks may be relevant to the topic at hand – and by facilitating intelligent, constructive dialogue within the community around those issues.

Moreover, each public map contributes to, and forms part of an accumulating graph of structured understanding and insight across all of the communities on a growing range of topics, which, as the topics intersect, may accelerate and enrich each community’s understanding of the topics each is considering.

Thus, for example, three separate maps developed by communities of experts on changing weather patterns, population growth and water resources may begin intersect, as cross-links are added, and the specialized knowledge from each domain can start to be seen, and considered, together as part of a broader and deeper systemic whole.

Similarly, the arguments mapped in the context of a proposal to build a wind farm in one location, become a useful resource to other people facing the same kinds of choices elsewhere (in the country and globally).

Sharing understanding in a structured and transparent form, allows people to see that their perspectives have been heard and represented in context, to fill any gaps, and to expand upon, improve, and challenge any of the points considered directly – and it does in a highly efficient way that avoids unnecessary repetition and that is constantly evolving in the light of new information and understanding.

The more that people contribute their own insights to the public graph: the greater the network benefits for all the communities.

And whether the communities are small teams, organizations, network of stakeholders, or societies as a whole, the ability to augment our individual capacity to see clearly and choose wisely in the face of the complex problems we confront today has never been more pressing.

The basic building blocks of the maps

In essence, building the maps involves three steps:

  1. breaking down the subject into meaningful ideas;
  2. figuring out the relationships between those ideas; and,
  3. expressing the ideas and relationships visually.

(Explorer and Hub views)

Issues (or questionsare raised, Positions (or answerssuggested in response to these Issues, and Supportive and Opposing Argumentsadvanced for and against the Positions (and each other).

(Zoom view)

Each building block has its own color to make it easier to see the types of ideas and relationships at a glance.

There’s a wider set of building blocks beyond the three core ones, but the core set of IssuesPositions, and Supportive and Opposing Arguments can be combined and recombined many times to build rich maps on any scale.

The Problem in more Detail

We spend much of our lives debating with each other—and living in the consequences of those debates. But how often do we do it well? And can the process be improved?

Public debates tend to be complex; with multiple data sources and perspectives and conflicting demands and values. Even relatively straightforward arguments can challenge our capacity to hold all the pertinent factors clearly in our minds. And, in complex debates, the volume of information and arguments can seem like an overwhelming obstacle to someone trying to develop a comprehensive understanding of the essential arguments advanced by all sides.

Public debate is all too often characterized by repetitive contributions, digressions, argumentative fallacies, rhetorical flourishes, manipulative framing, obfuscation and personal attacks that result in a high noise-to-signal ratio and confusion rather than clarity.

Conventional media reporting of public policy debates often struggles with the challenge of conveying nuanced, reasoned positions in a compressed linear form, when simple heated oppositions deliver a more dramatic and rewarding effect.

This, in turn, makes it harder for established public figures to think tentatively and creatively in public about new policy approaches and to acknowledge strengths and common ground in opponents’ positions.

The human tendencies toward homophily (mixing with like-minded people) and group polarization (the self-reinforcing movement towards extreme positions in groups of like-minded people) can, if left unchecked, limit the diversity of arguments heard and stifle the creative discovery of new options in the clash of diverse arguments.

Moreover, the significance people attach to arguments is often shaped by broader frameworks of value and belief, which are in themselves debatable; making the pursuit of a comprehensive appreciation of major debates harder still.

Our Approach in more detail 

Our goal is to create a new kind of public service that enables local and global communities of people to think together by collaboratively building and editing comprehensive and succinct maps of complex debates that accurately present all sides of the debate from a neutral standpoint, free of repetitive clutter and ‘noise’.

All aspects of the debate maps—both their content and structure—are continuously open to revision, refinement, comment, and evaluation by anyone who wants to join the community of thought. Each map is a cumulative work in progress that can be edited and expanded just like a wiki.

The maps are multi-dimensional to reflect the nuances of real debate rather than being limited to one dimensional for and against arguments—and can be clustered into overlapping debates.

Readers and editors of the maps can explore the top-level structure of debates and delve onto specific strands or sub-structures of a debate, without losing sight of the overall semantic whole.

The debate maps can be embedded on, and updated from, multiple websites and blogs; with changes made to the map on one site updating immediately across every site on which it appears.

RSS feeds and email alerts are available to keep everyone up to date with changes as a debate evolves, each element on a map has its own comments section to allow for open discussion and story-telling in addition to structured reasoning, and debates can be printed for offline reference or to create the framework for a written report.

Each point on the map can be rated—enabling the map to be used as a kind of multi-dimensional poll or decision making tool—and the map visualizations change automatically to reflect the perceived strength of each point.

Every part of every map has a direct URL associated with it; so readers can be pointed towards the debate as whole or towards a specific argument within the debate.

The objective with Debategraph is not so much an absolutism of rationality as a transparency of rationality; creating a means for people to collaboratively capture and display all of the arguments pertinent to a debate clearly and fairly so that all of the participants in the debate have the chance to see the debate as a whole and to understand how the positions they hold exist within that debate.

Although consensus can emerge from such a process, not least because it promotes the discovery of previously unidentified options, our hope is as much that the people who continue to disagree will do so on the basis of an enriched understanding of the reasons for their disagreement and having had the chance to test each other’s reasoning to the fullest.

Resource Link:  www.debategraph.org

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