Those watching the gaping hole that has opened up between the political class and the public over who should be prime minister might wonder whether there a difference between public opinion, as measured by the giant strainer of opinion polls and public wisdom. The idea that there is, or might be, is behind the latest entrant to Crikey‘s New Kid on the Block series about indie and new media start-ups.

YourView isn’t even properly launched yet, though you will see a holding message on the site if you click on it, and the @yrvw Twitter account invites followers (so far there are only seven). The current planned date for a soft launch is the end of March.

There are big plans — founder Tim van Gelder acknowledges the right word might be “grandiose”.

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His vision is to change the way public affairs are conducted in Australia by injecting into media and public life not mere poll results, but rather a measure of public opinion after people have been properly informed, considered the key arguments and had time to think.

Van Gelder is a philosopher, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne and a cognitive scientist specialising in reasoning and decision making — applying the application of cognitive science to critical issues. He built private consulting business AusThink Consulting around this.

The core idea for YourView is spelled out on his website. In the most recent post, van Gelder draws the connection between recent current events and the difference a YourView could make. He quotes commentators including Barrie Cassidy and James Button opining that we are at a low point in political discourse — an infantilisation of debate, ironically made worse by the information age and new media.

YourView will try to enhance democracy by seeking users’ opinions on major issues of the day, but only after they have read a short piece of unbiased and informative “explainer” journalism on the issue.

Users will then be able to vote on the issue, with comments by way of argument and justification. Comments will appear on the site and Twitter and Facebook feeds in a way that will allow newcomers to easily digest the debate so far.

What makes this different from the anti-democratic new media  “cacophony” feared by many, including Australian Press Council chair Julian Disney? The answer is “gamification”, or the ability of users to gain points through their participation on the site, determined by their thoughtfulness. YourView will allocate users “credibility ” scores, and new users will be able to sort comments by scores. Van Gelder says the site will define what philosophers call  “epistemic virtues” such as open-mindedness.

“YourView computes the extent to which a user is exhibiting these virtues using data gleaned from a user’s activity on the site and how other users are responding,” he said.

YourView will then compute the collective wisdom of the users by weighting the raw votes with the credibility of the voters. The more a user has proven to be a thoughtful participant, the more their vote will count.

“The collective wisdom of the YourView users is not of course the same as the public wisdom of Australians as a whole,” he said. “After all YourView users are a self-selected bunch. However, to the extent that YourView users are statistically representative of the public at large, then YourView’s collective wisdom approximates our view, the collective wisdom of Australians as a whole.”

Later on, YourView will allow users to volunteer to contribute demographic information that will be used to calculate statistical representativeness.

YourView operates in the journalism space in two ways. First, the “explainers” that kick off each issue will aim to provide what is too often lacking in mainstream media: clear and balanced summations of key information and arguments on major public issues. Such information, argues van Gelder, is the minimum requirement to having an informed opinion.

Secondly, if it fulfils its grand aims, YourView will alter the way in which public opinion polling plays as news. At the moment, not least because they control the mechanism by which poll results are created, mainstream media outlets make public opinion poll results front page news, and that alone can drive political events.

YourView will make available to the media its measurements of public wisdom. Van Gelder, speaking from his background in philosophy and cognitive processes, said it is the public wisdom that should inform and guide governments, not public opinion: “Just as opinion polling creates news, so should the collective wisdom of the public constitute something worth reporting.”

YourView is not going to make any money. It has been founded by Austhink Consulting, but will be administered by a not-for-profit company, OurView Foundation, which was set up late last year. There is no real business model, although some ideas are being explored, including offering users a premium fee-based service helping them to express their opinions to decision makers, and licensing the platform to others interested in tapping public wisdom.

But for the most part, van Gelder will be seeking philanthropic support. And he is out there looking for that right now.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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