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Press Release

Teresa S. Thomas

For immediate release:
September 19, 2002

Carnegie Mellon Team Wins $2.1 Million to Build Online Forum for Citizen Deliberation

PITTSBURGH—The National Science Foundation has approved a three-year $2.1 million grant to support a Carnegie Mellon University team of "electronic democracy" researchers.

The research team, led by faculty members Peter M. Shane, Peter Muhlberger and Robert Cavalier, seeks 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"-named for the ancient Athenian marketplace-will seek to identify how information technology can best be used to support "electronic democracy" and to demonstrate the value of computer-mediated communication for building a widespread and inclusive political community.

Through a variety of experiments and comparisons between online deliberation and face-to-face dialogue, the team hopes to learn about how online communication affects its participants and how it contributes to the quality of their decision making.

The software they develop could lead to new forms of online civic engagement, including public hearings to inform government decision-making processes, new forms of public opinion polling, and new tools for community organizing and problem solving.

The software, including so-called "audio bulletin boards," will be designed to be accessible to anyone with a modem and modest computing power.

Peter M. Shane, a principal investigator on the project and director of Carnegie Mellon's Institute for the Study of Information Technology and Society (InSITeS), said, "The Virtual Agora Project will be a major leap forward in both our understanding of how people's knowledge and values are affected by online deliberation and the translation of that understanding into usable software."

Shane, an expert in constitutional and administrative law, played a leading role in founding Carnegie Mellon's e-democracy research program two years ago.

"The NSF grant will help us figure out under what circumstances the Internet might become a medium for meaningful and enduring civic dialogue on an inclusive basis," Shane said. "As a public law scholar, and as a citizen, that's my key objective."

Peter Muhlberger, the lead social scientist on the team, said, "We hope to shed light on how online participation affects civic engagement. We will study how much conflict, consensus and community-mindedness emerge among participants, whether trust and social capital rise, how inclusive involvement proves to be and whether citizens perceive outcomes as legitimate."

"Our goal is to develop online communication and information tools that empower citizens to identify what problems their communities face, intelligently discuss which policies best address these problems and effectively communicate their considered opinions to policy makers," Muhlberger said.

Robert Cavalier, the principal investigator who will oversee the technical development of the "virtual agora," directs the Multi-Media Lab in the Carnegie Mellon Philosophy Department's Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics.

"We face a major challenge," Cavalier said, "of developing high-telepresence audio and video web software for collaborative information sharing and deliberation. We are going to try to enable users to express nonverbal cues easily and to develop mutual communicative knowledge, which is a key component of successful face-to-face interaction."

Cavalier also said that he is hopeful that the team's software will result in advances not only in how issues are discussed online, but also in how they are visually represented. "There is great potential to improve deliberation by improving the ways in which participants can track the arguments voiced and the positions at stake," according to Cavalier.

Jeffrey Hunker, dean of the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, regards the Agora Project as a good example of Carnegie Mellon's pioneering interdisciplinary work.

"The Agora Project marks another milestone in the Heinz School's commitment to create and disseminate knowledge relevant to managing information technology in the public interest," Dean Hunker said.

The faculty research group will also include two faculty members in Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science: Robert Kraut, a social psychologist who is a leading authority on human-computer interaction, and William Scherlis, a software engineer with extensive experience in e-government research and the development of collaborative software.

The Virtual Agora Proposal was among 465 information technology proposals seeking funding this year from the National Science Foundation at what the NSF calls "the medium level" of funding. NSF decided to fund only about 15 per cent of the proposals presented.

One of 28 expert panels reviewed each of the 465 applications, providing NSF program officers with reviews from at least three independent experts prior to the program decision. The panel evaluating the Virtual Agora proposal gave it their "highest rating" among the proposals it reviewed.

The NSF award will bring more than $900,000 to Carnegie Mellon in its first year. Because the project has already been approved for three years based on "scientific/technical merit," the remainder of the funding is contingent only on Congress's continued funding for the NSF and the project meeting its expected goals.

Professor Shane believes that "the quality and interdisciplinarity of Carnegie Mellon" were critical to the credibility of his team's proposal.

"The fact that we bring together three different schools-and that our software is being developed mainly in the Philosophy Department-makes an important statement about Carnegie Mellon's uniquely collaborative spirit and capacities. The NSF has given us an exceptional opportunity to do basic research that could turn out to be profoundly helpful in the real world of democracy," he added.


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