Using WriteToReply to Publish Committee Papers. Is an Active Role for WTR in Meetings Also Possible?

Last night I spent an hour or two putting the various papers released so far by the Public Sector Transparency Board on WriteToReply, an unofficial act but one that seems to have met with approval:

WTR public Secotr Transparency Board

The majority of documents we’ve published on WriteToReply previously tend to be large, standalone documents, albeit with multiple sections that we tend to map on to separate blog posts. Recently, I’ve also started exploring how it feels to post “single page” consultations within a more general blog setting (e.g. Single Page Commentable Consultation Docs).

The PSTB site is a different matter, however, because there are likely to be several separate documents for each meeting of the board (if nothing else, at least and agenda and the minutes), as well as multiple sittings of the board.

Public Sector Transparency Board, WTR

So how does this change things?

The first thing to realise is that the structure – one post per document – encourages linking between documents. So for example, if the agenda identifies that a particular document was a subject of discussion, a link can be included to that page. If a particular section, or point raised in a document is minuted, then the way that WriteToReply generates unique URLs for each paragraph means that a link can be included that references that particular paragraph.

Capturing the forward path – from document paragraph in to the minutes, for example – relies on WordPress capturing a link from the minutes to a paragraph link via a trackback. It strikes me that in a WTR environment, if notes or minutes on the discussion of a particular paragraph or section were captured as comments, then a comment feed would automatically capture an ordered and referenced set of notes/minutes, that could be fed directly into a derived document?

The ability to syndicate and embed (i.e. transclude) paragraph level content from one WriteToReply document in another web document (as demonstrated in Engaging With the Issues Raised By The Google Book Settlement and described in Taking the Conversation Elsewhere – Embedded Quotes) is also a feature that begins to look attractive once we start thinking about a document ecosystem. So for example, if we minute a reference to a particular document in a tabled document, we might allow the viewer to read that paragaph via a sub-text annotation within the context of the minutes.

A more extreme mechanic might to be allow the reader to view elements of documents considered by the Board using a TiddlyWiki like mechanic; (if you haven’t tried TiddlyWiki, follow the link to it now, and then try clicking on some of the links on the TiddlyWIki page. For some users, the TiddlyWiki user experience is compelling; others hate it…)

In this case, clicking on a link in a minute would dynamically pull in the corresponding paragraph or section from the linked to document. Once read, the user could then “close” the referred to paragraph. (You really do need to have played with TiddyWiki recently to appreciate what I might mean by that!)

To return to the PSTB example, it will be interesting to see how the evolving nature of the site plays out and whether WriteToReply could play an active role in both the preparation for and run up to a meeting, as well as recording discussions and decisions made by the Board.

For example, if we manage to get prior notice of tabled items and the meeting agenda, then we’ll be able to solicit comments on very specific items that can possibly be referred to within the meetings of the Board itself. Even Board members might use WTR to take notes on – and solicit further comments on – particular sections of the document, as well as being able to refer to them via user feeds during the meeting itself.

As we get more documents, we should be able to increase the linkage between documents (though it will remain to be seen how that might turn out to be useful, if at all). In the sense that the published documents (and comments) provide a corpus for a search engine over issues considered by the Board, I think we’d probably need to offer paragraph level search, as well as comment level search (e.g. see this demonstration hack: Paragraph Level Search Results on WordPress Using and Yahoo Pipes; I don’t think it searches comments though? In fact, does WordPress allow users to search through comments?).

I believe that there is certainly scope for using this sort of approach to “amplify” both preparation for and dissemination of PSTB discussions at the very least. If anyone else out there would like to explore the possibility of using a WriteToReply environment to support meeting based activities (“amplified meetings”), (either on a public site or a closed site), please get in touch:-)

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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