One of my main talking points when it comes to participatory media is that we need to create bridges between policy making institutions and online conversations. It is a point I have been making since early 2004 when I was sitting in a downtown office building in San Diego with various community leaders from health, public transportation, education, and city government. Introductions were made around the table and I rather nervously mumbled that I was there to represent the bloggers. The what!? they asked.
The bloggers. You see, a couple weeks earlier we – that is, ‘the bloggers’ – came up with a great idea. We wanted to close off 4th and 5th street downtown to vehicular traffic on the weekends so that residents would be encouraged to walk more. It would be good for local business (more pedestrian traffic) and it would be good for the city. The only problem with our great idea is that we didn’t understand how such a decision is made. We didn’t even know how to propose it.
Over the past four years I have found this to be true with bloggers just about everywhere: lots of great ideas, but very little knowledge about the necessary next steps to turn those ideas into actions.
Also over the past four years, civil society – both philanthropic foundations and non-governmental organizations – have discovered the power of participatory media as a way to interact more intimately and consistently with the populations they serve. Rather than bombarding the national news outlets with press releases, an NGO can now publish directly to their official blog. If the news is relevant and the writing is good enough, it will likely be picked up by the media anyway … not to mention lots and lots of weblogs. (Distinguishing between the two, I’m sure you’ve noticed, is becoming more difficult.)
For decades now the Bellagio Center has been an important site to gather world leaders in the various fields that fall in line with the focus issues of the Rockefeller Foundation. Those elite meetings have helped shape national and international policy around topics like health care and climate change. But until very recently, the conversations had here at Bellagio did not make their way out of the hefty security gate at the entrance. Like so many things, that is all changing now thanks to greater familiarity with tools like blogs and wikis.
No, I wasn’t invited to Bellagio to talk about closing streets to vehicular traffic (though, for the record, I am always in favor of doing so). I am here for the second week of a four-week conference series called “Making the eHealth Connection.” The conference website is one of the best I’ve ever seen, with a wealth of background information, useful video interviews from the first week, and, ta-da, a conference blog. It is clear that the organizers are committed to spreading the conversations and ideas which emerge from this conference with the rest of the online world, which is fantastic and deserves applause.
However, we also want to remember that the ideal of participatory media is to allow for greater participation, not just greater access to the participation of the same few actors. Over the next week I will do my best to describe the general themes which emerge from the conversations here related to how technology can better serve the needs of health care in the developing world. If you would like to chime in with your own opinions and thoughts, I encourage you to do so by leaving comments both here and on the conference blog.
I will end on one final note, which was brought up by Sherrilynne Fuller of University of Washington during the first week of the conference. Looking around the dining room tonight, I was by far the youngest person in the room. If this conference wants to think deeply and develop a roadmap for how health information systems should be designed for the next generation of computer users, they should really consult some of those young users as our approach to technology and information has changed radically in just the last five years.