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Policy and technology: a "longue durée" view

Random thoughts on policy for technology and on technology for policy

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April 2013

How Search induces Quora users to provide answers rather than questions

Q&A sites are one of the most recent web trends. I’ve been doing quite a bit of work on Q&A website for a client, and I’m really fond of it.

I’m trying to set up a Q&A service “on demand”, using SaaS like qhub.com, StackOverflow, Answerbase, Shapado.

I realized why these web services differ from Quora (which is an own website, does not provide you the possibility to set up a Q&A service).

Quora is designed to encourage answers; those services encourage question.

Quora is about collective intelligence by filtering answers; the others are about increased customer power by crowdsourcing questions. In this sense, they don’t differ much from Uservoice or GetSatisfaction.

I am more interested in Quora-like applications, but it appear that there is no SaaS to do that. Perhaps I should instal Osqa or Shapado and tweak it.

How does Quora do that? Through a search function embedded in the “ask a question” box. When you start typing a question on Quora, a built-in search function shows you related questions that already exists. You are automatically induced to visit those questions, and maybe provide answers, rather than asking another question. I have no data but I’m pretty sure that if you do an online experiment, the websites with search function embedded would have a much higher Answers/Questions ratio.

Instead, Stack Overflow for example simply suggests you to first search, then ask the question if it’s not already there. It’s more cumbersome for users, although it could work for the highly committed Stack Overflow users.

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When #opendata fails the reality check: the case of #desahucios in Spain

Spain is facing one of the deepest social conflict of its young democracy. Following the economic and financial crisis, there has been an explosion of “desahucios” (evictions): people are forced to leave their houses, bought through unrealistic mortgages with rigid clauses, to the banks that provided the mortgages. On top of loosing the house, they still need to pay back part of the loan since the housing market has collapsed and houses are now worth less than the mortgage. The EU has recognized that the Spanish Law should be changed as it does not protect enough the people against the bank. Spanish judges have stopped executing the “desahucios”, yet the new law proposal fails to gain approval from the government party.
This has led to major social unrests: every day the newpapers report about suicides of people who loose their home; acts of civil resistance to the “desahucios” have now become the norm; activists protest against the politicians by following them in their homes; banks are all equally considered (as in most countries) as main culprits.


In this context, imagine my surprise to realize that 5 years after the beginning of the crisis there is a complete lack of reliable statistics on this matter. Official data coming from the Justice department report together “desahucios” for house purchasing and rental, for the first and second houses, and put the figure to several hundred thousands since 2008. On top of that, they don’t report on which bank has activated the procedure.
There are some activity on crowdsourcing data, but while laudable, they only report about 600 cases (about 0,02%).

We don’t know the total number of people affected. We don’t know if the trend is increasing. We don’t know which banks are keener to expropriate people.

The government seems to promise some data for the next year, but it is not clear whether it will present the distribution by bank.

We’re escalating into social conflict (people against politician, people against banks) because we lack the basic tools for understanding the size of the problem, and who’s responsible for that.

This seems to me one of the most evident cases where open data could make the difference, and we should expect the open data evangelist to fight.

Yet this is not the case. There is very little activity asking for this data. On change.org, there are no petitions asking for data on this. On tuderechoasaber.es, the Spanish version of “whatdotheyknow”, there is one Freedom of Information request which has 3 followers including myself, despite the fact that the request is three months old, and has no answer.

We, the open data evangelists, did not meet the challenge of the reality check, when open data are most needed and would make the difference at a crucial historical moment. The open data community seems detached from the activist against “desahucios”. We need a Social Innovation Camp on this that brings together the two.

Can we sensibly claim that open data matters, when at the time it could make the difference on a topical issue, no one cared to fight for it?

But let’s finish on a positive note. Imagine if we could use open data to build a ranking of banks showing the percentage of “desahucios” over total number of mortgages given. Wouldn’t this empower citizens to choose better and induce banks to behave better? This “desahucios index” could become a powerful assessment not only of the “ethical attitude” of the bank, but also a “quality indicator” as evictions are also a sign of bad management. Who’s interested to work on this?

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