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Engaging Experts from Across Society Transparently

by February 16, 2011

A recent article in the NY Times about the burgeoning array of question-and-answer (Q&A) sites couldn’t have been timelier timely for me. Our strategy here at Dialogue Earth depends on figuring out how to engage a network of experts from across society—not limited to just academics, but also subject-matter experts in industry, environmental advocacy groups, and beyond. Plus, I believe we should leverage the latest technology, like this new breed of Q&A sites, if possible.

Our approach at Dialogue Earth is deeply rooted in my experience working with hundreds of subject-matter experts while at the Heinz Center in D.C. Specifically, we tapped these experts to create the beginnings of a national system of indicators for the condition and use of U.S. Ecosystems: The State of the Nation’s Ecosystems. There’s more on this on our History page.

The challenge before me is to figure out how to recreate this amazingly powerful formula, while substantially reducing the turn-around time. We operated with committees that took months to converge on common ground, in part because they were charged with solving a number of issues. I need to get the same great quality of experts on-board in a process with turn-around times of hours or days. And, if that’s not enough to ask, I also believe the process needs to be completely transparent.

My serious thinking about the new breed of Q&A sites began a month or so ago when Quora broke into the news. After poking my way around Quora for a while—especially after the sage advice of Lucretia Pruitt to first slow down and understand the Quora ecosystem—I figured what better place to ask if Quora could be leveraged to meet Dialogue Earth’s needs. So, I posted a question entitled: Should Quora be used to gather and distill expert answers on polarizing topics? I did a bit of marketing on Twitter, invited some power Quora users to answer, but no dice. No answers yet.

I believe it is absolutely possible to get a wide cross-section of experts to agree about issues that are engendering a lot of acrimony in the public dialogue. What I don’t know, however, is if the experts can collaborate in a forum like Quora to develop their best answer to a particular question. Why not? Well, I’d be concerned that the experts’ answer might not win the popularity game.

Let’s imagine that it is 1985 and the question is “What are the health implications of smoking?” I’m not an expert on this topic, but its my understanding that more than one expert was being paid by major tobacco companies, acting more like spin doctors than doctors of medicine. What would have stopped a tobacco company from having one of their friendly experts post an answer to Quora, and then sponsor 50 or 100 people to jump onto Quora and vote the question up? Sure, I know that people have to be registered with real names to vote on Quora, but I have to think that wouldn’t really deter a campaign like this. I’d love to be proven otherwise!

This previous example is rather draconian. What if the situation is far less so? Let’s just say it is a matter of someone with limited knowledge on a subject writing a very witty, yet unfounded answer. What if the answer survives the review process Quora is experimenting with (but maybe they’ve stopped that already…)? And, now, what if many well meaning people up vote that particular answer? I think this is a fundamental challenge that I don’t know how Quora is going to handle. Maybe Stack Exchange’s narrowly-focused fora will be better in that regard, but I’m not quite sure.

I’d love to hear your thoughts here…or on Quora!

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