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10Questions.com and the Wisdom of Crowds

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, October 19 2010

10Questions.com is a project of Personal Democracy Forum.

When a Georgia pediatrician felt that critical child health issues were missing from the gubernatorial debate in his state, he posed a question for the men hoping to become the next governor of the Peach State. And they answered.

It's an example of how 10Questions.com, our project for the midterm elections, gives ideas a chance to make their way into conversations around electoral politics in this country — breaking away from the previously closed system of debate moderators and editorial boards that now exists in the United States.

Dr. Martin Michaels of Dalton, Ga., was able to submit a question about child obesity and immunization — issues that he felt were missing from our forum. As visitors to 10Questions.com and to our partners, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Macon Telegraph and Georgia Politics Unfiltered, cast 2,000 votes on 144 questions for the gubernatorial candidates, Michaels' question floated to the top of the list. By Oct. 15, both Republican Nathan Deal and Democrat Roy Barnes had recorded video answers to Michaels' query and uploaded them to our platform. They're now live here for anyone to review.

More than anything, Michaels' online interaction with Deal and Barnes is an example of a successful interaction between politicians and "the crowd" — as in, the people described in James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. Our media partners in Georgia put out a call for people to join the online community we are trying to build. Michaels and people like him throughout the state joined that community to submit and vote on questions. In the end, the wisdom of the crowd placed Michaels' question at the top of our list for candidates — and the candidates engaged that crowd.

There's no telling why each individual that voted for Michaels' question did so, but we know why Michaels submitted the question originally — because he told us.


Nathan Deal (R) answers Martin Michaels' question on 10Questions.com.

In an email, Michaels told the 10Questions team that he decided to get involved after first reading about the project in the print edition of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, then going online to read the questions. At this point, one of my colleagues on the 10Questions project had reached out to the AJC's editorial and online teams, we had forged a partnership, and 10Questions was being publicized both in print and online by the newspaper.

"As I reviewed the questions that had been submitted, I saw that only one question pertained to children (education, the question that came in second)," Michaels wrote. "Young children cannot submit questions, and they also cannot vote. Yet, the needs of children are critical for Georgia's future."

Michaels, who runs a pediatric care practice in Dalton that he says has about 10,000 active patients, was not available today to say whether or not he believes his question was answered. In an earlier telephone interview, however, he explained why he posted the question.

"The majority of children in our practice come from low-income families, so the majority of [patients] are covered from Medicaid or S-CHIP, which is Peachcare here in Georgia," Michaels said.

"A lot of time they're not getting the preventive care or the immunizations that they need ... and a lot of time they're obese," Michaels explained.

Roy Barnes answers Martin Michaels' question on 10Questions.com.

Obesity has already entered the Georgia gubernatorial race as an issue, but Michaels also stressed immunizations and preventive care. Absent these things, children contract avoidable illnesses and conditions that would otherwise not be worrisome could become more severe.

"I see the effects on the children and the families, and to me the children, you can't hold children responsible for their own health issues. They depend on adults, they depend on their parents and they depend on the society, you know, the government and the society, to make sure they can get what they need," Michaels explained.

The next step in this experiment is to see what the crowd thinks of each candidate's response. Did Barnes actually answer Michaels' question? Did Deal? We have posed that question to the 10Questions community, which anyone can join. Our operating theory is that this crowd gets smarter — and candidates are thus more likely to engage in online conversation with its members — as it grows in size.

In order for the next step to be a success, we need a crowd at least as large as the one that voted on Michaels' question and the hundreds like it across the country with members parsing the answers, and not just voting on the responses, but explaining their reasoning in tweets, Facebook posts, and blog entries.

With the answers freshly in, and two weeks — a lifetime as far as the Internet is concerned — left before the election, now would be a good time to get involved.

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