Policy Testing in Virtual Environments: Addressing Technical and Legal Challenges

Policy Testing in Virtual Environments: Addressing Technical and Legal Challenges

Magdalini Kardara (National Technical University of Athens, Greece), Omri Fuchs (IBM Research - Haifa, Israel), Eleni Kosta (K.U. Leuven, Belgium), Fotis Aisopos (National Technical University of Athens, Greece), Ilias Spais (Athens Technology Center, Greece) and Theodora Varvarigou (National Technical University of Athens, Greece)
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/jegr.2012070101
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Abstract

Governments want to improve their policy making process by being able to accurately predict the impact of prospective policy measures to the community. Current e-government tools fail to capture the public opinion as they lack in mass participation. Instead of relying on outdated methods of communicating with the public, governments should embrace Web 2.0 technologies and take advantage of the vast the flows of information available online. In +Spaces, the authors introduce a novel way of accessing and evaluating public opinion by using popular virtual spaces, i.e., 3D Virtual Worlds and Social networks, as testing environments and developing an interface that would allow applications to operate inside them, capturing the reactions of citizens to prospective policies. They present the +Spaces platform giving emphasis on technical challenges such as Virtual Spaces interoperability as well as legal requirements related to processing user created data and how the authors addressed them.
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Introduction

A common aspiration for governments around the world has been to improve the policy making process by being able to accurately predict the impact of prospective policy measures to the community. In addition to the benefits for the policy makers, actively involving the citizens in the policy making process will increase the citizens’ level of trust towards public administration. However, in order to be able to reliably evaluate citizens’ reaction to prospective policy measure the contribution and involvement of individuals and communities is required on a large scale. Current e-government tools have failed to capture the public opinion to a large scale as they lack in mass participation.

In order to better understand the impact and acceptance of policy decisions and governance models, governments have traditionally commissioned polls, public consultations and market research. So far, the focus of e-government attempts towards capturing public opinion has primarily been to transfer those traditional means of gathering public opinion online by making them available through the web sites of public bodies and government organisations. Although such tools have to some extend increased the efficiency of measuring public opinion by automating the data aggregation process, they have failed to result in massive involvement of citizens (Bertot, Jaeger, & McClure, 2008; Reddick, 2005). Recent studies have shown that instead of relying on outdated methods of communicating with the public, governments should embrace Web 2.0 technologies and take advantage of the vast flows of information, knowledge and collaboration available online (Jaeger, Shneiderman, Fleischmann, Preece, Qu, & Wu, 2007).

In +Spaces, we introduce a novel way of accessing and evaluating public opinion by using popular virtual spaces, i.e., 3D Virtual Worlds and Social networks, as testing environments and developing an interface that would allow applications to operate inside them, capturing en masse the opinions and reactions of a representative subset of the population to questions specific to the government. Virtual Spaces are popular, diverse, established, they show spontaneous economic, political, and social parallels to the real world and aspects of socialization and personality are visible, thus they can be seen as a simulation of society, a micro-society. Moreover, Virtual Spaces are a contained environment sufficiently flexible that we can introduce stimuli and invoke reaction that can be easily captured and analysed.

Virtual Spaces are therefore ideal for accessing a lot of people and gathering large amounts of user created data. They are, however, highly heterogeneous environments and thus the seamless interaction of government applications with various Virtual Spaces and the data aggregation from them require an infrastructure layer that supports interoperability. It also requires a data gathering mechanism that retrieves information from Virtual Spaces and communicates it to the dedicated analysis tools so that the information is processed and presented in a way that is meaningful to the government user.

In addition to the technical challenges, gathering data from online communities also presents a series of legal requirements. The interaction with citizens through Virtual Spaces as envisioned in +Spaces gives way to significant personal data processing activities, mostly directed to the analysis of users’ behaviour. Such data processing activities call for the implementation of adequate privacy safeguards in order to protect users’ privacy and ensure conformance with legislation.

In this paper we present developments in the +Spaces project, giving an overview of the platform capabilities, describing in detail the technical solution that we implemented and putting special focus on the legal requirements and how we addressed from a technical viewpoint. The remainder of the document is structured as follows. In the next section we describe the state of the art in technological and social domains addressed by the project, including a thorough analysis of the relevant legal framework. We then give a detailed overview of the overall technical solution proposed by +Spaces and describe the functionality of individual components. Special focus is given to legal requirements and how they have been addressed. Subsequently, we discuss the methodology approach that has been taken in the framework of the project and describe results so far. Finally we examine the practical implications of our work and future directions.

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