So I was asked by ICANN’s “executive officer and vice president for corporate affairs” Paul Levins to do an online participation website for its meeting in São Paulo, starting officially on Monday.
Paul was at the IGF in Athens last month and saw the site that Jeremy and I had done for the IGF in order to try to get some online interaction both by people that couldn’t be there and by those that were there. In fact, in retrospect, the whole thing dovetailed with a conversation I had had with Paul when I visited ICANN in Los Angeles on a whim two months ago.
Despite alot of well-founded criticism of ICANN in the past (much of it from me) about the organisation being secretive, insular, opaque and whatever other term you wish to use, it struck me that ICANN had actually taken the criticism on board this time and was looking for ways to open up a bit.
Openness and transparency
How much of that was because of the community complaining, and how much thanks to the WSIS process, and especially the Washington meetings where accountability and transparency were driven home by the DoC of all people, is something that can be argued over. But since I have spent god knows how many hours (days, weeks?) trying to get people interested in ICANN and what it does, plus make sure that what it does do is recorded (not to mention trying to make sure it can’t do anything it shouldn’t), when I was asked to do a website to help this process along, I thought about it a bit and decided it was worth a go.
Besides, I have been moaning and moaning for years that the organisation that oversees the Internet doesn’t use the amazing tools that Internet technology has produced, so this was a chance to put my money where my mouth was.
I made a few basic demands like having access to a decision-maker, and full access to a server, so I wasn’t caught up having to get every small tweak approved by a committee. That was fine I was told and had ICANN’s technical head on the phone a day or two later. And then I checked that the elements of the IGF site – basically: simple registration, immediate posting rights, a variety of input methods – were why ICANN had asked me, and they said yes, so with only a week to go I spent basically every second that I wasn’t news editing Techworld building the site up.
There were of course, technical problems – there always are. The fact that the Thanksgiving weekend kicked in just as I was starting didn’t help. So I built the site on my own server and then tried to transfer it, and the MySQL databases, and the various bit of custom coding across. Thanks to ICANN’s technical team (special thanks to Yan and Mehmet) it finally worked, and the only thing that had got mangled on the way were the Spanish characters I had included for meeting info translation. The site is now largely done – well, all the hard stuff is done – so today, Saturday, I have been taking it easy and sitting in a haze due to lack of sleep. I had a fresh look at the site this morning and I think it might work.
The site itself
I made the site more sober (read: less colourful) than the IGF site to give it a better sense of authority. And I spent a while trying to tie in the events as closely and intuitively as possible. My idea was you could visualise the days and the times and quickly see what event you might be interested in – and then with a simple click, get a summary. A click on the summary would then takes you to a page that has everything you need to know. And thanks to some software from the clever bastards at MIT (http://simile.mit.edu/timeline/), I think I got that side of things working pretty well – see here.
I chose two levels of tags: one for ICANN’s Supporting Organisations and so working within the existing structure; and the second covering the main topics. Making a topics list is difficult because you don’t want to miss things, or mix things up, but you want to shortest list possible for practical reasons. So I came up with eight and added an option where people can type in their own tags to give it some flexibility.
The RSS feeds bring in official ICANN news in one box and then blog posts from across the Net in another – I’ve added all the people that regularly cover ICANN: myself, Brett Fausett, Joi Ito (Board member), Susan Crawford (Board member), ICANNWatch, ICANNblog (the blog bit of ICANNWiki), and some others I can’t remember right at the moment. I’ll turn that on tomorrow for the start of the meeting seeing as the site is supposed to be covering just the São Paulo meeting at the moment.
If it is a success then I’m sure the site will carry on to other meetings but I’m secretly hoping that it will be used between meetings as well. It all depends on whether people take to it. And I really think that while you can expect the usual Internet crowd to crawl all over it, the real test will come in whether the ICANN staff start using it. ICANN is still in under-fire mode (although it has started relaxing a little following the JPA) and the staff have a slight bunker mentality. I just hope that they start interacting with the community and in return the community gives them a fair hearing. If the site can solve one problem that wouldn’t have been solved otherwise, it was worth building it.
Here comes trouble
I have yet to hit any difficult dilemmas. For example, I am fully prepared to delete posts and even ban members if they start trying to take over or disrupt the functioning of the site. I can foresee a few situations where that puts me in a difficult situation. But I have designed the site such that this shouldn’t be a problem. It is quite hard for an individual (or several individuals) to disrupt discussion and the site has a good degree of self-monitoring. So everyone will be allowed to have their say – something I believe to my core – but it’s not a case of who-shouts-loudest.
The strangest thing that happened when I was doing the IGF site – and where I was a semi-official blog watcher – was when the site went down because demand was too high and I found myself reporting on my own site. I was tempted for a moment to give myself a really hard interview and stitch myself up just for my own amusement, but then I decided not to take the well-travelled path of media self-regard.
Besides, the thing is – and everyone seems to forget this – the decisions being made now by a very small group of people will form the culture of a medium that will affect everyone on the planet now and into the future. It’s important that we at least do our best not to write in something that people in 25 years’ time despair about. And that means thrashing out ideas in free and open discourse. I hope the http://sp.icann.org/ site will help that just a little bit.