Research Phase 2. Technology assessment and process design
Having identified some potentially appropriate technologies, we need to find out how to apply and/or redesign these technologies and processes to encourage active participation and mutual understanding, focussing on the identified needs of the target communities and voluntary groups. The existing technologies have been designed to meet the needs of internal business decision-making, where there is often less conflict than in public policy debates on planning, let alone reconciling divided communities, or finding common points of understanding between people of differing race, religion or sex. So they need to be tested.
We will carry out small-scale controlled experiments on a range of e-consultation technologies and processes. Volunteers, representing a range of opinions (e.g. from community groups with opposing interests), will be set a consultation task to carry out, and then divided into groups who will use different technologies or no technology at all. For example, the discussion processes and outcomes of a session using mediation support software such as Zeno on laptop computers in front of each participant could be compared with the results of a session using a human mediator. Experiments will be carried out on a wide enough range of participants to ensure that we are not just measuring the response of one particular group in the population: we will need to test men and women; black and white; protestant, catholic and muslim; rural and urban; young and old. Is John Hume right to think that chat over computers is only for people younger than him?
These experiments will be designed and led by QUB, with the help of the E-consultation Study Group and voluntary sector groups in Donegal identified by the project partner there. Technical assistance will come partly from research collaborators overseas (such as the Fraunhofer Institute) and partly purchased from commercial e-consultation service providers.