The Issue Barometer Application:
[View image of the Issue Barometer]
The purpose of the Issue Barometer application is to gauge the social pressure of a contemporary issue using various datastreams available on the World Wide Web. The Issue Barometer has four 'gauges,' which show different readings of an issue:
1. Temperature. How hot is an issue?
2. Debate Activity (aka Style). Is there a 'debate' around the issue? If so, how active is it?
3. Territorialisation. Is the issue more a national or global affair? From which and into which countries is the issue moving? How 'mobile' is the issue?
4. Globalisation. Is the issue only a western issue, only a non-western issue, or some combination? What is the international composition of the leading parties engaged in the issue?
The Issue Barometer determines the network of leading organizations participating in an issue, reads the composition of the issue network (e.g., all org's, only gov's and com's, or gov's, com's and org's), determines the network's freshness (the frequency with which the network mounts content related to the issue on their sites) and checks the network's current levels of nationalisation (one country versus many countries) and globalisation (western versus non-western).
In order to measure the pressure of an issue, the 'issue network' of leading organizations debating the issue is first ascertained. This is accomplished initially by choosing entry points to the issue - the organizations one expects to be engaged in the issue and involved in the debate around the issue. One may choose entry points in any number of ways, i.e., by asking an expert whom he or she believes is relevant in the debate, by reading a leading news piece and choosing the sources cited in it (as we do below), by snowballing from one or more leading parties to the debate, by intuition, etc. (A combination of methods would allow for an aggregation of the issue networks revealed by different methods; one could triangulate the results and check for frequency of appearances of a site per network. Taken together, the most frequently appearing sites would constitute the most authoritative issue network according to this particular method. ) One may also restrict one's entry points to a particular country, as in the food safety case below.
Once the entry points to the issue are chosen, the network of organizations dealing with the issue - the 'issue network' - is determined. This procedure to demarcate the issue network may be performed using the netlocator, a (java virtual machine) application that crawls the sites of the entry points, searches for inter-linking patterns and returns co-linked sites. The degree of co-linking between parties reveals the extent of the network. With co-link analysis different types of networks may be demarcated. For example, one may set the parameters (the 'defaults') to find the network exhibiting the highest degree of co-linking; one may wish to find a network with a medium degree of co-linking, etc. The issue network returned by the current design of the netlocator is the one with the highest degree of co-linking that also exhibits transdiscursivity. That is, the locator is set to determine which state of the network is most densely interlinked, and is still composed of at least one organization from all of the following domains: .gov, .com and .org, in the top-level or second-level domains (e.g., org.uk). The gov-com-org-domain inclusion parameter shows a state of a debate that includes government, corporations and civil society. The normativity implied here is that this is the preferred debate to be captured and explored by the information society. One may change the setting based on other (normative) preferences, i.e., one may be interested in locating a gov-com network, a com-org network, or a gov-org network. These network compositions imply other kinds of information societies and/or states of debates, as described below.
Once an issue network is demarcated, it may be queried in any number of ways. Here its 'pressure' is queried, according to the temperature, style, territorialisation and globalisation parameters mentioned above. The temperature of an issue is gauged by the frequency with which sites dealing with the issue modify their pages. Here 'deep pages' are considered, i.e., the page modification dates of the portion of the site dealing specifically with the issue. A few decisions must be made with regard to continuously and regularly refreshed sites (e.g., the 'webbified mass media'). Here continuous refreshers would not be considered, and, it is proposed that regularly refreshed sites will be considered only when their refreshes depart from their regularly scheduled refreshes. Thus the barometer would have to 'learn' how the sites refresh themselves and then handle 'refresh histories' accordingly. Once the barometer has developed that 'intelligence', the refresh histories of organization types can be ascertained, and respective sectoral temperatures (of gov's, com's, org's and various national domains) may be taken.
The style of the issue engagement is gauged by the diversity of organization types taking part in the debate within the issue network. Here the top-level or second-level domains are taken into consideration. Certain issues may be of relevance only to .org's, only to .gov's, only to .com's, or, more conventionally, to certain combinations of the three. The significance of the different issue network compositions may be theorised. For example, the significance of .gov-.com debates may differ from that of .org-.com debates, e.g., in terms of debate maturity. An .org-.com debate may be thought of as a budding debate (where 'problems' are still open to definition, prior to the organization of summits), a .gov-.com.-.org debate as a regulatory debate (where 'solutions' are still open to debate, as during summits), and .gov-.com as a mature debate, where regulation regimes have set in, and summits ceased. (Adding the .edu domain and national domains enriches the capacity for interpretation.) The extent to which these debate party compositions map onto maturity levels of debates off the Web are empirical questions, and open to different methods of inquiry, e.g., comparisons between online and off-line debate party compositions may be made using a representative sample of newspaper reports about an issue and the issue networks found on the Web, in a distinct period of time. One compares the list of organizations mentioned in the sample of news reports to the list of organizations in a web issue network. One may also compare a list of organizations represented at a summit to the list of organizations in a web issue network. Here it would be asked whether the web is a trend-watcher and/or trend-setter; that is, to what extent does the web predict (or pre-set) the parties of relevance, per issue? One may also consider a web issue network to be an everyday virtual summit, and 'apply' that 'real virtuality' by inviting the web issue network to meet off-line, as proposed below.
Finally, the 'territorialisation' of an issue is gauged by the national or international composition of the organizations taking part in the debate on the issue. Here, again, the top-level or second-level domains are of relevance. The query concerns the extent to which the debate party composition (and thus the issue) is national or global, with times series (snapshots of the issue networks over time) revealing whether an issue is nationalising or globalising. Territorialisation is indicated by the quantity of countries represented in the issue network; 'globalisation' of the issue is determined by type of countries represented (i.e., a qualitative measure). Here a 'globalized' issue has a particular mix of western and non-western countries. One also could think about deriving other types of issue parameters by using north-south, regional, or language distinctions. Further interpretations of combinations of top-level and second-level domain names would be made.
More importantly would be a time series analysis across issue networks for, say, ten issues; this would allow issue categorisations and trend-watching for researchers and policy analysts according to the parameters outlined above.
There are many ways to graphically represent an issue, with one of the simplest being a two-column table of the 'pro's' and 'con's' or 'costs' and 'benefits'. For example, an individual may make a list of pro's and con's on the back of an envelope to aid in some decision. In this case the pro's and con's are one actor's viewpoints. Multiple actors' viewpoints on an issue may also be represented. For example, one may draw a political spectrum map of an issue, with left-wing, centrist and right-wing viewpoints depicted on a horizontal axis, and colours (or colour combinations) showing the particular political party positions. At the top of the map the issue is written, in the center is the coloured political party spectrum, and beneath the party colours are the party standpoints on the issue.
Conventional issue maps are crafted by 'editors'. Using journalistic techniques, editors may identify and evaluate sources, comb the sources for a clear position and then graphically depict the source's position on the issue in question. In the example above, the political geographer searches and finds the political parties' clearest expressions of positions on an issue, and places them on the political spectrum issue map. (Again, time series would show how party positions change over time. To enrich the map one could overlay historical timelines on the maps and show relationships between chronological events and changes in party viewpoints.) When not political parties' views, but rather relevant social groups positions on issues are depicted, the form the representation may assume varies. The issue maps described here have been made using different methods and techniques than previous historical issue maps, as the soziale karten crafted, for example, for the Dutch nuclear power debate in the 1970s and the Dutch genetic screening debate in the 1990s.
Previous issue maps have been who's who guides to the issue-makers; they were meant to provide an overview of the leading parties to a debate around an issue, and the leading parties' viewpoints. The purpose of the maps has been to guide journalists as well as debate participants through the debate.
Nowadays, issue maps may be created, dynamically, by capturing certain datastreams available on the Internet, with less editorial input (and therefore with greater immediacy) than in the other techniques. Here preliminary findings of the Dutch food safety case study are presented. Issue networks have been found, and queried, for indications of the 'temperature', 'style', 'territorialisation' and 'globalisation' of the food safety issue. The food safety issue network is not depicted in a map as described above, but rather as gauge readings from an 'instrument' called the Issue Barometer.
In order to 'map' an issue one begins with the question of the identity of its carriers. Who's making an issue out of food safety? To read the newspapers and watch the television news programs, 'food safety' is an issue of some media concern. Here the idea is to determine indications of the level of concern in and beyond the media, and especially amongst new and existing groups and institutions engaging with the issue.
Another key question revolves around the level of 'indigenousness' of the issue, i.e., whether the food safety issue has arisen in the Netherlands and is being carried by Dutch groups, e.g., non-governmental organizations, consumer groups, producer consortia and retailers. Is 'food safety' in the Netherlands, as some are arguing for the USA and the UK, of such general concern that it would seem "to touch a chord in people and also cross traditional left-right, liberal-conservative lines". Or could food safety be described as an uneasy import from abroad?
Once it is determined that food safety is a 'hot' issue, we may inquire into the 'distribution' of the 'heat'. We are interested in the extent to which the key players in the food sector are engaged in a 'debate'. Is there evidence of an actual debate underway? For example, are key players formulating positions on the issues, and are other key players recognizing and responding to these positions? Are new organizations and groupings being formed to join the debate, and are these new groups making efforts to become 'key players'? Or should we instead think about the food safety issue as more of a media creation? Another way of phrasing the question about the actual heat of an issue is as follows: is it possible to find a 'food safety issue' and a 'food safety debate' without relying on the mediation of the press? Currently, organizational spokespersons may be responding to journalists' questions about food safety issues, and journalists may be making stories by juxtaposing the spokespersons' viewpoints against each other, and then calling these statement juxtapositions a 'debate'. But the hypothesis to be explored here is that media attention for an issue may mask the absence of debate. Such an absence of debate may reveal the need for government or other parties distinct from the media to stimulate key parties to engage in more meaningful, perhaps direct exchange. [Here we may note the envisaged hai-sessies.]
In order to answer the question about the extent of 'actual' debate, one needs to find a place where organizations air their views on an everyday basis, without press mediation. The Web is a candidate for such a space because it allows for direct 'broadcasting' (so to speak) without editorial filtering by news organizations. This is the same as saying that organizations' previous 'press releases' are no longer only for the press.
More progressive organizations may go a step further. They may forego 'press releases' all together. They may simply air views whenever a debate heats up, and their views are directed as much at the general (surfing) public and other key players as at news organizations. They are issuing 'views releases'. Most leading NGOs use the Web precisely in this manner. Having learned their communications strategies from global civil society actors, certain corporations and governmental agencies are beginning to do the same.
Here we have looked into the Dutch food safety debate through the 'unfiltered' lens of the Web (in the above sense of reading 'views releases'), querying key players' web sites directly. More importantly, we have created means to measure the pulse of an issue. How frequently are the key players in the Dutch food safety debate uploading (and 'broadcasting') their views? The frequency with which the issue pages on a sample of organizations' web sites are modified is taken as a measure of the 'heat' of the debate. In the following, we explain the means by which the 'key players' involved in various Dutch food safety issues are located, and how the composition of the key parties (who's in, who's out?) also may be interpreted. By noting organizational types and their country origins, we are able to provide indications of the 'style', 'territorialisation' and 'globalisation' of the debate.
From news stories in the Algemeen Dagblad and the AVRO a number of initial parties to a food safety debate were identified. It is interesting to note that these sites as a group had few outward links in common, and thus do not form a 'network'. One common networked site was http://info.omroep.nl/ncrv. This suggests that these sites are 'held together' by the media story; perhaps many of the organizations in this group were mentioned in an NCRV story, and many referred to that story, proudly, by linking to it. With the TV show being the only webby glue (or common link) binding these organizations, one may also suggest that the TV journalist did not make use of new networked digital journalism, which substitutes word-of-mouth snowballing of sources for 'network analysis'.
One notes also that the sites in the network are all Dutch. While individual sites in the network do link to international sites, no two Dutch sites link to the same international site. Thus 'knowledge' of relevant international sites is not shared across the network. When one adds www.foodnews.org to the mix (because food news was mentioned as a relevant URL by AD-AVRO), the network begins to internationalize, and the issue begins to heat up.
One benefit of bringing together these sources in a face-to-face meeting is their presumed familiarity with the NCRV framings of the issue.
The addition of foodnews.org to the network analysis internationalised and heated up the issue network. An initial network analysis yielded the starting points below, and a second iteration of the technique led to the 'network outcomes' below. Here is the first food safety issue network yielded, after some amendations, by the Dutch media starting points.
In this network one notes a high 'freshness' level of the pages dedicated to food. In other words this issue network has a high degree of participation in the issue, and makes the issue 'hot', if you will.
The recommendation here would be to invite the Dutch-based members of this network for a general food safety hai-sessie. The parties to the debate would be:
And the observers would be:
Note that the absence of the .com domain makes this an .org-.gov debate. This may be said to be the current 'state' of a budding 'food safety debate' in the Netherlands.
Alternatieve Konsumenten Bond
De Natuurwinkel B.V.
Neither networks 3 nor 4 yield a debate of substance.
SUMMARY OF GENERAL PRELIMINARY FINDINGS
1. Consumer-Producer Relations? There is no 'web dialogue' or linkage between food consumer groups and food sellers. No outward links are made from supermarket sites (to consumer groups), and no links from consumer groups are made to the supermarkets.
2. The Information Supermarket? Through campaigns like EKO-inspectie by Greenpeace.nl, supermarkets are encouraged to sell GM-free food and biological food. Of the leading supermarkets only AH guarantees that their food is GM-free, according to Greenpeace; surprisingly (given its cosmopolitanism), AH does not mention its GM-food policy on its web site. AH has a PR information sheet on its 'biological products'. All other supermarkets concentrate on this week's bargains on their sites, as if the Web were like a TV commercial or a promotional flyer.
3. Agents of Social Change in the Information Society? It appears 'social change' is being effected by the growth of 'food movements', the new pillars. Thus the vegetarian movement, the biologisch movement (including scharrel enthusiasts), and the biologisch-dyanamisch movement have seen some of their products slowly mainstreaming.
4. Dutch Food Safety Debate? There is little in the way of 'debate', apart from the debate moment created by the media, revolving around NCRV (see issue network one). The various food pillars provide information regarding their food and lifestyle preferences. They do not provide 'positions' on an issue and do not appear to be aware of other parties' positions.
5. It is recommended to invite the following parties to a food safety debate hai-sessie: www.wau.nl, www.voedingscentrum.org, www.greenpeace.org, www.minvrom.nl, www.rivm.nl and www.consumentenbond.nl, with the following as observers: www.voedingscentrum.org, www.voedsel.net, www.greenpeace.nl and www.voedselveiligheid.nl. Note that the absence of the .com domain makes this an .org-.gov debate. This may be said to be the current 'state' of a budding 'food safety debate' in the Netherlands.