I got a few mid-dialogue questions answered on how things are going so far:
How are things going? The Dialogue is going very well. We’re very pleased with both the pace of participation and its quality, and it really seems as though this will provide some very good input for the Recovery Board on how to set up Recovery.gov.
It’s also important to say that the dialogue is being conducted in an incredibly civil way. People seem impressed that the Recovery Board chose to reach out to a broader audience at the outset of theirdecision making process rather than after it’s completed, and are taking that opportunity for input seriously. Even the criticisms we’ve had of the site itself—and in such an IT-focused audience, those are inevitable—are respectful and really provide us with some constructive criticism for how to do this even better next time around.
What are you seeing so far?… traffic… comments… We’re really pleased with traffic so far. The overall number of visits to the site has held relatively steady, which is very noteworthy. We are also thrilled with the volume of activity. The site itself has 676 registered users, but together those people have generated over 1.5 million requests to our server. At peak times, we are getting about 25 requests per second, which is about a quarter of the number that the entire Google Apps can take before it crashes. Everyone involved with monitoring the site has said it’s rare to see a site that is this “sticky” — to attract such a proportion of browsers into actually signing up and taking advantage of all the interaction opportunities that are offered.
The comments themselves have been very high caliber. The Academy is not able to judge what the best or most useful comments are, that is up to the Recovery Board, but we have had some that illustrate how highly people value the site:
“As a work in progress I think you must agree this is an extraordinary step, which lacks precedence.”
“[Participation] involves a commitment to allowing public contributions to the dialogue. It’s the holy grail of online democracy, and seems to be one of the driving motivations of this “National Dialogue” site.”
“Traditionally the US Gov has only really been a successful early IT adopter via NSA or NASA, and actions such as this National Dialogue give me hope that may change.”
“This is the ultimate David vs. Goliath thing!” (Comment received via e-mail from Dialogue participant.)
It’s also been interesting to watch the tag cloud on the site grow and evolve as people raise new topics and make new connections between ideas. One thing we do that a lot of other similar sites don’t is that anyone can tag anyoneelse’s idea. The idea behind this is that everyone can make connections that might not have been obvious to the original idea submitter. We think that is working so that at the end of the process, the Recovery Board will have not just a bunch of great ideas, but also the community’s sense on which are the best, which are the most controversial, and what overarching “buckets” they fall into.
I heard that the servers actually got overloaded… how did you deal with that? We did experience some technical difficulties Monday morning that were caused by an overwhelming amount of participation on the site. We were ready for a massive number of people to use the site–it is hosted in a cloud, which is highly elastic and scalable — but what we didn’t anticipate is how much activity each user would generate by immediately becoming engaged in submitting, rating, tagging, and discussing the ideas. That’s what sort of caused us to overheat. Some users experienced technical difficulties. At one point, we were just adding servers furiously, trying to keep pace with the activity! As of now, we’ve expanded to 12 servers to catch all the traffic, and have also made changes to the database structure and made the caching more aggressive to provide a better user experience and access times for all.
Anything surprise you so far? It’s hard to say we were surprised by anything, just because we didn’t really go into it with any concrete expectations. When you do these kinds of Dialogues, you provide people with the platform, then wait to see what they do with it. But some of the things we found most notable are: This is not being seen as free ad space. There are many vendors participating and talking about their own products—which is fine and actually helpful to the Recovery Board—but most people are talking about other products, or just ideas or websites that they have been impressed with. The community is doing some vetting of its own. On one thread where a vendor basically posted a brochure for their product, the commenters came in and began “kicking the tires,” asking some really probing questions. The vendor came back on and posted a response to some of it. While it was all civil, you can really see the value that the Recovery Board is getting by enlisting this whole community in thinking through different solutions. The community really is diverse. While this was largely pitched as being oriented towards IT vendors, we have used social networks like Twitter,GovLoop, and Facebook to get the word out to a community that is more interested in topics like social media, open source, innovation, and collaboration. Those audiences are both present and vocal on the site, and seeing how they interact to discuss solutions, and bring different perspectives to the table, has been interesting.