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Monday, July 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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E-conomy / Paul Andrews
Success in electronic democracy


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Putting aside partisanship, MoveOn.org's use of the Internet is proving to be a transformational experiment in electronic democracy.

As shown by MoveOn's "house parties" in support of Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 9/11" a week ago, the long-anticipated concept of an electronically conducted nationwide Town Hall is getting closer to reality. Rather than hardware or software, the chief hurdle seems to be bandwidth.

When our household signed up to host a house party, I harbored at least as much technological curiosity as political interest. A high-speed Internet connection was recommended, but it was unclear from the start exactly how thousands of households would interact in real time no matter how fast their modems were.

The game plan was to interview Moore online, talk about MoveOn's work and do a Q&A with the populist filmmaker and author.

MoveOn had suggested logging in early because of "limited" connections. After moving my big 21-inch into the living room and hooking up our Comcast cable modem and speakers to my Windows 98 computer, I brought up the Web site, entered our ZIP code and clicked on the house-party page — an hour before the event was to begin.

The connection meter read 32 kilobits per second — slower, in fact, than a typical dial-up connection. That speed answered my first question, which was whether we'd have any video.

MoveOn "gave video some thought" but decided audio alone was enough of a "high-wire act," said technology coordinator Patrick Michael Kane.

What MoveOn provided visually instead was a Macromedia Flash-enabled map of the U.S. with white blobs indicating house-party attendance. As more parties reported in, the blobs got bigger. You could mouse over a blob and find out how many people in a locale were logged in. For a time Langley, Whidbey Island, with 160, was ahead of Seattle. Portland was an early national leader with more than 2,000.

Eventually 55,000 participants at 4,600 locations were recorded.

That answered my second question, which was what kind of loads could be expected on MoveOn's servers. In a word: heavy. I kept expecting the site to grind to a halt, but MoveOn used a distributed server network to balance the load. And it staggered the event so that the East Coast parties were over by the time the West Coast started.

The big slowdown was with the Q&A, with rates reminiscent of the original 300-baud modems in the early 1980s. If you typed in a question, your entry displayed it letter by letter, with two- to three-second lapses in between. But speech and sound worked well.
 
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In the bad old days, the site would have frozen, sound would have been intermittent if functional at all, and interactivity would have absent.

Most notable was the polling process. MoveOn asked who would be willing to host a phone event. Within moments, the map lit up with color-coded responses (reflecting percentages of pledges) around the country.

Applying electronic polling its instant-feedback cycle to even an informal national referendum could have inspiring implications for participatory government.

In a perfect world, participants would have seen Moore as they talked. Live Webcam video from other house parties would have been a click away. A Google-like algorithm would have categorized and tallied questions to Moore to give an idea of the most popular talking points. And on and on

That the event went as smoothly as it did, though, showed how much closer we are to enacting rather than just dreaming such scenarios. Although MoveOn has pioneered online methodologies for liberal causes, it's important to note that its techniques are available to all political stripes.

And that's what electronic democracy should be all about — getting voices heard, plumbing majority sentiment and transforming the will of the people into action.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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