The City of Nelson has begun using an innovative new online tool developed in Rossland to assess public opinion and tap into public knowledge.
The city’s first Thoughtexchange survey is online now, until 3 p.m. Friday. It asks members of the public for ideas on how the city could conserve water.
“Thoughtexchange is a proven technique that has been used for capturing both the community’s wisdom and intelligence as well as their sentiments and values,” said city councillor Rik Logtenberg. “The fact that it is a local company is secondary but it is a bonus.”
The survey has only one question: “What are some things we can all do as a community to save water?” Then there is a sub-question, in which you are asked why your solution is important.
You respond to the question by offering as many solutions (referred to as “thoughts” in Thoughtexchange) as you like. You are limited to 300 characters per thought, and you are anonymous.
Ranking others’ thoughts
Then, moving to the next screen, you see other people’s thoughts (their answers to the question).
Those thoughts are often a grouping of similar thoughts that have been given by different people. You might see “Continue to repair old and leaking water pipes” only once, but it might have been mentioned several times in different ways.
You are offered the opportunity to rate each thought, with one to five stars, but not to comment on them. The rankings contribute to a final score for that thought.
See two screenshots of the survey below.
Rankings result in final scores
The highest ranking thoughts, which can be seen on the site updated in real time, are thoughts that have been ranked highly by many people.
For example, the two highest ranking thoughts in the site at press time, with scores of four out of five, were:
• Better education about why it is important (ranked by 37 people, mostly to level four or five).
• Don’t wash your driveway or sidewalk (ranked by 36 people, mostly to level four or five).
The same screen shows that so far there have been 199 participants and 212 thoughts contributed.
Some ideas may have high scores even though only one person may have suggested it, because others saw it and ranked it up. Perhaps they recognized value in an idea they had never thought of. In that way the survey has real time educational value.
Trolling and irrelevance are rated down
The system controls trolls and irrelevant comments. If someone enters a thought that is destructive or irrelevant, it may be voted down so many times that it will achieve a very low score.
For example, one of the lowest ranked thoughts, with an overall score of 1.7, states, “We live in the mountains? How are we even running out of water? I am not conserving anything.” This was ranked by 37 people, mostly down to a score of one.
City staff can provide education
Another feature is that city staff can provide education in response to a thought.
For example, for the thought, “Mandatory toilets in building code,” the city responded that low flush toilets are now mandated in the B.C. building code for new buildings.
Logtenberg says Thoughtexchange is an improvement on many other online survey techniques.
“Often with survey tools you get all sorts of inherent biases and false positives and misfires about what people are actually responding to,” he said.
The city has signed a two-year contract with Thoughtexchange for $18,000, which includes support from the company’s staff in how to administer and interpret the responses, as well as advice on how to word the survey questions.
The city plans to do one public survey per month, and will also use the system for internal communications.