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11/21/2003
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Giving The Political Process An Online Boost

Tata Consultancy Services, an Indian IT services firm, is working with Carnegie Mellon University on a Web-based app designed to promote the political process and civic involvement.

Information technology can help improve the democratic process. That's the assumption behind the beneficence of Tata Consultancy Services, a leading IT software and services consulting firm based in India. Tata is providing one of its software engineers gratis to work with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for the Study of Information Technology and Society on a Web-based application called Delibera that's intended to promote the political process and civic involvement online.

As the project's name suggests, Peter Shane, principal investigator for the project, describes Delibera as a tool to facilitate online discussions and interaction in a well-informed and genuinely deliberative manner. "My hope," he says, "is to figure out whether it's possible to create mechanisms for online discussions that could actually become part of official policy-making processes." With a laugh, he adds, "I think we're some distance away from that."

University of California at Riverside professor of political science Shaun Bowler agrees. The Internet, he says, "is held up as some kind of panacea for all that ails us. But the fact is, most people aren't interested in politics. You've got to give them a reason to be interested."

Tata is participating in the project, Vipul Shah, its manager for research and development, because the company has engaged in R&D efforts for more than two decades. "We've been involved in looking at various tools and techniques to add value to the quality process," he says. "And I think this very much falls in line with our mission and goals [with regard to] social benefits and community involvement."

But Tata's generosity isn't entirely selfless. "The ultimate idea," Shah says, "is really to add value to our clients."

For example, he suggests that it's beneficial for the firm to assign engineers to challenging research projects because they learn to think outside the box. "That's something they can take back when they go to work on client projects," he says.

As to whether Delibera will prove as transformative to the political process as is hoped, Shah hedges. "I would say the goals are very good," he says. "I think we'll have to wait for the first few runs to see."

Some might see irony in employing an Indian outsourcing firm to patch American democracy. "There is some irony," Shane concedes, "but in some ways, the Indians take democracy more seriously than we do. Their voter participation way outdistances ours. In that sense, the idea that we may have something to learn from them isn't so surprising."

Perhaps American coders have something to learn, too, or at least Carnegie Mellon grad students. "From our point of view," says Shane, "this means the opportunity to get something built better and faster than might otherwise be the case. Grad students are great, but this is a pretty ambitious project, and we really need professional staff to do it."

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