Fostering cooperative community behavior with

information technology tools: the influence of

a designed deliberative space on efforts to address

collective challenges



Qian Hu
Assistant Professor
School of Public Administration
University of Central Florida
Qian.Hu@ucf.edu

Erik Johnston
Director, Center for Policy Informatics
Associate Professor
School of Public Affairs
Arizona State University
Erik.Johnston@asu.edu

Libby Hemphill
Assistant Professor
College of Science and Letters
Illinois Institute of Technology
Libby.Hemphill@iit.edu

Abstract

How to encourage cooperative community behavior to achieve collective goals remains an open question. The success of this inclusive approach depends on whether and to what extent all involved--individuals, interest groups, communities, and government agencies--can collectively deliberate and work together. We conducted experiments to explore the potential of an information technology (IT)-facilitated communication environment for addressing collective challenges in communities. Our unique experimental site is a designed deliberation space that can seat up to twenty-five participants surrounded by a 260-degree seven-screen communal display. We find that when people deliberate on a local community challenge in the environment with a communal display, they show more cooperative behavior in a social dilemma scenario than those who deliberate on the same challenge presented on individual displays. This study highlights the potential of technology for facilitating public deliberation and promoting collective behavior in addressing community challenges.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. SES-0345945 Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC). Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendation expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Introduction

Local communities have been important platforms for citizens to engage in local and national public affairs. Community-based efforts are abundant in a wide range of public domains, including community policing (Trojanowicz, Kappeler, Gaines, Bucqueroux, & Sluder, 1998), environment protection (Beierle & Cayford, 2002; Ostrom, 1990) and urban economic renewal (Walsh, 1996). Citizen engagement is particularly high in projects related to environmental protection such as efforts to preserve water, fishery, forests, and land through a variety of community-organized efforts (Connick & Innes, 2003; Ostrom, 1990).

How to encourage cooperative community behavior to achieve the collective goals remains an open question. Though crucial, realizing the potential of collective action is challenging due to difficulties coordinating the interests and incentives for participation among individuals, groups, communities, and organizations. Groups of individuals often encounter a common type of problem known as social dilemmas, in which there are potential conflicts between individual benefits and collective interests. If a group can work together and act toward shared interests, then the entire community benefits and so does the individual community member. However, collaboration requires a shared understanding of the problem, open and meaningful deliberation, and trust in others to act in good faith toward the collective outcome (Johnston, Hicks, Nan, & Auer, 2010). From an administrative perspective, the governance challenge normally aligns with the collective action challenge.

Communication takes center stage in facilitating the collaboration process (Balliet, 2010). The thoughtful application of information technology (IT) has spurred tremendous transformative changes in how we interact and communicate with each other. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have be used to develop social capital, create a sense of community, promote cooperation and encourage civic engagement, each of which are crucial to the success of the collective efforts of a community (Blanchard & Haran, 1998; Pigg & Crank, 2004; Rheingold, 2000). Compared with the research that examines the effective configurations and social impacts of online IT tools, less attention has been paid to the potential of the IT-facilitated communication environments for face-to-face public deliberation activities in community informatics research.

This study examines the potential of an IT-facilitated environment for promoting cooperative behavior and facilitating collaboration in addressing community challenges. To explore the application to community-based efforts in a broader sense, this research uses the deliberation activity of collective efforts to seek water sustainability as its research context. Experiments were conducted to explore the following research question: Do different IT-facilitated communication environments influence cooperative behavior in a social goods dilemma, and if so, to what extent? Ultimately this research identifies the potential of information technology tools to improve community-based efforts and public deliberation activities across a wide variety of problems important to communities.

Literature review

The following section starts with reviewing the important role of community-based efforts in pursuing the sustainability of nature resources. Then this section draws from the social dilemma framework and discusses the challenges in engaging citizens and communities in managing natural resources. Next, it highlights the role of communication and building social connections in addressing social dilemmas. Lastly, it reviews the community informatics approach to facilitating communication and collaboration.

Community-based Efforts to Pursue Sustainability and Challenges

Democracy is served with the inclusion of citizens and communities in most deliberation processes and especially in dealing with shared challenges (Johnston, et al., 2010). Community-based efforts in providing local public goods and services are improved with the participation of community members due to their local knowledge about “other members’ behaviors, capacities, and needs”(Bowles & Gintis, 2002, p. 243). This knowledge helps build and sustain behavioral norms in the community. Compared with market and government regulations, community-based efforts are in an advantageous position to build support, trust, social capital, and social norms through the ongoing interactions and relationships between community members and community governance (Bowles & Gintis, 2002). Furthermore, engaging citizens in the process of making and implementing local public policies allows citizens to express their needs and perspectives, understand others’ concerns and expectations, reconcile conflicting interests, and enhance public trust in democracy and government (Chess, 2000; Renn, 2006). Additionally, inclusive deliberation in environmental management can help improve policy effectiveness by eliciting contextual information and localized knowledge about scenarios from multiple stakeholders, reducing public opposition and realizing public support (Holmes & Scoones, 2000).

In water resource management, numerous cases of community-based efforts and public deliberation activities exist in which citizens actively get involved in preserving water, fishery, forests, and land (Connick & Innes, 2003; Ostrom, 1990). Various unpredictable factors, such as climate changes, economic development, population growth, and rainfall, etc. may influence the availability of water. In addition, water resources often spread across geographical and jurisdictional borders, which make cross-sectional and multi-party collaboration necessary. Thus, public participation can serve as “the driving force for the vertical (state, local, and regional) as well as horizontal (across agency) negotiations vital to decisions, which rarely fit traditional jurisdictional boundaries” (Priscoli, 2004, p. 225). In short, participation and collective efforts from community members is very crucial to seeking sustainability of natural resources.

However, no easy solutions exist to ensure the success of collaboration between communities and government or among members within the community. Researchers have intensively studied the diverse types of social dilemmas to understand the difficulty of collective actions and to explore possible solutions (Ostrom, 1990; 2000). Social dilemma refers to situations where the individual’s interests conflict with collective interests and the individuals’ rational behavior may lead to a worsening of collective welfare (Dawes, 1980). The social dilemma framework helps us understand challenges in engaging communities in managing natural resources. Social dilemmas can take on different forms, such as the “prisoner’s dilemma” (where two persons decide either to compete or cooperate), the “public goods dilemma” (where a group of individuals each invest individual resources toward the public good with the risk of other individuals free-riding without any contribution) and the “common pool dilemma”(where individuals run the risk of the overuse of resources by maximizing individual benefits) (Kollock, 1998). The supply of a natural resource (such as water) is usually “sufficiently large as to make it costly (but not impossible) to exclude potential beneficiaries from obtaining benefits from its use,” and scholars often refer to this type of natural resource system as a “common pool resource” where appropriate conditions for each of the previously described dilemmas can be created (Ostrom, 1990, p. 30). Hence, it is worthwhile to explore possible solutions to address social dilemmas in pursuing the sustainability of natural resources, in this case, water sustainability.

Communication and Collective Action

Among the voluminous studies that explore various factors that can facilitate collective action, the role of communication and information use is vital. Ostrom (1990) assumed that when communication is allowed and frequently occurs among all involved parties, parties can develop shared norms and trust, accumulate social capital, and establish institutional arrangements for solving social dilemmas. Balliet (2010) conducted a meta-analysis of social dilemma research and found that “the most researched solution to social dilemmas is communication” and called for in-depth and systematic investigation into the impacts of different communication media on cooperation (p.39). In a review of 137 cases of collaborative governance, Ansell and Gash noted that the collaboration process in essence, is cyclical or an iterative cycle “between communication, trust, commitment, understanding, and outcomes”(Ansell & Gash, 2007, p. 16). Echoing with their emphasis on social norms and communication, Thomson and her colleagues, in their efforts to conceptualize and measure collaboration in public administration, also noted that the process of building “mutually beneficial relationships” and social norms of “reciprocity and trust” is the crucial dimension of collaboration as a concept and practice (Thomson, Perry, & Miller, 2009, pp. 27-28). In short, key elements in a successful collaboration include building social connections and shared social norms, and developing trust through effective communication.

Community Informatics Approach to Facilitating Communication and Collaboration

Compared with the numerous studies that focus on the distributed communication via ICTs and virtual communities, studies on co-present IT-facilitated deliberations have received less attention. Among the various types of IT, computer simulations and information display technologies have demonstrated great potential of facilitating group interactions and public deliberation activities. While the large single shared display may not contribute to the efficiency of accomplishing task work, the shard display has advantages in increasing people’s awareness of other collaborators’ activity (Koch, 2005; Liu & Kao, 2005; Wallace, et al., 2009), enabling communication and collaboration among multiple users (Stewart, et al., 1999), and facilitating the building of a shared understanding of the workspace and the common tasks (Scott, et al., 2003; Swaab, et al., 2002).

Research in the field of community informatics has introduced and studied the wide applications of ICTs in community development, the information needs of the community, and desired technological configurations to build and enhance community relationships (Stoecker, 2005). Existing research in community informatics revealed that informatics has the great potential to enhance community capacity and sustain the community development (Simpson, 2005; Stillman & Linger, 2009). A communal display has been utilized in real-life scenarios, such as spatial planning negotiation, and community outreach (Koch, 2005; Swaab, et al., 2002). Non-immersive public shared display technology has been used in community outreach and community development, though the understanding of its influence is still limited (Koch, 2005). Koch (2005) introduced how public shared displays, as a new format of electronic community support tools, can serve as a medium for communication for information exchange and distribution, and the platform to increase awareness of others in the community, foster the collective sprits within the community, and help cultivate possible cooperation in the future. Swabb et al. (2002) investigated the effect of visualization system (which provides a shared visualization of different spatial planning scenarios) on the negotiation process. They found that compared with the distributed information presentation, a shared visualization of information can bring in positive socio-emotional consequences, facilitate the formation of shared mental models of the common tasks, plans, and consequences, and finally contribute to the building of consensus (Swabb, et al., 2002, p.143).

A designed deliberation space can include an immersive computer-simulated environment that incorporates real-time human-computer interface, interactive group support systems, networked laptops, and high-fidelity video-recording equipment. In the United States, this type of immersive environment has been used in training, education, entertainment, manufacture, information visualization, design for architecture and engineering, urban planning, etc. (Bourdakis; Burdea & Coiffet, 2003; Isdale, 2003). Nevertheless, most of these applications focus on utilizing the immersive environment to visualize the abstract scientific data or concepts, enhance the vividness of multidimensional objects, or simulate the uncertain and complex scenarios. These applications have not explored the potential of such a space for public deliberation activities, let alone policy deliberation on collective community challenges. In recent years this type of designed deliberation space has been used as the platform for community leaders, policy makers, and citizens to get together to prepare the communities for the emergency scenarios, to discuss the school redistribution, to make land use plans and energy plans, and to deliberate on water sustainability (see http://dt.asu.edu/solutions/research). Recent studies have examined the impacts of visualization on perceptions and decision making on complex policy issues, such as water problems and public health (Edsall & Larson, 2006; Hahn, Shangraw, Keith, & Coursey, 2007). While these studies highlight contextual and methodological influences of using the space, more research is needed to understand the dimensions, conditions, and magnitude of influence.

Our research looks at how informatics advances in a deliberation space might further influence the public deliberation process by comparing the interaction and communication when people deliberate on a local community challenge of water sustainability at a deliberation space with a communal display of the problem scenario and a single mouse control, and the other with regular individual displays multiple mouse control. The communal display can seat up to twenty-five participants surrounded by the 260-degree seven-screen integrated display (see the figure below).


Figure 1: Decision Theater at Arizona State University (http://dt.asu.edu/)

Based on the above discussions, we propose that the designed deliberation space with a communal display and single mouse control can help encourage more cooperative behavior through facilitation of group communication, compared with the deliberation space with individual displays and multiple mice control.

Data Collection and Research Methods

To test our research proposition, we conducted a one-factor between-subject experiment at the Decision Theater at Arizona State University, which provides the unique ICT-facilitated deliberation space for the study. Additionally, a regular conference room is employed for the comparison groups that interact with the individual desktop displays and have multiple mouse control. For the problem context of the deliberation, we use WaterSim, a dynamic computer simulation interface of water supply and demand for a Southwest Metropolitan region. This simulation interface, developed by the Decision Center for a Desert City at Arizona State University, is an interactive web-based model designed to facilitate interactions among citizens, scientists, policy makers, and other stakeholders and to help all involved parties deliberate and anticipate water needs and availability under conditions of uncertainty. This interactive simulation allows people to adjust parameters to explore different scenarios of climate changes, population increase, agricultural water use, and policy choices and see how different combinations of each impacts water availability and sustainability thru 2030. The simulation includes a policy interface that allows users to explore alternative policy choices on indoor and outdoor water use and receive instant feedback regarding their choices. In total, 71 undergraduate students participated in the study during April and May 2010.

The Experiment

Among the large number of studies investigating the relationships between group identity, social norms, social connections and collective actions, experiment is the most used research methodology (see Bouas & Komorita, 1996; Brewer & Kramer, 1986; Chen, Wasti, & Triandis, 2007; De Cremer & Dijk, 2002). Controlled experiments reduce the possible confounding effects of other variables (such as age, race, and education) when making a causal inference (Babbie, 2007; Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002). Through random assignment, the treatment and control groups “should be statistically identical on all dimensions, except exposure to the treatment; thus, any differences in outcomes can be ascribed to the treatment”(Greenstone & Gayer, 2009, p. 27). The random experiment can avoid selection bias and provides an unbiased estimate of the average causal effect of the treatments, in this study, the effects of different IT-facilitated interaction environments.

Table 1 provides an overview of the experiment design and the number of participants in each condition. The treatment is the IT-facilitated interaction environment.

Table1: Experiment Design and the Number of Participants

Information Presentation environments

Number of Participants

Condition 1: Communal display with immersive environment and single mouse control

25

Condition 2: Individual laptops with multiple mice control

46[i]

The Experiment Procedure

Each time, 4-6 students were invited for the study to ensure that the group can include at least 3 people and does not exceed 4 people[ii] As shown in figure 2, participants were randomly assigned to interact with one of the two versions of WaterSim. One version of WaterSim used the designed deliberation space, called “Drum”, with a large, seven-screen communal display and one mouse control, and the other used multiple individual laptops with synchronized, identical displays (see Figure 3). At the beginning of the experiment, the facilitator presented a three-minute introduction to WaterSim on either laptops or a communal seven-screen display, depending on the group’s condition. A group activity on water use in Phoenix was followed by asking participants to use the computer simulations either on the synchronized individual laptops or on the communal seven screens to discuss water problems in Phoenix. Participants were asked to identify water problems and create plans for addressing them.


Figure 2. Experiment Procedure

At the conclusion of the WaterSim simulation activity, groups were asked to participate in a social goods game, called “neighborhood water recycling project”. Each participant in the group was given ten water tokens and was told that there is a new water-recycling project in their neighborhood where they live. Participants were asked to decide whether to contribute their water tokens to the neighborhood water-recycling project which will benefit the entire group or keep the water tokens for themselves. The water tokens kept for themselves will keep the original value. The water tokens participates contribute to the recycling project will double in value, and will be distributed equally across the group, regardless of individual contributions. The final payoff for an individual will be the sum of the water tokens individual participant keep and the equal share from the water recycling project.

The rationale behind designing this game is that this classic public goods game can capture the dynamics and challenges in community-based efforts to pursue environmental sustainability. There are potential conflicts between the individual benefits and collective interests. While one’s engagement in the community-driven programs, such as water recycling program, will benefit others in the community, it costs time, energy, and resources to engage in such community programs. This type of social goods game can also help us understand how the relationships and connections between participants influence their decisions in collective efforts. If their trust in others or commitment to the collective enterprise is strong, they tend to contribute more to the social goods game. Otherwise, they tend to free ride other’s efforts. This social goods game has been widely used by experimental economics to study people’s collaborative behavior in collection actions (Brewer & Kramer, 1986; Chen, et al., 2007). The best collective outcome is for everyone to contribute all of his or her money to the community project. The worst collective outcome occurs if no one contributes any tokens to the collective project. The best individual outcome is if the individual contributes none of their personal tokens while everyone else contributes all of their tokens. The worst scenario for an individual participant occurs when an individual contributes all of their tokens to the community project but no other participants contribute anything.


Figure 3 (a). Condition 1: Experiment group setting Figure 3 (b). Condition 2: Control group setting

Figure 3(a) is the experiment setting with the communal display and single mouse control. Figure 3(b) is the experiment setting with individual laptops and multiple mouse control. The figure in red is the facilitator for the experiment.

Measures of Dependent Variable: Cooperative Behavior

The individuals’ collective behavior in the social goods dilemma activity is measured by the number of tokens the participants would like to contribute in a social dilemma game. The specific wording we used to set up this challenge states “Suppose the neighborhood the four of you live in is starting a water recycling project. Everyone in the group has 10 water tokens. You can contribute these tokens to the recycling project that will benefit the entire group or you can keep the tokens for yourself. All contributions made to the water-recycling project will be doubled and evenly distributed to all participants. Your payoff for participating in this study will be directly related to how many tokens you have at the end of the activity”. To test whether there are significant variances in demographic variables in the experimental and control conditions, the post-experiment survey includes demographic variables such as gender, ethnicity, and race.

Research Findings and Discussions

Descriptive Results

This section describes the demographic information of the participants in the study. As Table 2 illustrates, 56.3% of the participants were female, 73.2% were white, 14.1% were Hispanic or Latino, of Spanish origin, and 90.1% were undergraduate students. There are more female participants in the study and the majority of the participants are white and Asian.

Table 2: Demographic Information of the participants in the study

Demographic Variables

N

Percentage (%)

Gender

Male

31

43.70%

Female

40

56.30%

Race*

White

52

73.20%

American Indian or Alaska Native

2

2.8 %

Asian

14

19.7%

Black or African American

3

4.2 %

Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

1

1.4%

Prefer not to answer

3

4.2 %

Ethnicity

Hispanic or Latino, of Spanish Origin

10

14.1%

Not Hispanic or Latino

61

85.9 %

Student Type

Number of Undergraduate Students

64

90.1 %

Number of graduate Students

4

5.6 %

Number of students who already graduated

3

4.2 %

* Two participants identified with more than one category for the race variable.

Experimental Results

The number of tokens the participants were willing to contribute to the neighborhood water-recycling project measures the collective orientation of participants. On average, participants contributed 8.63 out of a possible 10 tokens (SD=2. 32). Because the distribution of token contributions is skewed to the right and concentrates around the high numbers, we conducted nonparametric tests (Mann-Whitney Test) to compare token contribution between the two experiment conditions.

Table 3: Token contributions

IT-facilitated communication environment

Token Contribution

Shared display, single mouse control

9.43

(SD=1.43, n=28)

Individual laptop display,

Multiple mice control

8.49

(SD=2.24, n=43)

Note: Token contribution could range from 1-10. Standard deviations and cell size care given in parentheses

The Wilcoxon-Mann-Whitney (WMW) tests show that people interacting with a communal display of WaterSim showed higher cooperative behavior in the social goods activity (M = 9.43, SD = 1.43) than people interacting with a laptop version (M = 8.49, SD = 2.24) (WMW U = 462.5, z = -2.01, p < .05), which is measured by the number of tokens the participant contributed to a social dilemma activity on water recycling. The Man-Whitney U test shows that the difference is statistically significant, WMW U = 462.5, z = -2.01, p < .05 (one-tailed). The effect size is medium, r = .24. Thus, we found support for our proposition that the IT-facilitated communication environment with a shared display and single mouse encouraged more cooperative behavior toward the collective outcome.

Discussion

Overall, our experimental results show that when people deliberated and interacted in an IT-facilitated communication environment with a communal display and single mouse control, they demonstrated a higher contribution toward the social outcome, which suggests a more collective orientation in regards to the problem. This is consistent with the findings in earlier research which argues that a shared display might not contribute to the efficiency of accomplishing certain tasks but can encourage participation, facilitate discussions among participants, and cultivate possible cooperation (Koch, 2005; Liu & Kao, 2005). This could be because that when people look at the shared display of the problem scenario at the same time, they are more likely to externalize the problem as a shared challenge, acknowledge other’s concerns, and recognize alternative perspectives and questions rather than focusing on his or her own viewpoints. In other words, the social presentation of the problem broke down perceptions of individual positions and created a shared challenge for the group to overcome.

Additionally, the single mouse control may not contribute to the efficiency of the solving the problems, but it may encourage more participation and interactions between stakeholders because they need to discuss what factors to be changed or what policies to be implemented before any changes in the display can be made. More analysis is needed to understand the mechanisms that the IT-facilitated communication environment affects individuals’ social orientation and cooperative behavior. We videotaped the sessions and plan to do a further qualitative analysis on the content of the conversations and gestures that occurred during the experiments.

The research presented here is part of a larger research agenda. Our research study has some limitations that require more work in the future. First, the participants in the experiment were mainly undergraduate college students, which limits its external validity and generalizability. We are exploring ways to extend the study by running additional experiments with a combination of water professionals and Masters of Business

Administration (MBA) and Masters of Public Administration (MPA) students. Second, we added the public goods games around a pre-existing version of WaterSim. In the near future, we will be exploring integrating experimental conditions directly into WaterSim to increase interactivity. Third, we plan to expand our experimental design to include three IT-facilitated interaction settings for the public deliberation activity on environmental issues to identify the desired features of IT-facilitated deliberation platforms. These experiments are designed to not only examine how people communicate and interact with each other on public environmental issues, but also further explore the features of IT-facilitated deliberation space that can encourage more interactions, more deliberation, and more discussions.

Conclusions

Given the increasing complexity of management challenges, seeking collaboration from diverse stakeholders, organizations, communities, and individual citizens will become necessary for public administration to function successfully. Hence, it is worthwhile to explore how to break down the barriers of collaboration, facilitate authentic deliberation processes and support collective efforts to achieve common goals. This research studied an IT-facilitated public deliberation activity to identify the potential of certain IT tools for encouraging cooperative behavior in community-driven efforts to solve the common problems.

Our experiment results suggest that when participants deliberate on the local policy issues through interacting in a designed deliberation space with a communal display and a single mouse control, they show more cooperative behavior in a social dilemma scenario than those who deliberate through interacting with individual laptops and multiple mice control. Hence, this type of IT-facilitated communication environment can provide not only the context for peoples’ interactions, but also an important public deliberation space or platforms for fostering cooperative behavior for community problems. The deliberation space for a social presentation of community challenges may contribute to building shared understandings and a stronger sense of community, and facilitate coordinating collective action to pursue the collaborative goals. Our study calls for more attention and future research to emerging information technologies that can enable or strengthen the community deliberation space for creating a social presentation of community challenges. The use of these emerging technologies may further contribute to the formation of shared understandings of the common challenges and coordination of collective actions to pursue the collaborative goals. More systematic studies are needed to further understand both contributing factors and hurdles to the successful collective action among diverse stakeholders. More studies are needed to reflect on effective institutional designs that can encourage use of IT to enhance citizen engagement and community involvement in tackling collective challenges.

Future work will further extend this research. This research examined a particular type of IT-facilitated deliberation environment, which used an interactive computer simulation of water demand and supply as the deliberation context and different information display interfaces to facilitate people’s deliberation activities. Future studies will go beyond studying this particular deliberation environment and study a variety of IT tools, including but not limited to social media, dynamic computer simulations, and virtual communities, which demonstrate potential in changing the way people work, promoting collaborative behavior, and encouraging citizens to engage more actively in public affairs.

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Endnote

[i] During the experiment study, due to the problem of equipment, we run extra groups of experiments for the purpose of future qualitative analysis. The groups in condition 2 will be the reference groups or comparison groups, which makes the uneven number of participants less of a problem.

[ii] Among the large number of experiments conducted that examine the impacts of group identity and social norms on people’s behavior facing social dilemmas, most scholars either include group size as a control variable or adopt a small group size, ranging from three to eight (such as Brewer & Kramer; Chen, et al, 2007). With the focus on interactions among participants within small groups in this dissertation, the groups include three to four people. The Mann-Whitney test was conducted to examine whether people in different group size make different token contributions. The result shows that there is no statistically significant difference in token contributions between individuals who are in groups with four participants and those who are in groups with three participants (Mann-Whitney U = 1298.5, z = -.94, p = .35).



The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441