The World Bank goes open-source

With its brand-new, freely downloadable BuzzMonitor "super-aggregator," the bruised bank hitches a ride on the Web 2.0 bandwagon.

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works, Social Media,

At a Government Web Managers Workshop held in Washington, D.C., in March, Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski, a corporate communications staffer for the World Bank, delivered a presentation about the challenges and possibilities inherent in “social media.” PowerPoint slide No. 22 depicted a graph with two lines — one tracked the number of times the World Bank had been mentioned in blogs between November 2006 and February 2007; the other recorded the same statistic for traditional news media.

If you guessed that blog mentions were more numerous than old media mentions and are growing more quickly, congratulations, a shiny new Web 2.0 trophy is waiting for you in your e-mail inbox. If you further surmised that the proliferation of discussion forums means that it is much harder for an institution such as the World Bank to control perceptions of itself, well then, you just passed Internet 101 with flying colors. “Social media” is many-to-many, all of us talking to each other, about everything.

And not always in the most flattering of terms. The Internet’s unleashing of a billion or two nattering nabobs of blog negativity presents a serious challenge for any marketing professional. But in the year of the Wolfowitz, the hubbub must have inspired much rending of flesh and tearing of hair at the World Bank.

Wielezynski outlined a strategy for engaging with this new world: Provided one has the right tools, the nature of online discourse makes it easy to track who is saying what about you, in very close to real time. Bloggers learn quite early on in their blogging careers that they can use services such as Technorati or their favorite blog aggregator software to alert them whenever anyone on the Web mentions their name or links to their blog. They can then immediately respond in kind. We call this “the Conversation.”



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But Wielezynski was unsatisfied with the capabilities of the available tools. So, in best Net-geek tradition, he helped lead an effort to create BuzzMonitor, a “super-aggregator” that “allows users to aggregate all types of feeds (blog feeds, search feeds, news feeds) and collaborate around them. It provides tag clouds, Digg-like voting, Technorati and Alexa widgets, user tags and many other features.” (Thanks to the Private Sector Development blog, which is also affiliated with the World Bank, for the link.)

As explained on BuzzMonitor’s “about page” — “Like many organizations, we started listening to blogs and other forms of social media by subscribing to a blog search engine RSS feed but quickly understood it was not enough. The World Bank is a global institution and we needed to listen in multiple languages, across multiple platforms. We needed something that would aggregate all this content, help us make sense of it and allow us to collaborate around it.”

The World Bank contracted with the software firm Development Seed to build the new program, with additional input from the World Resources Institute. Development Seed relied on the popular open-source content management system Drupal for its core code. Last week the bank announced that version 1.0 of BuzzMonitor was available for free download to all comers, and suggested that it was particularly applicable to nonprofit organizations interested in monitoring what the Web was saying about them. (The decision to open-source BuzzMonitor need not be taken as some kind of altruistic move by the bank. By using base code that is protected by the free software GNU General Public License, my understanding is that the bank was required to make any modifications or add-ons freely available.)

You can get a brief glimpse of some of BuzzMonitor’s capabilities from a “tour” at the World Bank’s Web site. From the snapshot there, the program looks a lot like a souped-up blog aggregator, and it’s hard to evaluate just how potent a tool it will be for those trying to make sense of, and participate in, the global Internet chatter-fest. But it may be most intriguing, conceptually, as yet another data point of recognition as to what the Internet does best, which is to facilitate a hydra-headed dialogue on the affairs of the world that is as confusing in its diversity as it is exhilarating in its infinite reach.

BuzzMonitor purports to make ample use of state-of-the-art techniques for rating the authority, relevance and popularity of whoever is commenting on whatever. Because we don’t just want to know who is talking about us; we want to know if we should take them seriously, if we should respond or ignore or merely chuckle dismissively.

People who worry about the the future of journalism (and, for that matter, the future of marketing) should be paying very close attention to these developments. In the not-too-distant future, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that those nodes of conversation that are ranked with the most authority and relevance will be where eyeballs and advertising dollars and high search engine rankings congregate. Out of this swirling chaos, new hierarchies of trust will emerge (as well as new business models.) It might seem like anarchy now, but it isn’t. As we all watch each other, helped along by clever software programs that let us know whom we should be paying attention to and why, a new coherence is being born.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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