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December 24 2010

Citizen engagement platforms grow in 2010

During the 2008 election, then Senator Barack Obama said that "the challenges we face today -- from saving our planet to ending poverty -- are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck." As President, finding solutions to grand challenges means that Obama is looking again to the technology community for answers. Whether he finds them will be a defining element in judging whether a young Senator from Illinois that leveraged Web 2.0 to become President can tap into that collective intelligence to govern in the Oval Office.

Will citizens collaborate with officials, workers and one another to apply a civic surplus to open government? 2011 might be a make or break year for White House efforts to create platforms for citizen engagement. There were two notable news stories on that front this month. First, the passage of the COMPETES Act in Congress means that every federal agency can create prizes and competitions. Look for more to come on Challenge.gov.

Second, the White House has made a new, ambitious request for the American people: help design digital democracy with ideas for creating a platform for citizen consultation. For now, the project is called "ExpertNet" and is being hosted on a wiki.

Both underpin significant parts of White House deputy CTO Beth Noveck's vision for open government, where stakeholders collaborate in "wiki government." In that context, making community health data as useful as weather data has potential, where companies and citizens engage with data in ways that help them make better decisions. Open source may improve healthcare through NHIN Direct, now the Direct Project.

The growth of citizen engagement platforms, however, extends far beyond Washington. Civic developers are helping government by standardizing application programming interfaces and empowering others by coding the middleware for open government. Working with developers can be a crucial complement to publishing open data online. Those citizens matter a lot there, but only if engaged.

There's a growth in "do it ourselves (DIO) government," or as the folks at techPresident like to say, "We government." That's likely to be important in the context of crises in state budgets. It was an important enough topic that I was happy to accept Adriel Hampton's invitation to join him on Gov 2.0 Radio to talk about the growth in citizen engagement in 2010. Our conversation is available in the following audio clip:

You can break down what's happening into categories:

  • Platforms
  • Data-driven decisions
  • Crowdsourcing
  • Helping one another with the digital divide and information literacy
  • Guerrilla design efforts to make better cities
  • Sharing information with one another with respect to how to do things

Social media is a big part of that, but far from the only one. The "army of techies" taking on City Hall are using apps like SeeClickFix and Citysourced to report issues and track their resolution.

The growth of CityCamp is fascinating to watch, in that context. 2010 was the year when many of these camps did something more than talk and share information, though those activities have value. While the federal government, particularly the Coast Guard and EPA, used social media to get information out and set up RestoreTheGulf.gov, citizens used platforms like Ushahidi at the Lousiana Bucket Brigade, or tried grassroots mapping. Citizens can do a lot on their own. Look at what people did with the CrisisCamp Haiti work, particularly Open Street Map.

That's important, but when you look at what happened with CrisisCommons, you can see the germ of something bigger in the Oil Reporter app. That's one reason why the Sloan Foundation gave them a grant. CrisisCommons uses the Internet to act as a platform for people to help one another. As Andy Carvin from NPR has pointed out, now citizens can do more than donate blood or money. They can share information and donate their skills and time.

2010 was also notable for the growth of civic hackathons, like the International open data hackathon, the Times Open Hack Day, and Random Hacks of kindness.

As the new year beckons, there are more ways for the citizens of the United States to provide feedback to their federal government than perhaps there ever have been in its history. In 2011, the open question is whether "We the people" will use these new participatory platforms to help government work better. The evolution of these kinds of platforms aren't U.S.-centric, either. Ushahidi, for example, started in Africa and has been deployed worldwide. The crowd matters more now in every sense: crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, crowdmapping, collective intelligence, group translation, and human sensor networks.

I'll close with a prediction for 2011: Watch for important innovation to come out of India in the mobile space, as open government for transparency moves ahead.


April 12 2010

Citizens as public sensors

scf_logo_fp.gifWhen people talk about the effects of Gov 2.0, the discussion tends to center around transparency and making data available to the general public. But information can flow in both directions.

SeeClickFix believes that the citizens may have as much to offer local government as the government may have to offer to the people. By letting the man (literally) on the street report issues to local city or town departments, and making them trackable, it shifts some of the management burden to the people most affected by them. Jeff Blasius, one of the co-founders, talked to us about how the program is working.

How SeeClickFix came to be:

Jeff Blasius: It started a little over two years ago when I was dealing with graffiti on my neighbor's building. After deciding that it was hopeless dealing with my neighbor, I went to call city hall. I left something like five different messages with the department that I presumed was responsible. At some point, while waiting on hold and getting different answers about what I could do, I started thinking: "I bet a lot of my neighbors have complained about similar issues and have had a lot of trouble, and it would be nice to know what their experiences were when attempting to contact city hall."

So we sat down on a Sunday night and said, "We're going to give ourselves four hours to try to come up with something." And at the end of four hours if we're happy and we like the tool, we would keep working on it. If not, we'd can it. At the end of four hours, we had a little Google Map where you could post issues on the map and that was it. We showed it off to friends. They thought it was cool. And the rest is kind of history.

How cities respond to SeeClickFix:

JB: The first city was New Haven, Conn., and the mayor and the chief administrative officer were both very receptive. So receptive that the mayor wrote a letter to about 100 other mayors around the country. The majority of responses since have been really positive. You get a few where they'll say, "Oh, but we already have a website where people can report issues." And, of course, our response is, "Yes, you do. But that website does not display issues publicly when you post them."

We have a ton of features that exceed standard city websites, and that helps move the ball forward in terms of acceptance of public, transparent, collective reporting. But in the beginning, really the only one-up we had on a city website was that we were a map-based transparent web reporting tool, and they were usually just a closed web form that was no better than leaving a phone call. You still had the same black box syndrome.

The threatening nature of transparency:

JB: I don't think I've ever had a public works official say to me, "We don't want this because it's going to make the information public." No one wants to be on record saying that. So what we do is, we don't really give them a choice.

The information is going to be public whether city governments receive alerts or not. And then we sign them up to receive alerts, if they don't sign themselves up. Many, many city governments have signed themselves up. But many others have been signed up by us or by a media partner or by one of their constituents.

When a problem is "fixed":

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010JB: We say a problem is fixed when it's actually fixed, not when someone says, "We're going to fix it." The way you know is because either the person who posted the issue closes the ticket and the status changes to closed, or the person who sees it fixed or actually fixes it closes the ticket.

Anyone can close it. The citizens all get emails. The initial reporters get emails when an issue is closed, and if they want to reopen it, they click the link. We did have someone in Winnipeg, Canada closing unfixed tickets. It's the only time it's happened. My impression is that it was the city employee that was doing it, and they were being pretty hostile about it. But citizens instantly said that the ticket's not closed. We helped to reopen some, and the citizens reopened some themselves.

How SeeClickFix has made a difference:

JB: We have thousands of potholes fixed across the country, thousands of pieces of graffiti repaired, streetlights turned on, catch basins cleared, all of that basic, broken-windows kind of stuff. We've seen neighborhood groups form based around issues reported on the site. We've seen people get new streetlights for their neighborhood, pedestrian improvements in many different cities, and all-terrain vehicles taken off of city streets. We've seen university shuttle buses slow down their speeds by 15 miles per hour across the board. We've seen people report and be informed about water quality from their reservoirs.

There was also one case of an arrest. The New Haven Police Department attributed initial reports on SeeClickFix to a sting operation that led to an arrest of two drug dealers selling heroin in front of a grammar school.

The benefits of SeeClickFix for local government:

JB: One benefit is taking out middlemen in city hall and sending issues directly from a citizen to the person who fixes the pothole. It empowers citizens to be sensors in the public space, as opposed to having to pay public works inspectors or city engineers to do that kind of infrastructure review. Then, it actually allows city workers to use the mobile tools to track down the issues in the field. These are all things that have budget or cost-savings ramifications, as opposed to just political ramifications.

The SeeClickFix revenue model:

JB: A piece of our revenue model is in sponsorship and advertising. A piece of our revenue model is software as a service, whereby we're selling the customization of our application as well as custom iPhone, Android and Blackberry applications. We call that SeeClickFix Plus. Cities as small as Maynard, Texas are using that for as little as $100 a month. Cities as big as Tucson, Ariz. are using that as well.

We also have SeeClickFix Pro, which is a dashboard with user licenses for tracking and acknowledging the issues and backing them up in Excel format. We are also signing on a few cities for SeeClickFix Connect, which is probably the most exciting piece because it ties all of SeeClickFix's reporting tools into a city government's existing work order system.

All of those revenue models are playing out in some form. Small, but in some form. Now we just have to decide which levers we're going to pull and how hard we're going to pull and when we're going to pull them.

How to get your town involved in SeeClickFix:

JB: We have grown really quickly because we empower local blogs and news sites to embed SeeClickFix in their websites so citizens can report issues to city government right from the sites they read everyday. We'd encourage people to get their newspapers to embed the tool, or to get their local blogger or neighborhood association to embed the tool.

After that, make sure someone is receiving an alert. If you go to your neighborhood or city, you can click the "Who's Watching" tab and you can see if your mayor or your public works department is already receiving alerts. And if not, you can sign them up. The last step is just reporting issues.

Note: This interview was condensed and edited.

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