May 30, 2024

Local Expertise is Exceedingly Valuable- Principle #7 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

One of the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of my research has been my series of conversations with innovators in civic engagement in various cities across the country. These conversations have been enlightening for me as I think about how Washington, DC can maximize its natural advantages to foster civic engagement in its neighborhoods. The ways in which a local community uses technology to share information and solve urban problems reflect its character.

Two of the conversations that have helped shape my thinking took place earlier this year with Abby Miller, a Bloomberg Innovation Fellow and member of the Memphis Innovation Delivery Team and John Keefe from WNYC, the NPR station in New York City. Today, I will discuss their work leveraging the resources of their very different communities in very different roles – one working inside Memphis city government and the other in the media in New York City.

Abby’s team is working on two major projects. The first is increasing the economic vitality of Memphis’s neighborhoods by helping residents launch new businesses. The second is helping Memphis reduce gun violence – particularly youth gun violence – in specific precincts and citywide. Both projects require coordination across several departments within Memphis’s city government and, of course, engagement with residents. Abby is fairly new to Memphis, but most of the members of the Memphis Innovation Team have been in the city for at least 5 years; providing a nice mix of old and new that has allowed them to connect well with people across the city. Money from Bloomberg Philanthropies provides human resources and technical help for Abby’s team’s projects, but her local team raises matching funding.

Abby said that she views her projects as a bridge between community and government. Part of her job is finding value in local engagement and injecting the spirit of innovation into the city.

Economic Vitality

Abby’s approach to integrating her team into the city and using both on-line and off-line tools to engage citizens is very well thought-out. It has led to an understanding of who her stakeholders are and how to empower them to improve their communities. For the economic development project, Abby’s team began the brainstorming process with the community by hosting an “idea café’ session to crowd source solutions to Memphis’s economic development problems. A local bistro hosted the “idea café.” Attendees posted their ideas on the wall using sticky notes and Abby’s team tweeted out those ideas simultaneously. Abby’s team grouped the ideas and found common themes. Using Twitter allowed them to grow and diversify participation by including people who couldn’t be there in person. Abby liked the hybrid approach – physically in the neighborhood but using the Internet as a secondary tool. Build support for crowd sourcing off-line before it goes live.

The result of planting the seeds for success is MEMShop – a collaborative effort with support from the City of Memphis, the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team, and other local partners. MEMShop creates partnerships to incubate new retail opportunities and showcase unique neighborhood assets by activating vacant storefronts for 3 to 6 months to help build local businesses and increase the visibility and vibrancy of neighborhoods. Abby told me that 33 applicants applied for 3 vacant storefronts after her team advertised the program on the web and through social media. Several examples of businesses that have successfully taken advantage of the program are the Five in One Social Club, My Heavenly Creations and NJ Woods Gallery and Design. In some cases, the potential business owners only needed $5,000 more to get their businesses started. From the City of Memphis’s perspective, starting 3 to 5 businesses for $20,000 is a good investment.

Separately, as part of the city’s Neighborhood Economic Vitality Initiative, Abby’s team has been using the crowd sourcing platform ioby – In Our Back Yard – to attract funding for projects such as the innovative Hampline walking and biking trail and for smaller projects that allow residents to, for example, raise funding for supplies and mobilize volunteer hours for painting a mural on a blighted building. Abby said that training community members to use the platform has been very important because that’s how you get something to stick in the neighborhood. Her team is working in three neighborhoods – “one boarded up, one swing neighborhood, one up and coming.” This approach allows them, with the assistance of an organization called Community Lift, to conduct data-driven analysis of which packages of ideas work in certain neighborhoods.

Violence Reduction

One of the aims of Abby’s team is to re-orient Memphis’s city government to deliver services more effectively at the neighborhood level. The goal: When people in a neighborhood say something is happening, the government responds.

In too many Memphis neighborhoods gun violence – particularly youth gun violence – is a significant problem. Since 25% of Memphis’s population is under age 18, Memphis’s youth violence reduction initiative is heavily reliant on social media. Abby’s team organizes and trains young people daily to use social networking tools to inform their peers – generally between 13-23 years old and living in neighborhoods affected by gun violence – about events promoting peaceful problem solving. Given the number of young people who access the Internet and social media primarily through their smartphones, the high school students organizing anti-violence rallies primarily reach their peers through Facebook or Twitter, which are easily accessible through mobile apps. On the Memphis Gun Down Facebook page, posts are signed by name, giving each young person a voice and identity. Abby told me that this social media-driven initiative is one example of a small financial investment having a big impact.

John Keefe – Journalism in the Public Interest

Earlier this year, I spoke with John Keefe from WNYC, the NPR station in New York, about his thoughts on journalism in the public interest and the ways in which both journalists and regular citizens can take government information and make it more useful for individuals and communities. John noted two important points: First, just by its nature, government often provides information in silos; and second, one solution is for people outside of government to aggregate government data and make it useful on a hyperlocal basis.

During storm emergencies, John and his team pull information from a variety of sources into one location on-line and present it to the public in a user-friendly design. John’s goal is for citizens to be able to go to WNYC’s website and get the information that they need at the community level. I can see, for example, whether my home address or my parents’ neighborhood is in an evacuation zone. The reader has a sense of the big picture, but can drill down to a useful level of detail, such as whether the subway is still running in their neighborhood. Even though John described WNYC’s server as getting “crushed like election night” during Hurricane Irene, WNYC’s ability to remix government data still allows it to be “fleet of foot.” And also a valuable source of redundancy for the New York City’s on-line emergency notification efforts.

Creative use of government data can also be a local economic development tool. While it is fairly well known that software developers are using many cities’ transit data to develop next bus apps, designing ways to display government data that are attractive, user-friendly and increase the usefulness of the underlying information do not have to be limited to mobile apps. For example, John told me that entrepreneurs created signs in coffee shops in Boston letting customers know the arrival time of the next bus. As those signs help coffee shop owners sell a few extra cups and allow customers to relax and enjoy their experiences longer, we see another way in which open government improves peoples’ lives and strengthens local communities.


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