Over the first few months of my Fellowship at CITP, I have had the pleasure of meeting with a number of people from academia, non-profits, for-profit companies and government to discuss the role of digital technologies in fostering civic engagement. In a series of blog posts, I plan to set out ten principles that local governments and communities should look to as they evaluate whether their community is using digital technology effectively to promote civic engagement and solve local problems. Because I do not think that my work developing these principles is complete, I hope to use this forum as a way to offer ideas for further exploration. Feedback is welcome!
Principle #1: Know Your Community
Before a government can communicate with its constituents effectively or develop innovative ways to solve problems, it must know how the people living in the community are using communications technology. Regarding many other local government functions, governments have a very good sense of citizens’ patterns of behavior. Tools exist to measure car traffic, subway and bus ridership, school enrollment, voting rates, etc. But no one is voluntarily telling the government how they’re communicating with other people – i.e., by e-mail, landline phone, texting, Twitter, or Facebook. Unlike Wal-Mart, Amazon.com or iTunes, with whom people share their personal information in hopes of receiving product recommendations or discounts tailored toward products they might like, governments must make far less educated guesses as to the best ways to reach residents with new information and be mindful to guess in a manner that residents will not find intrusive.
To better understand their constituents’ digital communities, local governments must begin by asking a series of questions about Internet and wireless device adoption generally. What percentage of residents are using the Internet? What is the condition of wireline and wireless infrastructure in the community? Is Fiber available or are people still relying on DSL? Are more people accessing services using landline Internet connections or mobile connections? What are the percentages of people using smartphones to access the Internet? Do the answers to these questions vary substantially by neighborhood? Is technology training a big issue in portions of the community? Are there specific challenges because people in the community speak several different languages?
The answers to these questions should lead governments to solutions for providing information more effectively to the whole community. These answers can lead governments to determine the proper combination of landline phone, paper and digital communications for reaching residents. These answers can lead to the creation of e-mail groups or development of mobile apps and Twitter feeds to reach people, for example, in response to a finding of high smartphone penetration.
Because many local governments will not have the resources to research their communities digital thoroughfares, local governments must rely on other community members such as businesses, universities and non-profits to share their data or help produce new studies – a topic I will address in more detail in a later post.
Broadband adoption, however, is only one aspect of building a community that uses technology smartly to solve problems. The next key is identifying specific problems that the government can solve through technology. The City of Boston is leading the way in this regard through its office of New Urban Mechanics, which is “the City’s innovation incubator, building partnerships between City agencies and outside institutions and entrepreneurs to pilot projects in Boston that address resident and business needs.” Two of New Urban Mechanics’ signature projects would improve quality of life in almost any city: The “Boston One Card” provides students with one card that works as a transit pass, school ID, community center ID and library card and the “Street Bump” mobile app collects real-time information about Boston’s roads, allowing the city to identify and repair potholes more efficiently. Regardless of the specific projects, this type of tailored problem solving through technology needs to be exported to communities throughout the country. I have a particular interest in exploring these concepts in my current hometown of Washington, DC.
Finally, I recognize that much of the civic innovation I’ve focused on today is centered in cities. While I believe many of the concepts are applicable nationwide, I do plan to spend some more time researching and thinking about challenges and solutions specific to rural communities. Stay tuned.