April 21, 2014

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First Principles for Fostering Civic Engagement via Digital Technologies #2 and #3: Keep it Simple and Leverage Entrepreneurial Intermediaries

In my previous blog post, I set out the first of 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. Today, I’m setting forth my second and third principles, “Simplicity – Bang for the Buck” and “Digital Intermediaries.” I have chosen to present these two principles together because they are linked thematically.

In almost every community, people are seeking information on public safety, jobs, education, transportation and healthcare. My second principle, “Simplicity – Bang for the Buck” suggests that governments, when determining which problems they can solve through an investment in digital technology, should look to improving government processes related to these core issues. My third principle acknowledges the reality that government itself cannot alone provide all of the information residents are seeking. Therefore, in a community which is engaged digitally, “Digital Intermediaries” – entrepreneurs, including journalists, who are a trusted source for providing local or hyper-local information to residents – will develop Internet and mobile broadband-based businesses providing people with information on these important topics.

Principle #2: “Simplicity – Bang for the Buck”

During a conversation this past Fall, a former Obama administration official told me that governments seeking to solve problems through innovative use of technology need to focus on projects that are simple, not too expensive, and touch on areas that effect large numbers of people. If done correctly, the public will see improvements in service delivery and respond positively. The confidence generated by successful launches will allow more new projects.

Police departments in Seattle and Philadelphia embracing Twitter as a tool to engage residents about crime in their neighborhoods is one example of a simple solution that promotes open access to government information. In September 2012, the Seattle police department launched its “Tweets-by-beat” initiative creating “51 hyper-local neighborhood Twitter accounts providing moment by moment crime reports.”[1] The reports state the type of crime and location for each incident with no additional commentary. While issues such as burglary, theft and public intoxication appear on the Twitter feeds, domestic violence and sexual assault are excluded, for risk of providing a disincentive for residents to report the crimes. Furthermore, the reports also appear at a one hour delay – to prevent people from hearing about an incident in progress and racing to the scene. A quick review of 7-10 of the Twitter feeds yielded an average of 200+ users per account – not bad for a hyper-local civic project.

The City of Philadelphia has several police officers who use Twitter to communicate with local residents. Detective Joseph Murray, who was profiled by NPR in 2012, and Michael Duffy communicate in a less scripted manner, providing details about crimes in their community, arrests made and cases that have been closed with a conviction, along with comments about the Sixers and restaurant week.

Right now, Seattle’s Twitter feeds are essentially one-way communication, while Philadelphia’s are more interactive. Both platforms have great opportunity for growth, particularly with Philadelphia involving more officers and becoming more hyper-local. I can also imagine neighborhood associations, non-profits and others in Seattle developing creative ways to use the almost real-time information.

Principle #3: “Digital Intermediaries”

Digital intermediaries add value and context to local and hyper-local information about a community. Their value is contained in the editorial judgments about which issues to highlight or which stories to publish. These organizations often cover topics that have either been overlooked by larger mainstream media organizations or are deemed too small or insignificant for coverage. A digital intermediary can also be a partner for civic organizations or even the government on projects of local interest. The existence of these organizations in a community is an indication that a critical mass of people are using broadband and that reasonably fast wireline and wireless connections are available to entrepreneurs and readers. Generally, these entrepreneurs are also exploring the quality-of-life issues that go to the heart of any community – jobs, public safety, education, transportation and healthcare.

Here are several examples of these sites from Washington, DC and a brief word on one in Philadelphia:

Popville: http://www.popville.com/ This blog began as the Prince of Petworth, a local Washington, DC neighborhood blog, and now covers quality of life issues across the City and occasionally the close-in suburbs, such as Arlington, VA. Postings explore the comings and goings of restaurants and bars, transportation issues, neighborhood crime, whether a house for sale is a “Good Deal or Not” and “Your Afternoon Animal Fix.” The public safety-related incidents, in particular, are often covered very quickly and comprehensively through a combination of crowd-sourced information and police Press Releases.

Homicide Watch D.C.: http://homicidewatch.org/ Homicide Watch D.C. covers every homicide in Washington, DC from the time of the incident through the investigation, arrest and trial. The founder of Homicide Watch D.C., Laura Amico, is a Fellow at the Berkman Center and the Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard this school year. The site itself and Laura Amico’s Twitter feed attract a readership that comes, at least in part, from individuals and neighborhoods that are deeply affected by violence in Washington, D.C. In contrast to the Washington Post which has often covered homicides with tiny boxes on edge of the Metro page, each victim has his own page with a comments section, a map of exactly where the incident occurred and timeline of stories written about the homicide.

I began reading Greater Greater Washington – http://greatergreaterwashington.org/ – as a result of its coverage of the redistricting of Washington, DC’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, a project in which I was intimately involved. An elected official in Washington, DC with whom I spoke recently praised the site for its coverage of redistricting issues and development of a game for tracking Ward Redistricting. Founded by a former Google employee, the site is a strong voice in the City on smart growth, transit, and public space issues. Finally, Greater Greater Washington, Popville and DCist are partnering on the “Let’s Choose DC” website, which asks the candidates’ in a Special Election for the DC City Council to respond to specific questions about important on-going issues in Washington, DC.

Technically Philly – http://technicallyphilly.com/ – and its sister site, Technically Baltimore – http://technicallybaltimore.com/ – are local news organizations that cover the technology communities in their respective cities. While these sites cover the comings and goings of innovators in both communities, investigative journalism is also a significant part of the organization’s mission, as evidenced by its investigative reporting on waste, fraud and mismanagement in technology procurement in Philadelphia. Seemingly, whenever I check the sites, there are stories not only about start-ups, but about reducing unemployment in these urban areas and job training programs that will prepare young people for jobs in the tech industry.


[1] Kirk Johnson, Hey, @SeattlePD: What’s the Latest, The New York Times, Oct. 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/02/us/seattle-police-department-uses-twitter-to-report-crime.html?hp.