April 17, 2014

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Information Facilitating Participation in Elections Must Be Readily Available – Principle #10 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

For the final installment of my series of blog posts outlining ten principles that governments and local communities should consider when evaluating whether they are using digital technology effectively to facilitate civic engagement, I will discuss the issue that goes to the core of democracy in our country – the public having access to information about elections. The information that facilitates participation in elections comes from a variety of sources, including local governments ensuring that people are easily able to register to vote, politicians using technology for conversations with the public during campaigns, and members of the public using e-mail, blogs and social media to discuss the candidates’ promises.

Technology as a tool for civic engagement has become an increasingly critical aspect of politics, particularly in urban areas. That’s because one of the factors that has affected political discourse, especially in urban areas – race – is diminishing in salience with the public. In a recent NY Times Op-ed, Thomas Edsall asked the question, “What if Race No Longer Matters in City Politics?” He noted the absence of race as a divisive factor in recent elections in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. Instead, he argued that income and class shaped the mayoral contests in Boston and New York.

As cities move away from racial politics, the vacuum is being filled, at least in part, by both citizens and politicians focusing on lifestyle issues. Right now, arguably there is nothing that reflects people’s lifestyles more than the wireless devices they carry and the content they choose to consume and share through those devices. And some of that content relates to civic engagement. For example, according to a 2013 Pew study, 67% of all 18-24 year olds engaged in some social network-related political activity in the 12 months preceding the survey. Overall, 39% of adults use social media sites for political or civic activities.

Given that citizens are moving their political activities on-line, it is important that state governments make it easier for people to participate in the political process by making on-line voter registration available. Approximately 15 states currently allow on-line voter registration, while approximately 5 more have passed legislation permitting on-line registration. In addition to added convenience, according to the state of Arizona, paper registration costs 83 cents per registration while each on-line registration costs only 3 cents. To be beneficial for the public though, on-line registration must be secure. CITP Fellow J. Alex Halderman, in an interview with the National Conference of State Legislatures earlier in 2013 recommended, “ensuring that security experts are consulted during design [of an on-line registration system], adequate security testing is undertaken before the system goes live, and ongoing monitoring for threat detection efforts [takes place] while the system is being operated.”

In a recent article in Politico, Columbia University Law School professor Tim Wu suggests that voter participation in Congressional primary elections is so low because of the “convenience gap” between voting and many other modern tasks and proposes increasing participation by moving voting on-line. I disagree with Mr. Wu’s solution partially because I think technology can close the “convenience gap” that makes voting seem burdensome by keeping people connected regularly to the civic and political decision-making process. Since people have the ability through digital technology to be extremely selective about the information they choose to consume, governments and political candidates need to use more targeted methods to reach each constituent with information that’s uniquely important to that person. For example, a person who is registered for Capital Bikeshare – the bike sharing service in the Washington, DC metro area – could register to receive text message alerts about community meetings on bike lanes and transportation policy generally. If a particular series of issues is closely tied to a person’s lifestyle and interests, I think that will drive participation. There will be no need to move to on-line voting now, before the security concerns can be addressed.

People who are invested in their local communities need to continue to experiment with ways to boost civic engagement. In advance of a special election for the City Council in Washington, DC this Spring, three popular local bloggers partnered on the “Let’s Choose DC” website, which posed one question per week to all of the eligible candidates. Candidates provided longer than a sound bite answers to questions about topics such as education, crime, and affordable housing. Readers had the opportunity to vote on the responses. While turnout in the special election was disappointingly low – only 11.32% – participation still improved compared to a 2011 special election that came in at 10.30%. The more that journalists, local businesses, civic activists and government officials recognize the economic and social value of assisting citizens in using technology as a tool for building communities that reflect their members’ needs and aspirations, the stronger local communities will become.

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Improve Connectivity in Rural Communities – Principle #9 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

In my recent blog posts, I have been discussing ways that citizens can communicate with government officials through the Internet, social media, and wireless technology to solve problems in their communities and to effect public policy. Using technology for civic engagement, however, should not be limited to communications with elected or appointed government officials. One of the themes I have sought to address across my series of posts – and will discuss in more detail today – is that citizen-to-citizen communication through digital technologies for civic purposes is extremely important in building healthy communities. This is particularly true in rural areas. Improving digital connectivity in rural areas will help people communicate more effectively with civic institutions, such as schools and libraries, and commercial entities, such as commodities markets, that effect residents daily lives and economic well-being.
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Inject New Energy into Problem Solving – Principle #8 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

In response to my recent post arguing that the Federal government needs to use the social web more effectively as a tool for improving information sharing between the Federal government and the public, Michael Herz from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law reached out and directed me to a comprehensive report he recently authored for the consideration of the Administrative Conference of the United States entitled “Using Social Media in Rulemaking: Possibilities and Barriers.” One of Mr. Herz’s colleagues described the report’s tone as one of “skeptical optimism.” Mr. Herz asked me specifically about the role of social media in the Federal agency rulemaking process. In short, I generally agree with his statement that “social media culture is at odds with the fundamental characteristics of notice-and-comment rulemaking” because filing insightful comments requires “time, thought, study of the agency proposal and rationale, articulating reasons rather than…off-the-top-of-one’s-head assertions of a bottom line.” Social media, we both agree, however, is a valuable tool for Federal agencies to use to inform the public – particularly those people or groups whom the agency believes may have a vested interest in ongoing rulemakings.

Our e-mail exchange has me thinking now about why many governments and residents are embracing technology-based solutions for urban problems whereas the Federal government, as exemplified by the problems with the Affordable Care Act implementation, has not been as effective in using the Internet, wireless technology and social media to deliver services to the public. Today, I will discuss three reasons why it is easier to inject new energy into technology-based problem solving in local communities.
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Twenty-First Century Eavesdropping

Yesterday’s revelations about widespread government data collection led me to re-read my nine-post series on “Twenty-First Century Eavesdropping” from back in 2006. I was surprised to see how closely that discussion fit the current facts.

Links to the 2006 posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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Are There Countries Whose Situations Worsened with the Arrival of the Internet?

Are there countries whose situations worsened with the arrival of the internet?  I’ve been arguing that there are lots of examples of countries where technology diffusion has helped democratic institutions deepen.  And there are several examples of countries where technology diffusion has been part of the story of rapid democratic transition.  But there are no good examples of countries where technology diffusion has been high, and the dictators got nastier as a result.

Over twitter, Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, recently opined the same thing.  Evgeny Morozov, professional naysayer, asked for a graph.

So here is a graph and a list.  I used PolityIV’s democratization scores from 2002 and 2011.  I used the World Bank/ITU data on internet users.  I merged the data and made a basic graph.  On the vertical axis is the change in percent of a country’s population online over the last decade.  The horizontal axis reflects any change in the democratization score–any slide towards authoritarianism is represented by a negative number.  For Morozov to be right, the top left corner of this graph needs to have some cases in it.

Change in Percentage Internet Users and Democracy Scores, By Country, 2002-2011

noexamples

Look at the raw data.

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Principles #4 and #5 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies: Engage On-line and Off-line, and Prepare for the Future

As part of my continuing series, today I’ll discuss two more principles for fostering civic engagement and digital technologies. My earlier posts are:
#1 Know Your Community
#2 Keep it Simple
#3 Leverage Entrepreneurial Intermediaries

Principle #4: Utilize Creative Combinations of On-line and Off-line Communications

Whether it’s a grass roots organization, national political campaign or local government agency, any group that wishes to identify and motivate people to become involved in civic affairs needs to use creative combinations of on-line and off-line communications. In today’s post, I will discuss two different situations where I’ve observed people combining new technology and traditional grass roots organizing to foster civic engagement.

On Twitter, I recently came across an account dedicated to a student’s grass roots campaign for Vice President of the student government at The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). Her tweets below are a simple representation of today’s hybrid on-line/off-line grass roots campaign.

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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”
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Singapore Punishes Net Freedom Advocate

Over the last few days my activist self has come out.  I was a tenure reviewer for Dr. Cherian George at Nanyang Technical University, one of Singapore’s most high-profile universities.  His tenure case was overturned at the top, where university administration meets the country’s political elites.

It is difficult to dismiss George on the basis of academic merit. With degrees from Cambridge, Columbia, and Stanford, his pedigree is admirable. He has three books under his belt: the eviscerating “Air Conditioned Nation”, the evocative “Freedom From the Press” and a scholarly tome comparing independent online journalism in Singapore and Malaysia that was actually published at home by Singapore University Press. Through a string of academic articles, George has been equally critical of the government and the press, so it is not surprising that the country’s journalists have not rushed to his defense. He has revealed to colleagues that the decision to deny his tenure was solely because of “non-academic factors”—the university administrators told him as much. He’s had positive teaching evaluations. This wasn’t a merit based decision.
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First Principles for Fostering Civic Engagement via Digital Technologies: #1 Know Your Community

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
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“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”

Since the historic snow storm, “Nemo,” deposited a NOAA-certified 40 inches of snow on my hometown of Hamden, CT, I have been watching from afar to see how the town and its citizens are using a combination of digital technology, the traditional telecommunications network, and mass media to communicate in the aftermath of the storm. While I have been lucky enough not to have been directly affected by the historic storm, my senior citizen parents have been inside their house waiting for a snow plow to come for approximately five days. Since they are healthy and have food and heat, I have the luxury of writing about the use of communications technology by Hamden’s government during this weather emergency. The purpose of this post is not to pile onto an already overwhelmed town government, but to highlight fairly easily achievable improvements that Hamden’s government could make in its emergency communications that will make residents of the town safer the next time an emergency occurs.

On Friday morning, I woke up and heard the Mayor of Hamden, Scott Jackson, on CNN stating about the storm, “It’s a Disaster.” I was impressed to hear the Mayor of my approximately 60,000 person hometown with a national and international forum to talk about the weather emergency and recovery efforts. I figured this was only the first step in the process of informing town residents about what they could expect over the next few days. However, based on reviewing “The Town of Hamden, Connecticut” Facebook page, e-mails sent from the Mayor’s Office, the Mayor’s Twitter feed, and having conversations with my parents, there are three specific areas where the town could have communicated more effectively during this weather emergency. These failures of communication sell short the heroic work of the people working around the clock to plow the streets and respond to emergencies.
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