October 2, 2022

A technological approach to better living, for D.C. and beyond

Washington, D.C., could be a leader in the United States — and worldwide — in using technology to improve the lives of its residents and visitors.

As a rapidly growing city with a diverse and highly educated population, the District is a leader in law, education, tourism and, of course, government. With this mass of educated and engaged citizens, the District can use technology to make local government more efficient and promote the further development of vibrant commercial corridors across the city.

That’s why the District government should join other leading cities in establishing an office dedicated to tech-based solutions to local, urban problems.

The networks that communities use to share information and facilitate commerce have evolved across U.S. history from waterways to railroads to broadband. As the Georgetown waterfront was once a profitable international shipping hub, cities today are leveraging their advantages to attract technology innovators. In Boston, for example, the mayor’s office found partners for its civic technology incubator (the Office of New Urban Mechanics) at Harvard University and Emerson College. Kansas City won a contest and became the first city where Google built its super-high-speed Internet service. And New York City, under the leadership of tech-savvy mayor Michael Bloomberg, developed in 2011 a “Road Map for the Digital City” to establish itself as a world leader in Internet access, open government, citizen engagement and digital industry growth.

True to the District’s status as a world political capital, the leaders in the city’s government, business and educational institutions should work together to benefit the region’s civic and economic future:

● The next mayor must establish a unified program housed in the mayor’s office and focused on using technology, data and innovation to make the city’s government more efficient and responsive to residents’ needs. Initiatives, perhaps similar to Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, should be developed and executed in partnership with local companies, universities and nonprofits.

● Within such a program, the businesses and government could systematically encourage and support new grass-roots organizations similar to the Kennedy Street Development Association, which is using Facebook and Twitter to recruit residents and businesses, and whose investments signal the rebranding of an ailing commercial corridor as a lively mixed commercial and residential neighborhood. Memphis’s MEMShop business incubation program is a good model.

● Critical support for such a unified program is locally available because many global experts on telecommunications and Internet policy are already here. The District’s business leaders could easily engage this brain trust in developing technology policies and regulations that support growing broadband infrastructure and foster economic growth resulting from proven applications, such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb.

By taking the lead on civic innovation, the District could be a template for other governments in the area. As the whole region shares information, researchers, local companies and governments can come together to tackle some of the biggest challenges we face, such as homelessness, education and transportation. With this spirit of collaboration, local Washington, D.C., can be a model for the federal D.C.

Increasing Civic Engagement Requires Understanding Why People Have Chosen Not to Participate

Last month, I was a poll watcher for the mayoral primary in Washington, DC. My duties were to monitor several polling places to confirm that each Precinct Captain was ensuring that the City’s election laws were being followed on site; in particular, that everyone who believed that they were qualified to vote was able to do so, even if through a provisional ballot. While, thankfully, I did not witness any violations of DC law, I also did not see many voters. The turnout for the election was the lowest since 1974, the beginning of home rule in the District of Columbia. Only 27% of registered voters cast ballots.

Between conversations with friends and neighbors and reading post-mortems on the election, anecdotal evidence abounds as to why turnout was so low. [Read more…]

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.

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.
[Read more…]