September 1, 2011 By Jessica Mulholland
Seeking to reinvent the relationship between citizens and government, a national nonprofit and a New York-based media design firm have created Change by Us, a digital platform intended to foster better engagement.
The platform has been up and running in New York City since July, and its creators — CEOs for Cities and design firm Local Projects — along with Code for America, are launching the platform in Philadelphia and Seattle this fall.
"Nobody thinks public engagement works very well in America. The traditional models of participation are simply out of step with contemporary life,” said Julia Klaiber, external affairs director at CEOs for Cities, in a press release. "Reinventing public life in America begins with acknowledging the critical role technology plays in the way we engage with one another.”
According to Jake Barton, founder and principal of Local Projects, Change by Us is a “tent platform” that allows anyone from a city agency, not-for-profit, business, community-based organization, block association — all the way down to an individual — to start a project to improve his or her city. The program is usually hosted by the city itself or a city agency, which sets the campaign or theme and arranges for public media, collateral and digital advertising to get the word out.
“That [theme] might be an environmental topic like we have here in New York City, asking how New York City can green its neighborhoods,” Barton said. Other challenge topics, for example, could be transportation or health. “Then the challenge is answered by individuals, not-for-profits, community-based organizations, and they each put forth, first, an idea — an answer — to the question,” he said. “And then the key is that Change by Us matches that answer with an existing project that’s putting that idea into action.”
So in New York, if an individual has an idea related to soil composting, he or she will put the word “composting” into the idea field on the website, and will immediately be offered three projects that are doing composting in the neighborhood. “The heart of it is this matching algorithm that leads the general public from their ideas — on how to achieve better health, better transportation, more sustainability, more economic viability — directly into projects that are making those ideas a reality,” Barton said. “So it’s both a space to recruit around these projects, and then also to organize the projects themselves, and to drive them toward actualization.”
The new platform soon will be expanded outside New York City, with an Oct. 1 launch planned in Seattle in partnership with Mayor Mike McGinn. The theme there will be, “Hey Seattle, how can we make our neighborhoods even better?” The partnership with Mayor Michael Nutter and the city of Philadelphia will launch later in the fall.
And while Change by Us will be available to any city through a not-for-profit open source license, Local Projects and CEOs for Cities are engaging in partnerships with cities around the world to set up, host and maintain the platform.
“There are two main incentives of doing it through Local Projects and CEOs [for Cities]: One allows them to simply write a relatively nominal check and receive the platform, rather than have a whole tech team install and maintain the websites,” Barton said. “And the second incentive is the sharing of improvements to the site. As other cities are making improvements, some of that cost pays for us to manage and design against those improvements, and then distribute those improvements to all the different cities. All the cities hosting with us will be constantly and automatically upgraded without having to monitor new builds and integrate new designs.”
The nonprofit Code for America also has a role in this project. The organization, which is providing volunteer Web programmers to metropolitan governments, will help make Change by Us an open source platform and bring new features to it, said Code for America Founder Jennifer Pahlka. The platform will be publicly available for other coders and public-sector entities starting in October. “Our team will have done the prep to make that available, including changing some of the framework to be more common, allowing a larger development community to be able to work on it.”
A second role Code for America has taken on, Pahlka said, is adding a set of about 10 features to the platform to make it fit Philadelphia’s and Seattle’s requirements.
“A couple things we’re doing are adding ties to Twitter and Facebook,” she said. Enhancements are also being made to the Change by Us project page, where citizens collaborate to do something valuable in their cities. “We’re working on some features around that page to make it easier for people to collaborate — to make it more clear as far as how to take the next step if you’re a citizen trying to get through this, to connect with people.”
Change by Us is considered “a moment of transition” — when residents move from customers to partners, Barton said in a press release. “It’s a way of reinventing public participation,” he said. “Cities are about shared goals and common interests, and we have created a platform around that concept, creating a social networking platform for civic activity.”
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