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Introducing the 21st-Century City Hall

These five platforms are helping redefine civic engagement.

New platforms are transforming the idea of civic duty and reinventing how citizens engage with government. These tools allow users to interact and share feedback with government entities in creative, convenient ways. Here are five platforms that are helping redefine civic engagement.

Neighborland: A new way to rally residents

If you’ve ever tried drumming up support for a neighborhood project, you know firsthand how difficult the effort can be. From diverse work schedules to just plain indifference, capturing a community’s attention and rallying residents on an issue can seem impossible at times. Neighborland was created to make that task easier.

The online social engagement platform helps citizens and public officials connect on ideas and plans for a community. After creating a profile on Neighborland, users can post questions or ideas using words and pictures. The posts can be categorized by topic, and users can suggest related actions such as fundraisers and meetings.

Users who support an idea can click a “me too” button — similar to “liking” a Facebook post. The information is then presented in an open, transparent way indicating the will of the community, complementing city council hearings and other traditional forms of communication.

Dan Parham, co-founder and CEO of Neighborland, said the platform originated from co-founder Candy Chang’s “I Wish This Was” project. Chang, a New Orleans resident, saw large amounts of vacant storefront properties in the city, so she created stickers that read “I wish this was,” leaving a blank space for people to suggest ideas. The approach was a success, gathering many responses.

That achievement led to the creation of Neighborland. The engagement tool debuted in New Orleans in July 2011 and a year later it was expanded to 25 U.S. cities. In 2012, the platform went nationwide.

“Our goal is [to] help residents inform themselves about the issues that matter in their neighborhoods and to take action on those insights,” Parham said. “We want to help communities become, in Douglas Farr’s words from Sustainable Urbanism, more ‘connected, compact and complete.’ We want to help people build more sustainable, resilient communities.”

According to Parham, more than 750 mayors have used Neighborland to advocate for safety within cities. City leaders including New Orleans Councilwoman Stacy Head, Chicago Alderman Danny Solis and the San Francisco Neighborhood Empowerment Network also employed the platform to act on residents’ ideas.

Neighborland plans on building out further functionality in its slate of Action tools that residents and organizations can use to collaborate. In addition, Parham said he and his team are developing how-to guides for Neighborland based on case stories from residents and organizations who successfully used the platform. -- Brian Heaton, Senior Writer

Textizen: An easier way to give opinions 

Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, struggled to collect feedback from parents. To simplify the process, the district deployed Textizen, which makes sharing comments and responding to survey questions as easy as sending a text message.

The district’s massive size made it tough to communicate with parents through traditional methods, said Textizen co-founder Alex Yule. “Sending things home with the students wasn’t that feasible because [the information] was getting lost along the way.” 

Textizen combats that issue by avoiding it completely. Questions are posted in public areas, and people are encouraged to text their response to a specified phone number.

After deploying the tool in early March, Chicago Public Schools launched two surveys to gather opinions about the district’s facilities and programs. So far, the initiative has been successful: The district received more than 1,200 responses. One survey asked parents, teachers, students, staff and community members what facility resources would benefit students. And the second survey, displayed in city buses and trains, asked what services — like health centers or early childhood education — community members would use if offered at a nearby school.

Textizen stems from Philadelphia’s Code for America project in 2012. It was developed by Yule, who was a Code for America fellow at the time, and colleague Michelle Lee. The tool was created to approach civic engagement in a new and innovative way. “We decided on text messaging because it’s a much broader, more widely available technology,” Yule said. 

3 Platforms to Watch Billed as a “virtual place to discuss real places that you want to see transformed,” Placehood connects citizens, developers and city planners. The goal is to repurpose or improve underutilized properties, while letting users comment about a place, post improvement ideas, add images and gather support. This platform visualizes a public policy’s impact on the state or local economy by simulation. Outline lets citizens perform what-if analyses on budgets and policies and provide feedback to the government. The simulator is being piloted in Massachusetts, and the company hopes to grow the number of users this summer.

PlaceSpeak: Launched in Canada, the online community consultation website connects citizens with local issues. Users’ addresses are verified, allowing the government or organization to specify areas where it would like to get feedback from or generate ideas about.

Eighty-six percent of Americans own a cellphone, according to the Pew Research Center, so creating an application that uses text messaging seemed like the obvious answer to improve citizen engagement, Yule said. Many citizens don’t want  to attend town hall meetings, which may take hours or are inconveniently located; however, text messaging is easy and requires a small commitment compared to other ways to participate in local government, he added.

“Most people are willing to take a few seconds to text in, especially if you’re asking about something really relevant to their daily lives.” -- Sarah Rich, Staff Writer

Voterheads: Early warning on important issues

It’s a scenario every local government is likely familiar with: There’s a council meeting and while decisions are being made on behalf of everyone in the area, only a small percentage of the population participates in the process. But once a decision is made, citizens complain about the result.

“It’s frustrating for elected officials because they’re doing what they’ve done for years as far as making people aware by posting agendas and having public meetings about all these things,” said Voterheads founder Karl McCollester. “Yet most people don’t feel like they’re being informed.”

That’s what McCollester and his colleagues are attempting to change with Voterheads, a free online engagement platform that alerts citizens via email when their city, county or school board is discussing a topic that they’re interested in. 

Using a sliding scale, users indicate their degree of opposition or support of a topic like taxes, at which point the system decides if or how quickly that person should be notified about an upcoming public meeting. “If you’re neutral about it, we probably won’t notify you unless it reaches a critical mass of people within your community, which means it’s something that’s of interest to everyone,” McCollester said.

The platform uses technology similar to Google’s spiders that crawl around the Web to build an index by combing through online agendas, Word documents and PDFs to gather the appropriate information. The company is working on an application programming interface so organizations can push data to Voterheads to ensure accuracy and embed the platform on their website.

Additionally users can comment and vote on the topics in a social media-style format, as well as link their social networking accounts to Voterheads so they can share items.

The platform is being launched this summer in communities in central South Carolina, including Columbia, where Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine sees it as a good opportunity to engage citizens on local issues and initiatives. 

“If [citizens] had a way to actually know when issues are coming up in front of us as a council,” she said, “they could communicate with us about what their ideas and feelings are about different issues, instead of us always playing catch up.”

While Voterheads may expand to other government levels in the future, its focus will be on local government “because state and federal get so much attention comparatively,” McCollester said. -- Elaine Pittman, Associate Editor

Community PlanIt: A game with real-world results

Eric Gordon, an Emerson College professor, creates games and other digital tools that energize civic participation. He runs the university’s Engagement Game Lab and develops programs to make community planning fun and interactive for citizens.

One of his creations is Community PlanIt, an online game that solicits comments from residents about their neighborhoods. City administrators analyze the feedback to make more informed choices about community development.

Gordon hopes that citizens will become more interested in local government by playing a game about city planning that delivers real results and communication with public-sector leaders.

“We’re looking at ways in which a public engagement process like this can bolster the strength of community bonds,” he said. “It’s not just about better technical decisions; it’s about making sure the public feels they have a voice in major decisions.”

Community PlanIt hosts city-focused games that last for weeks at a time. Residents earn coins by answering trivia questions about their community and submitting information like neighborhood photographs and comments and opinions about specific areas. Coins and awards also can be earned if users’ comments evoke many responses and are liked and shared socially by others. Players pledge their coins to real-life neighborhood causes, however, the three causes with the largest pledge amounts at the end of the game win actual funding.   

“You don’t just feel like you’re filling out a regular survey, and I think the game accomplishes that by establishing a point system so you’re rewarded for your correct answers,” said Clint Randall, a planner for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. “The more you participate, the more points you can earn, so you’re encouraged to have discussions with other players. You’re encouraged to comment on other people’s answers.”

In January, Randall and his colleagues ran the Philadelphia 2035 game, which asked residents to share ideas for the future of a specific district in the city. City staffers are analyzing player comments and activity for data that can influence municipal planning. 

Many games like the 2012 Detroit edition have attracted about 1,000 players, according to Gordon.  

The genesis for Community PlanIt came about in 2010 after Gordon received a $675,000 grant from the Knight Foundation for development. The first game that year was in Lowell, Mass., followed by five games between then and spring 2013 for other jurisdictions. More games are on the way for other areas, including Los Angeles and a city in Sweden.

Gordon hopes the game, a JavaScript product that runs on the Django platform, will catch on at a broader level, and he’s encouraged by the interest other cities have expressed. “We’re hoping that this continues and that people continue to call us and want to use it,” Gordon said. -- Hilton Collins, Staff Writer

Open Town Hall: Letting cooler heads prevail

Democracy is a messy process. James Madison said that faction and discord are “sown in the nature of man,” and have “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.” Winston Churchill once noted, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Some argue that it is for this reason that the Founding Fathers created a republic instead of a democracy, where “cooler heads” represent the hotheads and can thus decide the issues of the day with fairness and rationality. But considering recent occurrences in political campaigns, Congress and state legislatures, good luck with that. 

Still, in spite of the hazards inherent in doing so, many governments still attempt to engage the public in planning and decision-making. 

Peak Democracy’s Open Town Hall moves the public meeting process online, acknowledging some 21st-century realities and offering a few other advantages too. 

Attending a traditional government meeting can be difficult for people who are parenting, working, mobility impaired or elderly, said Peak Democracy co-founder Mike Cohen. Even more important, many people don’t like to speak in public, especially about confrontational issues. “It’s not very inviting to the moderates in the community,” Cohen said, “so you often get more of an extreme view that can lead to decisions that frustrate the community.” For example, he said, one city asked for suggestions on how to improve the region and was swamped with suggestions to “legalize marijuana” and “make more nude beaches.”

Another problem with such open-ended input, said Cohen, is something called the “referendum effect,” in which people expect the suggestions with the most responses to be enacted, and that creates frustration when it doesn’t happen because of legal constraints, funding issues, lack of authority, etc.

Open Town Hall requires registration, and the topics are presented by the jurisdiction. Rather than restricting input, said Cohen, it broadens the appeal of participation and brings in many more moderate views. Open Town Hall also requires a geocoded address so that input on an issue can be evaluated based on its location. The names and locations view can be turned on or off, depending on the issue and the jurisdiction’s wishes. 

“One of our first topics was Yalecrest,” said Nole Walkingshaw, Salt Lake City’s planning program supervisor. “We have a very affluent historic neighborhood, and smaller houses were being torn down and large houses being constructed.” 

The issue was very confrontational, said Walkingshaw, but Open Town Hall kept the ideas flowing. Walkingshaw said the platform is inexpensive and easy to ramp up. He and Cohen met at a conference and worked out a prototype site in a hotel lobby. “All we had to do was turn it on; plug the iframe into our city page. We got hundreds of people involved, and it really was successful.” --Wayne Hanson, Digital Communities Editor