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Texting Government: Narrowing the Digital Divide?

Code for America initiative broadens reach of traditional citizen engagement in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia 2035 is a comprehensive plan now in development to plot the future of America’s fifth largest city. Led by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC), the project’s success hinges on maximizing citizen participation. City officials are charged with casting as wide a net as possible to encourage stakeholders to weigh in about the direction of their city.

Clint Randall, Healthy Communities coordinator for the PCPC, explained in an interview with Government Technology that while traditional public forums generate some detailed feedback, it’s typically from a limited number of constituents.

“Customarily speaking, the primary tool for outreach is simply to hold public meetings, but there are clear limitations to that,” he said.

Input generated from public meetings comes from a select group with the time and resources to attend. They can also be expensive to plan and conduct.

Enter San Francisco-based Code for America, the nonprofit group that places fellows in yearlong assignments working with selected U.S. cities to develop innovative programs in service of local communities.

Alex Yule is on the team of Code for America developers assigned to Philadelphia in 2012. After spending time in the City of Brotherly Love this past February, meeting with many government, nonprofit and civic groups, Yule and his team came up with a unique idea to help encourage citizen engagement in the municipal planning process.

“They were looking for a way to gather more, broader data about how people interacted with and saw the future of their city,” said Yule. Research on the people of Philadelphia suggested text messaging might be a viable way to bridge the digital divide and get a broader base of citizen feedback in specific neighborhoods.

According to Code for America, more than 40 percent of Philly residents don’t have access to high-speed Internet at home. But they cite Centers for Disease Control research revealing that more than 90 percent of city households have cellphones with text-messaging capability.

“We really wanted to use text messaging as sort of the lowest common denominator to reach the broadest possible group of Philadelphians,” said Yule.

City Planning by Text Message

June 1 marked the launch of Textizen, Philadelphia’s answer to narrowing the digital divide. Neighborhood-specific questions are posed via colorful posters in public places like bus shelters, along with instructions as to how citizens can make their voices heard.

The PCPC is currently seeking input to revise two of the 18 district plans within the city. In the densely populated central district, people can text in views about the city’s recreation sites. Two separate questions are being asked in an effort to gather input that will help direct continued investment in the area, a haven for young families.

A question on public transit is out for response in Philadelphia’s lower northeast district. An area noted for its lack of viable public transportation, residents are weighing in via text on whether they would utilize rapid transit if it were built along the area’s main thoroughfare.

And the responses are pouring in. Officials report that several dozen texts came in just the first few days, with marketing limited to the PCPC’s Facebook and Twitter followers, along with the posters in the community.

“We’re getting responses from people that actually live in these harder to reach areas to show that it [rapid transit] is not just a high level policy idea coming out of city hall,” Randall said.

Given that this is a new platform, administrators are very curious to see how much input Textizen will generate. They are optimistic that they will receive at least several hundred responses during the month-long pilot program.

“This is just part of our agency trying to modernize how it engages with its constituents,” Randall said. If these positive projections about Textizen ring true, the texting platform will be used for the city’s remaining district plans as well.

Yule reports that since the program’s launch in Philadelphia, more than 50 inquiries have come in from other government agencies, nonprofit organizations and citizens, seeing uses for the platform in their respective communities.

“By using text messaging, we're able to lower the bar to citizen participation that is so vital to our democracy,” Yule concluded.

Textizen - Citizen feedback for the digital age from Code for America on Vimeo.