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Blockchain Civic Engagement Tool to Be Tested in Vermont

A nine-month pilot project could yield new information on the best way for citizens and officials to communicate, and even a new model for cities to engage residents on hot-button issues in real time.

How could mobile devices, blockchain, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence make local government more representative?

Toronto-based AI company Consensus AI sees in these technologies the potential for local, virtual town halls, and it has enlisted the help of South Burlington, Vt., in a pilot project to create one.

The company’s four-page summary of the untitled project, announced in April, describes three phases unfolding over an estimated nine months, in which the company will give citizens an as-yet-unnamed mobile app to offer their thoughts on local issues, give the city an open portal to receive and publish that feedback, and apply predictive analysis and possibly machine learning to the resulting data.

Consensus will use its proprietary blockchain network, Sentient network, to gather the feedback and other participant IoT data securely.

The summary says Consensus chose South Burlington for its sufficiently tech-savvy residents, government interested in improving discourse with citizens, and appropriate size, with a population just over 19,000.

The goal for Consensus is to create a proof-of-concept that answers the following:

  • At what level do citizens want to engage with their local governments?
  • Can incentive mechanisms be used for increasing citizen engagement?
  • Can we establish trust between government and its citizens through technology?
  • Can government make more rapid decisions with ongoing citizen feedback and data?
South Burlington City Manager Kevin Dorn said the pilot project will begin June 3, helping the city receive citizen input on everything from development projects to conserving open space, mental health services, opiate addiction, budget issues, public infrastructure like bike and pedestrian paths, traffic congestion and noise from the local airport.

“We had already participated in a pilot program with a company called Propy, which deals more with real estate transactions and records. But we see real value in this Consensus tool to get real-time information from the public that will help us make decisions as government leaders, so we’re going to be pushing this hard with our citizens. We’re a small enough city so that people are paying attention to what’s going on in government, so we think we’re going to get a good response,” Dorn said. “The beauty of this platform is that we should be able to get real-time information from the public about issues as they emerge, particularly ones that are moving quickly.”

Consensus didn’t reply to multiple requests for comment, but the project summary it published online says the role of artificial intelligence “will be limited in this pilot given its timeline and scope.” However, Consensus will come up with takeaways and insights at the end of the project by applying predictive data analysis, cohort segmentation and possibly machine learning to citizen feedback and open data sources.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.