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New Resident-Facing Platform Seeks Public Input, Minus the Trolls

PlaceSpeak, a location-based civic engagement tool, is designed to prevent interference from bots and trolls that have plagued online discourse as of late.

A new civic tech platform seeks to solicit useful feedback from residents about government, while at the same time eliminating the presence of the trolls and bots that have made online discourse an increasingly unpleasant and unreliable proposition in recent years.

This platform is called PlaceSpeak, and it is already being used by a wide range of government agencies in both Canada and the United States, in a variety of locales that range from Orange County, Fla., to Vancouver, British Columbia, to Dallas. PlaceSpeak is far from the first to attempt to gauge the opinions of the citizenry online, but what sets it apart is that PlaceSpeak uses tech that identifies users based on locations, ensuring that only residents who live in certain areas can weigh in on the debates relevant to them.

PlaceSpeak Founder and CEO Colleen Hardwick said this weeding out of troublesome and aggressive presences who often spew vitriol through veils of anonymity is a key tenet of the platform.

“We have a whole vocabulary now around the fact that people try to enrage or disrupt discussions, like trolls, or they try to disrupt the system, flooding it with multiple responses and things like that,” Hardwick said.

Yet, people increasingly live their lives online, making it difficult for government to solicit valuable feedback through traditional methods such as in-person town hall meetings.

What PlaceSpeak provides is a platform where residents can sign up, enter where they live, and use various methods to authenticate their locations and identities, toggling their own privacy and participation levels as they see fit. Users can then select the government agencies that they want to hear from, while government agencies can then ask users their opinions about everything from upcoming transit projects to their favorite places in town to go for a hike. The more layers of authentication a user chooses to add, the more heavily weighted his or her feedback is. Authentication methods include linking to social media profiles, verifying IP addresses, and confirming identities over the phone.

PlaceSpeak also gives users a dashboard that contains a map of their area, green dots indicating other users and pushpins showing topics that government agencies want to discuss. The idea is that a resident might sign up to weigh in on the creation of a new dog park, for example, and then continue to voice opinions on other topics for other agencies.

“The more different organizations that are using it within the same geography, the better for the people,” Hardwick said.

In January, PlaceSpeak started working with the Cowichan Valley Regional District in British Columbia, Canada, and officials there say the rollout has been well received, with an increasing number of users signing on, said Cynthia Lockrey, manager of strategic services for the Cowichan Valley Regional District.

Lockrey and her agency have used PlaceSpeak to foster discourse on serious topics such as soil management and bylaws related to dogs, but they’ve also used it to do fun things, asking for lists of favorite places to spend time in the area. In the past six months, they’ve seen about 1,200 residents of their community of 80,000 sign up and use the platform.

This is a stark contrast from local in-person meetings — meetings that required staff and resources — which have sometimes drawn as few as six community members.

Lockrey has worked hard to foster use of PlaceSpeak by going to the local swimming pool on the weekend and personally telling people about it. She and her staff have also done outreach at farmer’s markets, in the newspaper, all over social media and in a number of other places.

“This is not just about the technology,” Lockrey said. “It’s about the people.”

PlaceSpeak officials say the company has greatly benefited from working with SAP's Startup Focus, a driving force behind the SentiMap technology the platform uses.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.