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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Wired Cities

Published:  June 15, 2010
Library kiosk (Google Maps)
The former-library-turned-pop-up-lab at H St and 13th St in Northeast DC.

Citizen journalism is no longer a hot new trend; anyone can start up a Word Press blog on their neighborhood news, capture cell phone photos that trickle up to mainstream media, or spread news internationally over Twitter. But while the multimedia tools for increasing citizen engagement have proliferated in recent years, there’s still no definitive answer for how best to employ them to effect actual change. Personal blogs or those with low readership still trail established news outlets in the “long tail” of Internet traffic, and the majority of government agencies and elected officials are still figuring out how to open up a dialogue with their constituents online. (Just see our comments on Twitter’s latest job posting for evidence of that.)

With all this in mind, it’s encouraging to see events incorporated into Digital Capital Week that address specific ways in which online engagement can be leveraged to increase citizen input in government. Today EMBARQ, the Center for Sustainable Transport at the World Resources Institute, hosted a panel and discussion session on “Online Engagement for Sustainable Urban Mobility.” The panelists included government officials (Bryan Sivak, DC’s Chief Technology Officer, and Lance Schine, the District Department of Transportation’s new Chief Information Officer), journalists (David Alpert, founding editor of the blog “Greater Greater Washington,” and Justin Jouvenal, the web editor behind The Washington Post’s new Postlocal.com), and urban planning types (Nick Grossman of OpenPlans, a non-profit that develops open source urban planning-oriented software, and Christian Madera, a columnist for Next American City).
The potential disappointment often lurking in panels like this one is the prospect that participants will talk about ideals and ideas that are out of reach; the refreshing thing about today’s event was the amount of concrete advice and examples given by the panelists about successful and failed attempts at online engagement at their own organizations. Here’s a recap of some of the lessons they’ve learned so far:
  • Meet people halfway. When OpenPlans tried to build its own social network, no one came, said Nick Grossman. Instead, OpenPlans started Streetsblog.net, a blog network that reposts content from other blogs on sustainable transport that already have a readership base, engaging people in online spaces where they’ve already established a sense of community. Reaching out to people through media they already use also lowers the barriers to entry for participation: As attendees sitting at my table at today’s event mentioned, someone working a 9-to-5 job might not be able to attend their local city council meetings, but they can often address their local officials via Twitter or pick up the phone to call their city council’s office (as many DC locals did recently to protest proposed budget cuts to a streetcar project in the District) if they find civic news and information in the course of their daily media-grazing habits.
  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. DC CTO Bryan Sivak talked about the “Where’s My Bus?” application the District developed for its Circulator buses, but was pleased to note that when those same data were made public, citizen developers made even better apps. Next week the Office of the CTO will announce an Open Data Challenge to solicit models for apps that use QR tags, improve internal management of bus routes, and visualize data showing the Circulator’s activity in the city. OpenPlans, based in New York, will be partnering with the New York City Department of Transportation to engage in some web experiments of their own using the city’s public data sets. Information is most useful when put in the hands of people who have the skills to leverage it into something practical and accessible.
  • Make sure no one is left out of the conversation. In Washington, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will be launching a site within the next day (inspired by DDOT’s involvement in DC Week, from the sound of it) to solicit feedback for the Capital Bike Share program, to complement population and traffic analyses already conducted by the department. Through an arrangement with DC Public Libraries, this site will be set as the homepage on hundreds of library computer stations, in the hopes of reaching a segment of the population that might otherwise be disenfranchised through the digital divide.
These are all interesting initiatives for mobilizing city data, but another event held this evening really emphasized what can happen when information transcends mere talk and begins to have an impact on the ground in a neighborhood. “The Art of the Blog,” a conversation with “Greater Greater Washington’s” David Alpert and hosted by ReadysetDC, continued discussions of community engagement from this afternoon’s EMBARQ event while realizing some of urban development’s real-life potential. The conversation was held in a temporary space created in a vacant building that was once a library kiosk on a bustling corner of the District’s up-and-coming H Street corridor. Decked out in spare furniture and decorated with paper lanterns for the occasion, the building was spruced up specifically to host DC Week’s “Pop-up Lab” events. A diverse group—including someone from the District’s Office of Planning, a realtor, a mapper of public art projects in DC, curious residents, and at least one hyperlocal blogger—came together to talk about the role blogs can play in enhancing civic participation.
Alpert cited multiple occasions in which his blog posts on transportation or city planning issues galvanized residents of the Metro Washington area to attend zoning board meetings, flood the City Council’s office with phone calls, or take a stand on issues in their local communities. Blogs “not only convey information, but they help people interested in a particular area…convey what they believe,” said Alpert. “A blog can get a lot more people to be participants.” His words are an important reminder that information for its own sake is good, but information used to empower and engage a community is even better.

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