Friday, July 6, 2012

Making Sense of My Thoughts on Civic Software

I spoke on a panel at a conference a couple of months ago: Reinventing Older Communities, Building Resilient Cities.  The panel I was on was titled "Innovation with New Information":
Governments are using technology to better understand challenges and create solutions to meet them. Residents are using technology to report problems to local government for quicker resolution. In this session, we explore how technology is changing the relationship between governments and their constituents and offering greater efficiency, transparency, and accountability in the process.
I was one of 3 panelists.  Each of us gave a 15 minute presentation on some particular topic.

The topic I chose was "Building software for citizen engagement".  As I struggled to develop my presentation, I realized how general a topic I had chosen (a persistent problem of mine).  A few days before the conference, I had still not been able to nail down my presentation and was feeling rather distraught.  I decided that, rather than continue to bang my head against the topic, I would go see a movie (I admonished myself for relaxing with the conference date so close, but I needed the break anyway).  And it's a good thing I did (it's also a good thing that Joss Wheadon is so talented).  I'll explain why below.

Yael Borovsky from Technically Philly covered the panel and summarized my talk better than I gave it (don't bother watching the excerpt video).  Here is what I wanted to get across:

I went to see The Avengers the other day and it helped me make sense of my thoughts on civic engagement software.  Good civic engagement software should help inspire people to solve achievable, human-scale problems.

I went to a midnight showing -- 12:30 actually -- so when I left the teater it was quite late.  I won't say much about the movie, as I don't want to spoil it for anyone, and the specifics of the movie aren't important anyway.  But I was energized.  I felt like I could leap over cars and take any of the baddest bad guys in a fight if I had to.  I was inspired, and a world of possibility seemed open to me.  Yes, that "world of possibility" mainly consisted of vigilante justice, but that's not important.

Inspiration is a powerful thing.  Unfortunately, in our every-day life, there are too many things that have the opposite effect.  Sure, some things are uninspiring, but I would say that the opposite of inspiration is disempowerment.  One stimulates you to action, the other encourages inaction.  One expands your perceived realm of possibility, the other reduces it.

Disempowerment doesn't always take the form of someone telling you that you cannot do something either.  Often, it is instead a message that there is nothing you can do.  For example, in Philadelphia, the school district is broke.  They're being dismantled, 40 schools are closing next year, and 6 per year for a few years after that.  This is the framing that the issue has most often taken.  As framed, it's a problem that no ordinary citizen can address -- it's a "city-scale" problem (it may be bigger than that, but I'll jst call all big problems city-scale for now).

In the face of this type of problem, people will do two things: (1) consider what effect the problem will have on themselves and their family, and (2) consider what they can do to mitigate the effects of the problem for themselves.  There's not any point of considering a solution to the stated problem, for an ordinary citizen, because it's just too far outside of their circle of influence.  I think this is, again, because of the problem framing.

A few people are able to cut through the problem framing and see that it is in fact a collection of many smaller problems.  For example, the following post showed up in my Facebook feed one day i early May:
Schools are closing and if you weren't already aware moms and dads, the City of Philadelphia isn't offering "Summer Enrichment Programs" either, which means that there will be an exorbitant amount of children in need of some outside tutoring or help from wherever their struggling parents can find it. I wish I had a center that could accommodate every single child being left out due to these horrendous "budget cuts" but I can't. However what I can and will do and you can too is volunteer some of your time this summer on a consistent basis to the youth in your communites!!! I don't want money getting in the way of providing a service that most who need it can't afford so I will be offering my own "Enrichment Program" for a handful of "Early Childhood" age children this summer for free. Every Saturday morning I will offer this service for at least 3 hours. If you have a child in the SW area or are dedicated enough to drive from wherever you are and would like to get your pre-k, kindergarten, or 1st grade child some additional help with reading, phonics and basic math, before the new school year I am sure that we can make some progress together. Again this will be "free enrichment" not free babysitiing so there will be no drop-offs. If your child is here you will be as well...."team work makes the dream work"!!! Inbox me for details and soon so that I can come up with an offcial schedule as soon as possible!!!"

Reframing problems on "human-scale" returns power to humans.  Another simple example: in Boston, in the winter, it snows.  It can snow a lot.  And the snow can cover and bury anything that's stationary for long enough.  It covers everything including fire hydrants.  As a consequence, in the event of a winter fire, emergency personel find themselves wasting valuable time finding and digging out the hydrants.  The city doesn't have resources to dig out all the hydrants.  And neither do you.  This is a problem framed on city-scale.

In the face of this problem, a project emerged: Adopt-a-Hydrant.  This is a web application that allows anyone to "adopt" any particular hydrant in the city.  It says, "when it snows, this hydrant might be buried, so we'll notify you so that you can check on it".  It took a city-scale problem and reframed it to human-scale.  (Access to open data is a part of this.  Hiding detailed information and knowledge about the world behind the wall of Government, and only letting the knowledge out in large aggregated chunks disallows human-scale reframings.  If the city didn't provide data on the locations of all the fire hydrants, Adopt-a-Hydrant couldn't have been built.)

Empowerment is only part of the solution.  The other is what we started with -- inspiration.  Both are crucial.  Inspiration with no real power will fall flat, and power with no inspiration won't even get started.

Make visible the people who are doing things, especially small and local things (the person who shovels out a fire hydrant down the street when it snows has a real impact).  Hold them up as heroes and tell their stories of achievement.  Further, don't just make these people visible, but demystify their process of making change.  People will be more likely to do things if they know how, or at least know that they have access to instructions.

The internet has borne tools successful at doing all of these things: inspiring and empowering people to mobilize resources they have access to in order to make an impact on their own or other peoples lives through access to information, networking tools that augment real-world activity and interest, and technology that removes the hassle of traditional barriers to entry (for example, accepting electronic payment).  The field of civic engagement software remains ripe with opportunity in this respect and I'm eager to see what's developed next.

I'll continue to think about this, and I hope that I get another chance to give this talk (or one like it).  I feel that the content is true and isn't often framed this way, at least when talking about software.