Archive for the ‘tech’ Category
Well, the cat’s finally out of the bag — Architecture for Humanity has acquired my former employer Worldchanging.com. As a member of AfH’s Worldchanging transition advisory group, I’ve been sworn to secrecy for several months. But now I’m thrilled to be able to share this announcement with you:
Architecture for Humanity Acquires Worldchanging.
Will merge with the Open Architecture Network to develop a robust center for applied innovation and sustainable development.
San Francisco, CA (September 19, 2011) Architecture for Humanity is honored to announce the acquisition of Worldchanging, a leader in solutions-based journalism, and to merge its’ assets with the Open Architecture Network to create a robust and informed network to bring solutions to global challenges to life.
It’s an exciting match, since design increasingly includes discussions of policy and planning, communication, social justice and science; issues that once fell outside the traditional bounds of architecture are now at the heart of professional practice. Bringing these two worlds together is a logical next step in sustainable development.
Cameron Sinclair, Executive Director of Architecture for Humanity, says, “We are thrilled to connect with the Worldchanging community in order to expand the ways we can continue to make a difference across the world. Each project we do requires innovative solutions, resourcefulness, and passion. It’s a perfect fit.”
Architecture for Humanity is thankful to the Board of Directors of Worldchanging for their hard work in helping create a smooth transition.
“I am grateful to the Worldchanging Board of Directors for their active stewardship of Worldchanging during this transition” said Stephanie Pure, Board President of Worldchanging. “Thanks in part to this positive team effort, Worldchanging has a bright future with Architecture for Humanity.”
Over the next six months Architecture for Humanity plans to transform their current Open Architecture Network (www.openarchitecturenetwork.org, an on-line network that empowers architects, designers, builders and their clients to share architectural plans and drawings, into a robust platform that provides dialogue and tools to support a shared vision of a more sustainable future across sectors. The combined strength of these communities, both created out of the TED Prize, will help spur innovation, learning, and best practices.
The new site, which will be managed by an independent entity, will include project management tools, offer case studies on innovative solutions and provide tools for aid and development organizations evaluate their programs in the field.
“Last decade was about imagining the solutions that could help us meet big planetary problems,” said Worldchanging co-founder and former Executive Editor Alex Steffen. “This decade will be all about putting those solutions to work. This exciting new version of Worldchanging is set, I believe, to become the online epicenter of applied innovation.”
Over the summer, Architecture for Humanity met with over sixty writers, contributors, stakeholders and supporters to envision the transition of these sites. “Worldchanging has helped frame the global conversation on sustainability over the past seven years, and we couldn’t be more excited for Architecture for Humanity to take the reins and continue to push the boundaries of what we can achieve together,” Worldchanging co-founder Jamais Cascio noted ”I can’t imagine Worldchanging being in better hands.”
Many of the original writers to Worldchanging, including co-founders Jamais Cascio and Alex Steffen, have signed up to contribute to the new site. We look forward to a bright green future together.
Dearly beloved, please join me in a moment of silence to honor the life and untimely passing of another member of our media family. On Monday, November 29, one of the most important websites of the past decade, Worldchanging.com, announced that it will close up shop by the end of 2010. The main reason? The non-profit organization never was able to achieve financial sustainability without editor Alex Steffen maintaining an insane schedule of speaking gigs (more than 400 in the past 5 years). I’m proud to have been involved with Worldchanging, as a fan, contributor, employee and friend. I will miss it dearly.
In its seven-year run, Worldchanging has been an important intellectual watering hole for people interested in the intersection of sustainability and innovation. Under the banner of “tools, models and ideas for building a better future” the site has produced an impressive archive of nearly 12,000 articles on a broad range of subjects, from architecture to agriculture, climate science to microfinance, nanotech to urban design. Fortunately, that archive will live on, says the announcement: “It is our goal to see the archive of work here maintained, though the form of that archive is still uncertain.” Also, a revised and updated edition of the bestselling 2006 book Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century is due out in March 2011.
Worldchanging served as both a launchpad for important new voices — like Cameron Sinclair, Dawn Danby, Sarah Rich, David Zaks and Anna Lappé, among many others — and a new platform for some venerable old hands — like Gil Friend, Terry Tempest Williams, Joel Makower, Jon Lebkowsky and Jay Walljasper. The list of contributors to the site and its eponymous book reads like a who’s who of some of the most respected thinkers and doers in sustainability circles. Worldchanging’s contribution to the public conversation about our common future is undeniable.
I first learned about Worldchanging shortly after its launch in 2003. The site quickly became my favorite source for story ideas about emerging trends in technology and social innovation during my last few years as a writer and editor at Utne Reader. I loved the focus on solutions that co-founders Alex Steffen and Jamais Cascio and their team brought to a range of subjects I care about deeply, which they nicely captured with the optimistic catchphrase “bright green.”
I went to work for Worldchanging in late 2006, when I left Utne Reader and moved to Seattle. I joined the team as Publisher, alongside Steffen as Editor (Cascio had left early that year), just before the launch of one of the organization’s crowning achievements, the 600-page book Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, a compendium of ideas and solutions in the spirit of the old Whole Earth Catalog. The book would become a bestseller and was translated into French, German and several other languages.
We were trying to leverage the attention generated by the book, and the momentum from a major grant from the folks at TED, to grow the site from its origins as a group blog into a professional, multi-channel idea factory. And we wanted to do it our own way, bootstrapping our growth through a variety of diverse revenue streams without having to rely on the largesse of foundations or large donors (and avoiding the inevitable strings attached). We created a series of local blogs covering the green innovation scenes in places like LA, Chicago, Austin, New York, Minneapolis and Canada. And we had big dreams of launching audio and video podcasts, conferences, book series, and turning the contributor team into a speakers bureau and consulting team. My job was to focus on building new revenue streams — initially reader donations, content sponsorships, and ads — to facilitate that growth and ease the pressure on Alex to bring in speaking fees.
Our efforts saw modest success, though nothing anywhere near what we had hoped. I’ll admit that I wasn’t entirely ready for the role. I had some successful experience in both software sales and nonprofit fundraising. But I had no training or experience in media sales. I had agreed to unrealistically high revenue goals and had to learn on the job while setting up a sales operation entirely from scratch with no budget. There were other challenges inherent to the site’s content and the business model we were pursuing in an ad-driven media landscape, which I’ll elaborate on below.
In March of 2007, six months after I started, I left the staff mainly for personal reasons — my wife and I had moved to Guatemala to foster the baby boy we adopted later that year. In the three years since then, Worldchanging has continued to produce some of the best, most important content available, despite its continued financial struggles.
In the end, I believe Worldchanging’s demise was due in large part to the organization’s inability to craft a business model that could surmount several challenges endemic to the current ad-driven media ecosystem. (Again, I haven’t been privy to the inner workings of the organization for the past three years. So my analysis could be way off base, or at least out of date):
- Too General-Interest for Advertisers: In an era when sponsors insist on carving audiences into ever-smaller and more specialized niches, Worldchanging was never quite niche enough. The site was simply too broad, too eclectic, too general-interest for advertisers to fit into their ultra-narrow targeting algorithms. This is not a problem with the content, but with the advertising model. More financially successful sites in the green space focused heavily on a marketable niche, like product reviews (Treehugger), business (GreenBiz.com), architecture and design (Inhabitat) or green news and politics (Grist, which also had major foundation support and a 5-year headstart). We were also reluctant to go after most big corporate brands with large marketing budgets. We didn’t want to help them greenwash their images. And most of the cool green companies were too small and were spending all of their meager ad dollars on search engine ads. This is one of the great tragedies of the modern media ecosystem: general-interest publications, whether online or in print, simply can’t compete. It’s the shadow side of narrowcasting.
- Not Enough Traffic: Online, as in print, there basically are two ways to attract advertisers — scale and targeting. With enough traffic, you can overcome the niche problem. But we were never big enough to do that. And a couple months into my tenure at Worldchanging, after implementing several stats programs, we learned that our real traffic was significantly smaller than what our raw server logs were telling us. With more time and capital we might have successfully carved out a clearer niche in advertisers’ minds.
- The “Blog” Problem: Even with some of the brightest minds in the field writing for the site, and despite our efforts to reposition it as an online magazine, advertisers were reluctant to sponsor what they saw as a “blog” where most of the content came from volunteers with no editorial calendar or strong professional editorial filter. Advertisers crave predictability.
- Focus on Ideas: The site also suffered from its focus on ideas rather than products — something Utne Reader always struggled with as well. In the name of editorial integrity (to his credit), Alex steadfastly refused to add features like green product reviews — the sort of content advertisers will pay top dollar to sponsor. In 2007-08 there was a valiant attempt to appeal more to sponsors while maintaining editorial independence by introducing a stable of weekly columns, with writers paid to cover certain beats. I was gone by then and don’t know the details of the impact the move had, but obviously the new editorial model did not succeed in turning the Worldchanging ship around.
- Progressive Funders Reluctant to Fund Media: As my friend Bill Weaver says, media makers are the modern sorcerers. Changing the stories we tell can change the way people think. Yet foundations and investors interested in social change have never seemed to get the need to support media. Conservative foundations and corporations supporting the status quo got this long ago, which is why we’ve been outgunned for a generation by the right-wing media and punditocracy.
- The Economy: It sounds cliche now, but unfortunately it’s true. The cruelest irony of the Great Recession is that so many of the organizations that are rethinking our social, political and economic systems are entirely dependent on funding derived from the existing, unsustainable, consumption-driven economy. And those sources of funding are drying up on every front, whether it’s dwindling consumer spending, shrinking ad budgets, or cutbacks in foundation grants because of the downturn on Wall St.
I’m sad to have to write these words. Though just as sadly, I’m not surprised. Worldchanging changed my world in so many ways. My hat’s off to Alex, Jamais and all of the incredible visionaries who had a hand in this project over the past seven years. Thank you, thank you, and again, thank you. I look forward to seeing what we all created together live on in some form, and I wish you all success in whatever comes next.
Here are a few more observations I took away from NCDD 2010 Portland: The Cascadia Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation last weekend. You can read my earlier post about this excellent event here.
Gov2.0 meets D&D
There seems a be a convergence underway between the open government or “Gov 2.0″ movement and the dialogue and deliberation (or D&D) community. The Gov 2.0 crowd is largely focused on opening up government datasets in the interest of transparency and civic innovation. It’s largely driven by government techies and open-source geeks keen on exposing data to the public so that citizens can create apps that improve, augment, or streamline government services and make government more responsive and accountable. For example, see efforts like Open311, Portland’s CivicApps project, the Vancouver Open Data Catalogue, the Open Gov West conferences, and Code for America.
Meanwhile, the D&D community has long focused on spreading better offline face-to-face interaction, through innovative social “technologies” like the World Cafe, Open Space, Future Search, Wisdom Councils, Study Circles, and Conversation Cafes. These are all structured dialogue or deliberation processes that are designed to better harness the collective intelligence of groups — for better learning, discovery, planning, and decision-making. And maybe it’s a generational thing (most D&D practitioners are not Net Natives), but until recently I’ve always sensed a general distrust of online communication technologies and strong preference for offline dialogue among most of my friends in the D&D community.
There are, of course, some notable exceptions that have long embraced technology, like AmericaSpeaks, MetroQuest, and the many online forums run by E-Democracy.org. Governments experimenting with online public consultation is not new. And there is a significant community of online facilitators that has been steadily growing for over a decade. But recent advances in deliberative software and the exponential growth of social media has changed the game, seeding the ground for much wider adoption of online public engagement strategies.
At the NCDD conference, I was excited to see a surge of interest in experimentation with new technologies for online outreach and citizen engagement, especially among government officials. I believe this is driven by several factors:
- Growth of Social Media: As citizens get used to interacting with businesses and nonprofits through social utilities like Facebook and Twitter, they’re expecting to be able to interact with government officials and institutions via the same channels. Institutions are adopting enterprise social networking and collaboration tools internally, too. It only makes sense that those institutions would begin to engage the public via similar tools.
- Eroding Trust in Government: Public trust and confidence in government is at record lows. Conventional methods of public engagement — public hearings, surveys, citizen advisory panels, public notices in newspapers — are boring and ineffective, and may well spur more apathy than engagement. As state and local government budgets grow leaner by the day, officials are desperate for new approaches that could help them do more with less.
- Gov 2.0: The open gov meme is spreading fast by word-of-mouth in government circles. Public officials are seeing successful experiments with open data and the range of new technologies for collaboration and civic dialogue that are emerging. And many of them are eager to get in the game.
- Deliberative Software: Recent advances in online dialogue and deliberation technologies mean governments have more and better tools to choose from in crafting their public engagement strategies.
The Importance of Inclusion
The need for fostering “equitable dialogue” was a strong undercurrent at the conference. In the World Cafe dialogue on Friday evening, one participant asked, “Is public engagement considered a leisure activity? For whom?” To which another replied that, unfortunately, Maslow was right — the people who would benefit most from getting more engaged are also the most likely to consider civic activities leisure, especially when they are struggling to feed their families. Several participants pointed out that the crowd at the conference was overwhelmingly white and over 40. One of the facilitators kicked himself publicly when he realized that, despite holding the conference at a university, no notices were posted on campus inviting students to attend.
It was also pointed out that we need to be careful not to let our fascination with new technologies blind us to their shortcomings. The digital divide is still very real. That means we need to pay attention to accessibility, and keep legacy modes of engagement in place — i.e. face-to-face hearings and community meetings, phone surveys, etc. — so that nobody is left out. Because for democracy to truly work, everybody needs a seat at the table.
As I write this, I’m rocketing down the rails on the Amtrak from Portland to Seattle, headed home after the Cascadia Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation. This inspiring confab was the last of 5 regional gatherings held around the country this fall by the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD), a nonprofit that promotes the use of innovative social processes for better discovery, learning, and decision-making, in settings from neighborhood groups to corporate boardrooms, nonprofits to universities to legislative bodies. It was hosted by Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement and Concordia University.
The theme of the conference was “public engagement” — which was broken down into three broad topics:
- Quality Public Engagement: What is quality public engagement and how do we educate others about it so it becomes broadly adopted?
- Online Engagement: How can online technology enhance public engagement?
- Collaborations that Work: How can we strengthen connections between public administrators, engagement practitioners and the public?
Kudos to NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher and the entire organizing team (especially crack facilitators Walt Roberts and Tod Sloan) for putting together a fantastic event that left me enlightened and inspired. It was the perfect antidote to the toxic partisanship of the recent election season.
A Few Highlights
My head is still spinning from the rich stew of ideas, models, processes and projects presented at the event, to say nothing of the amazing people. Herewith, a few highlights:
1. The People
The best thing about this gathering was the people. (I love hanging out with facilitators and social process geeks.) The attendees, about 180 in all, consisted of a mix of professional facilitators, academics, community organizers, techies, consultants, corporate and philanthropic leaders, and government officials. It was great to spend time with old friends and co-conspirators like Joseph McCormick, Susan Partnow, Howard Silverman, John Spady, Peggy Holman, Jim Rough, and one of my personal heroes, Tom Atlee. To finally meet folks long I’ve admired, like DeAnna Martin and Sandy Heierbacher. And to make tons of new connections with inspiring people who are in the trenches daily endeavoring to make democracy work.
2. The Process
Most conferences (and I attend a lot) are sorely lacking in one respect: interactivity. They don’t build in enough opportunities for dialogue — between audience and presenters, or, more importantly, between participants. The old, didactic model of experts at the front of the room dropping knowledge on the audience followed by a short Q&A period misses so many opportunities for participants to interact in creative, generative ways that spark new connections, deepen the conversation and harness the wisdom of everyone in the room. This conference, by contrast, was beautifully designed and facilitated for maximum dialogue potential.
The conference kicked off on Friday evening with a World Cafe dialogue, facilitated by Walt Roberts, on the state of public engagement. About 50 of us spent two hours shuffling from table to table every 15-20 minutes as we moved through a series of questions about the state of public engagement and ways to improve it. Between each round, we passed the mic around the room as people shared insights that had come up at their tables, and a team of graphic facilitators recorded our thoughts with markers on large paper murals with images and keywords culled from the report-backs. This was a great way to quickly meet a bunch of new people, generate a wide range of ideas and insights, and set a conversational, collaborative tone for the rest of the conference.
The main event took place Saturday from 9-5, with all 180 participants in attendance. The morning consisted of three plenary presentations of innovative dialogue-driven public engagement projects from Washington and Oregon (more on the projects below). After each presentation, rather than going straight to Q&A, the audience members turned to each other in groups of four to discuss what we had just heard. The mic was then passed around for people to share their observations and insights, or ask questions of the presenters.
The afternoon breakout sessions were organized using Open Space, a self-organizing process where anyone in the room can offer a session on any topic. Some two dozen sessions were offered — ranging from brainstorming sessions on upcoming public engagement projects to technology demos, conversations on race, gender, and privilege to envisioning a sustainable future for suburbs. John Spady and I presented together a demonstration of the web platform my company, Zanby, built for the Countywide Community Forums (more on that below).
After the breakouts we reconvened for a final wrap-up session where, again, the mic was passed around the room so that anyone could offer insights or reflections. In keeping with the goal of maximizing interaction, the last thing facilitator Walt Roberts did before closing was to invite everyone to look around the room and find someone you’ve been meaning to connect with but haven’t yet had the chance.
I wish conference planners everywhere would take a few pages from NCDD’s book and design many more opportunities for dialogue and interactivity into their events.
3. The Projects
The three projects featured in the morning plenaries were all noteworthy.
- City of Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI): Several ONI staff presented about the variety of ways the city is institutionalizing public involvement in decision-making processes throughout the city government. Afifa Ahmed-Shafi, ONI’s Public Involvement Best Practices Coordinator, described the Public Involvement Principles [PDF] adopted last August by the city council. According to the ONI website, “[The] principles include partnership, early involvement, building relationships and community capacity, inclusiveness and equity, good quality process design and implementation, transparency, and accountability.” The city council also adopted a requirement that every measure submitted at council be accompanied by a “public involvement report” documenting how citizens were consulted in developing the proposal. ONI is currently conducting a baseline assessment of public involvement across all city offices, and is looking at other experiments such as participatory budgeting.
- Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review: Established by the Oregon legislature in 2008, this reform institutionalized a citizen jury-style process for evaluating the pros and cons of statewide ballot measures. “24 Oregon voters are selected at random, and then demographically balanced to fairly represent a cross-section of the entire state electorate. This panel participates in balanced hearings where campaign advocates and policy experts present the arguments and facts about the measure.” After several days of testimony, the panelists decide how they would vote on the measures and write pro and con statements. The statements and vote totals are included in the official state voter’s guide.
- Countywide Community Forums (CCF): [Full Disclosure: CCF is a Zanby client.] In 2007 Dick Spady, founder of Dick’s Drive-In Restaurants, proposed a ballot initiative to establish a periodic public consultation process for King County government. After supporters gathered 80,000 signatures the county council adopted the measure before it had a chance to go to a public vote. Since then, every 4-6 months, the County Executive or the CCF board picks a topic and declares a new forum round. Past topics have included public safety, customer service, and county budget priorities. For a period of 4-6 weeks, the public (anyone who lives or works in King County) is invited to become registered “citizen councilors” and host or attend a meeting in their neighborhood where they watch a brief overview video about the topic, discuss the issues, and take an opinion survey. Alternatively, citizen councilors can watch the video, discuss, and take the survey entirely online at the CCF website. The website, which is powered by Zanby’s online community platform, also features a map and calendar of face-to-face meetings, as well as online groups for staff and volunteers to collaborate and manage the program. When a forum round is over, the survey responses are tabulated and presented in a report to the County Auditor, County Council, and the public. The most recent forum round, which took place earlier this fall, focused on “county budget priorities” and resulted in 766 surveys submitted.
I also learned about several other cool initiatives at the conference:
- Marine Map – A web-based decision support tool for multi-stakeholder marine spatial planning, developed by EcoTrust. With some cool GIS technology, participants in a live workshop setting or online can draw a circle on a map to propose a protected area and get an immediate analysis of the impacts on habitat, fish populations, and economic impacts on nearby ports and fishing fleets. Check out this video.
- A Pattern Language for Social Process (no link) – A physical card deck being developed by a woman named Tree that is meant to aide with creative problem-solving in community and organizational settings. I’m still trying to get my hands on a copy of the deck.
- Ideas4Oregon – After this idea-generation contest drew 542 submissions for creative ways to address social problems, the Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon’s largest community foundation, is working on plans to build a platform for better connecting the state’s social sector.
- Family Support Network – Has a newly redesigned website that helps community activists to map assets (such as skills or equipment) at the neighborhood level and trains “community weavers” who help neighbors match needs and assets in times of crisis, increasing community resilience.
In my next post, I’ll share some further observations on the ideas and issues that came up in the discussions at the Portland conference.
Recently, my dad proposed in his back-page column in the May/June Utne Reader, titled “An Open Letter to MoveOn,” that the nation’s premier progressive organization should go beyond issue-driven campaigns and “lead a community organizing movement across America.” (Yes, in case you’re wondering, my dad founded Utne Reader, and I worked there as a writer and editor for eight years.)
I couldn’t agree more. I especially like his suggestion that MoveOn stage a series of large revival-style cultural events designed to introduce members to each other:
MoveOn could kick off the movement by hosting stadium-sized events, harking back to 19th-century chautauquas and tent shows. Attendees would sit together according to particular affinities: parents of young children, schoolteachers, health care workers, clergy, small-business owners, elders. Like-minded participants could share their ideas about particular issues, like clean, green energy and single-payer health care. Or, if seating were assigned based on zip code and postal route, people would meet their neighbors in a positively charged environment.
All this would be interspersed with musical entertainment, stand-up polemic, and perhaps a Jumbotron visit from Obama himself. Consider it an extended-family/neighborhood reunion in which participants would meet some long-lost relatives for the very first time.
After the event, attendees would all receive lists of the 20 other participants who live closest to them. House parties would follow. Instead of discussing issues, we would simply get to know each other by telling each other our stories of “self, us, and now.”
(Telling stories of “self, us, and now” is a technique used in the Camp MoveOn organizer trainings, one of which my dad attended last year, and which inspired his column.)
I’d be thrilled to attend a rally of 5, 10 or 20 thousand MoveOn members in my area, knowing that I’d hear great bands and speakers and have a chance to meet and converse with other progressives in my neighborhood.
People often accuse MoveOn of mere “clicktivism,” of sapping the activist energies of grassroots progressives by calling on people to sign petition after petition on narrow issue campaigns. People either feel they can just click and be done with it, or they get tired of the incessant calls to action and tune out, the argument goes.
That argument is unfair. MoveOn has done more in the past decade than any other organization to build the American progressive movement, to give it a sense of identity and an outlet to flex its political muscle. The group has pioneered new models of online advocacy and fundraising, developing many of the tools and strategies that are now de rigeur in both issue and electoral campaigns across the political spectrum. Most importantly, MoveOn has experimented with new ways to move people from online to offline. Every person who signs a MoveOn petition is invited to take further action — write or call Congress, donate to the campaign, attend a rally, vigil or organizing meeting. MoveOn was largely responsible for mobilizing people to turn out on what became the largest global day of protest in history, the simultaneous anti-war rallies in hundreds of cities across the US and around the globe on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003. And if it weren’t for MoveOn paving the way, and providing critical early support, the presidential campaigns of both Howard Dean and Barack Obama might never have been possible.
Yet some criticism is justified. MoveOn’s sheer scale (5 million members) and obsession with numbers can make individual activists feel insignificant and campaigns feel impersonal.
As the de facto connective tissue of much of the progressive movement, MoveOn has an opportunity to go beyond issue campaigns and strengthen the movement by introducing its members to each other. Not under the rubric of any particular campaign or action. Simply connecting people to each other at the local level so they can start conversations and build community would be a powerful step toward revitalizing and re-engaging progressives, many of whom tuned out after pouring their hearts out to put Obama in the White House.
Introducing MoveOn members (like myself) to each other and inviting us to share stories of “self, us, and now,” and to start conversations about our hopes and dreams for our families, neighborhoods, country and planet could be the best way to inoculate the body politic against the cynicism and hatred emanating from the Tea Party, Congress, and the media. It would surely lead to more committed local activism, would surface new issues and ideas, and could rekindle the sense of hope and possibility that drove so many of us to pound the pavement and open our wallets for Obama in 2008. As my dad says: “This could be the start of an earthshaking nationwide movement.”
So how about it, MoveOn? Please introduce me to my neighbors.
This week I’m making my first trip to Sin City. On Wednesday I head to Las Vegas for Netroots Nation 2010, an annual confab of 2000+ progressive activists, bloggers, techies and politicos, taking place at the Rio Hotel. According to a press release, this is “the largest gathering of the Democratic base ahead of the midterm elections… Energizing the Netroots was key to Democratic successes in 06’ and 08’ and will be important again this year.”
I’ll be there representing Zanby, which will have a big presence in the exhibit hall. We’ll be showing off the latest version of our innovative platform for online collaboration, group management, and social networking. And we’ll be touting some recent client projects like Rework the World and The UpTake.
We will also be sharing booth space with our friends and allies at Warecorp, a full-service custom web dev shop, The UpTake, an award-winning video citizen journalism outfit (and Zanby client), and Mobile Roots, maker of mobile apps for political campaigns.
So if you’re going to Netroots, drop by our booth and say hi!
More from the press release:
Speakers at the conference include: Senator Reid, Speaker Pelosi, Secretary LaHood, Sen. Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren, Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Ed Schultz, Sen. Jeff Merkley, Sen. Ben Cardin, Sen. Tom Udall, Rep. Alan Grayson, Rep. Raul Grijalva, Rep. Jared Polis, Rep. Donna Edwards, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Van Jones, Rich Trumka, Tim Wise, Lizz Winstead, Majora Carter, Markos Moulitsas, Tarryl Clark, Bill Halter, George Goehl, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, Deepak Bhargava, Gerald McEntee, Eliseo Medina and many more.
You can see the full schedule here: http://netrootsnation.org/agenda
[Cross-posted from the Zanby blog. -LU]
I recently helped facilitate Open Gov West, a two-day conference on “Gov 2.0″ organized by my friend Sarah Schacht, executive director of Knowledge As Power. Over 200 open government advocates and practitioners came to Seattle City Hall from across the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada, plus a few from farther afield.
Day 1 was a traditional conference, with programmed panels, a keynote speaker, and “work sessions” where attendees came up with recommendations for action in the areas of open government policy; data and document standards; funding; and working with non-traditional partners. Day 2 was an unconference, where anyone could offer a session on any topic.
At a discussion session on Day 2 titled “The Architecture of Gov’t 2.0,” Vancouver-based facilitator and web strategist Gordon Ross posed a provocative question: “What would the city website of your dreams do?”
The City Website of My Dreams
I’ve been pondering that question for a long time. Here’s what I wish I had said in that session:
The city website of my dreams would not only let me find relevant information, process transactions, lodge complaints, and communicate with elected officials. It would help me connect with my neighbors.
When I move into a new neighborhood, I wish I could go to the city’s website and join a group for my block (or a collection of several blocks) — complete with discussions, event calendar, photos, videos, and listings of relevant city services, businesses, nonprofits, neighborhood associations, and so forth. That way I could plug in and get to know my neighborhood (and my neighbors) quicker than ever. I could browse archived discussions to see what issues have been on my neighbors’ minds, peruse photos and videos from recent block parties and festivals, and check the calendar for upcoming events. And if I moved to a new neighborhood, I could just quit the online group for my old neighborhood and join my new one, taking my profile, friends, and history with me.
Such a platform would give me and my neighbors a powerful tool to self-organize — everything from potlucks to crime-watch patrols, yard sales, childcare swaps, street cleanups and community meetings about city policies of interest to the neighborhood. We could organize car-, bike-, and tool-sharing coops. It would give us a quick way to share alerts about burglaries or fires.
And it would give the city a powerful way of targeting communications to specific blocks. Need to clear the street because of a snow emergency, tree-trimming, or a broken water main? Just send a message to that block’s listserve and word will spread fast. Add an SMS gateway to send text messages to residents’ mobile phones and word will spread even faster. Connect it all to a CRM database and an Open 311 system and you’ve got a powerful tool set for citizens to engage with the city not just as individuals, but as groups, as neighborhoods, as communities.
That’s the grand vision the old community organizer in me has for what a city website could do for citizen engagement.
Pieces of this vision already exist, mostly organized ad hoc on private platforms like Facebook, Google Groups, Ning, and all manner of blogs and email lists. There are a few organized, larger-scale examples. E-Democracy.org hosts email discussion lists for 25+ communities across the US, UK and New Zealand. Frankfurt Gestalten (“Create Frankfurt”), is a Drupal-based project inspired by the great pothole apps FixMyStreet (UK) and SeeClickFix (US), but with a greater emphasis on groups organizing around neighborhood initiatives proposed by users. The Dutch foundation Web in de Wijk (“Web in the Neighborhoods”) provides a toolkit for residents to create their own neighborhood websites. The explosion of hyperlocal news blogs — like WestSeattleBlog and MyBallard in Seattle — has proven that there’s a hunger for online spaces that support offline neighborhood-level community-building.
Of all the sites I’ve seen, Neighbors for Neighbors comes closest to the vision I describe above. This Boston-based nonprofit has built Ning networks for all 18 neighborhoods across the city, stitched together as a citywide network under an umbrella WordPress blog. City staff, neighborhood activists, landlords, business owners, police, and residents of all stripes are active on the site, using it to organize everything from potlucks to pickup soccer games to public meetings about saving neighborhood libraries.
But I have yet to see such a network of self-organizing hyper-local community groups fully integrated with a city’s website.
Zanby’s Groups-of-Groups Approach
I’d love to build a system like this on the Zanby platform. Our unique groups-of-groups architecture enables the clustering of local groups into “group families” around any criteria — like geography, of course, but also other affinities that might unite certain block groups to others in different parts of the city, like proximity to schools, libraries, parks, transit lines, waterfronts, commercial zones, etc. Those groups could easily network and collaborate with other groups across the city with shared interests by joining group families organized around those interests. This architecture allows groups to network with other groups.
Imagine, for example, that a block in Boston lies within earshot of a freeway, borders a river, has a transit stop on it and is home to many Spanish speakers. In addition to belonging to one of those 18 geographic neighborhood group families, my block could join families for, say, all the blocks across the city that lie along the same light-rail line, or along Boston Harbor and the Charles River, or along highways, or with similar demographics. Those groups might share certain interests and concerns with each other that don’t map to the geographic neighborhood lines.
Meanwhile, a group a few blocks away might not be so concerned about freeway noise or transit safety. But it has a community garden and a retirement home on it. That group might join group families organized around elderly issues and community gardens. The host of a Highway Neighbors group family could create events, discussions, documents, etc. that are easily shared with all of the groups in the family.
The key concept here is that group families allow groups to network and collaborate with other groups.
It’s also fairly easy to integrate third-party tools and data into a Zanby community, using APIs, RSS feeds and embeddable objects. So each block group and neighborhood group family could serve as a social media dashboard displaying discussions, events, documents, etc. generated by Zanby, side-by-side with feeds of info from city databases, video streams of public meetings, live chats with residents and city officials, etc.
The Other ‘L’ Word: Liability
Legal experts have raised concerns about liability when the government hosts open forums for civic dialogue. Government lawyers get nervous about being sued for censorship if, for example, an employee deletes a profane or racist comment on a city blog or message board. And if they don’t moderate such comments, they could be sued for facilitating hate speech. Similar liability concerns were common a decade ago in the private sector, mainly in the media industry, as newspaper and magazine publishers struggled with whether to add blogs, reader comments, and forums on their websites. Those issues have largely been sorted out.
Fortunately, while the public sector may be a few years behind in sorting out these issues, it appears to be catching up fast. In the past year, 24 federal agencies, and many city and state governments, have used IdeaScale and similar apps to create open forums for sourcing ideas from the public. The website of the New York State Senate, a model of open government, now hosts blogs for every senator, including public comments, and allows the public to post comments on bills. The White House also recently published new guidelines for federal employees on how to use social media to engage the public.
Helping Communities Help Themselves
Just like social media is reshaping whole industries by slashing the transaction costs of engagement, it holds tremendous potential to reshape government — or more importantly, the relationship between citizens and government. There was much talk at the Open Gov West conference about how governments at all levels can use social media and online communities to engage citizens in dialogue, to leverage their knowledge, skills, passions, and willingness to volunteer their time and energy to solve public problems and improve their communities.
But as Doug Schuler, of the Public Sphere Project, argued, “We shouldn’t be talking about how government can leverage citizens. We should be talking about how citizens can leverage the government.” After all, the government is there to serve the people, not the other way around, right?
Yes, and to that end the government should be a vehicle for helping people help themselves — not just as individuals, but as communities, providing the social space for civic spirit to grow. I believe that putting tools in the hands of citizens to self-organize and build community — through the government website — is one powerful way to do that. Vibrant civic life requires infrastructure. I hope that one day it’s considered as normal, and vital, for city governments to provide such community infrastructure online as it is to build and maintain parks and town squares offline.
Open Gov West is just three weeks away! Hosted by Seattle’s new mayor Mike McGinn and organized by my amazing friend Sarah Schacht, ED of Knowledge as Power, this confab promises to be one of this year’s hottest local/regional gatherings on open government, Gov2.0, transparency, citizen engagement, open data and all sorts of related awesomeness. I’m proud to say I’m a co-convener. If you hail from the Pacific Northwest, or are just interested in Gov2.0 and can get yourself to Seattle for this, I hope to see you there.
Check out the press release below for details. And to register or find out more, visit the conference website, http://opengovwest.com.
Open Gov West – setting the standards for Gov 2.0 in Seattle
Open Gov West is a regional two-day conference on open government hosted by the City of Seattle and Knowledge As Power on March 26th & 27th, 2010 at Seattle City Hall. Coordinated by Knowledge As Power and supported by Mayor McGinn’s office and Seattle City Council members, this important gathering will bring together decision makers, technology companies and citizen activists, city and state government, agencies and organizations from across the Pacific Northwest. The conference opens at Seattle City Hall on March 26th with a government work summit, producing open government recommendations and resources. Day two will be an “unconference” where presentations are given by conference participants. Attendees at day two range from innovative open gov organizations, government CTOs and citizen activists. The two days will provide opportunities for governments and organizations to collaborate, reduce costs, and plan open government strategies.
‘Gov 2.0’, utilizing technology to increase transparency and access to government, is rapidly developing at city, state and federal levels of government. As yet there are no universal standards for how governments present data, or how citizens can most effectively communicate with government. Some recent examples of information provided by governmental and agency websites are overly complicated and poorly structured, more confusing than illuminating.
Sarah Schacht is Director of Knowledge As Power, a convener and organizer of Open Gov West. She began researching the application of web communications in politics as an undergraduate. A decade later, her research and work across the North America has shown why the Open Gov West conference is important: “Governments must meet the needs of modernized citizens seeking greater access and transparency. The danger is in each government ‘re-inventing the wheel,’ overspending on technology when they could have modernized their systems in collaboration with fellow governments.
This is the time for open gov initiatives to meet the needs of citizens and governments—freeing both from outdated technology”.
Governments throughout the greater Pacific Northwest and Canada have recently launched open government directives. Open Gov West is an opportunity to bring leaders in technology innovation, government and civic engagement together at the start of the open gov process, to establish shared standards and partnerships.
Open Gov West is organized by Knowledge As Power (KAP), a 501c3 whose mission is to help individuals become informed and effective within the legislative process. By providing online legislation tracking and citizen-to-legislator communications tools, KAP helps busy individuals easily and meaningfully participate in the lawmaking process. KAP’s service currently covers the Washington State Legislature and will soon launch a service for the Seattle City Council.
For more information, contact Sarah Schacht, Executive Director, Knowledge As Power at 206-909-2684 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This Thursday, October 15, is Blog Action Day 2009, and the theme is climate change. Join me and more than 6,000 other bloggers around the globe as we do some major collective consciousness-raising about climate science, climate solutions, and the UN climate negotiations coming up in December in Copenhagen.