Foglio's Field Notes

Leif Utne's random rants, musings and meditations

The City as Community-Building Platform

with 10 comments

[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. 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.

Written by leifutne

April 28, 2010 at 5:36 pm

10 Responses

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  1. “City as community-building platform” is an inspiring and though-provoking vision. I think a key to this succeeding is that the City acts as a hub for links to sites run by residents of the communities. That should avert many obstacles, too; liability, overhead cost, and likely Big Brother objections. It also avoids “one size fits all” and “if you build it they will come” pitfalls. Though I’m confident it’s a good fit for many communities, not everyone will use your Zanby product. That shouldn’t stop us from realizing your vision. Naturally, there are elements of this that would run on a city infrastructure. 311 is an obvious example.

    Kevin Curry

    April 29, 2010 at 8:46 pm

  2. Hey Kevin, thanks for posting Leif’s post to the CityCamp list.

    Leif, I too am interested in how you make the local government to local community connection. During one of our hackathons we had someone with us who works in community policing with block clubs to help us better understand how we could serve block captains for example.

    The challenge with government (on top of the their skittishness about political liability with interaction online) is that each department serves a narrow purpose. I’d love to partner with cities and provide the official tool for block club support and get fliers stuffed in utility bills, etc. but I strongly believe that you need general tools for neighbors to be neighbors rather than just crime preventers. So, getting city buy in will be challenging.

    That said, since you moved away from our fair land, we’ve had an explosion in neighborhood level Issues Forums – – that embrace community life (not just city politics). I was speaking with the director of our local park yesterday and he said that the 500 person e-mail list in our area – – reaching over 10% of households everyday is his most effective way to reach people. We also have city council members doing constituent services on the forums as well … because unlike our city forum, on these forums they know these participants are their voters.

    Anyway, great vision. I am with you!

    Steven Clift

    April 29, 2010 at 9:08 pm

  3. Great article. This is a gov community manager’s dream. But it’s also her nightmare at the same time.

    As much as we like to think things have been “sorted out” by the lawyers, the First Amendment continues to live, breathe and evolve through our courts. And a very vocal minority of citizens have no desire to leverage their government; like Groucho Marx once famously sang, if it’s got “government-run-” in front of it, they’re against it. These citizens will continue to work to drown government-run community spaces (and government-run- everything else) in the Will we ever get to a point where government sponsorship of community “free speech zones” don’t lead to costly legal battles and compromised political careers? Maybe, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

    Governments certainly need to tap into Ning spaces and Zanby groups and Open Atrium spaces. Idea management seems to be a good first step as it provides clearer rules for engagement. But we also need to realize that government involvement in a program automatically complicates the interactions, because now we’re talking about “government-run-“. Kevin’s bridging idea may be the best approach; neighborhood groups that get material or technological support from local governments to stand on their own can avoid some of the pitfalls of bringing “government-run-” into the equation. Govs can and should collaborate with and enable community organizations and other NGOs to develop and showcase these spaces.


    April 30, 2010 at 5:33 am

    • Should be “These citizens will continue to work to drown government-run community spaces (and government-run- everything else) in the proverbial bathtub.”


      April 30, 2010 at 5:35 am

  4. Thanks Leif. I saw this conference on my horizon, but couldn’t juggle various other commitments to make it. From what I see here, and in related posts, it looks like an important place to learn. I’m working with NGOs and local govts in fairly small communities, and gathering information on how they can use some of these tools to advantage. Right now there is often interest, but no $, so things happen in ad hoc ways, using existing “free” networks and options.


    April 30, 2010 at 6:19 am

  5. Sounds like a great conference. We’ve powered over 30 prizes and are working an ambitious yet very attainable innovation prize on a municipal level.

    My experience is the best initiatives are facilitated ($$, time, resources to implement) from the top-down then driven from bottom-up (skill, time, etc.)

    I concur w/ @carolyn ‘gov’t should collaborate with non-profit sector’ to implement ideas…they are in fact in the field everyday and closer to the customer.

    Anil Rathi

    April 30, 2010 at 9:00 am

  6. Here is an example of the city providing links to community sites:

    Kevin Curry

    April 30, 2010 at 5:48 pm

  7. Thanks for the awesome feedback, everyone.

    @Kevin: I agree that local governments should link to all the independent neighborhood web spaces created by citizens. But I also think there’s room for governments to actually provide the platform for those spaces. As Adriel Hampton blogged yesterday, “I’m more convinced that (sic) ever that social portals are the future for local govs.” Integrating such spaces with the government portal, and pulling in feeds of content from outside news sources, neighborhood blogs, forums and listserves, would shorten the distance between citizens and City Hall, which could greatly enhance government responsiveness and service delivery.

    @Steve: Thanks for the update about Great stuff. I agree we need spaces for neighbors to just be neighbors. That’s why I think this is a compelling use case for Zanby’s group family architecture. My block has many identities/subgroups within it, which is why it should be able to join a family for, say, all the blocks in the city’s crime-watch program AND a family for all the blocks with community gardens. But the block next to us may not have a crime-watch team or a community garden, so it wouldn’t necessarily have an interest, as a group, in those families/programs.

    @Carolyn, @Anil: You’re right about the persistent anti-govt folks. And yes, there is a long history of governments partnering with nonprofits and other institutions in the community, to both reach deeper into the community and shield the government from liability. Maybe that sort of partnership is necessary, for the reasons you say. Puget Soundoff, a youth engagement project in Seattle, is one example that might be the right approach. It’s a partnership between the City of Seattle and the University of Washington.

    Still, I don’t think we should give up that easily. I think the public should be able to engage with the government, and each other, on public property. That includes virtual property — e.g. the city website.


    April 30, 2010 at 10:10 pm

  8. Fascinating stuff to think about bro! Government websites can, should, and hopefully one day will be everything you describe. A question to ponder: should the sites be run by the executive, legislative, or judicial? By career technocrats? Will websites be subject to the whims of politicians? As the sites take on the larger role in society that you describe, it’s worth asking, who runs them?


    May 3, 2010 at 1:09 am

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