On the eve of the mid-term elections, Micah Sifry wrote a nice piece on social media and democracy called Point-and-Click Politics in the WSJ. The article starts out with some of the negative impacts — the fact that people seem to be talking more than listening and getting more polarized in their political opinions. Some great counter-examples, however, in the second half of his blog:
We are living, in short, at a contradictory moment in politics, defined by liberating technological transformation and public-policy gridlock. Ordinary citizens feel ever more powerless as they watch their elected leaders struggle and mostly fail to get anything done in the face of organized political minorities. But at the same time, each day seems to bring a new tech innovation that literally puts more power in our hands.
What’s needed is a new political synthesis akin to the “neutral point of view” balancing act that has enabled millions of people to contribute to Wikipedia despite their many differences. Call it “we government”: new forms of collaboration and service that use technology, open data and public participation to solve shared problems. This is not “e-government,” where the authorities use the Web to provide information and services, but rather an effort by citizens to refashion government as a platform connecting people around the issues and needs that matter most to them. A number of public-minded start-ups are already pointing the way.
SeeClickFix, for one, enables anyone with a phone or a Web connection to help resolve non-emergency issues in their communities, while simultaneously enabling neighborhood groups, elected officials and government service providers to see what problems need addressing. The reports are transparent and searchable online, giving everyone an incentive to respond to them. Founder Ben Berkowitz launched SeeClickFix to make it easy for people in New Haven, Conn., to report things like potholes to local government, but now the company has more than 400 paying clients, including cities like Tucson, Ariz., and Washington, D.C. More than 50,000 user-generated reports have been registered on the site since its founding, with a fix rate of more than 40%.
Another platform, Localocracy, is working on a harder problem: enabling citizens, using their real names, to have ongoing conversations about issues that typically divide towns, and expanding participation beyond the handful of people who have time to attend public meetings. Though anyone can follow discussions on Localocracy, participation is limited to people who are verified registered voters in a specific locality. The site was launched last year in Amherst, Mass., where several hundred people are using it to debate issues such as school district reorganization. Now it is slowly expanding to cover more of the state.
Two other efforts, Open311 and Civic Commons, are partnerships of government technologists and volunteer software coders. Their goal is to get public agencies to adopt open systems and collaborative technologies and to ensure their interoperability. Imagine if 150 years ago every city in America had built its rail lines on radically different gauges; train-makers could never have standardized production. In a similar way, these groups are working to enable a common platform for municipal service development, so that, for example, an iPhone app that tells you where it’s safe to walk home at night can work for any city.
“We government” is neither right nor left, small government nor big government. It is, rather, effective do-it-ourselves-government by people who want to contribute to their communities but find themselves put off by today’s hyperventilators. The Internet is transforming our politics in some worrisome ways, to be sure. But it may yet improve how we govern ourselves, giving us new tools for working together on the everyday problems of public life.
Like Localocracy, where participants are required to use their real names and verify they are registered voters in the city/neighborhood being discussed, we find social media tools are the most effective when they are connected to place and used in conjunction with face-to-face meetings. Social media can keep people informed and provide innovative and creative means for people to contribute to the conversation. Combining flickr’s photo/video uploading and mapping tools with Facebook, for example, we have been able to greatly enhance and expand our walkability audits in what we now call a Community Walkshop. Participants walk the streets along with experts who can explain the form and function of urban design and what makes street vibrant and retail viable. With phone and digital cameras, participants become active contributors to the conversation. Images uploaded in the morning, become the focus of the conversation during the afternoon. Beyond the single day event, social media tools help maintain and grow a tremendous network of participants, easily plugged into future events. Mapping tools combined with photo/video sharing, also keeps folks engaged in the conversation in constructive ways– the “We Democracy” Sifry describes.