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Participation by Design: Mapping Media Ecosystems at Center for Civic Media

This post, by guest blogger Ethan Zuckerman, is the tenth in a month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. One critical element of participatory design for community decision-making is ensuring that the relevant information, especially complex information, is presented in understandable and meaningful ways, and this post gives some terrific examples of how to display complex data in ways that vividly highlight key relationships and insights. The subject of the post – civic media – isn’t terrain we normally focus on, but it’s an awfully interesting subject in addition to the data visualization ground that it covers. Ethan originally published this post on his own my heart’s in accra blog on November 7, 2011. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

This summer, Sasha, Lorrie and I started brainstorming the sorts of events we wanted to host at the Center for Civic Media this fall. The first I put on the calendar was a session on “mapping civic media”, a chance to catch up with some of my favorite people who are working to study, understand and visualize how ideas move through the complicated ecosystem of professional and participatory media.

To represent the research being done in the space, we invited Hal Roberts, my collaborator on Media Cloud (and on a wide range of other research), Erhardt Graeff from the Web Ecology project, and Gilad Lotan, VP of R&D for internet analytics firm BetaWorks. On Wednesday night, I asked them to share some of the recent work they’ve been doing, understanding the structure of the US and Russian blogosphere, analyzing the influence networks in Twitter during the early Arab Spring events and understanding the social and political dynamics of hashtags. They didn’t disappoint, and I suspect our video of the session (which we’ll post soon) will be one of the more popular pieces of media we put together this fall. In the meantime, here are my notes, constrained by the fact that I was moderating the panel and so couldn’t lean back and enjoy the presentations the way I otherwise might have.

Hal Roberts is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where he’s produced great swaths of research on internet filtering, surveillance, threats to freedom of speech, and the basic architecture of the internet. (That he’s written some of these papers with me reflects more on his generosity than on my wisdom.) He’s the lead architect of Media Cloud, the system we’re building at the Berkman Center and at Center for Civic Media to “ask and answer quantitative questions about the mediasphere in more systematic ways.” As Hal explains, media researchers “have been writing one-off scripts and systems to mine data in haphazard ways.” Media Cloud is an attempt to streamline that process, creating a collection of 30,000 blogs and mainstream media sources in English and Russian. “Our goal is to get as much media as possible, so we can ask our own questions and also let others ask questions of our duct tape and bubblegum system.”

Hal’s map of clusters in popular US blogs.

(An interactive version of this map is available here.) Much of Hal’s work has focused on using the content of media – rather than the structure of its hyperlinks – to map and cluster the mediasphere. He shows us a map of US blogs that cluster into three main areas – news and political blogs, technology blogs and what he calls “the love cluster”. This last cluster is so named because it’s filled with people talking about what they love. Subclusters include knitters, quilters, fans of recipes and photography. The technology cluser breaks down into a Google camp, an iPhone camp and a camp discussing Android Apps. Hal’s visualization shows the words most used in the sources within a cluster, which helps us understand what these clusters are talking about. The Google cluster features words like “SEO, webmaster, facebook, chrome” and others, suggesting the cluster is substantively about Google and its technology projects.

While we might expect the politics and news cluster to divide evenly into left and rightwing camps, it doesn’t. Study the link structure of the left and the right, as Glance and Adamic and later Eszter Hargittai have, and it’s clear that like links to like. But Hal’s research shows that the left and right use very similar language and talk about many of the same topics. This is a novel finding: It’s not that the left and right are talking about entirely different topics – instead they’re arguing over a common agenda, an agenda that’s well represented in mainstream media as well, which suggests the existence of subjects neither the right or left are talking about online.

Building on this finding, Hal and colleagues at Berkman looked at the Russian media sphere, to see if there was a similar overlap in coverage focus between mainstream media and blogs. “Newspapers and the television are subject to strong state control in Russia – we wanted to see if our analysis confirmed that, and whether the blogosphere was providing an alternative public sphere.

The technique he and Bruce Etling usedis “the polar map” – put the source you believe is most important at the center, and other sources are mapped at a distance from that source where the distance reflects degree of similarity. The central dot is a summary of verbiage from Russian government ministry websites. Right next to it is the official government newspaper. TV stations cluster close to the center, while blogs cover a wide array of the space, including the edges of the map.

It’s possible that blogs are showing dissimilarities to the Kremlin agenda because they’re talking about knitting, not about politics. So a further analysis (the one mapped above) explicitly identified democratic opposition and ethno-nationalist blogs and looked at their placement on the map. There’s strong evidence of political conversations far from the government talking points in both the democratic opposition and in the far right nationalist blogosphere.

What’s particularly interesting about this finding is that we don’t see the same pattern in the US blogosphere. Make a polar map with the White House, or a similar proxy for a US government news agenda, at the center, and you’ll see a very different pattern. Some right wing American blogs flock quite closely to the White House talking points – mostly to critique them – while the left blogs and mainstream media generally don’t. However, when Hal and crew did an analysis of stories about Egypt, they saw a very different pattern than in looking at all stories published in these sources. They saw a tight cluster of US mainstream media and blogs – left and right – around the White House. The government, the media and bloggers left and right talked about Egypt using very similar language. In the Russian mediasphere, the pattern was utterly different – the democratic opposition was far from the Kremlin agenda, using the Egyptian protests to talk about potential revolution in Russia.

The ultimate goal of Media Cloud, Hal explains, is to both produce analysis like this, and to make it possible for other researchers to conduct this sort of analysis, without a first step of collecting months or years of data.

Erhardt Graeff is a good example of the sort of researcher Media Cloud would like to serve. He’s cofounder of the Web Ecology Project, which he describes as “as a ragtag group of casual researchers that has now turned in a peer-reviewed publication.” That publication is the result of mapping part of the Twitter ecosystem during the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and attempting to tackle some of the hard problems of mapping media ecosystems in the process.

The Web Ecology Project began life researching the Iranian elections and resulting protests, focusing on the #iranelection hashtag. With a simple manifesto around “reimagining internet studies”, the project tries to understand the “nature and behavior of actors” in media systems. That means considering not just the top users, or even just the registered users of a system like Twitter, but the audience for the media they create. “Each individual user on Twitter has their personal media ecosystem” of people they follow, influence, are followed by and influenced by.

This sort of research rapidly bumps into three hard problems, Erhardt explains:

  • Did someone read a piece of information that was published? Or as he puts it, “Did the State Department actually read our report about #IranElection?” It’s very hard to tell. “We end up using proxies – you followed a link, but that doesn’t mean you read it.”
  • Which piece of media influenced someone to access other media? “Which tweet convinced me to follow the new Maru video, Erhardt’s or MC Hammer’s?”
  • How does the media ecosystem change day to day? Or, referencing a Web Ecology paper, “How many genitalia were on ChatRoulette today?” The answer can vary sharply day to day, raising tough problems around generating a usable sample.

The paper Erhardt published with Gilad and other Web Ecology Project members looks at the Twitter ecosystem around the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt. By quantitatively searhing for information flows, and qualitatively classifying different types of actors in that ecosystem, the research tries to untangle the puzzle of how (some) individuals used (one type of) social media in the context of a major protest.

To study the space, the team downloaded hundreds of thousands of tweets, representing roughly 40,000 users talking about Tunisia and 62,000 talking about Egypt. They used a “shingling” method of comparison to determine who was retweeting whom ad sought out the longest retweet chains. They looked at the top 10% of these chains in terms of length to find the “really massive, complex flows” and grabbed a random 1/6th of that sample. That yielded 774 users talking about Tunisia, 888 talking about Egypt… and only 963 unique users, suggesting a large overlap between those two sets.

Then Erhardt, Gilad and others started manually coding the participants in the chains. Categories included Mainstream Media (@AJEnglish, @nytimes), web news organizations (@HuffingtonPost), non-media organizations (@Wikileaks, @Vodaphone), bloggers, activists, digerati, political actors, celebrities, researchers, bots… and a too-broad unclassified category of “others”. This wasn’t an easy process – Erhardt describes a system in which researchers compared their codings to ensure a level of intercoder reliability, then had broader discussions on harder and harder edge cases. They used a leaderboard to track how many cases they’d each coded, and goaded those slow to participate into action.

The actors they classified are a very influential set of Twitter users. The average organization in their set has 4004 followers, the average individual 2340 (which is WAY more than the average user of the system). To examine influence with more subtlety than simply counting followers, Erhardt and his colleagues use retweets per tweet as an influence metric. What they conclude, in part, is that “mainstream media is a hit machine, as are digerati – what they have to say tends to be highly amplified.”

The bulk of the paper traces information flows started by specific people. In the case of Egypt, lots of information flows start from journalists, bloggers and activists, with bots as a lesser, but important, influence. In Tunisia, there were fewer flows started by journalists, more by bots and bloggers, and way fewer from activists. This may reflect the fact that the Tunisian story caught many journalists and activists by surprise – they were late to the story, and less significant as information sources than the bloggers who cover that space over time. By the time Egypt becomes a story, journalists realized the significance and were on the ground, providing original content on Twitter, as well as to their papers.

One of the most interesting aspects of the paper is an analysis of who retweets whom. It’s not surprising to hear that like retweets like – journalists retweet journalists, while bloggers retweet bloggers. Bloggers were much more likely to retweet journalists on the topic of Egypt than on Tunisia, possibly because MSM coverage of Egypt was so much more thorough than the superficial coverage of Tunisia.

While Gilad Lotan worked with Erhardt on the Tunisia and Egypt paper, his comments at Civic Media focused on the larger space of data analysis. “I work primarily on data – heaps and mounds of data,” he explains, for two different masters. Roughly half his work is for clients, media outlets who want to understand how to interact and engage with their audiences. The other half focuses on developing the math and algorithms to understand the social media space.

This work is increasingly important because “attention is the bottleneck in a world where threshhold to publishing is near zero.” If you want to be a successful brand or a viable social movement, understanding how people manage their attention is key: “It’s impossible to simply demand attention – you have to understand the dynamics of attention in the face of this bottleneck.”

Gilad references Alex Dragulescu’s work on digital portraits, pictures of people composed of the words they most tweet or share on social media. He’s interested not just in the individuals, but in the networks of people, showing us a visualization of tweets around Occupy Wall Street. Different networks take form in the space of minutes or hours as new news breaks – the network around a threatened shutdown of Zuccotti Park for a cleanup is utterly different than the network in July, when Adbusters was the leading actor in the space.

Images like this, Lotan suggests, “are like images of earth from the moon. We knew what earth looked like, but we never saw it. We knew we lived in networks, but this is the first time we can envision it and see how it plays out.”

When we analyze huge data sets, we can start approaching answers to very difficult questions, like:

  • What’s the audience of the New York Times versus Fox News?
  • What type of content gains wider audiences through social media?
  • What topics do certain outlets cover? What are their strengths, weaknesses and biases?
  • How do audiences differ between different publications? How are they similar?
  • How fast does news spread, and how does it break?

Much of media and communications research addresses these questions, though rarely directly – as Erhardt noted, we generally address these questions via proxies. But Lotan tells us, we can now ask and answer questions like, “How many Twitter users follow Justin Bieber and The Economist?” The answer, to a high degree of precision, is 46,000. It’s just shy of the number who follow The Economist and the New York Times, 54,000.

Lotan is able to research answers like this because his lab has access to the Twitter “firehose” (the stream of all public data posted to Twitter, moment to moment) and to the firehose. This second information source allows Lotan to study what people are clicking on, not just what media they’re exposed to. He offers a LOLcat, where the feline in question is dressed in a chicken costume. “We can see the kitty in you, and the chicken you’re hiding behind.” What people share and what they click is very different, and Lotan is able to analyze both.

This data allowed Lotan to compare what audiences for four major news outlets were interested in, my measuring their clickstreams. Al Jazeera and The Economist, he tells us, are pretty much what you’d think. But Fox News watchers are fascinated by crime, murders, kidnappings and other dark news. This sort of insight may help networks understand and optimise for their audiences. Al Jazeera’s audience, he tells us, is very engaged, tweeting and sharing stories, while Fox’s audience reads a lot and shares very little.

Some of Lotan’s recent research is about algorithmic curation, specifically Twitter’s trending topics. Many observers of the Occupy movement have posited that Twitter is censoring tweets featuring the #occupywallstreet hashtag. Lotan acknowledges that the tag has been active, but suggests reasons why it’s never trended globally. Interest in the tag has grown steadily, and has a regular heartbeat, connected to who’s active on the east coast of the US. The tag has spiked at times, but remains invisible in part due to bad timing – a spike on October 1st was tiny in comparison to “#WhatYouShouldKnowAboutMe”, trending at the same time.

At this point, Lotan believes he’s partially reverse engineered the Trending Topics algorithm. The algorithm is very sensitive to the new, not to the slowly building. This raises the question: what does it mean to “get the math right”. Lotan observes, “Twitter doesn’t want to be a media outlet, but they made an algorithmic choice that makes them an editor.” He’s quick to point out that algorithmic curation is often very helpful – the Twitter algorithm is quite good at preventing spam attacks, which have a different signature than organic trends. So we see organic, fast-moving trends, even when they’re quite offensive. He points to #blamethemuslims, which started when a Muslim women in the UK snarkily observed that Muslims would be blamed for the Norway terror attacks. That tweet died out quickly, but was revived by Americans who used the tag unironically, suggesting that we blame Muslims for lots of different things – that small bump, then massive spike is a fairly common organic pattern… and very different from the spam patterns he’s seen on Twitter.

When we analyze networks, Lotan suggests, we encounter a paradox that James Gleick addresses in his recent book on information: just because I’m one hop away from you in a social network doesn’t mean I can send you information and expect you to pay attention. In the real world, people who can bridge between conversations are rare, important and powerful. He closes his talk with the map of a Twitter conversation about an event in Israel where settlers were killed. There’s a large conversation in the Israeli twittersphere, a small conversation in the Palestinian community, and two or three bridge figures attempting to connect the conversations. (One is my wife, @velveteenrabbi.) Studying events like this one may help us, ultimately, determine who’s able to build bridges between these conversations.

Ethan is a blogger, media researcher, and the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media.

Participation By Design: Twitter-government … Can Micro-Participation Stimulate Public Engagement?

This post, by guest blogger Jennifer Evans-Cowley, is the first in a month-long series on the diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

The Austin Strategic Mobility Plan was the starting point for an innovative engagement process using social networking tools.

Back in 2009, Texas Citizen Fund invited me to serve as an external evaluator on a Federal Transit Administration proposal. Their goal: to try to use social media to engage the public in planning. At first I thought okay, everyone is trying this, what are you doing that’s new? We have all seen the build the social media presence and wait for people to come approach. We’ve also seen the build the social media presence and push out information approach. There is nothing wrong with these approaches, but they have generally had limited success.

I was pleasantly surprised that their approach did indeed represent an innovative approach to engagement. Their innovation was simple in concept. Build a system that would constantly scan Twitter, Facebook, and blogs looking for anyone posting about transportation issues in Austin. Once they found someone already talking about transportation they would simply insert themselves into the conversation in an attempt to engage the social media users in dialogue around key topics in the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan. From this idea SNAPPatx was born.

SNAPPatx deployed a lot of technology to integrate a website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter using web-base analytics and database. Between April and October of 2010, they collected almost 50,000 microblogs. I compared how the SNAPPatx project compared to other social media projects cited in the academic literature, a few key successes:

  • SNAPPatx generated a following on Twitter greater than 98 percent of other Twitter users
  • SNAPPatx achieved greater equality of participation among users than found in other studies
  • SNAPPatx had an average of 45 microblogs retweeted per week. Based on previous research, retweets are forwarded continuously to reach an average of 1,000 users. Meaning that SNAPPatx was potentially reaching 45,000 people per week.

The most important part of the project is the direct engagement between SNAPPatx and the microbloggers. The extension of the simple microblog into a dialogue is termed micro-participation. One of the keys of using micro-participation in this context is to be concise and to understand all of the lingo to efficiently and effectively communicate via Twitter and other social media sites.

Austin’s unofficial slogan, Keep Austin Weird, is imbedded into the culture of the city and comes through in what people are microblogging about. For example, in this micro-participation dialogue SNAPPatx got to have a little fun talking about the locally famous biker who only wears a g-string while riding his bike.

@elizmccracken When I was there I saw a guy with a ZZ Top beard pulling a standup bass on a trailer behind his bike. Austin=weird biking.

@leahcstewart @elizmccracken Do the weird Austin bikers make you want to ride a bike yourself or are you just happy to observe? #snappatx

@SNAPPatx @elizmccracken It depends on whether I have to ride the bike in a g-string toting a standup bass.

@leahcstewart @elizmccracken Nope, you can ride the bike in any manner you choose – no g-string or instrument hauling required. #snappatx

While the above dialogue is fun others were much more specific to discussing critical issues related to the City’s transportation planning effort. In the following dialogue, SNAPP was able to educate and receive input on potential solutions. The microblogger starts by telling a fellow microblogger his or her thoughts about Austin and SNAPP provides information about urban rail.

@gary_hustwit Austin. Good: nice public outdoor spaces. Bad: Very car dependent, no urban light rail. #Urbanized

@compactrobot Urban rail is an item on the 2012 transport bond so keep an eye out. How else would you improve Austin mobility? #snappatx

@SNAPPatx reduce the need for mobility to begin with. More VMU. Lessen the grip of NAs.

@SNAPPatx oh yeah, also nuke I-35 from space.

@compactrobot Well, that might create a different sort of traffic jam… Where are your worst I-35 trouble spots? #snappatx

@SNAPPatx I avoid it, frankly. I just don’t like the way it’s sliced downtown in half and isolated the east side from the city.

@SNAPPatx it’s great for trucking companies and horrible for Austin residents. and it’s a giant eyesore.

@compactrobot All fair points. Do you successfully take local routes to avoid I-35? Do you feel similar ire toward Mopac too? #snappatx

@SNAPPatx I only take 35 if I’m eating on the east side, & only after rush hour. otherwise I’ll use airport, Lamar, or Guadalupe & cut over

@SNAPPatx Mopac’s not as bad. but then I don’t have to use it to daily to go to/from work.

The conversations are professional, but they also find ways to connect with microbloggers and encourage participation. These dialogues demonstrate that it is possible to use micro-participation to generate public input on planning issues, with SNAPPatx collecting close to 50,000 microblogs. How can all of these microblogs be aggregated to create meaning that can be used in decision-making. This was a major challenge of this project: finding ways to present results that public officials could understand and that could influence decision making.

Participation via social media requires different expectations from planners and decision makers.

Current planners and decision makers want to ask and get answers to specific questions when they need the answers. They also want to know who is giving the answers and how representative they are of the larger “public.” Social media doesn’t work that way. Individuals generate the comments drawing from what is on their mind and anyone viewing these comments only sees an avatar as the author. Yet, social media is generating useful data. City officials responded most favorably to the use of sentiment analysis. SNAPPatx coded each of the relevant microblogs as to whether it expressed positive or negative sentiment. After the project, I experimented with more extensive sentiment analysis that looks at sentiment profiles, such as anxiety, anger and leisure. The sentiment analysis demonstrated that it is possible to aggregate microblogs to create meaning. To learn more about sentiment analysis and how it can be used, see this article.

As a simple example, by aggregating all of the microblogs based on the mode of transportation and looking at positive and negative sentiment we find that cars and buses have an equal portion of positive and negative microblogs, while microbloggers are largely expressing positive sentiment when writing about bicycles. This provides planners and policy makers with a simple snapshot of whether the public is expressing positive or negative sentiment about a planning topic.

Sentiment analysis can be used to create understanding among a large dataset of microblogs.

Sentiment analysis can be used to create understanding among a large dataset of microblogs.

The true promise of micro-participation is that it provides an opportunity to get nearly real-time tracking of public input, as demonstrated by SNAPPatx. Yet, planners and policy makers will need to work together to continue to better understand how to analyze and present the results of micro-participation in order to significantly influence decision-making.

This post was contributed by Jennifer Evans-Cowley, PhD, AICP. Jennifer is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Administration for the College of Engineering and a Professor of City and Regional Planning at The Ohio State University.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: January 18, 2012

OpenIdeo is poised to announce the winner of their “restoring vibrancy to cities” crowdsourced challenge, winnowing down an initial list of 331 concepts to a short list of 20 finalists and now to a single winner.

YPulse reports on Sesame Street’s new augmented reality app unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show last week.

Civic Commons launched the Civic Commons Marketplace to help government folks find the best online engagement tools for their own community’s needs (h/t to EngagingCities for the heads up).

Continue reading

Most Exciting Trends in 2012: Mobile, Social, and Local

PlaceMatters’ Ken Synder using his smartphone as part of a Walkshop demonstration. We expect to see increasingly cool and robust ways to use smartphones in community decision-making in 2012.

Five trends I’m excited about for 2012:

1) Mobile Everything
It’ll all be about mobile in 2012. Smartphone sales continue to grow, and consumers are increasingly shifting from PC-based web activity to using smartphones. Because of the pervasiveness of mobile devices and the growing sophistication of both native and HTML-based apps, many of the tools that groups like PlaceMatters use will rely increasingly on versions that run on mobile devices. This will present some terrific opportunities, but it will also mean we need to be even more mindful of digital divide problems, ensuring that individuals without mobile devices and communities with lower mobile penetration are still able to fully participate and contribute.

2) Social Media Goes Even Bigger
Although Facebook use has already reached mind-boggling proportions (more than 800 million active users, according to Facebook), we expect that Facebook and other social media products will become even more universal and essential as engagement platforms, web portals, and discovery engines. Civic participation will increasingly rely directly on Facebook and social media and on tools that themselves are built on social media platforms. Continue reading

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: September 20, 2011

Sustainable Cities Collective describes a very cool Toronto project using Twitter and historical plaques around the city as the basis for a participatory historical mapping project.

Among the potential challenges of architecting a good community engagement and decision-making process: participants who are intent on disrupting and sabotaging the process. inCommon reflects on an article in the California Planning & Development Report highlighting efforts by Tea Party activists to disrupt regional and statewide engagement around climate change and livability.

Engaging Cities has a solid post on participatory budgeting, and inCommon describes an ongoing participatory budgeting effort in New York City. We love the approach, but helping communicate context and trade-offs is critical.

Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space comments on an LA Times column about the “sorry state of public dialogue and civic engagement in the U.S.” His suggestion: “The solution to the corrosive spirit of U.S. politics is not more politics.” Instead, columnist Gregory Rodriguez, suggests we should focus on building empathy. “There’s certainly a crisis in civics today, but it’s the product of a profound disconnect between our political engagement and our moral engagement. Democracy is great, but citizens still need inspiration and empathy to make it flourish. If we really want to promote civics, maybe we should skip the town hall in favor of the concert hall.”

Open Source Planning writes about a new project called Civic Pheromones (formerly Ether). It’s an interesting idea focused on aggregating feeds from civic websites. We can’t help but wonder, though, if the real challenges are around curation and discovery. Just to use one pertinent example, there’s a huge difference between creating an aggregated stream of news and information about civic participation (easy) and creating a curated roundup of especially interesting blog posts (harder).

Engaging Cities describes a collaboration between the Emerson College Engagement Game Lab and the City of Lowell, Massachusetts: an interactive web-based game as a community input tool for a recent community master plan process. Their goals included – as you might expect – engaging a broader spectrum of community members. We’d find it really interesting to hear more about how well it actually worked. Did a wider range of community members participate? Were the online participants the same or different individuals from those that participated in the traditional in-person meetings, and if different did they actually add to the diversity of participants, as well?

National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation writes about a new PBS special on the “What’s Next California Deliberative Poll,” a documentary on the use of a deliberative polling process engaging 400 California residents to think through and make policy recommendations on a range of critical issues. Any approach to civic participation relying on shared learning and thoughtful discussion is worth some attention, and the deliberative polling process fits the bill.

Good Cities describes “Give a Minute,” a virtual suggestion box that’s expanding to New York City (building on their current operation in Chicago). They write: The coolest thing about Give a Minute is that it gives big-time politicos and heads of government agencies a chance to actually respond to the suggestions from city residents. So Mayor Mike can actually ‘endorse’ an idea that he likes and offer feedback that goes directly back to the person who suggested it. We think he’ll actually comment, too, since Bloomberg is totally behind the idea . . . ”

On the PlaceMatters blog, Jason highlights Esri’s call for geodesign case studies and celebrates a HUD grant to our friends at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (and their partner Manhattan Strategy Group) to develop a national housing and transportation affordability index. This project will build on their earlier H+T Affordability Index for 337 metropolitan regions across the U.S. Jason makes the case for making all of those data available through a public API.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: June 30, 2011

The National Consumer Council and Involve published a short report on the nine principles of deliberative public engagement.

The Brookings Institute has a new report on using social media to reinvigorate engagement. It’s campaign-focused, but it’s insightful assessment of how the intersection between social media and public participation is likely to evolve (and the implications are largely about citizen engagement more generally).

countably infinite has a nice wrap-up of Open Gov West 2011. One observation: it would be easy to see new public engagement tools like Crowdbrite and PlaceSpeak as substitutes for face-to-face engagement (and, in fact, Crowdbrite’s pitch sounds like it was positioned against conventional public hearings). We are no fans of conventional public hearings, and we are pretty jazzed about the ways tools like Crowdbrite can expand public engagement, but in our view it’s important to make sure they only supplement rather than displace real human-to-human interaction.

The Knight Foundation blogs about their new report, Civic Engagement and Community Information: Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communication. Some of the report’s recommendations are more national in scope, but some make sense at the local level: invest in face-to-face public deliberation, generate public “relational” knowledge, and building public networks focused on sharing and debate public information.

inCommon blogs about a civic participation project in Michigan targeting 6th graders. The students will play a role in designing a new town park.

EngagingCities argues for the use of participation metrics in online communities. These very same types of metrics have a lot of relevance in offline communities, as well.

EngagingCities also offers some tips on using Facebook fan pages for community participation efforts and some thoughts on gamification and community engagement.

Deliberations offers a favorable word about, a tool for facilitating deliberation by allowing people to post questions and participants to comment and vote on those questions.

The National Charrette Institute invites a discussion about the next generation of charrettes.

James Fee’s GIS Blog reviews and reflects on Google Earth Builder in two posts, “Google Earth Builder – a Serious Geospatial Play from Google” and “All Hail Google Earth Builder, Wait … What?

Next American City explores a new book about the increasingly technological city: Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Spaces.

On the PlaceMatters blog, Jocelyn writes about two of our projects, with collaborator Civil Resources, winning APA Colorado Merit Awards (comprehensive plans for Lyons and Woodland Park), and Ken ruminates on the relationship between livable streets and driving and uses SketchUp to gain some perspective on M.C. Escher’s famous “Waterfall.”

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: May 24, 2011

Deliberative Democracy writes about a new report by the IBM Center for the Business of Government about using online tools for community engagement.

inCommon had a great run: posts on NYC’s effort to improve civic engagement in immigrant communities, a link to a Christian Science Monitor article on participatory budgeting, how crowd wisdom is undermined by knowledge of other people’s responses (citing a story in Wired Magazine), and clues that a public engagement process may not be very effective.

You’ll find another post on participatory budgeting in Engaging Cities, this one exploring its spread in the United States. And Engaging Cities also makes the case about the importance of online tools like Twitter for public involvement.

Cooltown blogs about an experiment in crowdsourced planning, which resulted in the inclusion of a piazza in the new Bristol, Connecticut downtown plan.

Gov 2.0 Watch considers how internet personalization impacts civic engagement, drawing on a recent TED talk by Eli Pariser.

A Ken Eklund guest post on Museum 2.0 describes a terrific game-based experiment with mobile phones, designed to help visitors connect with a park in San Diego. The approach could be used in plenty of contexts.

Online forums can be a central element in a community engagement strategy, and Intellitics posts about the key to making online work: deep listening.

Deliberations describes “Citizens Assemblies,” a deliberative process approach that relies on a cross-section of the entire impacted population.

The Australian e-journal On Line Opinion describes the elements of an effective deliberative democracy, including the ability of participants to actually influence the decision-making process, and how representative the group is of the larger community (h/t to Deliberations for the link).

The Orton Family Foundation Blog explores the use of storytelling and art in understanding community values.

Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space comments on the value of the initiative process for securing community buy-in for large infrastructure projects.

On the PlaceMatters blog, Jason asks if games can save the world, and Jocelyn wonders aloud about applying the lessons of TED and TED’s exceptional speakers to the challenges of community decision-making. Jason also reports on a new spatial decision support portal from the University of Redlands.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: January 31, 2010

Clay Shirkey has an interesting piece in Foreign Affairs arguing that the real potential of social media is in supporting civil society and the public sphere rather than for any particular foreign policy aims. It’s especially pertinent (and prescient) in light of the unrest in Egypt. We can’t help but think the same basic argument applies at the community level domestically as well . . . we suspect that social media tools are much more important for building and supporting a strong culture of civic participation at the local level rather than as a tool to advance any particular policy, program, or political effort.

Ethan Zuckerman in Fast Company Design makes his argument about the importance of folks who can serve as bridges, spanning across and bringing together very different cultures. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s trusted advocate model relies on a similar sort of insight: find people who are trusted by the community you are engaging and engage them as ambassadors and connectors.

National Center for Dialogue and Deliberation offers an alternative to conventional citizen deliberation methods that they call “Creative Deliberation,” an approach intended to open up the span of potential solutions to a policy challenge.

Community Matters touches on the creative civic engagement techniques used by city folks in Manor, Texas to spur participation in a new QR code program. In a separate post, the Case Foundation gives its take on QR codes and some of their potential uses.

Orton Family Foundation riffs on the Onion’s recent expose: “Majority of Government Doesn’t Trust Citizens Either.”

Engaging Cities writes about a new Institute of Development Studies report that attempts to quantify the benefits of citizen engagement.

Augmented Reality is busy doing cool stuff again, describing a new Junaio system for making televisions work like touch screens.

Jason writes on the PlaceMatters blog about our first Xbox Kinect, and I posted an interview with Doug Walker about the exceptionally cool planning tool CommunityViz.

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: November 11, 2010

The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation released a new “Resource Guide on Public Engagement.”

AmericaSpeaks surveys online public input tools.

CommunityMatters reviews their Gov 2.0 teleconference last week.

Allison Fine posts about the Case Foundation’s review of their Make It Your Own project, an attempt to promote citizen-centered approaches to community building.

Philanthropy for Civic Engagement just released a new paper: “Civic Pathways Out of Poverty and Into Opportunity.” The paper explores how civic engagement can be used in conjunction with workforce development and other financial security goals for low-income youth and young adults.

On our own PlaceMatters blog, and in the wake of the Malcom Gladwell post that set the nonprofit world aflutter, Ken Snyder offers some thoughts on when social media tools are most effective in civic participation efforts.

Ken also writes about a recent Grist review of our “The Future We Want” project, a collaboration with Natural Capital and Arnold Imaging.

Next American City comments on improving web accessibility, an increasingly important issue for web-based community engagement efforts.

From the archive: The Association for Computing Machinery provides a “Tour Through the Visualization Zoo.”

Another from the archive: running cities like software on The Infrastructuralist (h/t to Strong Towns).

And from some weeks back: Ethan Zuckerman writes about the “gerrymander your own district” game, a fascinating attempt to engage on the messy issue of drawing congressional district boundaries.

Using social media to create solutions

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.