Introducing the 21st-Century City Hall

GovTech: “Here are five platforms that are helping redefine civic engagement.

Neighborland: A new way to rally residents

If you’ve ever tried drumming up support for a neighborhood project, you know firsthand how difficult the effort can be. From diverse work schedules to just plain indifference, capturing a community’s attention and rallying residents on an issue can seem impossible at times. Neighborland was created to make that task easier.
The online social engagement platform helps citizens and public officials connect on ideas and plans for a community. After creating a profile on Neighborland, users can post questions or ideas using words and pictures. The posts can be categorized by topic, and users can suggest related actions such as fundraisers and meetings….

Textizen: An easier way to give opinions

Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, struggled to collect feedback from parents. To simplify the process, the district deployed Textizen, which makes sharing comments and responding to survey questions as easy as sending a text message….

Voterheads: Early warning on important issues

It’s a scenario every local government is likely familiar with: There’s a council meeting and while decisions are being made on behalf of everyone in the area, only a small percentage of the population participates in the process. But once a decision is made, citizens complain about the result….Voterheads, a free online engagement platform that alerts citizens via email when their city, county or school board is discussing a topic that they’re interested in. Using a sliding scale, users indicate their degree of opposition or support of a topic like taxes, at which point the system decides if or how quickly that person should be notified about an upcoming public meeting….

Community PlanIt: A game with real-world results

Eric Gordon, an Emerson College professor, creates games and other digital tools that energize civic participation. He runs the university’s Engagement Game Lab and develops programs to make community planning fun and interactive for citizens.
One of his creations is Community PlanIt, an online game that solicits comments from residents about their neighborhoods. City administrators analyze the feedback to make more informed choices about community development….

Open Town Hall: Letting cooler heads prevail

Democracy is a messy process. James Madison said that faction and discord are “sown in the nature of man,” and have “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.” Winston Churchill once noted, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”…Peak Democracy’s Open Town Hall moves the public meeting process online, acknowledging some 21st-century realities and offering a few other advantages too….Open Town Hall requires registration, and the topics are presented by the jurisdiction. Rather than restricting input, said Cohen, it broadens the appeal of participation and brings in many more moderate views. Open Town Hall also requires a geocoded address so that input on an issue can be evaluated based on its location. The names and locations view can be turned on or off, depending on the issue and the jurisdiction’s wishes….

3 Platforms to Watch Billed as a “virtual place to discuss real places that you want to see transformed,” Placehood connects citizens, developers and city planners. The goal is to repurpose or improve underutilized properties, while letting users comment about a place, post improvement ideas, add images and gather support. This platform visualizes a public policy’s impact on the state or local economy by simulation. Outline lets citizens perform what-if analyses on budgets and policies and provide feedback to the government. The simulator is being piloted in Massachusetts, and the company hopes to grow the number of users this summer.
PlaceSpeak: Launched in Canada, the online community consultation website connects citizens with local issues. Users’ addresses are verified, allowing the government or organization to specify areas where it would like to get feedback from or generate ideas about.”

Siri’s Creators Demonstrate an Assistant That Takes the Initiative

Rachel Metz  in MIT Technology Review: “In a small, dark, room off a long hallway within a sprawling complex of buildings in Silicon Valley, an array of massive flat-panel displays and video cameras track Grit Denker’s every move. Denker, a senior computer scientist at the nonprofit R&D institute SRI, is showing off Bright, an intelligent assistant that could someday know what information you need before you even ask.
Initially, Bright is meant to cut down on the cognitive overload faced by workers in high-stress, data-intensive jobs like emergency response and network security. Bright may, for instance, aid network administrators in trying to stop the spread of a fast-moving virus by quickly providing crucial infection information, or help 911 operators send the right kind of assistance to the scene of an accident. But like many other technologies developed at SRI, such as the digital personal assistant Siri (now owned by Apple), Bright could eventually trickle down to laptops and smartphones. It might take the form of software that automatically brings up listings for your favorite shows when it thinks you’re about to sit down and watch TV, or searches the Web for information relevant to your latest research project without requiring you to lift a finger….
Denker describes Bright as a “cognitive desktop” and “a desktop that really understands what you’re doing, and not just for you, but also in a collaborative setting for people….There’s a long way to go, however. The system is currently focused on “cognitive indexing”—the mechanism that ties various clues together and then tries to predict what is important.”

Citizen Science Profile: SeaSketch

Blog entry from the Commons Lab within the  Science and Technology Innovation Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: “As part of the Commons Lab’s ongoing initiative to highlight the intersection of emerging technologies and citizen science, we present a profile of SeaSketch, a marine management software that makes complex spatial planning tools accessible to everyone. This was prepared with the gracious assistance of Will McClintock, director of the McClintock Lab.
The SeaSketch initiative highlights key components of successful citizen science projects. The end product is a result of an iterative process where the developers applied previous successes and learned from mistakes. The tool was designed to allow people without technical training to participate, expanding access to stakeholders. MarineMap had a quantifiable impact on California marine protected areas, increasing their size from 1 percent to 16 percent of the coastline. The subsequent version, SeaSketch, is uniquely suited to scale out worldwide, addressing coastal and land management challenges. By emphasizing iterative development, non-expert accessibility and scalability, SeaSketch offers a model of successful citizen science….
SeaSketch succeeded as a citizen science initiative by focusing on three project priorities:

  • Iterative Development: The current version of SeaSketch’s PGIS software is the result of seven years of trial and error. Doris and MarineMap helped the project team learn what worked and adjust accordingly. The final result would have been impossible without a sustained commitment to the project and regular product assessments.
  • Non-Expert Accessibility: GIS software is traditionally limited to those with technical expertise. SeaSketch was developed anticipating that stakeholders without GIS training would use the software. New features allow users to contribute spatial surveys, sharing their knowledge of the area to better inform planning. This ease of use means the project is outward facing: More people can participate, meaning the analyses better reflect community priorities.
  • Scalability: Although MarineMap was built specifically to guide the MLPA process, the concept is highly flexible. SeaSketch  is being used to support oceanic management issues worldwide, including in areas of international jurisdiction. The software can support planning with legal implications as well as cooperative agreements. SeaSketch’s project team believes it can also be used for freshwater and terrestrial management issues.”

Gamification: A Short History

Ty McCormick in Foreign Policy: “If you’re checking in on Foursquare or ramping up the “strength” of your LinkedIn profile, you’ve just been gamified — whether or not you know it. “Gamification,” today’s hottest business buzzword, is gaining traction everywhere from corporate boardrooms to jihadi chat forums, and its proponents say it can revolutionize just about anything, from education to cancer treatment to ending poverty. While the global market for gamification is expected to explode from $242 million in 2012 to $2.8 billion in 2016, according to market analysis firm M2 Research, there is a growing chorus of critics who think it’s little more than a marketing gimmick. So is the application of game mechanics to everyday life more than just a passing fad? You decide.
Kellogg’s cereals offers its first “premium,” the Funny Jungleland Moving-Pictures book, free with every two boxes. Two years later, Cracker Jack starts putting prizes, from stickers to baseball cards, in its boxes of caramel-coated corn snacks. “A prize in every box” is an instant hit; over the next 100 years, Cracker Jack gives away more than 23 billion in-package treasures. By the 1950s, the concept of gamification is yet to be born, but its primary building block — fun — is motivating billions of consumers around the world.
Duke University sociologist Donald F. Roy publishes “Banana Time,” an ethnographic study of garment workers in Chicago. Roy chronicles how workers use “fun” and “fooling” on the factory room floor — including a daily ritual game in which workers steal a banana — to stave off the “beast of monotony.” The notion that fun can enhance job satisfaction and productivity inspires reams of research on games in the workplace….”

How Open Data Can Fight Climate Change

New blog post by Joel Gurin, Founder and Editor, When people point to the value of Open Data from government, they often cite the importance of weather data from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That data has given us the Weather Channel, more accurate forecasts, and a number of weather-based companies. But the most impressive – and one of the best advertisements for government Open Data – may well be The Climate Corporation, headquartered in San Francisco.
Founded in 2006 under the name WeatherBill, The Climate Corporation was started to sell a better kind of weather insurance. But it’s grown into a company that could help farmers around the world plan around climate change, increase their crop yields, and become part of a new green revolution.
The company’s work is especially relevant in light of President Obama’s speech yesterday on new plans to fight climate change. We know that whatever we do to reduce carbon emissions now, we’ll still need to deal with changes that are already irreversible. The Climate Corporation’s work can be part of that solution…
The company has developed a new service,, that is free to policyholders and available to others for a fee….
Their work may become part of a global Green Revolution 2.0. The U.S. Government’s satellite data doesn’t stop at the border: It covers the entire planet.  The Climate Corporation is now looking for ways to apply its work internationally, probably starting with Australia, which has relevant data of its own.
Start with insurance sales, end up by changing the world. The power of Open Data has never been clearer.”

Quantifying Our Cities, Ourselves

David Sasaki in Next City: “Over the past few years a merry band of geeks from around the world has given rise to the movement of the quantified self. The mission, as the geeks explain it, is “self knowledge through numbers.” Vanity Fair sarcastically calls them “weirder, hive minder weight watchers.”
The basic premise of the quantified self is perhaps best summed up by a popular slogan from business consultant Peter Drucker: “What gets measured gets managed.” If we aspire to run faster, then we must use a stopwatch to time our pace. If we want to lose weight, then we must buy a scale to measure our progress until we reach our goal. Modern self-trackers have the advantages of apps that make it possible to quantitatively analyze sleep, moods, finances, vital signs and even amino acids, all without consulting a single other person….
What if we were to apply the model of the quantified self to the development of our cities? It’s a question that appears to be gaining steam. Esther Dyson, an influential angel investor and technology analyst, has observed the emergence of a suite of applications that enable citizens and governments to monitor the “health” of their communities.
Civic Insight, for example, has partnered with New Orleans to enable citizens to monitor what the local government is doing to address blight. On Monday, the project was announced as one of eight winners of the 2013 Knight News Challenge, which means that the software will be expanding for use in other cities. Yelp has partnered with New York and San Francisco to make restaurant inspection data available on restaurant profile pages. (Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago have already committed to making their restaurant inspection data available using the same standard.) The Daily Brief allows residents of Baltimore, Bloomington and Boston to monitor all the 311 service requests made by citizens each day.”

Sensing and Shaping Emerging Conflicts

cover.phpA new Report of a Joint Workshop of the National Academy of Engineering and the United States Institute of Peace: Roundtable on Technology, Science, and Peacebuilding: “Technology has revolutionized many aspects of modern life, from how businesses operate, to how people get information, to how countries wage war. Certain technologies in particular, including not only cell phones and the Internet but also satellites, drones, and sensors of various kinds, are transforming the work of mitigating conflict and building peaceful societies. Rapid increases in the capabilities and availability of digital technologies have put powerful communications devices in the hands of most of the world’s population.
These technologies enable one-to-one and one-to-many flows of information, connecting people in conflict settings to individuals and groups outside those settings and, conversely, linking humanitarian organizations to people threatened by violence. Communications within groups have also intensified and diversified as the group members use new technologies to exchange text, images, video, and audio. Monitoring and analysis of the flow and content of this information can yield insights into how violence can be prevented or mitigated. In this way technologies and the resulting information can be used to detect and analyze, or sense, impending conflict or developments in ongoing conflict.”

Can Silicon Valley Save the World?

Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur in Foreign Policy: “Not content with dominating IPOs on Wall Street, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are taking their can-do, failure-conquering, technology-enabled tactics to the challenge of global poverty. And why not? If we can look up free Khan Academy math lectures using the cheap, kid-friendly computers handed out by the folks at One Laptop per Child, who needs to worry about the complexities of education reform? With a lamp lit up by an electricity-generating soccer ball in every hut, who needs coal-fired power stations and transmission lines? And if even people in refugee camps can make money transcribing outsourced first-world dental records, who needs manufacturing or the roads and port systems required to export physical goods? No wonder the trendiest subject these days for TED talks is cracking the code on digital-era do-gooding, with 100 recent talks and counting just on the subjects of Africa and development…
But entrepreneurial spirit and even the fanciest of gadgets will only get you so far. All the technological transformation of the last 200 years hasn’t come close to wiping out global poverty. More than half the planet still lives on less than $4 a day, and 2.4 billion people live on less than $2 a day. And that’s after a decade that saw the biggest drop in extreme poverty ever. What’s more, millions and millions of people still die annually from easily and cheaply preventable or treatable diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia. None of this is for a lack of science; often it isn’t even for lack of money. It is because parents don’t follow simple health practices like washing their hands, government bureaucrats can’t or won’t provide basic water and sanitation programs, and arbitrary immigration restrictions prevent the poor from moving to places with better opportunities.
Sorry, but no iPhone, even one loaded with the coolest apps, is going to change all that….
SO WHAT CAN BE DONE to harness technological innovation, filter the good ideas from the bad, and spread a little of Silicon Valley’s fairy dust on the world’s poorer regions? The answer, according to Harvard economist Michael Kremer, is market discipline and rigorous testing. Kremer is a MacArthur “genius” grant winner whose name pops up in speculation about future Nobel Prize contenders. He thinks that technological fixes can dramatically improve the lives of the global poor, but markets won’t provide the right innovations without support.”

Knight News Challenge on Open Gov

Press Release: “Knight Foundation today named eight projects as winners of the Knight News Challenge on Open Gov, awarding the recipients more than $3.2 million for their ideas.
The projects will provide new tools and approaches to improve the way people and governments interact. They tackle a range of issues from making it easier to open a local business to creating a simulator that helps citizens visualize the impact of public policies on communities….
Each of the winning projects offers a solution to a real-world need. They include:
Civic Insight: Providing up-to-date information on vacant properties so that communities can find ways to make tangible improvements to local spaces;
OpenCounter: Making it easier for residents to register and create new businesses by building open source software that governments can use to simplify the process;
Open Gov for the Rest of Us: Providing residents in low-income neighborhoods in Chicago with the tools to access and demand better data around issues important to them, like housing and education; Launching a public policy simulator that helps people visualize the impact that public policies like health care reform and school budget changes might have on local economies and communities;
Oyez Project: Making state and appellate court documents freely available and useful to journalists, scholars and the public, by providing straightforward summaries of decisions, free audio recordings and more; Making government contract bidding more transparent by simplifying the way smaller companies bid on government work;
GitMachines: Supporting government innovation by creating tools and servers that meet government regulations, so that developers can easily build and adopt new technology;
Plan in a Box: Making it easier to discover information about local planning projects, by creating a tool that governments and contractors can use to easily create websites with updates that also allow public input into the process.

Now in its sixth year, the Knight News Challenge accelerates media innovation by funding breakthrough ideas in news and information. Winners receive a share of $5 million in funding and support from Knight’s network of influential peers and advisors to help advance their ideas. Past News Challenge winners have created a lasting impact. They include: DocumentCloud, which analyzes and annotates public documents – turning them into data; Tools for OpenStreetMap, which makes it easier to contribute to the editable map of the world; and Safecast, which helps people measure air quality and became the leading provider of pollution data following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
For more, visit and follow #newschallenge on Twitter.