Nov 13 2018

How Technology Can Be a Tool for Civic Engagement

Cities are using tech to improve the lives of citizens and help them get involved in their local communities.

As the world becomes increasingly connected, innovation is empowering more people than ever to contribute to their communities — whether that means volunteering for a local cause, working with municipal government to solve an important issue, or voicing opinions on key public planning matters.

Indeed, cities across the U.S. and throughout the world are taking advantage of emerging technologies for sharing, tracking and visualizing data that will help mobilize their citizenry. 

In Louisville, Ky., residents in one of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods can stroll down to their local community center for free high-speed internet access, digital literacy training and assistance in the development of tech and entrepreneurship skills. In tandem with the PNC Gigabit Experience Center, Louisville also initiated a Digital Inclusion Plan aimed at helping citizens obtain the skills and tools needed to earn degrees, find jobs and contribute to the overall welfare of the city.

In Austin, Texas, the public housing authority offers a program called Smart Work, Learn, Play, which aims to connect underserved communities with various opportunities by increasing their ability to use online public services, particularly transportation. Austin built on a digital inclusion program that seeks to put an internet connection, digital literacy training and computers in every housing authority home. The new program involves a housing authority nonprofit subsidiary, Austin Pathways, which has recruited “mobility ambassadors” to encourage low-income residents to be more engaged citizens.

The city of Raleigh, N.C., is also utilizing technology to further civic engagement through InVision Raleigh, a web-based 3D tool allowing citizens to visualize and interact with proposed changes in the city. Using a solution from Esri, a geospatial company, the city provides government staff and the public with location-based data that can be viewed online or downloaded as detailed custom maps, including buildings, parks and zoning.

What these three efforts have in common is the objective to use civic technology, or CivTech, to improve the lives of citizens and provide them with the means to get involved in their local communities. CivTech can be defined as “the development and/or use of technology that enables the engagement or increased public participation in improving government infrastructure and enhancing citizen communications or opportunities.” CivTech is being used in myriad ways throughout the country. 

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CivTech Tackles Citizen Concerns with Data Analytics

According to a Governing Institute, Accenture and Salesforce survey of 2,000 citizens, 43 percent of respondents had complaints about the quality of their city or county infrastructure, but only 26 percent said they ever contacted government agencies for help with potholes, graffiti, broken sidewalks, derelict buildings or other problems. When investigating this discrepancy, citizens cited insufficient information, having to rely on others to get the job done and lack of time as top barriers to getting engaged.

When properly deployed, CivTech addresses these barriers by providing government agencies with a user-friendly, one-stop-shop online for sharing information with citizens about key issues facing their neighborhoods while enabling residents to log their thoughts, concerns or complaints.

Most cities today are starting to address such needs by creating dynamic web and social media sites people can access from connected devices. A few are even taking it to the next level with more advanced innovation, such as data analytics, virtual digital assistants and blockchain. 

In the digital age, with nearly everything connected, there is massive opportunity for state and local government agencies to collect, aggregate, cleanse and analyze data to better understand the needs of their citizens. Data analytics are taking off in the business world, and it is only a matter of time before that happens in the public sector as well. 

New York City, for example, already has a Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, or MODA. City leaders use it to accumulate and analyze data from various city agencies to effectively address crime, public safety and quality of life issues. Analytics tools enable the city to strategically prioritize risk, deliver services more efficiently, enforce the law and increase transparency with citizens, who can access all of this data online. 

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Virtual Digital Assistants Serve as Hubs for Everything

Many of us know Alexa, the virtual digital assistant residing on Amazon devices. It can read us the news or weather, make a phone call, play music and even order a pizza. But in Louisville, the city is using it as a central hub for delivering important information to its users.

Through its Smart Louisville program, the city is an early adopter of a free web-based service called If This, Then That, or IFTTT, which acts as a middleman between apps and hardware that might not otherwise talk to one another. With IFTTT, users can trigger various conditional commands, or applets, to keep citizens alerted about important civic events and opportunities affecting their lives.

For example, Louisville might have an applet you can subscribe to where if there is a flood in town, then an emergency alert would be sent to that Alexa device, car stereo or designated device. Or if Louisville Mayor Greg Fisher’s podcast is updated, then you would receive a notification on that social media site you care about. This type of technology is increasingly connecting citizens to need-to-know, personally curated information.

Blockchain Makes Data Available to Those Who Need It

Blockchain is currently being deployed by the city of Austin, which is piloting a program with homeless residents, who will be given a unique identifier securely recorded on the blockchain. The homeless residents can use this identifier to consolidate their records and gain access to vital city services

At the same time, authorized agency employees can access these records to deliver the necessary services appropriately. At a municipal level, blockchain can also help create smart networks and grids to enable various civic engagement functions, such as secure online voting or volunteering for the fire department. 

Today, there are an ever-increasing number of opportunities for government agencies to apply digital technology in ways that will mobilize citizens to get involved in civic affairs. Web and social media sites are a decent place to start, but they are just table stakes. 

To truly make a difference, state and local governments should speak to their citizens and understand what type of technologies they would use, then invest in those that are worthwhile. With the return of getting more people engaged in civic life, these investments are well worth the cost.



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