Sunday, October 24, 2010

New Ways for Citizen Engagement

Citizen initiatives are transforming the discourse, even the relationship between citizens and their governments. The most recent installment of evidence of this transformation came at this month's Unfinished Business Lecture at OCAD's Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) on October 20, 2010.

SeeClickFix Platform

The invited speaker of this lecture was Ben Berkowitz, CEO of
SeeClickFix. I had the pleasure of attending Ben's presentation about the story behind his organization at the Collaborative Innovation Summit (BIF6) in September of this year and was happy that he could tell this story to a Toronto audience. Kudos to Michael Dila and his team at Torch Innovation for taking the initiative of inviting Ben to speak at the Unfinished Business Lecture that they sponsor. The series has been exceptional in the selection of topics and the quality of speakers.

Ben told the story of
SeeClickFix. It started as an initiative to fight unwanted graffiti in his neighborhood, morphed into a web application for reporting pot holes that needed repair, grew into a tool for alerting government officials to public works needed (pot holes and others), and blossomed into a global web 2.0 platform for citizen engagement and for citizen self-organized action.

Government Evolving

What I found interesting is that what started as an application to collect information locally about unwanted graffiti evolved rapidly not only as a platform for
the distributed collection of needed public works, but also as a tool for governments to cut their cost (roaming inspectors to identify needed repairs). Even when governments were short of resources to address the needs, they found open communications with citizen to provide transparency about the allocation of resources and to help dispel perception of preferential treatment of particular neighborhoods. The tactics of subscribing government officials to receive alerts generated within their jurisdiction without first asking for their permission, have increased pressure on officials to engage their citizens. Those who resist and resent the service provided by SeeClickFix are quickly identified by their citizens as non-transparent bureaucrats who are providing inadequate service. In return, the site's ability to display the status of reported issues (open, acknowledged, and closed) on a Google map is providing public works staff with a capability to publicly display their own work and performance.

Self-Organizing Citizens

Furthermore, citizen started using the platform not only for reporting issues but for peer-to-peer communications in order to organize their own actions addressing the issues reported. Examples ranged from a woman, who spray-painted the fading stripes of the pedestrian crossing on her street to Washington citizens posting what resources they can offer and organizing in small groups to help neighbors clear their driveways and sidewalks during the snow storms of the past winter. Some local governments are starting even to offer "civic points" for citizens reporting required works and organizing to help with addressing them.

Toronto's 311 Service

In the Q&A following the lecture, Peter Rose, a graduate student in OCAD's Strategic Foresight & Innovation program, asked Ben if Toronto, which has a 311 service, is using SeeClickFix. Ben mentioned having a phone conversation with someone in the Mayor's office. That person (Ryan) turned out to be among the audience. Peter then put Ryan on the spot asking him to provide the audience with an update on Toronto's government activities in that space. Ryan did not have detailed information (being away for 6 months and at the end of his term with the elections on October 25th), but he deferred to Dave Wallace, Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the city, who was also attending.

Sure enough, Dave came forward and provided an interesting insight into Metro Hall's plans and activities around open government and the open data movement.
One of the new applications of open data is Toronto's road closures information to help you plan your movement around the city.

What followed was a lively and informative conversation, typical of the Unfinished Business lectures. This and other open-data city activities will be the subject of another posting in the near future as I get more details, so stay tuned.

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