22 Aug

Relationship model of e-government

I’ve been thinking about how we might begin to think about relationship model versus transaction model when it comes to digitally augmented government.  In most configuations of e-government there is a choice between open dialog and collective decision making.  This leaves two options: unstructured talk and structured input.  It would seem that there is something in between.   Consider something like YouTube as a platform for relationships.  If the real value in video sharing is building personal and / or intellectual connections, then the platform plays the role not of content provider, but arbiter of relationships.  Shouldn’t the government characterize its role similarly?  Shouldn’t the government be tasked with the responsibility of providing the framework for relationships, person to person, person to group, group to group, person to institution, etc.?  And not just the framework for individual transactions, but a framework that transforms transactions into a relationship investment.  For instance, one doesn’t post to YouTube simply to add to a database of videos.  The single transaction is a building block on which relationships can be built.  In other words, engagement doesn’t end with the transaction, that’s where it begins.

The most prominent examples in the States include Minnesota e-democracy or iBrattelboro, or even some of the attempts by various states, most notably Virginia, to provide web access to senate hearings.  These are all premised on the notion that the transaction itself is the act of participation (civic engagement measured by voter turnout, for instance).  Outside of the United States, there are some more interesting examples like Digital Birmingham, which has a complex big picture idea of digital democracy, and a bunch of examples in Sweden where the public is invited in to design and or participate.  Interestingly, a project in Stockholm to invite the public into the design of a new airport forced the government to pull the plug on the project because they couldn’t control the overwhelming resistance that built up against it.  But, in these participatory processes, or as one person put it, design by committee situations, problems arise when participation is limited to individual input.  The role of government is obfuscated by very specific features of the technology.

What is promising about the model of digital government as relationship platform is the possibility of turning priorities away from civic management and towards civic engagement.  Sure, efficiency and economy are important, but I think there are interesting opportunities to expand the role of government to include these more nuanced aspects of relationships.  This is what requires a change in culture.  Can digital media change the attitude that government is in place only to control or manage?  Can it instead be in place to foster opportunities for connections?

I wonder if this proposition is too heavily steeped in neoliberal discourse, or if its just the opposite?  Perhaps it succeeds in taking the emphasis away from the individual and away from established institutions by placing it on this yet-to-be-defined third space?

14 Aug

Mixed Reality Deliberation

The goal of Hub2 is to introduce a deliberative process into community meetings that currently does not exist. Who do this by integrating Second Life into the existing community process. We believe that the affordances of the tool and the specifics of the practice we built around it, we are adding the following:

  • collaboration – allowing a group of people with a shared interest in a space collaborate with one another to create a product (in our case, this is a “virtual sketch” of the proposed park).
  • evaluation – allowing that same group to evaluate their own work, and their own experiences (facilitated by their avatars), instead of simply responding to often confusing plans or architectural diagrams.
  • understanding through experience – by turning abstract concept drawings into “concrete” representations, people have a better chance of making sense of complex spatial dynamics or urban planning principals.

As we continue to conduct these community workshops, and continue to adapt our process to the pecularities of the design process, we are realizing that our main purpose is to help the group most productively realize their role as community informant. The city, the developers and the designers come to the community for input, and unless a deliberative process is put in place, that input gathering can be quite shallow. Currently, communities are forced to respond to a problem or a proposal with limited knowledge and limited information.

We’re watching our every move and assessing whether or not this “mixed-reality deliberation” is in fact working. Based on our current observations, we can say that it is working, even though we are constantly pushed up against the limits of the technology and the political realities of any development project. We hope that by the end of this summer, we can say with confidence that we have designed a process that works, with a technology that’s accessible. And once we do that, we can start to consider the implications of virtual technologies on communities more generally, specifically, how the product of mixed-reality deliberation (the virtual sketches produced) can be meaningful in their own right.

13 Aug

Digital Birmingham

The City of Birmingham, UK is working on a significant transformation in image. As it is described on the Digital Birmingham site, the city seeks to transform its industrial past into a digital future. The initiative seeks to tie together all the digital efforts in the city into one portal. Wi-fi initiatives, coupled with resources on online safety, digital film exhibitions, and conferences, are all aggregated through Digital Birmingham. While much of this effort is directed toward PR and tourism, there are other pieces that are legitimately pushing the envelope of participation and transparency in city government. Even those pieces, ironically, that are directed towards PR and tourism.

The Virtual Birmingham initiative is a good example of this. Spearheaded by the company Daden Limited, this initiative is “leading discussions with partners on how Birmingham can be represented and promoted in a 3D virtual environment such as Second Life that would address specific needs from the visitor economy, attracting inward investment and putting Birmingham ‘on the map’.” The results, thus far, are some incredibly interesting designs in Second Life that integrate Google Maps with the virtual environment. The goal here is to make the map immersive – clicking on places and then walking your avatar through them. Currently, in what’s called a “briefing center,” avatars can walk on the map, bring up wikipedia, BBC or CNN newsfeeds, represented by familiar Google placemarkers. When I spoke with David Daden about the project, he expressed interest in turning it into a planning tool – fleshing out the entire map with virtual models to reflect the city’s various uses.

The possibilities here are quite exciting, although I don’t know in what direction the city intends to take this. One could imagine that the Second Life map could function as a portal into a deep urban database, that includes civic information as well as social information. Using the map as the anchor for virtual designs is exactly the right way to go. However, it will take a lot of convincing to get cities to invest in the virtual technologies for the enhancement of their own citizens, as on the surface it appears that the primary use is as spectacle or immersive representation.

That said, my hat’s off to Birmingham, a city that is taking more of a chance than any other I can think of. Certainly, Boston has a ways to go before it adopts virtual (let alone digital) technologies with such enthusiasm.

07 Aug

Hub2 Works With Harvard

For the last several weeks, Hub2 has been working on a project in the Allston neighborhood of Boston. With full support from the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and funding from Harvard’s Allston Development Group, we have begun work on the community input process around Library Park. Our mission is to augment the methods through which communities deliberate over local issues by making new virtual tools available to them. In short, we are conducting workshops where fifteen members of the community are given laptops and assemble around a projection screen. Our team runs them through a two-hour process, at the end of which they have a community sketch. This does two things: it equals the participatory playing field by integrating a non-verbal game space into the traditional public forum, and it allows the community to produce something instead of just respond to something, which leads to much more informed commentary because they are responding to their own work instead of architectural plans.

In addition to these formal workshops, we also have community drop-in hours at a community space Harvard is providing. We have invited the community to come in to a less formal setting to explore the virtual space, add their comments and discuss the issues. This could be done at home by accessing Second Life, but we are working with the assumption that no one is capable or has the desire to access Second Life from home. These drop-in hours are staffed by local teenagers, who have been trained in Second Life and have become experts in local issues.

We aim for Hub2 to change the conditions of community engagement. We strive for a different kind of openness and deliberation, and we aim to use the best tools to make that happen. We are currently using Second Life, but we are not committed to a single platform. We are committed to a process that will inevitably adapt as new tools come online.

What’s next for Hub2?

We are funded through the beginning of September on this Harvard project. We are studying everything about this process, from the nature of community engagement to the tangled web of politics in the back offices to the apprehension on the part of the architects and the developers to receive more feedback from the community. We hope that through this process, we can develop sustainable models for mixed reality deliberation and for integrating new tools into established practices.

It seems like the BRA continues to support our work. As such, we’re hoping to get ourselves another project in the city of Boston to sustain our activities through the coming year.