03 Feb

Design Action Research for Government (DARG) project (part 2 of 2)

In addition to research oriented around projects, DARG is also engaged in some context-setting research on the changing face of government.

 

Perceptions of new media amongst government officials 

The use of new media tools in government is shaped by the perceptions of government officials (elected and appointed). We have embarked on a national study that will consist of between 20 and 30 semi-structured interviews with officials from a variety of cities. The study will explore the following questions: How do city officials currently use social networking sites to connect with citizens? How could online platforms be designed to better meet the needs of city officials? What do elected officials envision as the challenges and opportunities for using social media to engage citizens?

 

New Approaches for Partnerships

Relationships between civic institutions and local organizations are most often hierarchical and entrenched. Requests for projects (RFPs) require jumping through bureaucratic hoops and knowledge of the system; dispensing fiscal aid to neighborhoods or advocacy groups often must be done without attention to micro-level conditions. In order to provide locally-productive solutions and open the civic process to new and different groups, innovation in technology must be accompanied by innovation in process.

In order to foster more collaborative relationships between government and stakeholders, the DARG project is experimenting with new kinds of partnerships.  These include partnerships with universities & community groups, residents, and private businesses.

 

Partnering on Problem Solving with Universities & Community Groups

The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics has connected with the Community Innovation Lab (CIL) at Harvard University to create a course-based model for sourcing ideas. The course, taught in two consecutive semesters (Spring 2012 and Fall 2012), produced over 12 ideas currently being considered for implementation. The CIL had students propose technological solutions for community problems in cooperation with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, the Orchard Gardens Residents Association and Uphams Corner Main Streets.

The DARG project is evaluating this approach, evaluating its ability to serve as a source for creating original and effective solutions to long-standing community issues.  In order to measure this, we are gathering data regarding the communities’ perceptions of success of the projects through a series of in-depth interviews with relevant community groups. Perception is key in this undertaking, as community groups’ understanding of their relationship to the city, universities, their own efficacy, and the success of projects implemented under these plans are the main markers of successful restructuring of how ideas and interventions are sourced. Additionally, we will investigate the actual implementation of these plans by employing ethnographic observation of their use within the community. The long-term plan for assessing this area involves iterating and refining the CIL class and implementations of the ideas it generates. Best practices observed from the CIL will be used to develop new methods of restructuring relationships of service provision.

 

Partnering on Problem Solving with Residents

The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics has connected with IDEO, a leading design firm, to propose a new approach to handling residential trash in Boston.  Problems with trash and litter are routinely the most frequent resident complaint heard by the City.  Rather than addressing this problem by looking only at refining the City’s existing operations, this effort with IDEO, supported by the DARG project, is crafting a solution that stems from engagement with residents and an analysis of their interests and behaviors.

Through the evaluation and documentation of the pilot project, we will help record the efficacy of this more interactive approach to the improvement of municipal services.

 

Partnering on Problem Solving with the Private Sector

Traditionally, when government is looking for a private sector company to partner with, it issues a request for proposal.  For the reasons mentioned above, this process can exclude some potential respondents and the ideas they might have.  With support from the DARG project, the City of Boston was able to experiment with a different approach.

The City ran an open competition for companies that could help small & local businesses use social media to drive in-store sales.  Dozens of companies, from a range of sectors and of various sizes, responded, netting a wide array of potential approaches.  The selected winner of the competition is actively working with small businesses and already showing success.  We will document this competition process as an alternative to the traditional RFP approach to partnering with the private sector.

Across all of these projects, we will not only draw conclusions regarding best practices for engaging the public, but will create recommendations designed to scale across cities. By building a network of organizations and innovators within and between cities, the DARG project ultimately seeks to reduce the cost and risk of implementing new technologies in the civic space.

 

03 Feb

Design Action Research for Government (DARG) Project (part 1 of 2)

I’m excited to talk about a new project. This description was written with my colleague Jesse Baldwin-Philippi. The Design Action Research for Government (DARG) project is a partnership between the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston and the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College. The goal of the DARG project is to advance the capacity of local governments to foster civic engagement through technological innovations. Its mission is to provide a conceptual framework and evaluative capacity to guide city-level innovations that create opportunities for the public to meaningfully engage in the creation and study of public life.

The DARG project is a model for collaboration between governments and universities. The project employs techniques of action and design research to source, create, and study civic technology projects. It seeks to build strong collaborations with communities in order to increase the effectiveness of civic experimentation and to maximize learning opportunities. Undertaking a research program that goes beyond traditional measures of engagement, the DARG project also aims to improve the way research concerning civic media in governance takes place. Ultimately, the DARG project aims to transform common practices of government innovation from a model of top-down intervention and evaluation to one of participatory design and research.

What follows is a description of the current research that falls under the DARG project umbrella. Most research projects have a design component and include both traditional research outcomes and digital tools or new processes. Findings and process documentation will be disseminated in blogs, video summaries and academic publications.

PROJECTS

New Digital Tools

Government tends to think about civic participation as transactional—citizens receive information and provide feedback to decision-makers through town hall meetings or web portals. These transactions then become the primary indicators of successful civic engagement strategies; baseline numbers such as meeting attendance, unique hits on a government website, and number of online transactions are the primary markers of success. But online interactions such as deliberation and sharing information are foundational to local community and organizational outreach, and should be considered when evaluating how and why people engage in public life. Through the DARG project, we  seek to experiment with and evaluate tools that move civic engagement from a merely transactional process with government to one that is interactive.

Through a series of case studies, we evaluate civic engagement in a networked context. We assert that digital technologies do not simply increase government efficiency, but in the context of civic engagement, actually can create what we call meaningful inefficiencies. Month-long games around planning issues, social networks layered on top of service request apps, or social media competitions—can be both meaningful and productive. Through empirical, exploratory, and design-based research, the DARG project will provide a rigorous framework for conceptualizing and evaluating networked civic engagement. Below is a description of our active research projects focused on new tools.

Citizenship and Mobile Reporting

In an attempt to provide citizens with faster, more accessible, information and services, civic innovators in cities all over the world have produced a sizeable cache of open data and apps delivering fast and convenient services. While committed to these efforts, the DARG project seeks to expand upon them by understanding the affordances of making service delivery a social experience. More than just a process that can be productive on an individual level, service delivery in a networked context can also improves citizens’ feelings of connectedness to local community and levels of both personal and collective efficacy.

 

Reporting tool in the City of Boston

Citizens Connect is a mobile reporting tool developed by the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in 2009. We are conducting a study that looks at how the unique peer-to-peer qualities of the mobile app increase feelings of collective efficacy and neighborhood cohesion. We are currently surveying users and non-users (people who have reported via the city’s telephone hotline) to understand the specific affordances of the mobile application and whether or not digital and networked connectivity through Citizens Connect changes the quality of engagement.

Civic reputation systems and online relationships

Street Cred is a civic badging API being developed through the DARG project to test the value of reputation and social interactions within service delivery. Street Cred adds value to everyday civic transactions by allowing citizens to earn badges, compete with friends and neighbors and share civic accomplishments. The software is currently in development and will be piloted within Citizens Connect in June 2013. After the initial pilot study, which will include analysis of user data, online surveys and focus groups, we will iterate the design and expand the API to other apps used in Boston, including Community PlanIt and Street Bump, as well as offline engagements such as neighborhood meetings and public forums. A larger study of Street Cred is planned for September 2013.

Collective Efficacy and Planning Games

The problem of civic engagement is often understood as a lack of participation. People do not show up to meetings, they do not engage in their civic institutions or communicate with decision-makers.  Engagement strategies often involve a lot of bean counting, where the quantity of people participating is more important than the quality of participation created. Through the DARG project, we seek to change this discourse. We seek to deepen engagement by creating opportunities for what we call distracted engagement. Distracted engagement allows for small-scale civic activities that are short, but also ongoing, and which habituate citizens to civic practices. Reciprocal discussion and deliberation results in a system where citizens get feedback, rather than simply voicing their ideas. While encouraging these behaviors, and assessing their prevalence we also ask two larger research questions: Do civic habits lead to civic learning? Does going through the motions in one aspect of civic life lead to a more reflective engagement with another?

 

community planit is an online game for local planning

Community PlanIt (CPI) is an online mission-based game that connects local communities around planning issues. It was developed by the Engagement Game Lab and has so far been played in Boston, Detroit, and Philadelphia. The goal of CPI is to earn coins that can be pledged to real life causes. The three causes with the most coins at the end of the game win real money. The general mechanics include individual questions that can be answered individually and visualized collectively. CPI encourages reciprocal, ongoing discussion and deliberation amongst players. Preliminary research on CPI has indicated that it successfully fosters ongoing deliberation that is viewed as directly beneficial to both institutions and citizens. Further research will focus on the game’s ability to produce civic learning, which we define as the effect of combining participation with the opportunity to reflect.

04 Dec

Social Media for Everyday Democracy

Social media does not democracy make. While there are extraordinary examples during the Arab Spring, for example, of Facebook and Twitter enabling mass assembly and connecting local movements to the globe, there are many more examples of everyday democracy where technology has fallen flat. In the United States, elected officials often use Facebook to connect with constituents and poll opinions. But there is a clear distinction between the mostly bottom-up use of social media for macro-coordination in the name of democratic protest, and the mostly top-down use of the media to collect opinions. While both serve some aspect of democratic participation, they are qualitatively unique phenomena.

Each has a unique assumption about the user/citizen. The activist model assumes a passionate user that, heated by the moment, will assemble or take action. The everyday democracy model assumes a dispassionate user who can, given only the channel to communicate, provide good, rational ideas. Of course, in practice, it’s never this clear cut. Protesters can be dispassionate, and those providing feedback to government can be quite passionate.

Governments are not interested in enabling mass protest. They typically want to take actions to avoid it. And, one reasonable action they can take would be to enable everyday democracy by providing good channels for feedback. Increasingly, governments and civic organizations, especially within the United States, are doing this. So, as they work social media into their outreach plans, they often employ models that assume dispassionate citizens that are simply waiting to communicate their brilliant, well-reasoned ideas.

Whenever I deploy a social media tool within a local context, the question I get more than any other is: “can you name an idea that someone posed in the system that was actually implemented?” The answer is typically “no.” But more to the point: why would it matter? It is hardly democratic for a single idea to cut through the fat and rise to the top. The hope, I would hope, would be for an idea to gain traction, to transform, and to meaningfully persuade others so that a wider conversation can take place. I typically don’t get questions about the context of dialogue, or the learning objectives of the process; only, did social media mine the one brilliant idea? Or, perhaps more accurately, did social media mine the one brilliant idea that we already knew we wanted to implement?

There is a simple lesson in all of this: social media for everyday democracy cannot be about discrete ideas from the dispassionate citizen. It has to establish context, opportunity for dialogue, modes of sharing and connecting, which go beyond the mechanisms currently in place. If we just build tools that open up decontextualized channels via text or SMS, we are no closer to meaningful democratic participation. We just have more people participating in a system that doesn’t work.

14 Sep

Imagined Publics in an Online Civic Game

In May 2012, we ran a Community PlanIt game in the City of Detroit. The game was designed to solicit public feedback on the city’s master planning process. The game lasted for three weeks and attracted more than 1000 players. What’s particularly interesting about this game is that 47% of the users were 18 and under. While that number would not be surprising for a typical game, this game is not at all typical. It is a game designed specifically to engage people in an urban planning process – not your typical after school activity for teenagers.

One of the most intriguing findings from this game is not what people said about Detroit (and they said quite a bit – over 8600 comments recorded in the system!), but how people felt about who they were talking to. Adults and youth, while rarely interacting directly with each other, yet they were very aware that the other was “in the system.” In post-game interviews, adult players often mentioned how important it was that youth were “present.” They mentioned guiding the tone of their remarks in order to perform appropriately for the youth audience. They felt they needed to model behavior, which made them pay closer attention to grammar and content.

Likewise, many of the youth commented that while they were speaking directly to their youth peers, the presence of adults in the game was important to them. They didn’t seem to censor the content of their comments because of this, they continued to speak and perform for each other. However, the presence of adults was often mentioned as something that legitimized the process. Because adults were part of their imagined public, the youth felt as though someone outside of their own peer circles was paying attention to what they had to say.

So, distinct publics coexisted in an online space, without direct interaction. But the nature of communication was altered by how each imagined the presence of the other. This is a fascinating design challenge. And especially as we continue to develop within the civic space, it points to a fundamental design challenge – building intergenerational online spaces that allow people to engage in multi-faceted, nuanced local communities.

24 Jul

Meaningful Inefficiencies in the “Smart City”

Information communication technologies (ICTs) hold considerable promise for cities. Sometimes framed as “smart cities,” technologically enhanced urban spaces create efficiencies through streamlined infrastructure (because complex systems can better coordinate) and access to services (because people can be more aware of systems, i.e. real-time transit data on mobile phones). But urban technologies do not always create efficiencies; they can also create meaningful inefficiencies in the form of social connections, and complex, nuanced understandings of place. This happens when people use technologies to achieve unpredictable outcomes: a process not typical of the “smart cities” paradigm. When information is contextualized and opportunities exist for data not simply to be transmitted, but for ideas to evolve through deliberative dialogue, there are meaningful inefficiencies. Social connections, deliberation, place-based story telling, and play, create nuance in how people understand local community and consequently influence how people construct meaning in an urban context.

Meaningful inefficiencies have typically been the jurisdiction of artists. Stemming from the articulated problem that cities create sameness and social alienation, the social theorist Guy Debord in the 1960s established a theoretical framework and methodology through which to interrupt these phenomena. Debord sought to create alternative logics through which to experience the city, where a pre-defined pattern would determine how one moved, or “randomness” would dictate how one drifted through the urban landscape. This sparked a genre of “new media” art loosely termed psychogeography, which employed technology as an intervention into existing urban patterns. Projects such as Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman’s The Familiar Stranger (2002), which foreshadowed contemporary location-based social networks such as Foursquare, used bluetooth technology on mobile phones to make people aware of those who shared geographic space. Or games such as Can You See Me Now? (2001) by the UK-based art collective Blast Theory, employed GPS devices to construct a kind of hybrid space where the urban environment was augmented by people and objects only findable within the virtual environment (de Souza e Silva, 2009; Gordon and de Souza e Silva, 2011). These projects, conceived as art not commerce, experiment not activism, have remained rhetorically distinct from the smart cities project.

IBM defines the “smarter city” as one that acts “efficiently and purposefully” (IBM Corporation Forward Thinking Cities Are Investing in Insight, 2012) – a definition that would seem to run counter to the interventionist impulse of much new media art. While there has been some room for issues such as education and media access and literacy in the smart city framework (Caragliu, Del Bo, & Nijkamp, 2009), for the most part, the qualitative experiences of social interactions, place-making and trust building have been excluded.  As intelligence and efficiency have the moral authority in policy debates, there is a danger that participation, especially as technologies are designed to “fix the problem,” is captured by the rhetoric of efficiency and treated only as a thing to streamline.

Technologies can and should create meaningful inefficiencies. As more technological solutions get proposed, funded, and implemented to solve urban problems, we need to safeguard against them becoming technocratic solutions.

Works Cited

Caragliu, A., Del Bo, C., & Nijkamp, P. (2009). Smart Cities in Europe. Serie Research Memoranda 0048, VU University Amsterdam, Faculty of Economics, Business Administration and Econometrics.

de Souza e Silva, A. (2009). Hybrid Reality and Location-Based Gaming: Redefining Mobility and Game Spaces in Urban Environments. Simulation and Gaming, 40(3), 404–424. doi:10.1177/1046878108314643

Gordon, E. and de Souza e Silva (2011) Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

IBM Corporation. Smarter, More Competitive Cities. (2012). Smarter, More Competitive Cities. Forward Thinking Cities Are Investing in Insight. IBM Corporation.

27 Jun

A Direct to Consumer Democracy?

Getting involved in something takes trust. Whether it’s attending a neighborhood cleanup, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or showing up to a community meeting, people do these things not simply out of a sense of purpose, but often because some one or some trusted organization suggested they do it. Civic engagement is typically preceded by trust in an entity (i.e. a friend, a neighborhood association, or even a government) who can vouch for the system. To invest one’s personal identity, reputation and time in something requires a clarity of purpose and confidence in the return on one’s investment that does not typically come stock with a new system. If there is a new non-profit working on environmental justice issues, before one donates money or gets involved, they will look for who the organization is affiliated with and what they’ve already done. So why should civic-minded software (civic apps) be any different?

Civic apps are systems. And while they can solve some problems pertaining to ease of use and access, they cannot easily solve the lack of trust problem. This varies with specific purpose of the app, but in general, the direct to consumer model does not always yield the best engagement. Civic apps should represent a trusted entity and not seek, at least at the start, to be that trusted entity. Surely there are great examples of rapidly grown online social networks; but when it comes to the question of local civic engagement, the challenge is to enable online social networks to meaningfully interface with the organizations and institutions that shape everyday life. The civic app can amplify, clarify, and/or provide techniques for modification and transformation of existing systems. But it is only able to do this because the trust in how (and that) a system works is transferred to the civic app.

In short, technology for engagement does not mean a direct to consumer democracy. Groups and organizations are always going to be the foundation of democracy, and technology can and should bolster this foundation.

11 Jun

Gaming City Planning: Community PlanIt in Detroit

Community PlanIt is an online game platform for local, community planning. It is a time-delimited, mission-based game, where players earn points and complete missions by answering questions and engaging in challenges related to a planning process.  All the while, they’re able to meet other stakeholders, try out ideas, and understand where their opinions fit into the larger planning effort.

Community PlanIt is not simply a local forum to share ideas. It is a specific intervention into the process of urban/town planning, which is most commonly organized around sporadic town hall meetings and a non-existent or simplistic narrative. All too often, when planners plan, the public retreats or takes the defensive position. “What planning process?” or “You’re not going to build that project here!” So, Community PlanIt turns planning into a story, structured through simple interactions and game mechanics, and invites the public to shape the narrative.

We started work on the platform last year. It was first tested in Lowell, MA as part of a city visioning process. We did a larger pilot in fall 2011 with Boston Public Schools to engage the public in the question of “what makes a quality school?” And this spring, we did another city visioning project in Quincy, MA and were part of a citywide long term planning effort in Detroit.

Detroit 24/7 Game Finale Video from Community PlanIt on Vimeo.

The Detroit project was called Detroit 24/7 and was designed in collaboration with Detroit Works Project Long Term Planning. It lasted 21 days, and consisted of three weeklong missions. In that time, 1033 players registered and created over 8400 comments about their experience with city as it is now and where they think it should go in the future. After the missions ended, there was a Game Finale meeting at the Central branch of the Detroit Public Library, where over 120 people showed up to celebrate players’ accomplishments and to plan for next steps.

People in Detroit gather at Game Finale meeting at the Detroit Public Library

These numbers are impressive and encouraging.  And when you add to that the fact that 42% of players were between the ages of 14 and 17, and 74% were 35 or under, you have an impressive demographic shift in a process that is too often stereotyped as geriatric. But Community PlanIt was not only for young people. Some of the most active players were over 50 and were energized by the participation of youth. In general, the people who played the game were not your usual suspects. Many of the highest point earners have never been to a planning meeting in the past and those that typically dominate in-person planning meetings were not the highest point earners.

Unlike a traditional planning process, we consider the data collected to be community property. All the missions will remain on the site in a view-only state, and the data will be accessible in summary visualizations, like this interactive map and wordcloud. We will also make the raw, anonymized data available to organizations or individuals who want it.

Gaming Engagement

People played Community PlanIt because they cared about the issues, not because they wanted to play a game.  We used game mechanics, such as points and mission completion, as onboarding techniques – they increased people’s initial motivation to participate in the process – however, they did not maintain that interest. Players reported that curiosity about other players’ ideas and a sense of purpose around the planning process are what ultimately kept them coming back for more.  The leaderboard was only partly successful in maintaining interest. No surprise, however. This is a common problem with leader boards – once certain players pull ahead, it becomes near impossible for the casual player to “succeed.” This typically does not discourage players, it simply encourages them to ignore the leaderboard.

The most successful game mechanic was the framing of the process through time-delimited missions. Missions lasted only one week, and each had a very distinct theme that was communicated via an introductory video. The missions were: “Share Your Detroit,” “Living in Detroit,” and “Getting Around Detroit.” Players received an email at the start and end of each mission. And there was a direct correlation between the start of a mission and the amount of use. Interestingly, players reported that besides curiosity about what people were saying (you had to answer a question yourself before you could see others’ answers), completing missions was a major motivator. While players could earn badges for completing missions, the badge itself didn’t seem to matter as much as simply achieving the goal of doing all the challenges before time ran out.

Youth playing at the Teen Hype Center at the Detroit Public Library

There is a lot of debate about the value of gamification, specifically regarding the tension between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. For example, if a kid only eats dinner because of the promise of dessert, does she fail to develop the habits of mind necessary for healthy eating? In Community PlanIt, it was very clear that the extrinsic motivators (points, badges, missions) never replaced the need for existing intrinsic motivations. The desire to learn about and participate in the local community drove use, and the game mechanics simply introduced the possibilities of that use. One of the things that characterized the players in Detroit, whether they were 14 years-old or 70, was a deep concern for the future of the city. The game provided an onramp and a roadmap to participate, but didn’t necessarily create the desire to travel.

The Importance of Backspace

Community PlanIt was a place to share ideas in a public process without the pressures typically associated with public speaking. Many people feel more comfortable expressing themselves when they’re able to think about what they’re going to say before they say it.  In a focus group we did with an all-girl high school, one person had this to say: “I felt really comfortable expressing myself on Community PlanIt because if I didn’t like something I wrote, I could just hit backspace. In real life, you stutter or don’t always say what you really want to say.” This was a common sentiment. Many players, both young and old, expressed their appreciation of non-proximate, asynchronous communication. People liked having time to formulate their opinions without fear of real-time, negative reaction.  While face-to-face conversations are often touted as the gold standard for democratic deliberation, people felt more capable of participating with the pressures of these face-to-face forums removed.

Screenshot of Detroit 24/7 on Community PlanIt

Still, the face-to-face town hall meeting remains the accepted platform for democratic participation. One reason for this is the technological divide. Many people don’t have access to broadband; therefore, the conclusion is that the only truly accessible form of participation is the town hall meeting. But, this logic is flawed. Many people don’t have time, the comfort, or the inclination, to come to a town hall meeting at six o’clock on a Tuesday night.  This is also a divide. Online platforms, whether it’s Community PlanIt or something else, are essential tools for onboarding democracy. We need to give people some time, a compelling story, some motivation…and a backspace.

My Dad Couldn’t Find the Mouse

We made a very deliberate decision to create a system for youth and adults. Too often, youth are excluded from planning processes (ironically, considering they’re the ones who are being planned for). And if they’re included, it’s typically in a parallel youth process. Community PlanIt was designed as a common space where youth and adults can meaningfully interact. Many of the adult participants reported that they felt good about youth having such a presence in the system. Even if they didn’t directly interact, it was important for adults to know that the youth were there. Similarly, while youth players mostly interacted with each other and their teachers, knowing that it was an official, adult space, framed their sense of public and, consequently, the tone of their answers and replies.

We also found that intergenerational collaboration happened on the family level. Many youth reported that they would talk about the game with their parents, and if they didn’t know the answer to something, they would engage their parents in a conversation before completing a challenge. Interestingly, when we asked them if they invited their parents to register for the game and play on their own, they often said no. One student said, “I tried to show my dad the game, but he couldn’t find the mouse.” So, while the youth were very happy that adults were participating and listening to what they said in the game, their sense of the adult public did not include their parents.

Conversely, while adults typically expressed their satisfaction with youth participation, they also tended to maintain stereotypes of games and online forums. One participant, who loved playing the game, told us that she had to ask her daughter to help her upload photos. When we asked her if she asked her daughter to register for the game herself, she said no, because her daughter’s “already on Facebook.” So, even though this woman found Community PlanIt to be a meaningful and powerful experience, she still characterized it as “the Internet” and didn’t want her daughter using it.

The (mis)perception of games and “the Internet” is a major factor in understanding the future of public participation. Whether it’s youth charting online spaces that are both their own and shared, or adults bracketing the process as “only the Internet,” these perceptions will shape how people trust and authenticate public processes. Let’s face it: in the public sector, it is still more legitimate to have a face-to-face meeting with 10 people than it is to have an online game with 1000 people. Even though Community PlanIt expanded who participated, and largely increased the quality and satisfaction of that participation, challenges remain not just in convincing planners to adopt new online platforms, but also in convincing the public that these forms are legitimate.

Time will tell in Detroit. The data is being used to inform the long term plan of the city. It is also being made available to community groups, advocacy groups, or whoever else sees the potential. But perhaps more importantly, the game framed the planning process in the city as a story that everyone gets to tell, not just a few planners. It started conversations, made people aware of resources, places, and other people in the city, and established the groundwork to do it again.

 

 

24 May

Civic Framing

Mission 3 of the Detroit 24/7 game on Community PlanIt

We are nearly at the end of a Community PlanIt game in the City of Detroit. Organized by Detroit Works Project Long Term Planning, 1000 players signed up for the game and completed nearly 8000 challenges in three weeks. Considering numbers alone, we can say that the process has been a success. Getting people to turn out for planning meetings is very difficult, and planners are used to working with numbers in the double digits instead of in the quadruple digits. Instead of assembling 30 people in a room for the purpose of providing feedback, Community PlanIt significantly increased that number and adjusted the feedback loop so that people could connect and learn laterally from others in the community.

In addition to simply providing opportunities online to respond to planner-created challenges, Community PlanIt is designed to meaningfully frame the context of planning. Players are tasked with completing challenges within themed missions and are rewarded with points and badges. In talking to players and planners, these framing devices are key to making the system work. It is qualitatively different than responding to questions on Facebook or posting a tweet about your neighborhood. The difference is in understanding where your information is going and why it is going there.

People signing up for Community PlanIt at launch event

Civic framing is the design of a community process. This happens all the time in analog formats – community meetings, meet-ups, protests, etc. But there is a misplaced notion that simply adding an online forum, the frame of the offline context will be extended. In fact, often online interactions obfuscate the message and diffuse the conversation. The goal of Community PlanIt is to build an online civic frame that structures community interactions towards a common goal.

The biggest problem in achieving this is one of trust. Do people trust that their input is being heard? Do people trust that relationships within a system are authentic? Trust is certainly not easily achieved, especially when there is a history of poor civic framing, but it is becoming increasingly clear that specific, uniquely delimited systems are necessary for establishing a context for this trust. As the game in Detroit wraps up and as we work towards the game finale Get Together! at the Detroit Public Library on June 6th, it is our top priority to enable people to use the civic frame for their own purposes.

The game will continue to exist in a post-mortem state for anyone who is interested in looking at the results, and we will make the anonymized raw data available on the website. Data transparency, coupled with meaningful framing, is the formula we’re using for civic engagement.

 

18 Mar

Community PlanIt in Boston Public Schools

How do you convince people to take time out of their busy schedules, leave their home around dinner time, perhaps get a babysitter, all in order to participate in a slow-moving conversation about something very abstract? It’s not easy. While the debates in local community centers might be invigorating; and in the best of situations, they represent meaningful deliberation about important issues in people’s lives, they also represent power inequalities (both in terms of who shows up and who is comfortable speaking).

Digital media have irreversibly changed communication patterns within most communities. People are increasingly accessing local news on mobile devices, reading the newspaper online, interfacing with government websites, and sharing opinions on social networking services (SNS) such as Facebook and Twitter. That these forms of communication are not widely incorporated into planning processes demonstrates a bias of one exclusionary tactic over another. It is typically understood as more effective and equitable to have 20 people in a room discussing the recent school board decision, for example, than to have 200 people online discussing the same thing. The assumption is that the “digital divide” excludes people. And it does. But the assumption is also that limiting the engagement process to face-to-face town hall meetings does not exclude. And it does as well.

There are limitations of access to both physical meetings and technologically mediated connections. If there were a spectrum from totally mediated to totally unmediated, there would be power differentials on either side. The solution, as with most solutions, is found somewhere in the middle. But public agencies, from governments to school boards, continue to err on the side of the unmediated. The fact that the majority of planning processes rely disproportionately on the town hall-style meeting suggests a real lag between public process and the public’s process.

Introducing Community PlanIt

For this reason, we developed Community PlanIt, an online platform designed to re-imagine the process of engagement through the logic of games.  Community PlanIt is a mission-based game that asks people within a local community to “map the future.” The game lasts anywhere from 3 to 5 weeks and is designed to culminate in a face-to-face meeting where players can debrief and meet decision-makers. Players earn points by answering questions about themselves and their community. The more questions they answer, the more influence they gain in the overall planning. The logic is to reward learning with the amplification of voice.

We pilot tested Community PlanIt with the Boston Public Schools (BPS). The school district was interested in engaging the public in a conversation about their “accountability framework.” In recent years, BPS has undertaken a series of broad district-wide reforms aligned to its Acceleration Agenda goals and strategies.  The Agenda’s targets are appropriate district-wide aims; but BPS had not yet created a set of uniform performance expectations for individual schools, nor devised a way for the district and external stakeholders to evaluate schools based on performance and on the opportunities they offer students.

The “School Support and Accountability Framework” was created for this purpose.  The Framework’s goal is to align all school stakeholders around a common definition of school excellence and to empower school leaders, teachers, and parents to strive toward this shared standard. After an initial public engagement process that included a series of face-to-face meetings, that garnered a total of 70 participants, BPS was interested in expanding the reach and effectiveness.

Made possible through a partnership between the Boston Public Schools, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College, Community PlanIt was implemented from September 15 to October 20, 2011. The game culminated in a face-to-face meeting on the evening of the last day. The objective of the game was to engage students, parents, and other community stakeholders on aspects of the proposed BPS support and accountability framework.  Students were to be a special focus of the engagement – and to this end Home, Inc,a local non-profit organization that teaches video production and media analysis to educators and youth, was brought in as a new partner.  Seven students working with Home, Inc. served as “technology interpreters” for the game – leading discussion within the game by posting videos and engaging with other participants, and using social media and face-to-face outreach to encourage their fellow students to enter the game and the conversation.

The BPS game was comprised of seven five-day missions – each with a set of activities related to a theme or priority in BPS’s accountability framework.  The BPS Office of Accountability chose the six priorities (growth, proficiency, achievement gaps, attendance, school environment and safety, and student/family engagement) as well as “opportunities to learn” – as the themes for each mission.  Users completed activities, created and responded to “challenges” – questions or tasks posed by other users in the game, and earned points and PlanIt Tokens.  All game content was translated into Spanish and Haitian-Creole, the two most prominent languages (besides English) spoken by BPS families.

Outcomes

Over the course of the 35-day game, over 400 community members signed up to play and set up user profiles – indicating a user “type,” gender, race, income and education level, and any custom “affiliations.”  260 users completed at least one activity in the game and left comments.  Of these users, 104 were students, 64 parents, 19 teachers, 26 administrators, and 44 classified their user type as “other.”  Only five played in Spanish, and zero played in Haitian Creole. As a percentage of all users, 40% (181 users) earned zero points, 29% (129 users) earned between 1 and 100 points, 18% (81 users) earned between 100 and 500 points, 7% (30 users) earned between 500 and 1000 points, and 6% (25 users) earned more than 1000 points.  These 1000+ point “super-users” completed more than 40 activities each on average.  And in many cases, their response to a single activity contained multiple-paragraph answers to extremely complex questions. It is noteworthy that there was no overlap between super-users and participants in the previous engagement process.

Feedback generated through Community PlanIt was significant. Over 2600 comments were entered into the system and hundreds of conversations started about everything from social media policy to racial bias in teaching.  The Community PlanIt pilot provides evidence of the effectiveness of the general approach. The feedback generated by the system will factor into the decision-making process. And despite its failures in reaching difficult-to-reach populations, by a number of other measures, it surpassed expectations of non-technological approaches.

The game is currently being redesigned and redeployed in other contexts. On May 1, it will launch in Detroit as part of the Detroit Works Project’s efforts to engage the public in long-term planning. On May 3rd, it will launch in the City of Quincy, MA. And it is likely that the game will be used again in the Boston Public Schools as part of the district’s efforts to engage the public in issues of school assignment. Community PlanIt is illustrative of an approach to local community planning that incorporates the affordances of the web by focusing on networks, collaboration, and sharing. Planning is more than just a solicitation of feedback from the community. It is about creating conversations that are productive, sustainable and enriching.