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.


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.

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.

25 Jul

Located Publicity

It has been some time since I posted to my blog. This is primarily because I found myself quite busy working on my new book, whose title has changed to “Location Matters,” with some snappy subtitle to bring it all home. What follows is a section from chapter two that describes the concept of located publicity, which is a reversal and adaptation of Raymond Williams well known designation of “mobile privatization.”

Commonly, location aware technologies are associated with mobility or mobile computing. While this association makes good sense, there remains an important distinction. Location aware technologies enable people to be mobile, but mobility, in this sense, is a byproduct of locatedness. Mobility refers to the practice of “computing on the go,” of accessing one’s information regardless of where one is. But this practice is obviously contingent on the ability of a device to be located and connected to a network. Device location is a prerequisite for device mobility; both of which inform the cultural expectation of locatedness. I can only be located if I can locate my data from wherever I am. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it is actually quite important. Thinking of contemporary digital culture as mobile culture takes away from the more significant effects of location culture. “Computing on the go” is really “computing on the map.” As Ezra Goldman points out, “people are likely as mobile today as they ever were. What’s different is that we’re more accessible and connected when we do move around” (2007, 13). By studying practices of college students and young professionals, Goldman concluded that people do most of their work in one place – whether home or office, and cafés and parks in some rare circumstances. So while “mobile computing” has not yet resulted in mobile work places, it has resulted in a freedom to choose where one will find a connection. The feeling of being connected, more so than the feeling of being mobile, provides the necessary context from which to be productive, both in terms of work and social life.

But in some respects, connectivity works against the freedom implied by mobility. Connection tethers us to information, tangles us in a web, whereas mobility frees us from stagnation, liberates us from social norms. This is precisely why mobility is the industry’s moniker of choice for describing these trends. Indeed, the promise of mobile computing is social freedom, even though in practical terms it ties us to work, family and social life in inconceivable ways (2007, 69). As Paul Saffo, the director for the Institute of the Future observed in 1993, “Heaven is the anytime office. Hell is the everywhere, everytime office” (qtd. in Goldman 2007, 14). So in Summer 2008, when Apple announced an update to its .mac functionality it is no surprise they chose the name MobileMe. Apple has appropriated the appeal of mobility to describe its back-up and synchronization services. “Your Desktop Anywhere” is the slogan. (Notice they do not say “Your Desktop Everywhere.”) MobileMe pushes everything up to a web cloud to enable the rapid synchronization of all Apple devices, promising absolute seamlessness between computer contexts – or, in marketing terms, absolute mobility.
The cultural power of mobility that we see exercised in Apple’s new product is not isolated to handheld devices or cloud computing. Raymond Williams, writing about television in the 1970s coined the term “mobile privatization” to talk about the troubling aspects of mobility. “At most active social levels,” Williams claimed, “people are increasingly living as private small-family units, or, disrupting even that, as private and deliberately self-enclosed individuals, while at the same time there is a quite unprecedented mobility of such restricted privacies” (1983, 187-189). Williams was responding to what he understood as a new context brought about by media ubiquity. The living room, the automobile, even the street, became privatized bubbles of media engagement. Our constant access to broadcast media enabled and encouraged the sense that we were mobile – physically, psychologically, socially and economically. Of course, as broadcast media has given way to networked media, Williams’ lament has been quite useful in understanding the new context of perpetual connection. But it can also be argued that domesticity and individuality are in fact growing more distant from traditionally held understandings of privacy. Private details must be made public for networks to be robust. So it is no longer the case that we are dealing solely with mobile privatization, but instead, we might describe socialization within digital networks as located publicity. We personally locate data, and are personally located by data, and we make and have made the fruits of that labor public to increase the functionality of the network. Privacy is no longer a matter of filtering what sees in, but filtering what peers out.

29 Mar

Urban Communication Meeting

UCF Logo

So I’m down in DC this weekend, not for the cherry blossom festival (although the cherry blossoms are quite nice), but for a board meeting of the Urban Communications Foundation (UCF). We’re meeting today primarily to discuss the nature of the “communicative city.” The question is: what does it mean for a city to excel at communication? Digital infrastructure? Innovative use of public spaces? Safety? Neighborhood cohesiveness, perhaps? The question is important because the foundation is keen on creating another framework by which to judge urban health and prosperity, beyond the typical economic factors. Upon first blush, the concept is nebulous. But with further contemplation, it is seems perfectly logical to insert communication in amongst issues of design, flows, and markets. Of course, communication is implicit to those issues, but by making it explicit, it potentially foregrounds the humanness of each. Designs, flows and markets, while operating within their own internal logics, have an external logic of communication. There is a grammar and syntax to each.

So, what does this all mean? What can an organization with a little bit of money do to alter the course of urbanism? It can lobby local or federal governments to promote healthy communication in cities; it can fund innovative, interdisciplinary research, that can translate to policy white papers; it can promote a certain brand of scholarship through establishing a journal or web presence. It’s an interesting dilemma, really. There is lots of great work being done on issues of urban communication, urban semiotics, etc., but there is a great need for an umbrella organization to mobilize that intellectual work towards real changes in political or cultural priorities. There are some great organizations that currently exist: most notable is the Project for Public Places. They promote place-based growth in cities. Their Great Cities initiative is making great strides to work with actual communities in promoting a certain philosophy of development. The UCF is working towards similar ends; it’s really a matter of how it can compliment work already being done.