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.


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.

09 Aug

Experience is Trying

In thinking about the game design work we are doing, I have previously made the distinction between participation and engagement.  Loosely, I have defined engagement as sustained attention to a driver of participation.  And I have made the argument that engagement is a more desirous design goal as it is potentially more sustainable, whereas participation is, by definition, fleeting.

In reading John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, I have found some support for the idea that what I am calling engagement is intimately tied to experience.  Dewey says experience includes an active and passive element.

On the active hand, experience is trying – a meaning which is made explicit in the connected term experiment. On the passive, it is undergoing.  When we experience something, we act upon it, we do something with it; then we suffer or undergo the consequences.  We do something to the thing and then it does something to us in return…mere activity does not constitute experience (139).

This distinction between activity and experience is similar to the distinction between participation and engagement.  Experience requires the person experiencing to be able to reflect upon the connection between the activity and the the results.

It is not experience when a child merely sticks his fingers into a flame; it is experience when the movement is connected with the pain which he undergoes in consequence (140).

Dewey is saying that experience is connected to meaning, and short of that it is not experience.  This is precisely the same problem in the civic media space.  Getting people to do something is too often seen as good enough.  When in fact, the goal needs to be forging connections between doing stuff and the consequences of doing stuff.  An app that gets people to click on a link is not in itself constructive of learning.  Learning happens when the user is given the opportunity to reflect upon that clicking.

Ultimately, Dewey argues that an educational system focused on mere activity is one that simply reinforces its existing biases and is incapable of true democracy.  He argues that learning is experiencing.  The same is true in the civic space: technologies should be built around experience, not activity.  This is the best way to engage the public.


04 Apr

Six Principles of Designing for Engagement

Designing for local engagement within the context of net locality is a multi-faceted process.  Building systems of interaction that are capable of sustaining a user’s attention both to other users and the locality of use, requires the consideration of a wide array of features and modes of participation.  The following six design considerations provide a framework for transforming participation and maximizing engagement.

1) What’s the Reason for Engagement? Too often, community-oriented tools are built with the assumption that simply because they exist people will use them.  In fact, there is nothing inherently usable about a tool – a hammer is good at pressing nails into a hard surface, but not ideal for opening cans.  Good tools are built to address recognizable problems.  The nail is a recognizable problem; the can is a problem forced to fit the availability of a tool. In the case of a community, bad roads and rising crime are recognizable problems; lack of local bloggers is a problem oriented around a tool.  A good tool should reorient its user to the nature of a problem, but it should not create it.

It is one thing for a problem to exist, it is quite another for a group of people to be able to articulate the existence of that problem.  It is therefore imperative that along with the introduction of a tool, there is a clear articulation of the problem to which that tool will be applied and a general consensus on the importance of that problem.

2) Who’s Listening? A community’s engagement with solving a problem is dependent upon who is paying attention to the community’s efforts.  When designing for engagement, it is important to consider not only the internal machinations of community building, but the external considerations that ultimately play a greater role in defining the identity and task of the community. A group of people in a neighborhood can talk all they want about their opposition to a new zoning ordinance, but it is in the externalization of that conversation through a blog, public forum, or some other means, that defines the identity and the goals of the community. 

It is important to make explicit the internal and external features of a community’s participation.  A sense of community stems from personal connections and identification with shared problems; but the sustainability of that identification is dependent upon their being an audience.  Designing engagement, therefore, is partly a matter of designing the context whereby a community can find and approach an audience.

3) People Comprise Locations; Locations Don’t Comprise People. In designing for geographical locations, designers tend to approach the problem as a geographical one.  What are the concerns in New York, Paris, or Boise?  While this is a good place to begin, the location often supersedes the people that comprise the location.  There are people in New York, Paris and Boise that, in addition to the geographic specificity of those places, define the locality’s meaning.  The challenge for designing engagement is articulating the connection between a geographic space and the people that participate in its definition. How can a user of a local social software platform, for instance, feel as though their participation matters in the larger context of defining a place? Digital tools are quite good at aggregating user data into something that can reflect the general make-up of a located community.  But engagement requires that in addition to making a user aware of aggregated data, they are perpetually aware of the individual actions that comprise aggregation.  In some respects, this is standard protocol for social software – user data makes the network more usable, but mutual sharing between identifiable individuals makes the network meaningful.

4) Design for the Community you want, not the community you know.  When employing ICTs in any local design problem, there is a component of aspirational thinking.  There is a sense, that goes along with digital technology, that the solutions generated through the intervention will be bigger, better and more sustainable.  This assumption is rife with ideological implications that new technology is associated with progress and even progressivism. These can indeed be dangerous assumptions.  But, the reaction to the possibilities of these assumptions can be equally as dangerous.  To not employ new technologies for fear of bending to these ideological assumptions is equally detrimental.  Simply put, the tool should fit the problem.   And new technologies are both potentially efficient means of doing so and productive means of understanding the scope of the problem. For example, a hammer provides the solution to pressing nails into a hard service; an electric hammer provides the means of doing so on a much larger scale.  The electric hammer transforms the problem without necessarily erasing the original context of the problem.

As such, when designing for engagement, it is important to understand how the tool transforms the reach of engagement.  Digital networks can reach large amounts of people in a distributed fashion.  In some cases, the quality of engagement is contingent on reducing the numbers of those engaged.  In other cases, the quality of engagement is premised on expansion.  Participating in a neighborhood meeting can be more meaningful if those participating feel as though their neighborhood is adequately represented.   Designers of engagement need to consider how scale will factor into user perceptions of their participation.  If the scale is too large, they might not feel connected to others involved in the process; if the scale is too small, they might feel that their participation is not meaningful enough for those listening.  Quantity is not in itself a positive attribute of a process; it is a variable that should be considered in design.

5) Face-to-face Matters.  It is a general misconception that when using ICTs for community engagement, there is no need for face-to-face connections.  In fact, there is considerable evidence that online networks are bolstered by offline networks, and vice versa [2,3].  Intermittent physical presence can have a noticeable affect on giving a community of users a sense of each other and the directionality of online communication.  It can provide a useful visualization of an online network and a human face to many-to-many correspondence.  This can work in two ways: as an introductory framework for online communication; or as an anticipatory framework for online communication.  If people meet face-to-face before they engage online, they can better understand to whom they are communicating; if people know they are going to meet face-to-face after they communicate online, it can serve as motivation for productive and meaningful exchanges.

As a design consideration for local engagement, face-to-face meetings can be quite effective for motivating sustained attention to an online community.  These face-to-face encounters can be used as periodic reminders of the physical context of online communication or can occur only once.  In any case, good design should not just arrange for these meetings to happen, but give the design of these meetings equal and complimentary consideration. 

6) Design for Distraction. Engagement does not imply undivided attention.  When people are engaged in a community process, they are doing multiple other things simultaneously.  They have families, social lives, jobs, and other interests.  To engage them is not to have them sacrifice their commitment to any or all of these things.  It is to have them direct a limited amount of their attention to a particular matter. Designing for engagement is designing for distraction.  Engagement implies sustained attention, but it does not imply absolute attention.  Attention is spread out across time, not just across space.  The ideal user is a multi-tasker, switching from one thing to another with ease. In this regard, civic engagement implies the ability to take from multiple contexts and apply towards a specific matter when nudged by a well-designed system to do so.  With the civil uprisings in the Middle East dominating the media discourse about technologies and local engagement, it is easy to assume that successful media engagement must lead to social revolution.  In fact, in a much more prosaic fashion, civic engagement simply means being aware of civic processes and their corresponding communities and contributing some level of care to decisions made about them.

11 Sep

Community PlanIt

While it has been announced in a number of forums, I have not yet written about the Engagement Game Lab on this blog.  In August 2010, the Engagement Game Lab was born as a virtual research organization at Emerson College. The lab is a place to hone in on the production and research of local engagement games (LEGs); more directly, the work of the lab is to advance games that seek explicitly to foster local civic engagement and local community.  This includes the design of new games and the design of research methods that address how the experiential qualities of play correspond to the pragmatic concerns of local life.  We want to explore ways of evaluating the success of these games that go beyond the isolation of simple variables.  Does playing a game result in increased voter turnout?  I think that’s a silly question.  I would prefer to ask questions such as, does playing a game cause players to rethink how they approach their vote?  Games do not prompt new behaviors, in most cases.  They can, however, provide a new lens through which to view familiar actions.  In the case of LEGs, they can provide a new lens through which to view one’s neighborhood and the social and political structures therein.

Our current game that we are designing with support from the Technology for Engagement Initiative at the Knight Foundation is called Community PlanIt.

Community PlanIt

Community PlanIt is a LEG that uses web, mobile phone and tablet interfaces to engage communities in local urban planning issues.  We are building a game platform so that it can be used in any locality.  The foundation of the game is a mission system that gets players exploring their own neighborhoods in order to share the local knowledge they possess. They compete and collaborate with neighbors to create and gather data that will then factor into an official planning process.  The planning meeting itself will be augmented by the game.  Players/participants will demonstrate their understanding of the neighborhood and the issues by giving a virtual character a tour of the neighborhood.  They will have to see the neighborhood through someone else’s shoes before they are able to make their personal recommendations.  The platform we are designing will allow for the customization of characters and missions to make the game maximally appropriate for the local context.

Community PlanIt can be used for any community planning process centered on physical space.  For instance, planning a town square, creating a transportation plan, identifying healthy lifestyles, or mapping sub cultures.  We are building the platform in partnership with four communities so that we can anticipate possible uses and cover the widest array of necessary features.

We are planning a 9 month development cycle and hope to have a prototype available by April 2011.