Monday, April 6, 2009

Participatory, Web-Based Government Administration

President Obama’s election campaign proved how effectively you can distribute information and organize people online. I follow a couple of techie blogs, and there appears to be a move to take that one step further and to use technology to do two things: to involve people in administrative decision-making and to use technology to provide people with more information. Interesting possibilities, and I’m impressed by the people who are out there trying to make it happen in really positive ways.

Involving People in Decision-Making
In January 2009, the mayor of Los Angeles posted an online survey. The survey included a detailed list of the services provided by the municipality and asked residents which ones they would recommend cutting in order to balance the municipal budget and avoid a deficit.

John Geraci, co-founder of DIYcity, a site that invites people to personally reinvent the spaces around them using common web applications, applauds the City for its step towards greater openness and participation, but also wishes that they had gone one step further.

In a guest blog on O'Reilly Radar, he says, “If you're going to involve city residents in these issues, why stop at asking people which services they would like to cut? Why not go a bit further and ask them for input on how to keep these services, while making them leaner, more efficient, and smarter? And why not then ask for their help in making those changes happen?

These are questions cities everywhere should be asking today, as they find themselves faced with the challenge of gigantic budget shortfalls brought on by the recession. The conversation about the future of our cities should involve the people living in those cities. But it should not be about which services to eliminate, it should be about how to reinvent these services as modern, efficient things, how to make them work at a fraction of their current cost, and, while we're at it, how to make them better than they are now.

Why? Because cities don't have the money to improve, or even sustain these services on their own. Because people have good ideas, often more innovative than the ones coming from the cities themselves. And because increasingly, people have the means to actually build and implement these services - not as centralized, closed, top-down systems we think of as public services today, but as distributed, participatory web-based systems built using data open to all.”

Using Technology to Provide Information
Development Seed is a strategy organization in Washington, DC. They responded to an Apps for Democracy competition that challenged techies to use some open data sources to build something that would be useful to local residents.

Development SEED produced Stumble safely, a guide to bars & avoiding crime in NW Washington. They took several sets of data and created a map that shows where the bars are located and where assaults and robberies have occurred at different times of the day or night. They also post Twitter messages about local get-togethers.

Development SEED is working with international development agencies and non-profit organizations. They hope that government will begin to realize that, "Wait a minute. We've already collected this data, and if we spend a little extra time packaging it, we can put it out there. And it will essentially have a whole new lifecycle and start adding value back to the community--the tax payers that paid for it." (via O'Reilly Radar)

1 comment:

Penny said...

I received the following feedback by email:

I just read today's blog and I have to respond to tell you that I take issue with the idea of surveying people online regarding municipal government and services. I feel this is discriminatory and effectively screens out the very people who are seriously affected by municipal services and who need to be heard, namely the senior citizens and the poor. These are groups that in most cases have neither the ability nor finances to own a computer, making these sorts of surveys biased and elitist. There are times when we are moving too fast towards technology, and in my view this is one of them.

This also applies to the dissemination of information. It ends up in the hands of those who are able to receive it--both financially and technologically--but it screens out a large portion who might otherwise be interested but have no way of accessing the information.

And yes, I realize that most libraries and community centres provide access to the internet, but that's not your own personal mail and very few of the elderly or homeless are going to line up for a turn at a computer in order to participate in a survey (and how would they know it was online?) or to read political or governmental information.