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Digitizing the Public Sphere

Photo via Arian Zwegers

Thousands of years ago, the public square was created as the original marketplace; with the influx of people, goods and ideas, it evolved to be a bustling center of human interaction. Public squares still exist today, of course, and the public realm reaches far beyond the stark geographic boundaries of the square, piazza, or plaza. Our streets, parks, museums, and town halls are places where we can bump into an old friend, solicit important information, and exercise our right to free speech. Some say that the energetic power of interaction has been lost in these places over the last few decades, while others argue that our voices and interactions have found their place in another public realm: the internet.

The New Social

Though some of live interactions and experiences are being replaced by online marketplaces, digital newspapers, televised concerts, and the like, our sense of place in a particular city depends on the city’s physical spaces. We now have the ability to interact with these places digitally. We have Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, and the ability to shoot a quick message out to the online world that something right-here-and-right-now is great, or perhaps not so great. We can easily snap a quick photo of an energetic event. If a customer service rep gives us the run-around, we can warn our fellow citizens or “followers.” Businesses have been leveraging the potential of this feedback since these platforms came about, and cities are starting to get on board as well. Potholes, road construction, trash services, the water coming out of our faucets… they all have the potential to be in the social media conversation, and despite (or maybe because of) the informality, officials are listening.

A recent article published by The Atlantic Cities covered how the Internet is becoming the new town hall.  The article introduces a concept pioneered by IBM through their Smarter Cities Program that compiles real-time thoughts for city leaders interested in tackling the issues important to the public. It goes by the name of Social Sentiment Analysis, and aims to listen to people where they are already talking. The best part? It allows them to actually engage.

The Potential of Engagement vs. Information

Engagement seems to be quite the buzzword, but has even more significance when we consider the way communication has flowed in the past. Public meetings are largely presentations, with minimal time allocated to public opinion. Pamphlets and mediocre websites have plagued our public entities—our questions hampered by inconvenience or a lack of understanding of how to contact the right people. Engagement requires two-way communication and is vastly strengthened by fresh internet and social media platforms. When city council posts an announcement on Facebook, any citizen can comment or ask questions directly on that post. When you or your neighbor tweet about the quality of a particular road, that complaint can be accessed and responded to, though it is up to these public entities to listen and respond. The potential for meaningful and timely engagement, however, is a great asset to planners, elected officials, and agency workers in terms of communicating, soliciting opinions, and educating their residents and stakeholders.

Tools for Planning and Civic Engagement

Another recent article published on Planetizen.com discusses some of the ways that apps are changing the world of planning. The authors highlight the great potential for collecting feedback, but also discuss a myriad of tools that are being used by planners to increase the efficiency of their practice and the potential for interacting with the public. We wont include every tool from their list, but will highlight the ones we found to be great for engaging the digital public sphere—as well as some others we’ve found around the web. 

  • Accela Mobile 311: This iPhone app “enables residents, visitors, and other members of the public to take an active role in their community by requesting services from or reporting incidents to their local agency. The app ties directly into an agency's Accela Automation system to ensure that incoming information will be tracked and assigned to the appropriate departments, so that the item will be addressed in the most efficient and effective manner.”
  • Change by US: This initiative is a collaborative effort involving the work of CEOs for Cities, and asks citizens to voice ideas on how to make their community a better place. The website also gives residents a place to organize projects, find volunteers, and celebrate what makes their cities great.
  • MindMixer: A platform that aims to bring together and engage the members of a community, Mindmixer has a variety of different tools and ways of customizing its site to various cities in a way that is fun and interactive. It is being adopted by cities all over the U.S., and is just one of many similar platforms that are making civic engagement fun and entertaining.
  • iPavement: A bit different than previous tools mentioned, iPavement bridges the physical and digital to interact with people not only when they are surfing the web, but also where they are standing (quite literally). Pavement stones installed into sidewalks have wifi and Bluetooth connections that alert anyone with a smartphone to provide passing residents and visitors with information to make assets more accessible—such as maps, public transport maps, or discounts at nearby restaurants. This is also a great tool for planners who want to collect data concerning pedestrian traffic.
  • GOOD Maker: This website is another action-inspiring tool, which uses an online platform to interact with residents. Citizens submit their ideas on how to creatively move their community forward, and have the chance to win a $2,500 grant to make that vision a reality.

No doubt, hundreds of new apps, sites, and tools will be developed in the coming years to increase public engagement and leverage our already existing information exchange—and there are many not discussed here.

What do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages of a highly digitized public sphere? What tools have you found to be most intriguing and effective?

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