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The Challenge of Tech for Civic Groups

BY Nick Judd | Friday, July 23 2010

Here in New York, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and our friends and sometime partners at OpenPlans are collaborating to create a government-sponsored social networking platform — something that will, they hope, become a next-generation tool for communities to organize themselves and get involved in the city's policy and politics.

Called Speak Up New York, the fledgling collaboration is engaged in first steps: Taking an inventory of tools that community boards and local groups are already using, trying to put together a guide to starting a community group. Members of the Speak Up New York Meetup group have a working group meeting scheduled for Monday. (The Meetup is open for any interested New Yorker to join and attend.)

Speak Up New York is another step towards making digital New York — that tiny speck of the Internet where policy ideas are tossed around, public comment is collected, and information exchanges happen between city agencies and city residents — more open and participatory.

This would be an ambitious and, I think, unprecedented expansion on the idea of civic conversation in the digital space. Online civic community-building is not new; people like Steven Clift and the other folks behind Minnesota-based e-democracy.org have been doing it for over a decade. More recently, youngest-PdF-speaker-ever Conor White-Sullivan and the Localocracy crew, based in Massachusetts, have focused on allowing people to discuss and weigh individual policy issues at the local level.

The idea taking shape between OpenPlans and the borough president's office is broader in scope: Arm the city's 52 community boards with technology; become a resource for independent community groups to self-organize, talk, plan, and probably argue; bring the entire civic conversation of Manhattan, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. This isn't just the kind of stuff that Localocracy is deployed to discuss, like local budget initiatives. When you're talking block associations, you're talking about resolving disputes like the one between people who take their dogs to the dog run at night and people who hear the dogs bark from the windows of their nearby apartment building, or between landlords and tenants who say their heat is off and their hot water doesn't work. You're talking about where the best place is to put a bike rack or a homeless shelter and how late the playground should stay open. These are not necessarily discrete, binary discussions.

"It's important to stress that we're not only talking about building new technology," Nick Grossman, OpenPlans' director of civic works, told me in a phone interview last month. "I think it's also about where they [the borough president's office] can make the most difference in terms of practical tools and in terms of writing content, building information or just building connections among the community boards, tech practitioners and other neighborhood group tech practitioners."

Those connections might not come easily.

"If you are a block association, you might start from a point of saying, 'why do I even need any of this?'" said Justin Krebs, the founder of the Living Liberally network and president of the 45th Street Block Association in Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of the city, in an interview at our PdF offices in lower Manhattan. "'Currently my monthly meetings have people who come.'

"'The old systems we use work for our current members,'" he continued, playing devil's advocate. "'Why on earth should we change it?'"

Grossman had recommended I get Krebs to sit down with me because he had delivered a talk on exactly this subject at the first Speak Up New York event last month. I recorded our conversation for a podcast — and here's the six minutes or so from the discussion in which Krebs asks and answers this question, which he also discussed at the Speak Up event.

"There's ways to find the new kids on the block, the transients, to connect with them, and then they'll join," Krebs said.

The vision that folks like Grossman and Krebs have is to use technology — email alerts, text messages, blogs — to reach out to that portion of a neighborhood that won't respond to flyers, doesn't have roots there, and doesn't know their neighbors. A recent Pew study showed that these other means of communication are all ways that neighborhood newbies use to get informed and stay in touch; why not use these same methods to draw newcomers into local civic life?

"Maybe that's where the government can step in," Krebs explained. "Can say, 'there are opportunities for block associations to connect to their members and connect to each other and even connect to their government in clearer ways using technology. And we can help speak to technologists about what those needs are.'"

That conversation continues on Monday, at 6:30 p.m., at the OpenPlans offices just a few blocks south of the techPresident lair in Lower Manhattan.