Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

In Texas, a Small Town Hopes for a Gov 2.0 Makeover Miracle

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, September 1 2010

A QR code at a park in Manor, Tx., is a visual hyperlink to more information about the field. City of Manor // Flickr photo

As technologists around the country — some of whom you may have heard of — are calling for an age of innovation, experimentation, and rebirth in the American city, those same localities are shutting off streetlights (as in my home town of Santa Rosa, Ca.), downsizing police forces, closing public transit lines, and reducing other services.

Open government advocates see technology and innovation — used correctly — as part of the solution. And as part of two-day conference in a city regarded as an example of innovation in practice, they'll try to prove that tech solutions to civic problems can be replicated on any scale.

On Sept. 20 and 21, Manor, Tx. will host manor.govfresh, a two-day conference for state and local public servants to talk tech and open government. And they'll be giving another Texas town — De Leon, population 2,433 — a "Gov City 2.0 Makeover."

De Leon is a town going through a rough patch. Peanut farming, which accounted for a sizeable chunk of local employment, moved out of the area, De Leon City Administrator Karen Wilkerson told me recently. And that was just the beginning.

"A lot of the factories around here had to cut back on their employment," Wilkerson added, "so that really hurt us."

Over the past year and a half, De Leon's tax rolls have also taken a hit as property values dropped. The tiny town had to lay off one of its five police officers and scrap plans to bring a part-time employee full-time, Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson hopes this Gov 2.0 makeover will be a nudge back towards stability.

"We’re hoping this will get us going back in the right direction," she said.

The tech upgrades that Manor has in store for its neighbor are the same ones it's been getting mileage out of for the last two years: A QR code program, so that people with smartphones can find out about historical landmarks and public projects by using their camera phones to get directed to mobile-enabled webpages; social media accounts for De Leon and records retention components for those accounts; a rebuilt city website with open-source tools; a 311 system and emergency management components; and a Manor Labs-esque system for crowdsourcing other ways to improve city government.

Manor's chief information officer, Dustin Haisler, told me late last month that these upgrades are a way to get things done for constituents on a shoestring budget. In a follow-up email, he wrote that he's concerned that Manor may be considered an exception rather than a proof of concept; part of the point of this De Leon project is an attempt to prove that the reverse is true, and any town can do what Manor has done.

As the recession began taking its toll in Manor, Haisler told me, the city staff started looking for ways to meet demand — like the ability to collect water bill payments online — without stretching thin the small town's resources.

"That’s how we got into the whole Gov 2.0 movement," Haisler said. "It was almost a whole survival thing."

Manor's QR code program has reduced the number of calls they have to field concerning questions about public projects, Haisler told me. Since they opened up online payment for water bills, he said, about 70 percent of the population has signed up.

"We utilize SeeClickFix," he added, "and that’s allowed us to save on annual fees for using another CRM system that would have cost a lot of money. There’s a lot of innovative tweaks that can happen."

If they can happen in a De Leon with equal success as they happened in Manor is certainly an open question; the two cities are remarkably different. Manor is a suburb of Austin, the home of SXSW, Austin City Limits, and a thriving tech sector; De Leon is over two hours' drive from Dallas and over an hour from Abilene, and according to the city administrator, has lost core employers in recent years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the median age in Manor is about 32 and the median household income is nearly $38,000; in De Leon, the median age is 38 and the median household income is less than $20,000.

Part of Manor's success — and the success of the QR code program — came after city officials noticed the amount of traffic coming to city webpages from mobile phones, Haisler told me. We know cellphone usage is on the rise among older Americans, but in older, lower-income De Leon, will this program have the reach to create civic benefits? Later this month, I suppose, we'll all have a better idea of what the answer will be.

The project is just ramping up, said Wilkerson, the De Leon city administrator. More details will come available as De Leon's makeover gets closer to completion.

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.


wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.


The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.


tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.


Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.


monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.