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In Brooklyn, Testing a Texting Platform That Connects Locals, Representatives & Community Leaders

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, July 14 2014

The neighborhoods in Brooklyn where Heartgov is being tested.

Civic engagement shouldn't be a one way street. In New York City, for example, you can text 311 to report something like a pot hole, but what if you wanted to start a dialogue about charter schools in your neighborhood? The information hotline wasn't built to handle conversations like that, but a new text message-based platform called HeartGov is.

The concept and the technology is simple: any text sent to 718.514.6113 goes to a central database where government officials and community organizations can see, sort and respond to locals' questions and concerns.

“There's something that's different about getting a text message than an email,” says Asher Novek, who developed the platform as part of his master's thesis at NYU's Gallatin School. “It's more personal, more conversational, like getting a response from friend or from family member.”

In March, Novek began testing HeartGov in parts of Brooklyn, primarily Crown Heights and Ditmas Park.

“I picked areas of Brooklyn where there are lower levels of community engagement but higher levels of community pressure,” Novek told techPresident.

Some of the officials and organizations participating in the experiment are Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Community Board 14, Midwood Development Corporation, Flatbush Development Corporation, Flatbush Junction Business Improvement District, and Heights and Hills.

Novek says that he was purposefully vague about how the tool should be used, wanting to know what people would naturally choose to use a text messaging platform like this for, given the opportunity. He says that there have been a number of questions about public schools and charter schools that he was not expecting.

Novek envisions the tool filling the gap between 311 and change.org:

If you looked at a graph that measured "scale of issue", on one end you would put "reporting", which would be things like pot hole reporting, which 311 handles. On the other end of the spectrum you could have "big ideas", such as "marriage equality" or things that something like change.org handles. In between are medium scale civic ideas that are trackable and tangible. That's where HeartGov focuses. If you want to use it as a reporting tool, that's fine, and we'll get the info to 311, but this is meant to open more conversation around those mid-range ideas. Things like schools, parks, housing. 311 wouldn't necessarily answer a text to "we want more affordable housing in zip code XYZ", where with HeartGov that could be responded to by letting that person know about an affordable housing community meeting coming up.

Text messaging systems like this are hardly new; Novek says HeartGov was heavily influenced by Ushahidi, which collected citizen reports via text in the aftermath of Kenya's contentious election in 2007 and continues to build mobile-based reporting tools, as well as the UNICEF project U-report, which allows surveys to be conducted through text messages.

While mobile-based tools are widely used around the world for things like health and development programs, Novek observes that here in the United States we blew past them in favor of web-based tools.

That would be fine, if it were not for that pesky digital divide: more than a quarter of Americans do not have Internet access at home. Making better use of text-based tools is one way to start being more inclusive.

Novek says the next steps aren't yet clear. He says that testing can go on for as long as he puts money into the text message site, but ideally he will find institutions interested in testing it on a larger scale: all of Brooklyn, for example, or even all of New York City.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Councilmember Jumaane Williams as a participant.