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Can tech really help you engage? Insights from the Knight Foundation

Two years ago the Knight Foundation launched their Tech for Engagement Initiative. The idea was simple, they wanted to answer the question, can technology accelerate the capacity of citizens within a community to engage in their civic life in an easier and more effective way?

The question seems fairly straightforward. But as the Knight Foundation’s Director of National Programs, Damian Thorman, told Chris Dorobek measuring engagement metrics takes some finesse.

“Early on in the process we put together a team that looked at a wide-range of factors,” said Thorman, “it is easy to determine the number of people using a particular technology. Like how many likes you have on a facebook post. But it’s also important to look at long-term factors. That is harder to do.”


“Technology isn’t any different from the real world. You have the same issues of trust and convenience. Technology can really only lower the barrier for community engagement,” said Thorman.

What Technology Can Do

Deepening Engagement: Theorists often talk about moving people up the rungs of the engagement ladder. How do we move people from say, donating money to actually organizing the building of a playground? Or, from attending a zoning meeting to organizing with neighbors to advocate for a well-reasoned position? We’re looking for ways technology can bring people together to make a difference in communities, through developing deeper neighbor-to-neighbor connections, fostering collective dialogue or making it easier for residents and leaders to co-create solutions. These shifts are fundamental to the more meaningful involvement that leads to consensus building and the types of solutions that can transform communities.

Opening up government: Tim O’Reilly and Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlkasay it best when they talk about government as a platform that uses the principles of the Web and technology to reframe the function of government, to make it less of a service provider and more of a “platform for citizens to help themselves and help others,” as Pahlka said. Code for America has made it part of its mission, and we are interested in other ideas to help make it happen.

Infrastructure for the field: The field right now is creative and skilled but small. Many of the people we gathered in Boston knew of each other’s work but had not met. What kind of gatherings, on or offline, could move the field forward? Knight will help in part by hosting another summit in 2013. At the heart of the problem is the fact that we need more technologists with a passion for civic life, and ways to bring them together with social change leaders so that people and communities are at the center of projects from the beginning. We’re looking for more ways to do that.

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