A Little Laboratory of Democracy: An Open Cities ThinkUp

Local governments are considered “laboratories of democracy” — the places where ideas are generated, tried, and evaluated. Instead of relying on just the one, decidedly cumbersome national government to generate new policy, the founders crafted a flexible federal structure, where the more numerous and more nimble states and cities could experiment on their own and see what works. Simply put, no institution would have a monopoly on good ideas. The best ideas from any government would bubble up and benefit every government. But only if those ideas are shared. That’s why, with so many cities and states across the country currently experimenting with open government, we’re launching our own experiment, and, in true democratic fashion, we need your help.

In partnership with Expert Labs and Next American City, we are working to generate a playbook for Open Cities — a sense of what works and what doesn’t. We are looking for success stories, initiatives, or opportunities for local governments to become more transparent, participatory, efficient, and inclusive. And we’re not just interested in the newest iPhone apps or websites; we want to know how cities are leveraging new tools to help the poorest and most vulnerable members of society as well — a topic, we feel, that is often lost in Gov 2.0 discussions. This inventory will not only help us expand our own understanding, but also develop the general awareness of how cities are becoming more open.

Throughout the month of October, we are posting questions on the @CodeforAmerica twitter account tagged “#OpenCities2010”, and we invite you to reply (@CodeforAmerica) with your insights. Thanks to the help of our friends at Expert Labs, you’ll be able to read and respond to all the questions and responses on our site as well. Anil Dash and Gina Trapani have led the development of a great open source social media analytics tool called ThinkUp, which allows users to track responses to questions posted on social networks. It’s a useful way to control some of the chaos of crowdsourcing. It will help us aggregate all of your ideas and (since we like to practice what we preach) share them openly with you here: http://codeforamerica.org/opencities-thinkup

This is an experiment — we’ve never tried something like this before — so we’ll not only evaluate our findings but also our approach at the end of the project. Next American City is helping us to do just that. In early November, they are hosting a conference focused on these important issues, aptly titled, Open Cities: New Media’s Role in Shaping Urban Policy, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation. The conference will explore “new media’s strategies for dealing with a variety of challenges — such as how to build an engaged urban citizenry, best utilize municipal data and develop cost-saving technologies or networks to improve cities.” We’re excited to partner with Next American City to help us share our findings at the conference and online.

So tell us, how technology is making a difference in your city, or any city. Point us to new ideas, where they’re happening, and the people and organizations behind them. With any contribution, you’ll be making our little democratic experiment a success, and more importantly, you’ll be making our common and urgent goal of more open cities a success as well.

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Awesome…cool idea.

What have you been seeing so far? What generates the most discussion? Times of days? What works well/doesnt? I find it fascinating approach