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Citizens as a Platform for Civic Improvement

Recently the New York City Council passed what some open government advocates see as a “landmark” bill to increase government transparency and citizen access to machine readable data sets. While this legislation is definitely a welcomed triumph for the Gov 2.0 movement and a positive example for “closed” or “inert governments everywhere, should transparency legislation be the primary focus for civic technologists? Some may say that civic hackers obviously need government data sets before they can build civic apps, but should nimble and innovative civic technologists wait on slow moving bureaucracies to lead the way? Should citizens as a platform be just as much of a focus as government as a platform?

New York City’s transparency bill requires that the city publishes its data sets online and in machine readable format by the end of 2018. While civic technologists eagerly await those data sets, 2018 is a long time from now, creating and publishing that data is a massive task and the city will have to work valiantly to meet those deadlines. It seems inefficient for fast moving Gov 2.0 groups to push government to do more when they could be leading government. The whole reason that Gov 2.0 efforts are so badly needed is because there is a growing gap between the needs of communities and the limited capabilities of government. Why are we expecting and waiting for government to do even more when it is already stretched to the limit? If citizens can lead innovation and free up resources for government then government will have the resources to follow suit.

Citizen led civic improvement means finding ways to utilize the tremendous collective power of citizens to improve governance. Civic technologists can empower citizens to be the platform for change by building tool sets that give citizens the capability to collectively monitor, analyze, report, and improve their communities. The MARI tool set empowers citizens to contribute to the understanding and improvement of their communities by utilizing the massive untapped collective intelligence and capability of millions of citizens using public services, reporting back on the quality of those services and how they meet the needs of their community, and then collectively solving problems at scales that the government cannot match. MARI works to transform city services from “vending machine” resources, as Tim O’Reilly puts it, into anti-rival goods that become smarter and more efficient the more they are used. This principle applies to budgeting, transportation, or any other collective program.

Monitoring city services, programs, and community needs is simply something that the government cannot do in the same way that citizens can. The citizenry is truly massive with millions and millions of potential monitors interacting with and testing city services on a daily basis. It may be extremely unlikely that the average citizen has a thorough understanding of all of the services the city provides but individual citizens do have an intimate knowledge of how they personally use city services, what they need, and what they are getting. Combine these millions and millions of individuals and collectively they form a uniquely detailed picture of community needs, city services, and how they interact. As raw data, crowdsourced monitoring has great potential but if it can be recorded and turned into actionable data then it becomes a transformative resource for civic improvement.

Part of turning citizen monitoring into actionable data is providing them with an understanding of what is happening in their communities and giving them tools to analyze that information and extrapolate meaning from it. Analytics are where open municipal data sets can be used as raw materials to build meaningful tools for citizens to gain an understanding of their communities but citizen-sourced information would also be tremendously helpful in looping back to the analytical phase. It is important here to ensure that citizens are given engaging tools and not just presented raw data to analyze and try to gather some sort of meaning from.

Collecting all of the valuable data from monitoring and analyses, displaying it in a meaningful way, and connecting it to those who can use it for civic improvement is vital to this entire effort. Citizen-sourced data and analyses can be a tremendous resource for understanding how communities can be improved, but only if it can be collected and displayed in an actionable way. Government officials would love to get this data but it needs to be presented in a way that informs them and not just adds another stream of unfocused comments and complaints. Particular demands and suggestions need to be focused on detailed actions and not vague requests or comments.

Collective action can do more than just organize citizens to lobby government, it can also utilize the massive scale of citizen resources to solve problems that government does not have the resources to address. Good monitoring, analysis, and reporting can provide the understanding citizens and government needs to identify areas where citizens can step up and improve their communities, instead of waiting for government to solve every problem. This gets to the core purpose of government, articulated by Jennifer Pahlka: “government is what we do together that we cannot do alone”.

MARI is not exactly a set of separate tools, instead they should work together as components of a civic engagement mechanism. Apps like Adopt-A-Hydrant, CPR App, and Citizens Connect all possess multiple MARI traits and are good examples of utilizing citizen resources.

Citizens can be a platform for civic improvement by creating a better understanding of community needs and municipal capabilities through monitoring, analyses, and reporting and by taking direct collective action to improve their communities. Government should try to move as quickly as possible and NYC’s legislation is a great model for this, but the reality is that citizens can move much faster than bureaucracies, they just presently lack the tools to improve their communities. I purposely left the MARI tool set vague because it is a general outline for the types of tools that civic hackers could build for citizens to lead civic improvement. Citizen focused platforms could rapidly innovate and experiment to build better and better tools for each of the MARI categories. While government as a platform is great at unlocking the potential of government held data and building on it to improve governance, there is even greater potential for civic improvement by unlocking citizens’ potential for collective action.

What are your thoughts? Should citizens as a platform be just as much of a focus as government as a platform?

Originally posted here

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