Boy, did I have an interesting time on my island vacation in Hawaii. I couldn’t wait to swim and snorkel on every beach; with maybe some kayaking. Then I overheard other tourists talking about the infamous shark attack of young surfer Bethany Hamilton. They think she lived nearby. I stop to think about recent shark sightings and attacks in my home state’s San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente beaches. Then I remember that this is also Shark Week! Any sense of security I had seemed to go out the window.
I quickly shifted to my work persona. I thought, “There has to be a Hawaii shark sighting tracker, right? I better download it to be certain I am safe.” But I do not have much luck finding such a tracker in the App Store. However, I do find a Global Shark Tracker app, but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. There was an interesting sighting near Lake Michigan at a Jimmy Buffett concert (fans will recognize the reference, “You got fins to the left, fins to the right”). I guess no one monitors the accuracy of the crowdsourced data on that app. Continued searches point me to a State of Hawaii site that list shark incidents and out of curiosity I check out the two California cities listed with recent activity. But these were just web links to a press release and some shark education. Did you know, a shark bite and a shark attack are actually different things? Both sound like they would hurt though.
I found myself torn between my personal and work personas. I was now asking myself questions like:
- How do governments build apps when citizens identify a need?
- How do they know what apps to build first?
- How quickly can governments stand up apps once the public asks for them?
- And one of the biggest question, are governments approaching civic engagement correctly?
Ask a government executive what types of apps are on their smart device. This is a question I often ask government officials who share with me their sincere desire to improve civic engagement. You might be surprised at the responses I get. Oftentimes their phones do not have one civic app on them. My favorite response is, “Well, I do not live in the city I work in.” Yet that city’s app is not on their phones either. I do get individuals who have their civic apps on their devices, however, they are the minority not the majority.
And citizens you are not off the hook. You have some questions to answer as well:
- Do you have apps from your city, county, or state at your fingertips?
- Does your community have any apps you either temporarily, cyclically, or regularly use? If not, have you given government officials this feedback?
Based on what I have witnessed, most jurisdictions have a fairly small following of citizens on their social media (usually less than 3 percent), and many do not promote local apps for citizens to download either.
We know a connected community is a smart community, and the smart communities approach tells us civic engagement must be a priority. We have seen a wide variety of solutions that follow patterns of public reporting, citizen scientists, citizen as a sensor, public information sharing, public input, and unsolicited comments. These solutions translate to apps like the polling place locator from Collin County, Texas, crowdsourcing apps on where best to watch the solar eclipse, or pothole reporting.
All in all, how we can improve citizen engagement is a learning process. For every app we build, we can probably identify ten more we should build. We have tried hackathons, opening our data in hopes that NPOs and startups supplement our work, and enacting agile government initiatives to encourage rapid prototyping. Most initial civic engagement apps were focused on migrating existing services to mobile and web applications. Not a bad start, but what can we do to keep moving forward? The following are a few approaches that have helped other jurisdictions:
- Building a smart communities strategy that includes civic engagement.
- Look to match apps to the organization’s mission, do not limit them to citizen complaint reporting.
- Tap into the growing availability of lifestyle data that help understand and plan for your community’s specific needs.
- Build a calendar of cyclical information products that are rolled out on a regular basis. Think snow, voting, holiday interruptions to trash pickup, etc.
- Use tools that allow you to build apps in an agile environment with no coding required.
- Build a marketing plan that promotes your offerings and measure success and uptake.
- Never stop innovating.
Everyone has something they are trying to make better through technology. Whether that be informing a population about a snowstorm brewing, a homeless epidemic that needs all hands-on deck, a voter who needs to cast a vote, or tourists safely swimming in the Pacific. You may not have that perfect app for every citizen (or tourist), but your strategy needs to be as fluid and diverse as your community.
Author’s Note: I can’t wait to share with you my trip in search of Bigfoot next week. Stay tuned.
Christopher Thomas is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.