Meet Textizen — A new way to get citizen feedback in the digital age

Welcome to a Special Edition of the DorobekINSIDER. Chris Dorobek is currently in New York City at the Personal Democracy Forum.

The two day conference features 135 thought leaders who are at the nexus of technology, politics, government and social advocacy. Now in its ninth year, PDF has grown to become the city’s largest tech conference.

But we didn’t want to leave you hanging. So what better solution than to showcase how local governments can use the power of technology to reach out to and engage their constituents.
In Philadelphia they’re rolling out a new tool called Textizen. It was developed by two Code for America fellows Alex Yule and Michelle Lee.
The fellows teamed up with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission to create a powerful platform for collecting citizen feedback via text message.
Chris Dorobek talked with Code for America’s Alex Yule and Philadelphia City Planner Clint Randall. Yule started off telling us how the Textizen application works.

Why was this platform necessary? “Holding an in-person meeting is hard. It takes a lot of public resources to hold meetings and then the number of residents who can meet at a specific time and in a specific place is limited. We wanted a broader set of public feedback and data,” said Randall.
The program launched just over a week ago and already has more than 100 responses.
So far both Yule and Randall agree there haven’t been too many major roadblocks. “Basically we’ve seen quiet a few responses from a relatively small marketing campaign,” said Yule.
Focus the Text Questions: “We wanted to ask questions that we could do something about. For example. We are city planners. One of the districts we are currently looking at needs to be kid friendly. That means we want to ask questions about sidewalks and parks. We need to ask questions where we can actually make a difference,” said Randall.
Getting Approval: Randall admits getting the platform green lit wasn’t without a few headaches. “The city was slightly hesitant at first. They didn’t know if we would be able to handle the capacity. They didn’t know if we would be able to sort and analyze all the results. But what we started to realize was that getting text message feedback used 10 times fewer man hours compared to trying to get a public meeting up and running,” said Randall.
Shift in Government: “Historically if you were going to release something to the public it needed to be final and completely vetted. But now, in the age of social media things are more iterative and participatory. But that shift has a learning curve. We are still educating the public on this new form of government,” said Randall.
Yule and Lee have crafted a video promoting Textizen.

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Michael Cohen

Check-out Peak Democracy Inc’s Open Town Hall online public comment forums. Residents can access the online forums via smart phones and also via SMS text messaging on non-smart phones. This service has already powered over 700 online forums from about 40 government agencies, and has attracted over 70,000 online attendees. The service also has a suite of analysis tools that enable gov staff and leaders to synthesize voluminous online feedback.