Citizen engagement platforms grow in 2010

With a wave of platforms and apps, citizens in 2010 could contribute much more than a vote or a donation.

During the 2008 election, then Senator Barack Obama said that “the challenges we face today — from saving our planet to ending poverty — are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.” As President, finding solutions to grand challenges means that Obama is looking again to the technology community for answers. Whether he finds them will be a defining element in judging whether a young Senator from Illinois that leveraged Web 2.0 to become President can tap into that collective intelligence to govern in the Oval Office.

Will citizens collaborate with officials, workers and one another to apply a civic surplus to open government? 2011 might be a make or break year for White House efforts to create platforms for citizen engagement. There were two notable news stories on that front this month. First, the passage of the COMPETES Act in Congress means that every federal agency can create prizes and competitions. Look for more to come on

Second, the White House has made a new, ambitious request for the American people: help design digital democracy with ideas for creating a platform for citizen consultation. For now, the project is called “ExpertNet” and is being hosted on a wiki.

Both underpin significant parts of White House deputy CTO Beth Noveck’s vision for open government, where stakeholders collaborate in “wiki government.” In that context, making community health data as useful as weather data has potential, where companies and citizens engage with data in ways that help them make better decisions. Open source may improve healthcare through NHIN Direct, now the Direct Project.

The growth of citizen engagement platforms, however, extends far beyond Washington. Civic developers are helping government by standardizing application programming interfaces and empowering others by coding the middleware for open government. Working with developers can be a crucial complement to publishing open data online. Those citizens matter a lot there, but only if engaged.

There’s a growth in “do it ourselves (DIO) government,” or as the folks at techPresident like to say, “We government.” That’s likely to be important in the context of crises in state budgets. It was an important enough topic that I was happy to accept Adriel Hampton’s invitation to join him on Gov 2.0 Radio to talk about the best in civic innovation in 2010. Our conversation is available on demand.

You can break down what’s happening into categories:

  • Platforms
  • Data-driven decisions
  • Crowdsourcing
  • Helping one another with the digital divide and information literacy
  • Guerrilla design efforts to make better cities
  • Sharing information with one another with respect to how to do things

Social media is a big part of that, but far from the only one. The “army of techies” taking on City Hall are using apps like SeeClickFix and Citysourced to report issues and track their resolution.

The growth of CityCamp is fascinating to watch, in that context. 2010 was the year when many of these camps did something more than talk and share information, though those activities have value. While the federal government, particularly the Coast Guard and EPA, used social media to get information out and set up, citizens used platforms like Ushahidi at the Lousiana Bucket Brigade, or tried grassroots mapping. Citizens can do a lot on their own. Look at what people did with the CrisisCamp Haiti work, particularly Open Street Map.

That’s important, but when you look at what happened with CrisisCommons, you can see the germ of something bigger in the Oil Reporter app. That’s one reason why the Sloan Foundation gave them a grant. CrisisCommons uses the Internet to act as a platform for people to help one another. As Andy Carvin from NPR has pointed out, now citizens can do more than donate blood or money. They can share information and donate their skills and time.

2010 was also notable for the growth of civic hackathons, like the International open data hackathon, the Times Open Hack Day, and Random Hacks of kindness.

As the new year beckons, there are more ways for the citizens of the United States to provide feedback to their federal government than perhaps there ever have been in its history. In 2011, the open question is whether “We the people” will use these new participatory platforms to help government work better. The evolution of these kinds of platforms aren’t U.S.-centric, either. Ushahidi, for example, started in Africa and has been deployed worldwide. The crowd matters more now in every sense: crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, crowdmapping, collective intelligence, group translation, and human sensor networks.

I’ll close with a prediction for 2011: Watch for important innovation to come out of India in the mobile space, as open government for transparency moves ahead.

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