Photo: The Knight-Mozilla hackathon at MIT in June 2012
Every field of practice develops its own language to talk about key concepts and ongoing concerns. Buzz words are often introduced or borrowed from related fields. What terms are commonly used when discussing technology for engagement? These are what we heard at the summit.
A common way to spark innovation and quickly generate new software tools. Governments have organized and funded many of these code-a-thons to leverage its data for better ends, but few if any of the winning apps ever last beyond a few months. A better catalyst is needed, and three attendees offered their views on how they can be improved.
Often, tools for civic engagement have no clear model for sustainability. The people they engage are generally not people who can or will pay for their use. Because users are not payers, innovators are forever wrestling with the question, “Who pays?”
A dismissive way to describe the use of social media and other Internet tools to advance social causes. The problem isn’t with the tools but the tendency to use Web analytics (i.e., page views, clicks, tweets) as measures of engagement, reducing activism to meaningless acts that lead to no impact.
For many, this is deep engagement in its truest sense – citizens working together to create solutions or new possibilities for themselves. It involves people asking and then answering the question, “What can we create together?” Digital tools have demonstrated success in crowd-sourcing ideas. Can they also help the crowd turn those ideas into action?
There seems to be consensus that engagement goes beyond acting only in one’s self-interest. Being engaged also means acting in the interests of others, perhaps with others, to achieve what might be called the “common good.” Those who think the term sounds too academic or wonkish prefer to speak of “common goals.” Others fear the term doesn’t help people transcend tribal tendencies. They prefer to engage citizens in thinking about and striving for the “greater good.”
The idea that governments or organizations don’t want to open up their data because someone will find out how bad it really is.
Beyond creating individual tools for civic engagement, practitioners are equally concerned with how to create the right ecosystem for innovations to appear on a regular basis, the way engineers and scientists enter and ultimately advance their fields. Building the field requires not just resources and infrastructure but investing in human capital – helping people get inspired, educated and plugged in to the right opportunities.
Government as Platform
Engagement presumes active citizens and governments that welcome active citizenship. Such governments don’t just set the rules and provide needed services. They connect the people that can help each other. They create the space needed for creativity to be unleashed. At least, that’s the ideal innovators are working to realize.
Ladder of Engagement
It’s generally accepted that engagement can take many forms. A ladder is often used as a metaphor to rank activities by level of difficulty. Meeting your neighbors might be the first rung. Doing favors for them might be the next. High up on the ladder might be a social entrepreneur who is solving a challenge in an innovative way. Community engagement is mostly about getting people on the ladder and helping people move up.
Engagement tools and activities are designed and follow design principles, stated or not. These features, sometimes called mechanics, go a long way in determining how positive (or engaging) the user experience is. Innovators have learned that engagement depends on these mechanics, not just the urgency or relevance of a cause.
Funders like to say, “What gets measured gets managed.” But how do you measure deep engagement? How do you assess how committed and involved someone is in their community? Metrics were challenging even before digital tools came along. Now devices allow us to track our every waking moment. Do they help or do they confuse our attempts to measure successful engagement?
Stories don’t just help us communicate. They help us structure our own lives and make sense of our actions. Seen in this light, engagement is about people acting out stories about who they are and what they want to become. Narratives, more than issues, invite engagement.
The push to make data, especially government data, freely available. Technologists can then build tools to make them useful and beneficial to citizens. Advocates for open data would also like to see government data follow common standards so that cities can be easily compared.
A low-hanging fruit for engagement tools. Many apps now exist to allow citizens to report potholes to their city governments. This represents an easy win. Technologists bring up potholes to illustrate a type of challenge that has been conquered. What’s the next frontier for digital tools?
The idea that human networks have value. The more people interact, the stronger their bonds, the more resilient and powerful their community will be. Some argue that civic engagement is first and foremost about building social capital, both bonding (within groups) and bridging (between groups). No surprise then that social capital figures prominently in discussions about metrics.
Digital tools tend to be costly to build. They often can’t be justified unless they can reach millions of users. But engagement tends to be place based and community oriented. The two tendencies – to go wide and to go deep – often conflict. The question isn’t simply “How do you scale?” but “Why do you want to scale?”
Solutions don’t have to grow in order to spread. Sometimes it’s faster to spread an idea and let it manifest independently. This is how clothing, tires, toilets and TEDx events have become ubiquitous. Instead of asking if your idea can grow, it might be better to ask if it can spread.
Engagement requires time, a resource few people seem to have in abundance these days. A common challenge for innovators is figuring out how time can be saved or shifted so that “busy people” can be engaged as well.
A good question to spark innovation in any field. A focus on real pain points is likely to produce tools that people must have.