Boston adopts new tools to engage residents in civic life

communities / Article

Nigel Jacob is co-founder of New Urban Mechanics, a city innovation lab working with the cities of Boston and Philadelphia. Jacob is scheduled to attend the Knight Foundation Civic Innovation in Action Studio on May 12-14, a workshop where civic and business leaders from across the country will discuss ideas to improve cities by harnessing talent, advancing opportunity and promoting civic engagement. Photo credit: Michael Lawrence Evans, Boston New Urban Mechanics.

The last several years have seen an explosion of civic technologies being developed and deployed that tackle everything from enabling parents to explore schooling options for their children to empowering communities to manage blighted properties in their midst.

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One of the central areas of focus for many of these technologies is civic engagement. These platforms provide city dwellers with a variety of channels into civic life.

While the sheer number of these civic engagement technologies is large -- and getting larger -- they all tend to share a model of civic engagement in which the central act being promoted is for users to provide feedback or to engage in civic dialogue about some civic issue. Those elements are all on the continuum of civic engagement, but there are greater opportunities to explore.

Our experience in Boston has been that we can go further than this in how we engage communities. Boston’s residents have shown their eagerness to use new modes and mechanisms of getting involved in civic life.

We are pursuing this agenda in three ways: broadening the channels of engagement, expanding the definition of engagement and deepening the methods.

1. Broadening the Channels: One of the central challenges we face in cities is how to connect with those who find it difficult to use conventional channels. One of the greatest barriers to entry is language. Measuring civic engagement is an inherently multidimensional notion. But, to take one of those dimensions -- reporting of neighborhood problems -- we find that Boston receives fewer than expected reports from communities for whom English is not their first language.

Fewer residents serving as the city’s eyes and ears could result in issues that need fixing (broken streetlights, litter, graffiti, etc.) that go unreported for longer. In turn, this could lead to a resulting sense that the neighborhood is less cared for by both the city and residents.

Boston is tackling this issue by exploring ways to sustainably support a broader range of languages in how it connects with its residents.

This includes:

  • Native multilingual support for its Citizens Connect app;
  • Well-designed, multilingual signage in City Hall and all other public buildings; and,
  • Improved multilingual support for the Mayor’s 24-Hour Constituent Service Office.

2. Expanding the Definition: Civic engagement is a set of behaviors that a person or a community demonstrates to a greater or lesser degree. While reporting neighborhood problems is important, we are interested in exploring how to expand the range of behavior that is considered “civics.”  Projects we are pursuing include:

Civic FabLabs: We are helping local efforts to create one or more Fablabs that have a strong element of “civic-making,” where the community is empowered to prototype their vision of the neighborhood and community. This work is, in part, inspired by Fab Lab Barcelona.

StreetCred: Developed jointly with Emerson College’s Engagement Labs, Street Cred aims to create a civic-reputation system that nudges users to engage in a range of civic activities such as reporting graffiti and trash to more time-intensive activities such as cleaning up parks and adopting street trees.

StreetBump: This experimental project aims to explore the concept of Data Donation as a civic act. Street Bump uses the accelerometer and GPS receiver on smartphones to build a picture of the bumpiness of Boston’s roads for the city’s public works department.  While used primarily by city employees, residents can volunteer data by downloading and using the app.

3. Deepening the Methods: A lot of research indicates that engagement can have profound effects on more vertical concerns such as education. For example, when parents are more engaged in their children’s education, the students do better in school. To deepen engagement with parents, we will need to expand and enhance the methods we use. We are exploring two routes with the Boston Public Schools:

  • Parent Engagement Labs: This is a program that will run a series of experiments around providing parents with tools to actively connect them with their child’s learning experience. Specific experiments will include both new products as well as new features for current platforms such as DiscoverBPS -- think for schools, and Where’s My School Bus, a school bus location app.
  • EdTech Collaboration: We hope to work with the Boston Public Schools to build a stronger bridge between innovative school leaders and local entrepreneurs in education technology. This will allow for increased piloting, improved evaluation, and -- ultimately -- better products taken to scale at schools across the district.  

Moving forward, our work will focus on running experiments of the sort outlined here and working with our research partners to study their results and effectiveness. We look forward to sharing the results with the rest of the community and continuing to move the field of civic innovation forward.

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