Outside/In: How Open Gov led me to love Twitter

technology / Article

Knight Foundation supports LISC Chicago through Open Gov for the Rest of Us to provide residents in low-income neighborhoods with the tools to access and demand better data around issues that are important to them, such as housing and education. Below, Susana L. Vasquez, executive director of LISC Chicago, writes about open government and her moves from the analog to digital.

When I got the call recently from Knight Foundation’s John Bracken that our Open Gov for the Rest of Us project had won a News Challenge grant, it surprised me. LISC Chicago had been rejected in four previous rounds, and our Open Gov submittal had stopped at the semifinals.

In my giddiness and slight disbelief I promised John that if we really got the grant I would get a Twitter account and make the Knight grant my first tweet. John laughed.

LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corp.) and the community development field are not often on the cutting edge of technology, big data or social media. We are affectionately “old school” in many ways. I still believe in face-to-face, one-on-one meetings and physical communities rather than virtual ones. I carry a healthy suspicion of big data making big decisions, especially about government service delivery to low-income neighborhoods. Shouldn’t the people make the decisions in a democracy?

Going digital

My first move from analog to digital was through a demonstration we led for the City of Chicago to make the web more meaningful in neighborhoods with low broadband use. We called it Smart Communities, and we helped move five communities to not only use broadband more but to build tech organizers and leaders like the ones we are now supporting through our Knight grant.

Open Gov, I’ve realized, is grounded in community development fundamentals. A mantra from organizing school is that power = organized people + organized money. I would now add in organized information; it’s the exponential factor in the equation.

Our Knight project is based on a simple idea. Neighborhood people need to be engaged in identifying the problems that government data can help solve. And they are integral to devising solutions, too, which may not be yet another app. It may be pushing government to release the data that’s not readily available to the public to or to make a policy change because of an inequity that access to data brings to light.  Engaging residents has always been part of the LISC method, though we never called it “social design” or “human-centered design.” We want to create leaders of Open Gov, not just consumers.

Last month’s MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference, where the News Challenge grants were announced, was aptly named “Insiders/Outsiders.”  As a woman named Susana Vasquez I stood out. As someone who still does not know what HTML stands for, even more. But I am an insider to neighborhoods and the experience of being an “outsider.” I think I am some of the “new blood” Knight uses its grant contests to find.  Open Gov needs community developers and organizers even more than app developers right now.  

Tweeting = organizing

Organizers try to build leaders, and leaders have followers. Organizers tap into stories and self-interest. Twitter is like organizing. I did start to tweet. When @McDowellSWOP (a self-described pre-digital community organizer colleague in Chicago) started to tweet and popped up as my 47th follower, I knew we were reaching a tipping point.

At the conference I gained new followers and immediate feedback on what resonated with people when I presented our project – mainly that we need to be bilingual bridge builders between the worlds of tech and community development. I like this relational quality to Twitter. I have learned that @ankurthakkur may be the digital director for the City of Chicago but he is first a poet and I look for his links to articles and quotes. I learned to #standwithwendy well before hearing on public radio about her amazing show of force in pink sneakers. I observed over July 4th weekend two types of math in Chicago: one counting bike-sharing trips on Divvy and one counting shootings and homicides.

As for leaders and followers, @HillaryClinton and I started tweeting the same week. She has more than 650,000 followers; I have 53. She is clearly a leader. But we both have come to recognize the power of Twitter to get information and share information. We have that in common.

Susana L. Vasquez (@susanalvasquez) is the executive director of @LISCChicago, which is advancing #OpenGov4Us with a @knightfdn grant.  She would like to thank @danxoneil and @jsb for their support.

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