Neither Fish nor Fowl: Better Gov 2.0

Citizen co-delivery of services is based on the idea that a small group of people can do what the community depends on the government to do -- but more cheaply, quickly, and effectively.
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Understandably, the most prevalent uses of digital media for government are for citizens to carp and governments to crow. The Web was founded as a way to share information and what most people wanted to communicate was "we want more services!" What government (including both bureaucrats and elected officials) wanted to say was "look at all the stuff we do for you!" Both are important messages, and both woefully underutilize the potential of Web 2.0.

Finally, however, we are seeing the emergence of online tools (I don't want to call them "sites," which lumps them in with unequal company) that are beginning to conflate three important developments:

  • The self-organizing features of social media
  • The resources of the government-as-a-platform
  • The utility of Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) to focus and analyze community action

Each of these is necessary, and taken together they are all sufficient to realize one of the key tenets of Gov 2.0: citizen co-delivery of services.

Citizen co-delivery of services is based on the idea that a small group of people can do what the community depends on the government to do -- but more cheaply, quickly, and effectively. For some activities, co-delivery won't work at all: building inspection, for example, takes expertise that most people don't have and time that most people can't commit to a project. Other activities, however, are tailor-made for co-delivery, people just need a little help. And that's where tools like SeeClickFix come in.

Though SeeClickFix started as a way for citizens to carp, it is quickly moving into the "neither fish nor fowl" category. Residents can still ask for outdoor seating permits for their favorite restaurant, or repair work on a diving board, but the forum now has a new tool that allows people to notify their government about problems, as well as organize to solve the problem themselves. If you live in New Haven, click on any of the open tickets and you'll see, on the right below the map, a box for "Community Actions." Community members who want to help solve a problem (e.g. foul-mouthed construction workers) can sign up to lead or join a team that will close a ticket. (I'd like to know how they close the ticket of the trash-talking hard hats.)

My favorite example is the ticket opened about a park that had fallen into disarray. After someone complained, the community organized to clean the park up themselves. There are two videos now posted on the comments page and a picture of the park in its now-tidy appearance. The last comment reads "The Department of Public Works is working hand in hand with the residents to help keep this park clean."

When the government provides a platform, its own costs stay down and citizens reap the benefit of the services they help provide.

Underlying all this, and so obvious as to be invisible, is GIS. A ticket can't be opened without an address -- which makes sense because you can't fix something if you don't know where it is!

But GIS offers much more than simply the ability to locate problems. Have you seen Miami's 311 app? If not, take a moment now, and do it. It's the future.

I'll wait. Go on.

Back? Great. My favorite part was the map showing the dead animal pick-up requests. What I'd like to see, however, is some more information displayed on the map. For example, how about a heat-map, showing how long a request remains open? And how about another that amalgamates the total number of requests into a graphic showing which are the most dangerous stretches of road? Because if you add those features, what you've built isn't just a place to submit requests, but a tool that both citizens and civic planners can use to improve their community.

That's the power of GIS that we're only now beginning to harness.

I'll be leading a panel that looks both at the present GIS offerings in Washington, DC, and at some interesting future uses of GIS to enhance citizen participation. In the meantime, though Ohio may have banned Human-Animal hybrids, I hope to see more online creatures that are neither fish nor fowl.

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