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September 3, 2014

Immigration. Bullying. Fixing Politics. Sign-up to Deliberate Online.

Written by Steven Clift

E-Democracy is helping the Kettering Foundation and their National Issues Forum network test a new online deliberation tool called Common Ground for Action.

It is a “live” experience using text chat and nifty tools to respond to policy options and trade-offs. Informative issue videos and short guides provide non-partisan background for each deliberation.

Get more information or fill out our survey right here:

August 26, 2014

Video: Open Twin Cities Lessons, Service Design and Hack for MN

Written by Steven Clift

E-Democracy/Open Twin Cities went to Chicago on an amazing two day “civic tech field trip” (blog posts pending on what we learned). Thanks to Derek Eder with DataMade and Chris Whitacker with the Smart Chicago Collaborative and Code for America, we had a room at the amazing 1871 co-working/incubator space to share some of our lessons as well!

Here is the video.

Civic Tech Lessons from Middle America – Presented by Bill Bushey

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Start at 1:38 for Bill Bushey … or almost Bill. Yes, the focus is fuzzy, but the audio is fine. Here are the slides (future link).


Open Twin Cities and Civic and Service Design – Presented by Laura Andersen

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Start at 31:40 for Laura Andersen. Here are the slides (future link).


For our Poplus presentation video from Chicago, see our previous blog post.

August 4, 2014

Poplus – E-Democracy supports collaborative civic coding, Chicago gathering

Written by Steven Clift


PoplusCon Partcipants

PoplusCon participants say, join in!

Special event: Join us in Chicago on Tuesday, August 5 for information session on Poplus and learn about Open Twin Cities and service design as well.

E-Democracy is a big supporter of the global Poplus civic coding federation. In particular, we are gearing up to help with strategic outreach for the highly interactive online group and related committees.

Check our slides from the Chicago event to learn more. Includes short video clips.

New – Video from the Chicago event thanks to the Smart Chicago Collaborative – Forward to 8:22 to skip E-Democracy 1994 mini presentation:

YouTube Preview Image


Below is a guest blog post by Myf Nixon from mySociety about Poplus.

Poplus: reusing code across international borders


All around the world, governments work to different models. The problems that citizens face differ, too. So it’s something of a surprise, perhaps, to realise that their democratic or civic needs can be broadly similar.

In any nation, people benefit from being better informed about what their politicians and rulers are doing on their behalf. In any regime, transparency of information is a boon. And everyone wins when citizens can report problems within their own community.

It is with these broad parities in mind that Poplus was founded. Poplus is a new international initiative to promote the sharing of code and online tools that meet the needs of citizens everywhere.

It was originally conceived by the UK’s mySociety and Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente in Chile, and is now an international federation that is open for anyone to join.

Civic experience

mySociety has been creating civic websites and tools for a decade. During that time, we’ve gained a lot of experience and learned from a lot of mistakes. We knew we could help other groups around the world who were attempting to do the same things we do: hold governments to account, make freedom of information more accessible, and open the channels of citizen to government engagement.

Our code has always been open source and free for anyone to use, but over the past few years we’ve come to realise that this isn’t enough. If we really wanted to help other organisations, that code needed to be supremely easy to install, and it needed to work with as few modifications as possible, no matter what the political landscape.

So in 2012, we partnered up with FCI to create Poplus to tackle this problem face on. Poplus aims to support coders to make Components – bits of interoperable code that should be easy to implement, are non-country-specific, work alone or with one another, and are available open source.

April of this year saw the first Poplus conference in Santiago, Chile. Delegates came from 27 different countries. There was a mix of coders and campaigning organisations, all with differing experiences, differing needs, and a thirst to communicate.


Poplus Conference video round-up

The conference was a great way to kickstart the initiative, putting together people who make code and the people who need it, and then sending them home to every corner of the world, with a mandate to both stay in touch with one another, and help spread the word about Poplus.

Since then, communication has been via a lively mailing list, its members meeting the challenge of shaping an international federation across many different time zones, different languages, and working entirely online.

This network brings us many strengths, so it’s worth overcoming the logistical difficulties.

Global growth

Clearly, with people all around the world we can spread the word about Poplus more quickly. We can learn from one another, and that will feed into making Poplus Components more shareable and usable in every type of jurisdiction. We can tap into translation resources. We can find the local groups who will most benefit from our work because we have people on the ground.

Right now we’re very aware that Poplus is in its infancy. It’s an idea that has a lot of buy-in, and several concrete projects that organisations can start using. We would like to see Poplus grow, with many more Components on offer.

We’d like organisations that need software to come to us, and if there isn’t already a Component that can help, we’d like them to be able to explain their needs to an ever growing pool of coders, some of whom might take up the challenge of making it.

Everyone is welcome to join Poplus, whether you are a coder, an organisation that would benefit from using code, or just someone who is very interested and would like to help. The first step is to join our mailing list and introduce yourself.

– Guest blog from Myf Nixon, mySociety

July 13, 2014

E-Democracy promoting the Knight Green Line Challenge in Saint Paul

Written by Steven Clift

Knight Green Line Challenge

Have a great idea for the neighborhoods along the Green Line Saint Paul?

A $1.5 million dollar challenge was announce by the Knight Foundation. E-Democracy’s Saint Paul forums have sprung into action bringing thousands of visits to their websiteSubmit your idea by July 24.

Join our special public drafting effort via Google Docs.

July 11, 2014

E-Democracy highlights from Hack for MN

Written by Steven Clift

Hack for MN

Photosmini-video tour, and tweets galore.

Join Open Twin Cities and check out the regular Meetups and online group to get involved.

Outside Minnesota? Check out our list of online groups related to open government, civic technology, and related topics around the world.

June 6, 2014

Neighbors Online Workshop @ DigiDaze June 20 – St. Paul Rondo Outreach Library

Written by Steven Clift

It’s time to get excited about digital inclusion in the Twin Cities!

On June 20th, the Community Technology Empowerment Project hosts DigiDaze from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the St. Paul Rondo Community Outreach Library at the corner of Dale and University. Free Parking – enter on University going east before Dale.

From 2:00 p.m. – 3:15 p.m. in the e-classroom, join Steven Clift and “” volunteers and participants for an insightful and in-depth presentation on inclusively connecting neighbors online. Check out DigiDaze booths before and after the presentation.

With 20,000 participants across our Twin Cities neighbors forums combined with the world’s most inclusive local online civic engagement outreach effort and challenging efforts to engage across community diversity, we have lessons to share and questions to ask. If you want to connect neighbors and communities online – across ANY platform – these tips will help us all connect thousands more residents.

RSVP not required.

But let us know if you hope to attend. Or say you are coming via Facebook Events.

If you can’t make it, watch this video version from NYC.

The session will cover:

  • Bonus – Opening preview from Knight Green Line Challenge
  • Startling national statistics on the income, racial, and related divides in terms of online civic participation
  • Ten awesome things strong neighborhood online groups produce (be it hosted by E-Democracy, Facebook, and others)
  • Specific lessons from our inclusive field outreach and ideas on how online groups outside of our BeNeighbors network can go beyond the easiest to reach residents to intentionally bring ALL kinds of neighbors together

Here is more information about DigiDaze …

DIGIDAZE COMMUNITY TECHNOLOGY FAIR comes to Rondo Library on Friday June 20, 10:30 AM to 4 PM

Every year, CTEP and the Saint Paul Public Library sponsors a free public fair to showcase learning opportunities related to technology for youth, adults and seniors. There will be laptop computer giveaways throughout the day, free food, classes on animation for youth and using online library services for adults, face painting, free tech advice, media production games, and sign ups for free classes about computer and employment skills in your neighborhood.

Where: Multipurpose Room, Rondo Community Outreach Library in Saint Paul 
Who: Sponsored by the Community Technology Empowerment Project (CTEP) AmeriCorps program and the Saint Paul Public Library.

Click here for a slideshow from past DigiDaze Fairs.

E-Democracy Outreach-001

April 24, 2014

Digital Outreach for Civic Hacking Awesomeness – National Day of Civic Hacking

Written by Steven Clift


Digital Outreach for Civic Hacking Awesomeness

Practical ideas for promoting your local civic technology hackathon*

Written for local National Day of Civic Hacking organizers by Steven Clift,

 These strategies are based on twenty years of experience with online groups related to open gov/civic tech. This includes direct involvement with CityCampMN, Open Twin Cities, Hack for MN, Open Minnesota, and connections with Code for America Brigades around the nation. If you find this advice useful, we pro-actively share similar tips via our new Open Government and Civic Technology Facebook Group and on the Code for America Brigade mailing list.

* – What’s a “hackathon” or code-a-thon? It is an in-person event where groups of people write/adapt software code, design web/mobile apps, visualize data on maps. etc. See Wikipedia and our local Hack for MN for more.


As the National Day of Civic Hacking 2014 on May 31-June 1 approaches, these online outreach tips will help your local event inclusively reach and engage more participants. Participants who are ready to share their skills, passion, and desire to build community connections and innovations that last.

While the national Hack for Change website supports national marketing and will funnel some participants your way, bringing people in the door will mostly come through your local outreach.

Just so I am clear – a bunch of tweets and a Facebook page will not cut it for outreach. Each outreach actions you take will bring in one, two, or maybe three people. If you want 100 participants, take at least 30 actions online with digital outreach.

Getting started with outreach:

  1. Save the Date Notice ASAP – Send out a “save the date” shout out to as soon as possible. Don’t wait for your event website to be perfect … every day that slips by matters. Get the date of your event on people’s calendars.
  2. Gather Email for Long-term Use – Promoted from the event website, local civic tech site, etc. create an email newsletter (or a “subscribe to blog” email option) for the leading ongoing civic tech effort in your area that will have permission to send updates to people well beyond this one event. Local civic tech leaders can then reach people and reuse “the list” it for future civic tech events and announcements. Yes, create a Twitter account and Facebook Page. You want to make it easier with each future event (meetup, Brigade launch, etc.) to reach people with invitations right to their email box. Facebook Pages have an increasingly terrible reach.
  3. Promote Sustained Online Group Exchange – The strongest local civic tech cities have vibrant online groups that generate engagement and belonging between events. If you don’t have one, start one (and join them in other cities and global groups too for “we can do it too” inspiration and content to forward into your local community). In your event registration form, make being added to the online group the default with an opt-out option. Then manually add those people to the ongoing online group (whether it is a Mailman list, a Google Group, or hosted at E-Democracy on GroupServer, etc.) Some tools only allow you to “invite” people which is sub-par – you want to able to use any permission you have received to just add them without requiring them to confirm their interest a second time. At CityCampMN almost no one opted out and over 2/3 who attended were not already on the Twin Cities Brigade list. Going from 125 to over 200 members has been tremendously valuable post-event.
  4. Add Smart Registration Fields – Create your Eventbrite or other registration form as early as possible. Then regularly work registrants to invite a friend and reach out to others. Be sure to add fields for Twitter, etc. and to publish who is registered (scroll way down for an example). These public “who’s coming” list of names are one of your best marketing tools. Also use survey options with the registration to collect useful information about skills, interests, important demographics, dietary restrictions, etc. Be sure to use all the options that help Eventbrite share the event widely with folks trolling the main Eventbrite site and use their Facebook event hook up as well.


Advanced Civic Tech Event Community Outreach:

OK, going well beyond Facebook and Twitter outreach, here is how you go deep with online outreach…

  1. Local Tech Developer Online Groups – Send a customized invite to each group (typically buried mailing lists). Promote a friendly rivalry to “do good” with their language/code of choice. Try to get at least one civic tech interested person from each major development community to join your event organizing team or internal online group. Having multiple coders from major computer languages/frameworks makes clustering on projects easier.
  2. Local Tech/Web Meetups – Go through Meetup and look for groups within scope of your event. Message the leaders asking them to post. Or if you are already a member, try to post the hackathon directly. Note that there is a daily maximum on how many organizers you can contact privately via Meetup each day (something like five a day).
  3. Tech Community News and Calendars – What is the “go to” niche tech news site for your local tech community? Find it. Send them stuff and consider swapping sponsorship for in-kind promotion. is a big booster of civic tech for example. What about local tech calendars like Seattle? If you have one, get your event on it. Does your community have a local tech start-up community email list like Seattle or a non-profit tech online group like Minnesota or a NTEN 501 local network? Join and post or contact the leaders of these networks.
  4. Global Networks with Local Events/Chapters – After you post to your local Code for America Brigade online group, ask yourself who else might be organizing locally with folks interested in your event? Check national/global “brands” to find local point people who have already made similar connections – Larger cities will naturally have overlapping networks for “do good” technologists with each “brand” attracting new people into the local tech for change ecology. Dig into networks like: RHok, NetSquared, Tech4Good, Hack4Good, Crisis Commons, OpenCrisis, Hacks and Hacker, US Ignite, CityCamp, Geeks Without Bounds, Code for Resilience, OKFN
  5. Past Eventbrites – If your local civic tech community has had past events, send an invite via Eventbrite or ask the owner of that previous event to do it for you. These past attendees are probably your lowest hanging fruit. Ask people to tell a friend and caution any “sign-up first, check calendar later, no show folks” to cancel their registration if they can’t make it. If your space is limited, and you are worried that you will fill up the slots too quickly, consider what we did with CityCampMN in 2013 and have a cheap guaranteed seat (~$10) and lottery seats that will allow you to randomly pick people if you are way over capacity even after a call for cancellations. Offer guaranteed seat scholarships upon request for lower income folks and students – and they were very appreciative including a group from a teen tech program.
  6. Tech Journalists – In addition to niche tech new sites, reach out to tech-interested journalists, reporters on the local government beat, etc. You can reach out one by one via email, use Twitter mentions (@reporterhandle) with link and invite, and crucially call the five most important journalists. Television news coverage of Capitol Code was huge for our movement and such coverage helps cement the interest of political leaders. Start a collection of local press coverage links because journalists will look at past coverage as an indicator that your current event is the real deal. Also seek out the “CARR” expert or the librarian in the newsroom of major dailies. They care a lot about sourcing open data for stories even if they themselves will not likely cover the event.
  7. Facebook Page Door Knocking – While pages have almost no reach these days, posting to local government Facebook pages (and other appropriate pages) about your event will at least notify the page owner of your event. Imagine having 10 or 15 of the key community Facebook Page managers at your event – they are the writers, researchers, and story-tellers you need on your hackathon project teams. In terms of civic tech related Facebook Pages that you control, consider paying $50 to promote a post through your fans to their friends. It might be worth it.
  8. Twitter Hashtags – Post to global #opengov and #opendata hashtags along with either local geographic/civic tags (e.g., #stpaul, #mnleg) or place names to give a shout out for your event. Rinse and repeat at least weekly with pity updates up until your event. Celebrate registration goals.  If you have local civic tech, startups scene, etc. hashtags those will be very strategic to use. If you have big events like #minnebar happening in the run up to your event, Tweet the link to your event when people are paying attention. Also push yourself to @mention at least ten people you hope will retweet your event link to their large follower base.
  9. Neighborhood Email Lists and Online Groups – Consider sending tailored messages to local neighborhood and community-based online groups. You need to search for these. Most are below the radar from older groups on YahooGroups to newer ones as Facebook Groups – here are examples in Minnesota, Seattle, and DC. Customize the invite and say you are looking for participants specifically from their neighborhood who want to use civic technology to improve their local community. Say something like, come to our regional event and then organize a local happy hour to connect neighbors who want to use technology for community good in their area. One size fits all outreach that is not politely customized per online group may not work well. E-Democracy’s open-sourced network has over 20,000 members in the Twin Cities. Many of CityCampMN and OTC hackathon participants have been reached via these networks because these spaces are filled with community spirited people who happen to code, design, etc. When you have your location, do special outreach in nearest neighborhoods or cities for sure.
  10. Inclusion Matters – We could write an entire guide on making civic technology and open government far more inclusive. Heck, we need a campaign too. This is a real problem whether it is who is at the design table, whether user-centered design is considered, or with open government generally whether the products of our movement are reaching more than those who already show up. So, hosting more inclusive hackathons is one of the steps we must take to engage new voices and to create solutions used by those who may benefit most. Think about the demographics you want in the room. Then take steps to reach out to organizations and individuals if you aspire to be reflective of the diversity in your local community, while celebrating the value of everyone who shows up. Some low-hanging fruit networks are libraries and community technology centers/projects involved in digital inclusion efforts (e.g., in Minnesota we have CTEP, Technology Literacy Collaborative). Reach out to students, schools and colleges. Think about where lower income computer science or web design students might attend and reach out to bring them to the table. They will have a lot to teach everyone about connecting with users from very different life circumstances.
  11. Government Leaders – Start with and then go beyond area government CIOs/CTOs to reach out to local city council/county board/school board members, and state legislators who seem “tech” or public participation interested. If you don’t know any, try calling the office of your local representatives and ask them, “Who are some of the council members who use Facebook the most/are most interest in technology/etc.” and then use those recommendations to say “so and so suggested that you’d be a good person to invite to our hackathon because of your interest in XYZ … we’d like to get you registered but you can just stop by … oh, you are interested … would you like to share a few words about the importance of open government and the innovative use of technology in our community at the launch of our event.” Getting elected officials on record in support of your efforts give the city tech leaders/staff political cover as they push departments to embrace more open government.
  12. Research Centers with Data – Reach out to research centers with expertise in census data, etc. You need people in the room who know where the data is buried (but accessible.) These folks helped whip up this spreadsheet in Minnesota.
  13. Document Your Event – Just as pictures, videos, and quotations about last year’s event or previous hackathons are useful for this event’s promotion, be sure to capture and curate the best highlights for marketing use next year. Pictures of people working together, screenshots from projects, short video clips help people “see what they are missing” and make it more likely that they will prioritize coming next time.
  14. Print Materials, Stickers – People at hackathons love adding stickers to their laptops. Have stickers to promote interest in future events. We honestly don’t know if the 100 posters we hung up around town for CityCampMN were effective. In theory, a simple one page flyer could be downloaded and printed by your supporters. I could imagine this being particularly useful outside a computer science lab at a local university or at a community technology center. Consider using a or other tracked link to test use. Let us know if this worked. (Notably E-Democracy, finds door to door and in-person grassroots outreach to be extremely effective for online neighborhood engagement, but that is for a general audience.)
  15. Plan For Follow-up – Not just the usual thank yous, but be ready to identify opportunities to forge deeper connections between beneficiaries of new tools (like governments and nonprofits) and the developers. New tools are awesome, but it takes new behaviors to generate the kind of change that could make a real difference, and that takes more time and attention. Sharing highlights from the day back with the channels you reached out through would be highly strategic. (So, keeping track with a shared Google Doc or other tool of your collective outreach is a good idea as well.)
  16. Share Results – Which digital outreach tips worked best for you? Let us know. Two great places to share the results of your digital outreach are the Code for America Brigade list (with nearly 2,000 members) and the Open Government and Civic Technology Facebook Group.

If you really found this guide extremely useful, consider donating to or becoming a sponsor of Hack for MN/Open Twin Cities.

Need Help with Outreach? If you’d like help doing this outreach in your community and you have a sponsor willing to support it, we can help connect you to talented people. In an ideal world, an army of volunteers would break this up into pieces and make it happen. The honest truth is that to go from low hanging fruit outreach to inclusive outreach takes a real commitment of resources. Contact us for more information.


February 9, 2014

3333 Community Sparks – Copying Another Idea for Posterity

Written by Steven Clift

In 2013, the Forever St. Paul, $1 million idea challenge, put out a request for proposals. This is what we proposed. We are copying this into our blog for archival purposes. We still love the idea! Let us know if you want to make it happen or fund it.


3333 Community Sparks – Connect Every Block, All People Across St. Paul

Steven Clift

by Steven Clift | Mar 21, 2013


It starts with you. Yes, you.

3333 Community Sparks
2222 Potlucks
1111 Online block groups … and more
110,000 Households to engage

That’s 33 households reached by you, a Community Spark, and listed in a simply powerful neighbor directory for your block or building.

Then 50+ households are invited to each potluck and 100 households connected easily year-round with their nearest neighbors via the world’s most inclusive online community network ever.

This is a foundation to make ALL of St. Paul not just great, but an awesome place to live and build a future we make together block by block, building by building.

From this in-person and online foundation, that by design connects neighbors across race, ethnicity, and income, we will build engagement in community life that our families can experience everyday.

How will it work?

1. Recruit 3,333 volunteers and map out the blocks and buildings covered. Plan for a three year campaign.

2. Share inspirational neighbor connecting stories from blocks and buildings that are already connected along with training and an online infrastructure to make the creation and maintaining of your neighbor directory easy.

3. Hire multilingual residents, including young adults, to bolster door to door efforts. This will ensure we recruit Sparks in all parts of town and that the effort fundamentally reaches the nearly half of St. Paul residents that are people of color and the 18% who chose St. Paul as their home who were born in other countries.

4. Promote trust-building in-person connecting through potlucks in addition to events like National Night Out. Working with the Sunday Suppers movement tied to the Martin Luther King Day weekend, let’s bring neighbors together year-round. Local and national retailers (e.g. Target) could be challenged to match funding with gift cards.

5. Innovate with online nearest neighbor connections and more.

Let’s get started now! Sign-up:


Your idea

Title of your idea

3333 Community Sparks – Connect Every Block, All People Across St. Paul

Give us the highlights of your idea for making Saint Paul great (2,000 characters maximum or approx. 250 words)

It starts with you. Yes, you.

3333 Community Sparks
2222 Potlucks
1111 Online block groups … and more
110,000 Households to engage

That’s 33 households reached by you, a Community Spark, and listed in a simply powerful neighbor directory for your block or building.

Then 50+ households are invited to each potluck and 100 households connected easily year-round with their nearest neighbors via the world’s most inclusive online community network ever.

This is a foundation to make ALL of St. Paul not just great, but an awesome place to live and build a future we make together block by block, building by building.

From this in-person and online foundation, that by design connects neighbors across race, ethnicity, and income, we will build engagement in community life that our families can experience everyday.

How will it work?

1. Recruit 3,333 volunteers and map out the blocks and buildings covered. Plan for a three year campaign.

2. Share inspirational neighbor connecting stories from blocks and buildings that are already connected along with training and an online infrastructure to make the creation and maintaining of your neighbor directory easy.

3. Hire multilingual residents, including young adults, to bolster door to door efforts. This will ensure we recruit Sparks in all parts of town and that the effort fundamentally reaches the nearly half of St. Paul residents that are people of color and the 18% who chose St. Paul as their home who were born in other countries.

4. Promote trust-building in-person connecting through potlucks in addition to events like National Night Out. Working with the Sunday Suppers movement tied to the Martin Luther King Day weekend, let’s bring neighbors together year-round. Local and national retailers (e.g. Target) could be challenged to match funding with gift cards.

5. Innovate with online nearest neighbor connections and more.

Let’s get started now! Sign-up:

Website address (if applicable)


What makes your idea different or unexpected? (4000 characters maximum or approx. 500 words)

This idea truly covers ALL of St. Paul. It engages ALL kinds of people and embraces the dynamic diversity of St. Paul’s 111,000 households.

It involves everyday people in making this happen and recognizes that inclusion takes a real investment.

In addition, working through the St. Paul’s effort to connect neighborhoods online in public life with at least 10,000 participants, we have a base from which the 3333 Community Sparks can be recruited.

We can add support for block and building level connections online. Many blocks, perhaps 2%, in St. Paul already connect privately via email and online groups. They LOVE connecting this way. They are connected because a “spark” made it happen. Every block can be included in this connecting revolution.


This Entry is about (Issues)

How will your idea make a difference in Saint Paul? (4000 characters maximum or approx. 500 words)

We can impact every corner of St. Paul and all the blocks and buildings in-between.

About two decades of experience shape E-Democracy’s effort. The key lesson is that to bring people together and to inspire collaboration and community action beyond the usual suspects, you have to go local.

In our online participation model, 1% will show up city-wide, 25% are now showing up in our strongest online Neighbors Forums (S. Minneapolis), and the patch-work of block level online groups below the radar are known to connect up to 80% of households in extremely small areas. Unfortunately, if left to organic slow growth, very few of those exciting block networks will connect lower income areas, connect people across race, and renters and many new residents will be left out.


Why do you think people will recognize or remember your idea after it comes to life? How might it inspire others to do something similar in their community? (4000 characters maximum or approx. 500 words)

By creating a simple but powerful neighbor directory (printed and shared online with participating neighbors) with options for mobile phone, email, etc. it will be a reliable day to day resource. We will design an infrastructure to help Community Sparks maintain that information and citywide partners would direct new residents to sign-up online. (We’d get in the water bill, etc.) We will clearly bolster existing crime prevention efforts like National Night Out as well.

By creating rituals like winter potlucks and e-communicating citywide to directory members about “block up” community engagement opportunities like online groups for your block (using Facebook and other tools) we can sustain and extend impact. Further, E-Democracy does nationwide training and outreach in this space today.

100,000 Participants – Copying An Idea for Posterity

Written by Steven Clift

As our blog is a useful repository for content that will last for years, here is a copy of our intentionally audacious Knight News Challenge proposal from 2013. Elements of this may turn into future proposals, particularly if you have to a funder who is inspired b them and gets in touch. :-)  Source.

100,000+ Participants. Local. Inclusive.

Open Government will fail without inclusive outreach that inspires vastly more representative participation. E-Democracy’s initiative is primed for “awesome” by innovating with next generation civic tech to reach 50%+ of households.




Q: How do you design “awesome” open government to engage over 50% of households in a vastly more representative way and not just the 1% who already show up?

A: You:


  1. Pick a region and go deep
  2. Get inclusive with unprecedented outreach
  3. Attract people with “open neighborhoods” and government information alerts on high need/demand information, and
  4. Put users in the center as you leverage that participation base to cost-effectively test the best next generation of open source code and concepts with partnerships across the civic technology community.



The next generation of will engage up to 140,000 participants monthly, or ~50% of households in the Twin Cities urban core. This will be the largest scale, most representative local online civic engagement project to date. Make it work here, then spread the lessons and technology that actually work.

To do this, E-Democracy will undertake a massive partnership effort with local government including libraries, parks, schools, and police; media outlets, including ethnic and neighborhood media; community organizations, including nonprofit organizations serving underrepresented and immigrant communities; places of worship; and neighborhood groups to expand from our base of 16,000+ nearly daily users today in St. Paul and Minneapolis, to reach tens of thousands more.

(Now gratefully in a year two of a three year Knight-funded project specifically focused on St. Paul, this longer News Challenge submission is our audacious “back of a napkin” overview for how we’d blow the roof off open government from our base. It shares a rough open source style glimpse of what we would do if resources were abundant. We invite all readers to join our efforts starting with our online volunteer group call Projects.)

Depending upon the resources marshaled and revenue generated, we can reach well beyond our base of 25% household participation in our strongest areas and expand the neighborhoods served. The options for daily, weekly, and monthly participant experience will be diversified and our connection to government information and data dissemination made more direct.

As a democracy building non-profit with nearly two decades of sustained civic technology experience, it is clear that truly inclusive outreach to lower income, racial and ethnic communities, and interest in intergenerational participation takes an outreach investment beyond what venture market is seeking to cherry pick. The key is to ensure, as E-Democracy does, that spikes in outreach lead to sustained long-term boosts in engagement.


Participation in what?

The power of public information, open data, and technology in local democracy and community must come from real, everyday people-centered use at a scale never experienced until now. We can reach that scale with the next generation

This $2+ million project vision, covering at least three years, seeks $1 million dollars from the Knight News Challenge. It should be a challenge grant requiring a match from other funding sources. With most open government projects failing to gain participation traction, this investment in inclusive scale will use proven and tested methods. It will open up opportunities for major innovation in the field that resonate with mass local audiences.

The core project features:

  • 1. 100,000+ Online Participants, Local Critical Mass
  • 2. New Digital Canvass
  • 3. Online Engagement – The Heart of “Awesome”
  • 4. Engagement Tech
  • 5. Engagement Initiative – Lesson Sharing, Convening
1. 100,000+ Online Participants, Local Critical Mass

Across St. Paul and Minneapolis, we seek to engage a majority of households. We will broadly engage and reflect local diversity including racial and ethnic groups, immigrants, income levels, and more. This will be the largest, most representative base of the public interacting online with their community and government in public and civic life in history. It will generate new forms of community leadership and civic participation with generational impact.

Partnerships with community organizations and government (the City of St. Paul is a formal partner in our current initiative) are required. We must go well beyond the parachute-in or build it they will come technology approach,
2. Digital Canvass – The Most Intensive Inclusive Digital Project Outreach Ever

2.A. Mass In-Person, Online Outreach – Building on the success of BeNeighbors.org1.0 in St. Paul with hybrid door-to-door/in-person and online community outreach, we will reach every block in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Controlled access buildings will be approached creatively. (Note that St. Paul and Minneapolis only have a homeownership rate around 50%, so renter outreach must be part of the equation or this open government drive will lead to a reduction in overall representativeness in democratic participation.)
2.B. Sign-Up Thousands – Key steps:


  • Sign up residents up for government, elected official, and neighborhood digital alerts and news (crime alerts, snow emergencies, city councilmember news, neighborhood e-newsletter, etc.)
  • Sign up people for crucial two-way online engagement options at distinct levels based on their interests, including: block/building, neighborhood, city-wide and/or region-wide level
  • Share discount broadband and digital literacy information
  • Do this both in-person and online supported by integrated outreach technology tools. (Make outreach tools available  for use in other cities.)

We will move tens of thousands of people into government information and project “what’s new” and personalized “what’s important to me” alert services. The most democratizing aspect of open government is timely notification and access to information when the public can act on it before it is too late. 

Create a simple “send to all” monthly email newsletter/social media alert with announcements about open government/community engagement opportunities. This simple channel for open government news will be essential to move thousands of people into online experiments. The death knell of “e-participation” is the lack of participants. Most projects fundamentally under-budget and under-plan for outreach. If you are not thinking about how to reach or break through with “one person at a time” whether online or in-person, your project will fail.
2.C. Multi-Lingual Inclusive Outreach Team and Volunteers – Seek to reach the FULL community by hiring a multi-lingual outreach team and developing community service options (exploring AmeriCorps, etc.), as well as youth summer employment opportunities to bolster the crucial work of volunteers.

In the summer of 2012, our 9 member part-time team working ~15 hours a week spoke seven languages. They fully recruited 3,000 Neighbors Forum participants in-person in less than three months (adding open government alert options like crime alerts, park and library event notices, elected official newsletters, and neighborhood association newsletters would expand opt-ins as well by giving people more choices).

If open government is to reach its potential, it needs to work in communities that are rich in ethnic and racial diversity (St. Paul is 46% people of color, Minneapolis is 40%) and work to embrace immigrants and refugees – citizen and non-citizen alike. To cross the 100,000+ participant mark in this proposal and have that be representative and reflective of the actual population, at least one third will need to be recruited more or less in-person out in the community. That’s how you build “awesome.” This can only be done with creative and deep partnerships with organizations already on the ground. It can be done and “digital canvass” might well become a community canvass with integrated digital aspects.
2.D. Creative Outreach with Fundraising – Raise funds from participants and supporters in areas where we already reach the critical mass of 10% of households participating in online neighbor-to-neighbor connecting.

It is our view, in addition to online donations and public radio style sponsorship from local businesses and participants, that in-person events (like community meals at participating restaurants, etc.) need to be bolstered by a form of fundraising effectively used by dozens of community action efforts in the Twin Cities – canvassing. Donating at your door to better connect your very block and neighborhood is far more local than most of those causes. If effective, this method will cover the cost of outreach in our middle and upper middle income urban neighborhoods.

If the open government/open communities cause can’t articulate itself in a compelling way at the doorstep to gather “free” sign-ups and convince 10% of those households signing up to donate, civic technology will simply further empower those who have a voice already.
3. Online Engagement – The Heart of “Awesome”

To reach a majority of households or in our view the “awesome” threshold in the Challenge brief, we must take an open communities approach and mix in more private community engagement at the block and building level. Crucially, we must be expressly public at the neighborhood-wide (~5,000+ population areas) so the benefits to open government and citizen interaction with government are meaningful and empowering.

Resident-only, virtual gated communities covering more than a few hundred households must be avoided at all cost or the results will be divided communities (by income and race) and closed governance. Private, selective membership is preferred on a block or two, or within the same building, and should for example include the children of an elderly neighbor who is not online or the small business owner on the corner with eyes and ear on the street all day long. Our approach is distinctly different than major .com approaches that do not allow people in nearby neighborhoods to connect to share ideas for community improvement, nor do they allow civil servants who serve an area to participate unless they also live there. Our approach must be careful not to divide communities this way.
3.A. Geographic – Multipurpose Local Online Public Spaces


We proposed a strategic mix of online with integrated in-person opportunities to connect. We can build on one-way information dissemination from government and engaged and interactive communities with “their” governments. These two-way online spaces, where the public can generate new public opinion are the most effective ways we’ve seen online to bring data and information to local people in a way that promotes government transparency, accountability, and crucially civic action.


Blocks and Buildings – Through a massive network of volunteer “Community Sparks,” resident community communication connectors on each block and in every major building will generate an opt-in digital era neighbor directory.

A range of social media tools and experiments can bring the “telephone tree” into the interactive era (clear reciprocal privacy and sharing controls will be required). We can foster in-person connecting and reach those less online via telephone/mobile as well as connect people across languages and cultures.

The largest percentage of households will be interested in this extremely local level of group connecting – upwards of 80% where a “Community Spark” brings people together. We will explore integrated “electronic block club tools,” but we’ve found that different blocks have different preferences from cc: email groups to Facebook Groups for how to connect. More important is a map-accessible directory of the blocks that covered and those where we need a “spark” to get going.

These block level connections will be leveraged to promote in-person connecting from the well known National Night Out to Martin Luther King weekend Sunday Suppers to other “neighbor day” opportunities to connect neighbors in-person to build trust and social and civic bonds.

Connecting this civically inspired engine into open government and open communities is the linchpin for mass participation. There is nothing we’ve seen that interests more people in “civic life” online than connecting with their nearest neighbors. Nothing. It is the bridge between private life social networking and connections with diverse people who, due to proximity, have a civic common interest that breaks the pattern of more isolated “like minds” online and in social life in general.


Neighborhoods – Our inclusive online “Neighbors Forums” are the cornerstone of our current activity and outreach. We carefully design these fundamentally interactive online spaces to be open and part of local civic life that is a real part of open government. This is unusual and strategically by design. If we limit these vibrant online spaces with closed approaches or make them resident-only (banning local elected officials who represent us, but live in the neighborhood next door or the crime prevention officer, school principal, local religious leader, etc.) we eliminate the crucial foundation for open government – open communities in public life that attract more than the 1% of the most political households who are dominating with politics online.

Two-way exchange in public, using real names, civility, and volunteer neighbor-led facilitation about all things community means that ~15% of content about local government on our forums now has a real audience. Our Neighbors Forums make it possible for local elected officials to engage their actual local voters online.

Our secret sauce: people join to find their lost cat and stay for the serendipity of democratically inspired community and civic life exchange. Do not underestimate the attraction of “belonging” to your neighborhood as long as most of the content is about broader “community life” and that free couch on the corner. Everyone gets to belong as “citizens,” not just disconnected clients of government. We can talk about the improvements we want at our local library or school and they will hear us. We can propose local community actions and work together to make things happen.

In practice, we view the as a “Got Milk?” campaign for neighbor connecting online and openly link to online spaces outside of our network, and would explore ways to integrate them into our in-person outreach. Rather than promote a one-size-fits-all communities approach, creating an open directory and map combined with a promotional campaign will be highly transferable to other communities. It could become the next Sunshine Week or a national outreach engine.


Citywide Online Townhalls – Our St. Paul and Minneapolis Issues Forums, with about 15 years of experience, are like the first Facebook Pages on local politics. They have a special history and have brought many people into local politics. Even the current Mayor of Minneapolis, RT Rybak announced his candidacy on the forum before he announced it in-person.

Our view is that expressly political online spaces, whether they are on Facebook, Twitter hashtags, etc. will attract about 1% of households. That’s only a small start.

Our classic “Issues Forums” are open with vigorous debate and our use of real names and essential civility rules keep them from being completed destroyed by the loudest partisans. (Years of effort would be destroyed in days without our volunteer-based facilitation and civility rules in place.)

These spaces are essential as a release valve for where to route topics that are fundamentally citywide in nature. We embrace small “p” politics in our Neighbors Forums, but kick the more divisive city politics topics up to a space designed to handle the heat.

This nuanced approach allows us to push back on calls to censor and ban local political topics from neighborhood exchanges. (Some independent online neighborhood spaces do not allow even very local political issues to be discussed and are therefore cut off from open government.)

3.B. Solutions and Listening


It is our experience that community problem-solving and action best happens on top of a foundation of highly relevant hyper-local engagement. Many community decision-makers and expert leaders have attempted to skip the mass community engagement level and jump straight to the ideal of community problem solving filled with inspiring expert jargon and good marketing … and then they attract few participants and deliver limited on-the-ground results.


With our foundation of participants, we will review the best tools, technologies and approaches from across the civic technology world. We will partner with organizations seeking to cost-effectively test their ideas and apps with the largest existing local base of online civic participants (both in terms of a percentage of the population and the representativeness of those gathered). If 100,000+ engagement seems too audacious, our inclusive base of soon-to-be 10,000 participants in St. Paul alone (over half of those signing up on paper who have answered our survey are people of color) is already primed as a national test-bed for next generation civic technology today.


Some speculative areas we would explore include:
Community Solution Forums – We propose a new tier of regional online communities of practice for community members working to address the similar challenges in their own neighborhood (from fighting graffiti and promoting neighborhood arts, citizens as doers can help each other out with lessons and experience). Some will be hosted and crafted by us and others will be created in partnership with organizations and people using Facebook Groups, LinkedIn, etc.. This is all about convening people to take action or provide peer support on local issues involving residents.


Community Survey Platform – We are extremely impressed with the Public Insight Network efforts of Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media. How might we extend that approach to government and community directly? It is our sense that the market failure of open government is not a shortage of voices, but a shortage of listening, understanding, tolerance, and representative diversity.

We want to explore how members at all of levels of our network could be introduced to surveys from local community organizations, neighborhoods, government agencies, and vetted questions from direct public participation. This is where our overall network-wide e-mail newsletter is essential. A key feature will be invitations (sometimes they will be selective based on demographics) to answer questions from groups making local decisions followed by opportunities for structured dialogue within specific time frames.

If you have 100,000+ participants you need highly structured opportunities to tabulate public input online. The radical idea here is that lots of civic groups would have low cost access to the network and the public itself can play a role in deciding what questions gets asked.


Multilingual Online Engagement Spaces – With 17.5% of St. Paul residents foreign born and over 100 languages spoken at home by local families with children in local schools, it is clear to us that to fully work with major local ethnic communities there needs to be something more “in it for them.” Relevancy in open government cannot mean designed in reality for post-graduate, wealthier, wired to the max homeowners (the easiest audience for open government to reach) … now join us – tokenism will be the result

To operationalize this, it means embracing very diverse project staffing, and partnerships involving real funding have to be established. A possible option built on trust and authentic and deep connections, will be to add diverse community-led online spaces in native languages or possibly hybrid spaces, for example, “Hmonglish” as our Hmong staff have called it. Our view is that these ideas must come from these communities themselves and they may well prefer to adapt our lessons and work through existing cultural and ethnic organizations using tools they control completely.

3.C. Representatives
With government partners we see opportunities to test, link, and promote, emerging tools with our critical mass audience. Taking workable ideas to a national scale will benefit from our local testbed.

Some very preliminary ideas:
Elected Official Toolkit, DemocracyMap – The service infrastructure level of unitary local government has administrative priorities that are not based on representative democracy or open political processes at their core. Unlike state legislature’s with their own IT infrastructure, most city councils, county boards, school boards, etc. are served by the executive.

Whether bringing the Open States new local tools deep or bolstering the use of GovDelivery with elected officials for simple email news alerts, it is our view that representatives need better public tools in governance to best represent their constituents (listen to, communicate with, engage, inform, advocate for, etc.).

Using social media privatized in the campaign infrastructure and not as part of official governance is a problem. Further pseudo-public/private connections by elected officials with the constituents who are their “friends” on Facebook are in reality the open government for a select few.

We will be looking for technology for engagement partners with tools that will digitally empower local elected official to better represent the public’s needs with the open government future. Among those tools are DemocracyMap which empower both the public and elected officials by making those behind the curtain of local representative government obscurity far more accessible online.


Creative Commons Voter Guide and Interactive Ballot – As the creator of the world’s first election information website in 1994, E-Democracy rode the hype-wave of election-related enthusiasm over many years only to see it dashed by the rocks of political pragmatism the minute our votes are given up and our leaders have secured their power. However despite the hype, more informed voting in local elections through civic technology remains an untapped opportunity.

We will seek partners who have tools that can be used to collaborate with neighborhood newspapers, ethnic press, public radio, and regional media to create a cost-effective sharing ecology for online voter guide content in local elections.
3.D. Links – Open St. Paul, Petitions, Advocacy


By designing an engine for mass open government/community participation we can direct people to effective opportunities for participation outside of our own network, be it hosted directly by government (like Open St. Paul an “online public hearing room” powered by Peak Democracy on the City of St. Paul website) or opportunities for “like minds” to connect for local advocacy.

It is our experience that there is not a market failure in tools or opportunities for people to organize in order to convince government to take an action or not take an action. For example, people who want dog parks will use whatever advocacy tools necessary. However, by embracing our role as the neutral promoter, we can move far more people into these opportunities to advocate.

Our “Community Solutions” feature suggest that community collaboration and direct use of online tools for solving community challenges are different from tools designed to make noise in order for someone else to solve the problem for you. We all want governments to solve our public problems for us with fewer resources, but that is not the revolution of co-production and collaboration we need to generate with the next generation of civic technology.

4. Engagement Tech

We envision a tight collaboration with the civic technology community. We have embraced the emergent local Code for America Brigade, Open Twin Cities, as their non-profit fiscal agent and seek to work with national and international innovators in this space. To do so, we must build on the work of our in-house open source technology development and establish a mix of paid and volunteer coding partnerships.

As most civic tech projects under budget outreach, many good ideas remain untested or never quite tested enough to then attract the next round of development (funded, volunteer, bootstrapped, etc.) and die on the vine. We must bolster our in-house capacity to interface with groups like the Sunlight Foundation, mySociety, Open Plans, Code for America (does not imply endorsement) and exciting new entrants to work with them to enhance their technology for use with our mass audience.
We need:

  • Better design for engagement – Being the “it’s ugly, but it just works” Craigslist of online participation is not competitive with increasing user expectations.
  • Better Facebook and Twitter integration – This includes integrated app, but one must avoid the whims of social media companies who change their policies and connections, particularly when they feel you are impinging on their core services. (You can’t “just use Facebook” 100% and expect to have enough ownership over the technology, process and user experience to achieve civic goals.)
  • To foster volunteer civic technology engagement – We’d like to see Open Twin Cities become the ultimate CfA Brigade and add efforts to tap coding and social media talent from the Twin Cities’ many Fortune 500 companies like Target, Best Buy, 3M, General Mills, and more.
  • Partnership tools for sponsorship revenue sharing – Partner with local media including neighborhood and ethnic press and share public broadcasting style sponsorship revenue based on members joining via their outlet’s outreach and ongoing participation. Emerging .com neighbor connecting models are parasitic with local media and seek to extract local advertising revenue out of local communities. What good is online neighbor connecting to open government if the main vehicle for summarizing local government news for neighborhoods is put out of business?
  • Proximity connecting and other experiments – We are interested in open source tools for connecting nearest neighbors dynamically. We seek explore VOIP Drupal and similar tools for connections to telephone, sms, and more for use right down at the block level.
  • Fundraising “CoMobon Tools” – Or a hybrid community small business money bomb, a flash mob and Groupon-like tool to gather scores of participants based on location or interests to share a meal, build trust via in-person connections, and send ~20% of the tab to support the network. This is an idea we want to test.

5. Engagement Initiative – Lesson Sharing, Convening 

A cornerstone of our current programming is national and global lesson sharing where we convene online engagement and open government practitioners and experts. Through Democracies Online, the Digital Inclusion Network, Locals Online, and the CityCamp Exchange we gather online civic leaders around the world in simple online communities of practice. However, in this era of social media exhaustion and torrents of updates, there is a need for value-added, more deliberate lesson sharing and skill building.
We seek to:

  • Launch a major education and training program – We will generate, gather, aggregate, synthesize and share lessons. With extensive connections to community foundations via our participation in the CFLeads community engagement panel and the Knight Foundation Media Learning Seminar, we are in the process of proposing an e-course with site visits to share knowledge on inclusive community engagement online. This proposed effort will be ripe for expansion.

It is our view, that building knowledge and lesson sharing is central to our current efforts. We are honored to have secured the resources that we have and unless we share openly and widely, we will not be achieving our mission nor benefiting the wider civic technology community as we seek to improve the local worlds around us.

  • Establish major research and evaluation components – If the Twin Cities is truly going to share value as global test bed for next generation citizen-driven open government and online civic engagement it needs a robust and well staffed research and evaluation initiative. It needs to partner with independent researchers and open itself up every step of the way.
  • Create an “Exchange” for value-added in-depth exchange – As travel is extremely expensive, we seek to create technology enhanced experiences online for trusted connections among practitioners in open government, online civic engagement, and more. With the Democracies Online network going back to 1998 and today exchanges on Twitter at #opengov #edem #demopart and other places, something is missing and remains untapped … in-depth exchange that fosters collaboration across the technology, practitioner/good government, expert, and research communities. Work today is increasingly becoming siloed with technologists unintentionally become self-referential due to the resources and attention they have earned.

What is your project? [1 sentence max]

Audacious plan to inclusively engage over 100,000 households in open government/communities through E-Democracy’s effort starting in the Twin Cities.

Where are you located?

St. Paul/Minnesota/United States

How did you hear about the contest?

  1. In-person event in my area
  2. Email from Knight Foundation
  3. Knight Foundation website
  4. OpenGov group or listserve
  5. Twitter


More pictures

BeNeighbors Logo

BeNeighbors outreach to Somali communityEffective tech - St . Paul sign-up sheetVolunteer neighborhood online forum manager

December 27, 2013

Sharing Lessons – New Voices: Civic Technology, Neighbors Online, and Open Government – Video and Slides

Written by Steven Clift

E-Democracy hit the road to share lessons widely as we closed out an amazing 2013.

In a recent trip to New York hosted by the UNDP with outreach via betaNYC, Steven Clift went in-depth on raising new voices with civic technology. Thanks to Joly MacFie with the Internet Society New York for sharing this video. To join a future online event/teleconference Q and A discussion on these topics, indicate your interest here.

The slides are available here with active links. As noted in the video, here are the civic technology investment and civic technology and inclusion/justice discussions from the Code for America Brigade forum.

New Voices: The Civic Technology and Open Government Opportunity from Steven Clift


For a slightly more concise presentation (where the questions came at the end), watch this version from Finland. It was part of a four city European speaking tour.


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