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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.

December 6, 2013

White House releases 2nd Open Government National Action Plan – Links and Commentary

Written by Steven Clift


This plan is part of the U.S. involvement in the global Open Government Partnership. I recently had a chance to chat with folks  involved with OGP-related efforts across Europe and this is a really
big deal that may not have crossed your radar.

Below is a full collection of links. Start here.

My big take away from the plan – participatory budgeting is one of the only commitments that impacts the local level where most people interact directly with “open government.” Let’s build on that. We need
state and local action plans too!

With my community engagement and former state e-gov lens on, I want to see national commitments and “open government” strings attached to Federal funding that for example get people the key government
information they really want – greater access to personalized local crime information for example. (This comes up daily on our networks.) If we want to demonstrate the value of open
government to the masses, find out what they want most and make it a priority for release at every level of government.

On another point, the biggest problem with open government world-wide is that there is almost no investment in increasing broad and inclusive use beyond those who essentially already “show up.” If we
settle for a user base that is demographically highly unrepresentative, open government will be left to competitive partisan politics and not be an engine for civic change. Some slides I put up today illustrate the fact that so far the democratic participation divide is wider online than off.  Also note my proposed New Voices working group.

So, we need the U.S. Federal government to set solid goals for broader e-government use and they can start by digging into their own 2011 Census (link to my query to researchers) and tracking uptake across income, race, etc. on a yearly basis. Lessons from promoting to many demographics likely to have been the least likely e-government users and sharing it more widely with the open
government/civic tech community would be a good step as well.

Links below.

Steven Clift

White House Blog post:


US Civil Society Open Gov Partnership input:

US Civil Society OGP email group:

Global Civil Society OGP email group, news:

From the White House blog post:

Among the highlights of the second National Action Plan:

“We the People”: The White House will introduce new improvements to
theWe the People online petitions platform aimed at making it easier
to collect and submit signatures and increase public participation in
using this platform. Improvements will enable the public to perform
data analysis on the signatures and petitions submitted to We the
People, as well as include a more streamlined process for signing
petitions and a new Application Programming Interface (API) that will
allow third-parties to collect and submit signatures from their own

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Modernization: The FOIA encourages
accountability through transparency and represents an unwavering
national commitment to open government principles. Improving FOIA
administration is one of the most effective ways to make the U.S.
Government more open and accountable. Today, we announced five
commitments to further modernize FOIA processes, including launching a
consolidated online FOIA service to improve customers’ experience,
creating and making training resources available to FOIA professionals
and other Federal employees, and developing common FOIA standards for
agencies across government.

The Global Initiative on Fiscal Transparency (GIFT): The United States
will join GIFT, an international network of governments and
non-government organizations aimed at enhancing financial
transparency, accountability, and stakeholder engagement. The U.S.
Government will actively participate in the GIFT Working Group and
seek opportunities to collaborate with stakeholders and champion
greater fiscal openness and transparency in domestic and global
Open Data to the Public: Over the past few years, government data has
been used by journalists to uncover variations in hospital billings,
by citizens to learn more about the social services provided by
charities in their communities, and by entrepreneurs building new
software tools to help farmers plan and manage their crops. Building
on the U.S. Government’s ongoing open data efforts, new commitments
will make government data even more accessible and useful for the
public, including by reforming how Federal agencies manage government
data as a strategic asset, launching a new version of to make
it even easier to discover, understand, and use open government data,
and expanding access to agriculture and nutrition data to help farmers
and communities.

Participatory Budgeting: The United States will promote community-led
participatory budgeting as a tool for enabling citizens to play a role
in identifying, discussing, and prioritizing certain local public
spending projects, and for giving citizens a voice in how taxpayer
dollars are spent in their communities. This commitment will include
steps by the U.S. Government to help raise awareness of the fact that
participatory budgeting may be used for certain eligible Federal
community development grant programs.

November 15, 2013

Connect with E-Democracy’s Steven Clift Across Europe – Nov 25 – Dec 2 2013

Written by Steven Clift


Now that CityCampMN and Give to the Max Day are behind us, I (Steven Clift) can focus intensively on preparing for a ten day speaking trip across Europe. This all started with an invite to participate in the World Forum and then others stepping forward to sponsor additional stops and gatherings. I am grateful.

These wonderful invitations provide an opportunity to both share lessons from our inclusive civic technology work and synthesize some “it really matters” trends combined with big big questions challenging us to ensure that open government/civic technology/e-democracy actually make democracy BETTER and fundamentally embrace all by engaging new voices.

For the next week via my Democracies Online Newswire (and other online spaces) and @democracy Twitter account you will see me reaching for examples and reactions – I fundamentally believe that the intelligence is in the network, but sometimes it needs the right questions to spark an outpouring of insightful conversation.


This trip is sort of a “back to the future” experience for me. Prior to my Ashoka Fellowship in 2006 and grant support from the Ford and Knight Foundations, I used to use speaking and consulting to support E-Democracy’s then all-volunteer network. One of my goals with the embryonic New Voices Working Group exploration is to develop funded programming that will bolster E-Democracy’s convening role that remains informed by cutting edge online civic technology work in the field like our effort. We see this as a grounded one-two punch for the future of democratic engagement online.



November 14, 2013

Stories from the Sidewalk, November 2013

Written by Steven Clift
Stories from the Sidewalk

Message from E-Democracy – Donate Now!

Steven Clift, Executive Director and Cirien Saadeh, Communications & Outreach Assistant

Nonprofits all over the state today are participating in GiveMN’s “Give to the Max Day.” E-Democracy is joining them as we get ready to launch our year-end giving campaign. This comes right on the heels of a great weekend at CityCampMN 13 and the ensuing hackathon. E-Democracy is coming up on its 20-year anniversary. It started as the nation’s first election information website, and now has over 20,000+ members on its neighborhood forums, building community every day.

Many of you probably use the forums and do not realize the costs associated with making E-Democracy the organization and website that it is. In this year alone, we hired eight part-time staff members to knock on doors and engage individuals on the forums. At the same time, we filled out our core team to include part-time technology and development coordinators. We’ve also worked hard to make sure we have the best volunteer team around, keeping the forums active and safe places for online community-life exchange. A pat on the back to all who make E-Democracy tick!

Organizations like E-Democracy run on the bread & butter of individual donations, from $10, $25 to $50. While those individual donations may seem small, they add up, and moving forward they need to grow to become the most important part of our annual budget.

Today, Give to the Max Day, marks a new beginning for E-Democracy. Get connected to our social media, (Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) and watch for our year-end giving campaign! Our 2013 goal is to reach 100 donors by the end of the year. Please check out the video above for a little inspiration on why to give to E-Democracy!

If you didn’t already know, you can always give here.

Digital Inclusion

This past week, E-Democracy and Open Twin Cities took inclusive online civic engagement to a whole new level at CityCampMN 13: Engaging Civic Innovations where active citizens and community organizers from highly diverse communities joined digital technologists and government leaders in a day of exploring how data applications can help us build stronger neighborhoods. We ended day one with the broadly diverse audience doing “ideation” for the more deeply tech crowd coming on day two. Developers loved not having to think up ideas in isolation.

Check out photos from both CityCampMN 13 and the hackathon, and watch this brief photo slideshow!

Click here to support the work of OTC!

Media Coverage


Stories from the Forums

A yellow lab was found outside of the Seward Co-op in the Seward neighborhood …now reunited. Check out the exchange here! There is also a lost cat in St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway that could use your help.

In Frogtown, Cycles for Change is looking to hire 3-5 young women to take part in a bike-related apprenticeship. Details here.

And on November 14th, there is a discussion on housing and crime issues being hosted by the Payne-Phalen District 5 Planning Council. More details here.

Nuts & Bolts

We make donating easy!

You can make a tax-deductible donation to E-Democracy and help build democracy in three easy steps:

  1. Visit our donate page
  2. Choose whether you’re going to donate via GiveMN, PayPal, or through mailing a check!
  3. Donate what you can!

And voila! You’ve helped build digital democracy and your neighborhood in less than two minutes!


A big thank you and a huge round of applause to our outreach staff who are completing their last weeks with E-Democracy. Since the first week of June, a handful of outreach staff have knocked on thousands of doors and attended dozens of events, inviting neighbors to join the forums and online community.

Please join us tonight at Sweeney’s in Saint Paul, 96 Dale Street North, 4:00 – 7:00 p.m.

Welcome to E-Democracy!

Get Started!

♦  As a forum member

♦  Start a forum in your neighborhood!

♦  E-Democracy help desk

Be Sociable, Share!

Submit feedback about Stories from the Sidewalk to

October 7, 2013

CityCampMN 2013 – Engaging Civic Innovations – Unconference Sat. Nov. 9 – St. Thomas Minneapolis Campus

Written by Steven Clift

 CityCampMN 2013 Live – Photos, News, Links

CityCampMN 2013

Engaging Civic Innovations

CityCampMN is our region’s unconference* for passion-fueled, technology-enhanced civic ideas and solutions.

Join us to connect active citizens, community leaders, technologists, and government officials for a day of learning, discussing, and imagining how to use technology to strengthen communities and create more open government.

Bring your ideas, energy, voice, diverse perspectives, and skills. Everyone is welcome.

  • When:  9 AM – 4 PM, Sat., Nov. 9th, 2013, Reception 4-6 PM
    See below for optional day two civic hackathon at DevJam.
  • Where:  University of St. Thomas – Minneapolis Campus, Schulze Hall
  • RSVP: Register Here – We expect ~150 participants
  • Ticket Options:  $10 Guaranteed Spot, Open Donation, or Free (Lottery, as space is limited) – All include free lunch and appetizers and at least one drink at the reception.


Participants provide the unconference session topics. Propose a topic online now or at the event. Those who show up, drive each topic. For those new to CityCamp, topics may include:

  • open government

  • civic technology apps

  • open data,  visualization and analytics

  • tech for social justice and equity

  • neighbors online

  • digital youth empowerment

  • online engagement

  • digital journalism

  • civic hacking and maker projects

  • digital inclusion

  • social media for good

  •  your new idea here!

*What’s an Unconference??

An unconference is the dynamic, informal exchange of information and ideas among participants.

This is CityCampMN’s second installment of the wildly popular CityCamp “unconference” series taking off in places like London, San Francisco, and Buenos Aires.

In short, the coffee break becomes the conference – with some structure, of course:

  1. Everyone rapidly introduces themselves with just three words about their interests/why they came
  2. Participants pitch session topics (building on online proposals)
  3. Popular “Ignite-style,” six-minute presentations will be back and expanded
  4. Behind the scenes, ideas are sorted into break-out sessions, each session will have a discussion chair
  5. Discussion sessions galore – In 2011, we had over 125 participants with nearly 30 ~45 min breakout sessions throughout the day
  6. New – One minute breakout summaries shared with all, recorded for the world
  7. New – End day with “Ideation” launch for the optional, day two hackathon (see below)
  8. New – Reception/Celebration

You are the engine for change and innovation!   Register now.

 CityCampMN Hackathon – A Hack for MN Mini-Camp/Workday – Sunday

Hack for MNThe following day, Sunday Nov. 10th, Open Twin Cities will hold a civic hackathon at DevJam Studios in S. Minneapolis to “code” upon the issues and ideas discussed at CityCampMN.

To RSVP for the hackathon, simply answer ‘Yes’ when asked when you register for CityCampMN.

Like all civic hackathons, this event is open to everybody who has passion for their community and an idea and/or desire to make it stronger. You need not be a software developer, designer, etc. to participate and share hands-on value.

The “ideation” phase for Sunday’s hackathon will start at CityCampMN.

 Thank You Sponsors 

CityCampMN is organized by E-Democracy and Open Twin Cities. Open Twin Cities is a Code for America Brigade partnered with E-Democracy.

Contact E-Democracy (fiscal agent) for sponsorship details.  Sponsor CityCampMN, Open Twin Cities, and Hack for MN in one simple package for the next year.

Gold Sponsors

Knight Foundation 

University of St. Thomas



Lockridge Grindal Nauen Attorneys at Law


Code for America

Silver Sponsors

Ben Damman


More sponsors to come! Contact E-Democracy for information.See our full Sponsors page for all our sponsors and list of individual boosters.A special thanks goes to the University of St. Thomas for venue sponsorship and Lockridge Grindal Nauen PLLP for sponsoring our combined CityCampMN/White House Champions of Change reception and celebration.Schulze Hall


CityCampMN is hosted by E-Democracy and Open Twin Cities        Logo        Open Twin Cities


After You Register

  • Share your ideas for small group break-out sessions here or rate the ideas (soon) submitted by others.

  • Join the global ongoing online  CityCamp Exchange  to connect with others

September 16, 2013

E-Democracy News: Stories from the Sidewalk, September 2013 – Minnesota Edition

Written by Steven Clift
Stories from the Sidewalk

Stories from the Forums
—Dayton’s Bluff Home Repairs

In June, Olga, an elderly and disabled woman living alone in the Dayton’s Bluff had water leaking into her basement due to faulty gutters, but she had no money to hire someone to take care of the problems. On June 11th, her neighbor, Lorri Barnett, posted to the Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Forum asking for assistance locating community resources that might help Olga with the repairs. Ben Greiling, a fellow forum member with experience in rehabilitating houses, offered to stop by to see what he could do. Within a few days, Ben, along with another E-Democracy forum member, spent four hours realigning the gutters to stop water from leaking into the basement. They also patched Olga’s front step, tightened a sink faucet, fixed a handrail, and repaired a dryer vent.

This story is a great example of how E-Democracy’s Neighbors Forums impact communities and connect neighbors for the common good.

All across our forums, stories like this are being shared and we’d love to hear yours. Share your story by emailing it to . You can also support your forum by making a donation on our GiveMN page.

Becoming a Community

Cirien Saadeh, Communications & Outreach Coordinator

Forum Engagement Leader Pastor Devin Miller connects online to help the neighborhood move forward in a positive direction.

On August 4th, 2013, Ray Widstrand, 26, was brutally beaten by a group of young people who had gathered outside to watch a fight between two girls near midnight. Ray was walking through the group of approximately 50 young people when he was randomly attacked, almost beaten to death.

After the story on Ray Widstrand hit the press, the Payne Phalen Neighbors Forum was buzzing about the assault. Neighbors used the forum as a way to discuss what had happened, to share concerns about the neighborhood’s ongoing safety, and to exchange ideas on how to stimulate change. This organic exchange was different than what was being presented elsewhere online. From vitriolic online news commenting on regional newspaper websites, to seeing the story used as a foil globally on racially charged websites, even local journalists took notice of the dramatic difference in what the most local people were doing online. There weren’t over the top outcries of panic, blame, or hatred, nor using the story to further some political agenda, but collaborative dialogue among residents searching for answers from within. Forum posts encouraged people to attend a community meeting held on Thursday, August 15th, at Arlington Hills Lutheran Church and offered suggestions on how best to come prepared with questions for the panel.

It’s empowering to think about how our neighborhoods use the forums to meet, discuss and plan, and communicate about our shared responsibilities to each other. I say this because I want to leave you with one last thought: the BeNeighbors Forums provide shared opportunities, what are you going to do with them?

Learn more about the Payne Phalen response on our blog.

Digital Inclusion Update—Open Twin Cities is Gaining Momentum

Bill Bushey, E-Democracy Technology Coordinator and Open Twin Cities Co-Founder

Formed October 2012, Open Twin Cities is coming up on its one-year anniversary …and it’s been a busy year!

Monthly Meetups started in January. In February, Open Twin Cities organized the Twin Cities Open Data Day. In April, co-founder Bill Bushey presented at Minnebar and GovDelivery sponsored his participation in CityCamp Kansas City. In May, thanks to sponsorship by the Sunlight Foundation, Bill presented at TransparencyCamp in Washington, D.C. and Open Twin Cities promoted and participated in CURA’s data visualization and neighborhood-focused hackathon event, Visualizing Neighborhoods. June was a big month, with Open Twin Cities organizing HackforMN, which gathered 75 participants at DevJam and resulted in 13 projects.

See the energy at HackforMN!(Thank you Knight Foundation)

In the Works

Open Twin Cities recently announced the distribution of an Open Data questionnaire to Minneapolis Mayoral and City Council candidates and launched the Eventbrite page for CityCampMN – November 9, 2013 (location to be determined).

Come one, come all!

Open Twin Cities strives to develop inclusive solutions to open government by:

  1. Strengthening collaboration with the local government deepening government connections to the local civic technology community, and
  2. Tapping into the local talent of diverse populations for inclusive technology development to address community needs.

Sample OTC Projects

Too often, civic projects are undertaken without inviting the community—the people the projects are intended to serve. CityCamps are unconferences focused on issues at the intersection of technology, government, and community. CityCampMN is an opportunity for you to have your voice heard. Come join us!

E-Democracy seeks to demonstrate that all communities, regardless of income and diversity, can be part of an integrated neighbors online revolution. We focus on less represented groups within our most highly diverse neighborhoods to create inclusive online spaces where neighbors can collaborate to improve neighborhoods, spark community problem solving, and build healthy communities.

Watch for a forthcoming announcement about OTC becoming an official CfA Brigade!

How to Get Involved

Corrine Bruning, Outreach Manager

A key component that sets E-Democracy apart from others doing online neighbor connecting is our intensive outreach. “Outreach” can be defined as “an activity of providing services to populations who might not otherwise have access to those services” (Wikipedia). Our services are for everyone in a community. The main service E-Democracy strives to provide is online neighborhood level forums/listservs for neighbors to connect with each other, help inform each other about local issues or events, share resources, and work together to build stronger communities. We do our outreach work because we feel the whole community deserves access to this resource that we truly believe has the ability to empower people to be local changemakers.

We invite you and everyone in the community to use this service as your own local changemaking tool. We’ll be sharing posts of the day from our network via Twitter and sharing stories in this newsletter to help everyone see examples of how the forums can be used. Here’s some ideas on how to use these spaces:

  1. Did your cat sneak past you at the door again? Post to the forum and you’ll have a local group of people to help you find your pet.
  2. Start a gardening group or neighborhood kickball team for the kids
  3. Let neighbors know about your small business and invite them to check it out
  4. Discuss a local issue
Get to know Outreach Manager, Corrine Bruning


Donor Spotlight

E-Democracy would like to thank the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative for their $20,000 grant to support our BeNeighbors program in Central Corridor neighborhoods.

Through this grant support E-Democracy will:

  • Grow our forum membership directly along the Central Corridor to at least 4,000 members
  • Stimulate Central Corridor-related exchange on our Cedar Riverside forum (with over 600 members already), with hundreds of East African participants
  • Help ensure that all communities in the Central Corridor are able to benefit from online neighborhood engagement playing a vital role in shaping their area’s future and civic agenda

The Central Corridor Funders Collaborative is a group of local and national funders that strongly supports the Central Corridor Light Rail Line because it offers opportunities to strengthen the regional economy and make the adjacent neighborhoods better places to live, work and access opportunity. They work with local resident organizations, community groups, nonprofit and business coalitions, and public agencies to create and implement corridor-wide strategies aimed at ensuring the adjoining neighborhoods, residents, and businesses broadly share in the benefits of public and private investment in the Central Corridor Light Rail Line.

On the Blog

Upcoming Events

  • October 16: Virtual Roundtable on New Voices and Civic Engagement in the Digital Age, 1:00 PM (EDT) (RSVP here)
  • November 9: City Camp MN, 9:00AM-8:00PM (Register here)
  • December 10-12: MN IT Symposium – Open Twin Cities member Colin Lee and co-founder Bill Bushey will be presenting on The Future of Grassroots Innovation. (Sneak preview)

Nuts & Bolts

Many of our forum members are new to technology—and that’s okay!

You will get so much more from your participation in your Neighbors Forum if you post a message to ask a question, share some information, or reply to a neighbor.

How to post a message:

To post, simply send an email to your forum’s email address from the email account you used when you registered with Your forum’s email address can be found at the bottom of every email message or at the top of the Topics column on the right side of your forum’s home page. You can find your forum here.

To reply, simply use the “Reply to All” option on any email message from your forum.

Check here for more details on how to post using the website.

How to check, change, or update your email address:

  1. Log in to at
  2. Click on your profile link in the upper right-hand corner
  3. Click on “Change Email Settings” to the left

If you have difficulty logging in or resetting your password or you are not getting messages from your forum, or for any other help, contact our support staff at

Message from E-Democracy

Steven Clift, Executive Director and Cirien Saadeh, Communications & Outreach Assistant

Much has happened since our first newsletter last month. National Night Out 2013 was a huge highlight, with almost 200 new members joining our BeNeighbors forums in Saint Paul. Our outreach continues this fall with some extended door knocking along the Central Corridor thanks to the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.

Community Partners CornerWelcome St. Paul Public Schools!
Saint Paul Public Schools

We are pleased to announce that we are now an official partner of the St. Paul Public Schools. The City of St. Paul and St. Paul Neighborhood Network are official partners. (Learn more about partnering.)

This month’s newsletter theme is “Back to Fall, Back to School, Back to E-Democracy.” We’ve worked hard all summer to build a stronger community and participation. As our fall routines settle down, we hope that engagement on the forums, this community newsletter, our upcoming, easier-to-use website design (sample), and our Digital Inclusion Resource Guide will make your fall that much more community-based and connected.

The Neighbors Forums are your tools to use, so whether it’s a community event to promote, a neighborhood news update, or a local issue to discuss, we would love to see you join your fellow neighbors in creating even more empowered community through open and inclusive communication.

In the last 12 months compared to the previous year, posts to our St. Paul Neighbors Forums are up 252% to 5,722.

Watch out Minneapolis, here comes Saint Paul!

Welcome to E-Democracy!

Get Started!

♦  As a forum member

♦  Start a forum in your neighborhood!

♦  E-Democracy help desk

Be Sociable, Share!

Submit feedback about Stories from the Sidewalk to

September 13, 2013

Payne Phalen Responds to Violence: Neighbors seek solutions during a time of crisis via E-Democracy

Written by Steven Clift


While wider Internet commenting was filled with recriminations and conspiracy, E-Democracy’s Neighbors Forums raised voices against violence by seeking solutions.

Payne Phalen Neighborhood

On August 4th, 2013, Ray Widstrand, 26, was brutally beaten by a group of young people who had gathered outside to watch a fight between two girls near midnight. Ray was walking through the group of approximately 50 young people when he was randomly attacked, almost beaten to death.

The 5-7 attackers were mostly juveniles and according to the police reports, were affiliated with primarily African-American street gangs. Ray is white. Others in the crowd attempted to mace the attackers and boldly stayed when police arrived to be witnesses to this senseless and extremely random violence. The incident has heightened fears among parents of young African-American males about how they are being viewed by the police and others in their daily lives and the randomness has people of all races in this multi-ethnic neighborhood on edge.

The Payne Phalen neighborhood of Saint Paul has seen its share of violence over the years. Just recently, Vincent Allison, a 17-year-old, was shot to death by another 17-year-old during a gang clash. Large groups of young people have been plaguing the streets of Payne Phalen, blocking traffic, harassing residents, and inciting fear among those who call Payne Phalen home. The police blame Twitter for frequent flash mobs late at night.

After the story on Ray Widstrand hit the press, the 800+ member E-Democracy Payne Phalen Neighbors Forum was buzzing about the assault. Neighbors used the forum as a way to discuss what had happened, to share concerns about the neighborhood’s ongoing safety, and to exchange ideas on how to stimulate change. This organic exchange was different than what was being presented elsewhere online. From vitriolic online news commenting on regional newspaper websites, to seeing the story used as a foil globally on racially charged websites, even local journalists took notice of the dramatic difference in what the most local people were doing online. There weren’t over the top outcries of panic, blame, or hatred, nor using the story to further some political agenda, but collaborative dialogue among residents searching for answers from within.

Forum posts encouraged people to attend a community meeting held on Thursday, August 15th at Arlington Hills Lutheran Church and offered suggestions on how best to come prepared with questions for the panel. There was a lot of discussion around the lack of activities/opportunities available to neighborhood youth and how to keep these young people off the street. There were even posts from youth speaking out about their neighborhood and what they feel is needed to make change happen. There was also active discussion around increased police presence, continuity surrounding the enforcement of curfew and other applicable laws, and when to call the police when witnessing dangerous behavior.

The key element driving the organic exchange on the Payne Phalen Neighbors Forum was the online neighbor-connecting that had already taken place before the assault occurred. Because these neighbors already had a space built to stimulate dialogue and information sharing, the exchange happening on the forum was more constructive and focused than what was seen elsewhere. Online Neighbor Forums help highly local communities build resiliency – the ability to rebound or spring back from catastrophe. Families experience resiliency in times of crisis, and so do neighborhoods.

E-Democracy’s program connects neighbors online for community-focused interaction. With a focus on low-income, immigrant, and culturally diverse populations, E-Democracy is working to create inclusive online opportunities to spark dialogue, spread community information, and raise voices to take action. The project creatively promotes social belonging and a shared community experience that promotes local problem solving and collaboration of those with common interests – and in the process strengthens neighborhoods by growing their capacity to respond to challenges whether they be crises or opportunities.

The Payne Phalen Neighbors Forum is just one of many neighborhood-level spaces E-Democracy hosts, and we see this same type of exchange and dialogue happening all across the Twin Cities urban core. The Payne Phalen forum is a great example of how our Neighbors Forums and, in general, how providing inclusive online community engagement can have a positive impact on neighborhoods and citizens during times of crisis.

Quotes from the Forum

Voices of Concern“I am newly graduated teen that lives, breathes, and interacts with all these so called gang members. Sadly I am family members, best friends, childhood friends, etc. with all of these young kids out here and I know a lot of them wouldn’t be doing the things they are doing if they had things to do. I feel the city doesn’t do for the community as they should.”
—Jaysha Jiles“I am a resident of the lower east side and have been concerned for a while now with the escalation of what I am seeing happen in my neighborhood. I cannot wait to both speak about what I see and listen to what some of the solutions might be. I love where I live, I love the diversity and absolutely enjoy this area. I just don’t like feeling scared or having my 8 year old ask me to avoid driving up our street because he doesn’t like to see what is happening on a daily basis. Nobody should live in fear. They sure don’t have this type of environment in more ‘expensive’ neighborhoods, why is it happening here?”
—Danette Allrich“I’m a parent of 5 black boys and I feel we are prisoners in our own home. I’m scared for them. They stay in the house or on the block, how sad is that. Until we recognize the ills of society and take action, including myself, we are never going to accomplish anything.”
—Michele Davis

“We who live here know the area for what it is, good and bad. People from the “outside looking in” just see the bad and the news headlines and know they can go find another area to live in. So it’s a vicious circle. We ALL have an investment in community here with homes, businesses, LIVES – and one that’s not paying off well – we deserve better.”
—Susan Forsberg

Voices for Change“We need to help the police by policing our community. How do you do that? Report anything and everything that you witness that appears to be against the law.”
—Derrick Minor“We all know we have a problem here, and the police know this too. We want safe streets – the voices in our community who will support this approach are louder and more numerous than those who don’t. This is where “the most livable city” sloganeering hits the road, and we have to demand it all the way to the top if necessary.” —Luke I.“One thing that is troubling to me is the level of services for youth on the Eastside. With literally half the school age kids all being on the Eastside, we should have, it seems, concentrated in our neighborhood, half the stuff to do for kids. The cops may need to stop problems once they happen, but we also need to look for solutions to prevent the problems.” —Alec Timmerman

“We must take a deep look and the politics, policies and laws implemented and promoted by these people [district representatives] and ask the tough questions about whether these policies are helping or hurting the community and what trickle down destructive impact they are having.” —Shelley Leeson

“There are many spokes in this wheel – political, financial, public safety, personal responsibility to name a few. All should be addressed in a comprehensive way by the immediate community and the City. This will take time and effort. This very unfortunate incident has forced us to actually face the reality of our neighborhood.”
—Marjorie Ebenteiner


Ray Widstrand poster

September 1, 2013

Knowledge Maximizer – Please Join Our Draft Survey Review

Written by Steven Clift

Survey Work Ahead - Source USA Traffic SignsIn the civic technology and open government space E-Democracy’s role is quite unique.

We’ve emerge as an R+D online community engagement knowledge generator built on authentic local civic participation. Our mission includes increasing real participation and widely gathering and sharing lessons. Our global impact is based on pushing the envelop locally.

With nearly 20 years under our belt, we are a bit of an old dog, but we are being told by civic technology, open data, and government transparency leaders that we are in the space where they are now arriving – engagement. Our old trick – inclusive and civil online engagement – is emerging as the hot need for the civic tech community to have a real impact.

One needs participants to test any civic idea, any technology, or any new strategy. We all crucially need an inclusive base of participants if you want to be more representative and go beyond testing ideas with highly wired early adopters.

Over five years ago, we shifted our focus to the neighborhood level and broadened our scope from the city-wide online town hall focused on local politics to embrace  community life exchange. We further embraced in our funded work, a strong focus on inclusion and connecting neighbors and communities across race, income, generations, immigrant/native born, etc.

We went from a model that attracted ~1% of households to 25% or more within the geographic area served. Unlikely a many commercial neighbor connecting models which create resident-only private connections, we’ve stayed steadfastly public, open, and inclusive by design. This is crucial for both community agenda-setting and wide spread learning.

So how are we doing? What is our impact? What do we need to do better?

We now have well over 10,000 individual participants across a network of over 20 active online Neighbors Forums across St. Paul and Minneapolis. Our members aged 15 to 95 are engaged most days. Across St. Paul and in Cedar Riverside and Phillips in Minneapolis, we likely have the most representative base of local online participants anywhere in the world. Our intensive funded outreach (often in-person) is unique. In forum areas that have been all-volunteer, we suspect our socio-economic diversity is less (we find middle middle class areas with small homes and big hearts are the easiest to organize with volunteers).

After many months of asking ourselves what we want to measure, what we need to measure, what our we’ve promised our funders, and exploring what other surveys have asked, we now have a draft participant survey.

The draft evolved from an internal staff/Board working group and direct work with the Knight Foundation (our major funder) and their consultant Network Impact.

The honest truth is that even with the planned incentive of a drawing for an iPad Mini, the first survey will likely need to lose some questions (24 currently not including demographics) or we will not get feedback from the range of participants we want to reach. We plan a follow-up with a short surveys and quick user polls.

Whether it is through new research partnerships or additional grants to support knowledge sharing we have to balance our learning time with our practical on-forum outreach and engagement work. The key is to use this survey to work smarter so we can increase our impact. We are very interested in partnering with other independent research projects and researchers to further knowledge maximization moving forward.

Draft input opportunity

We seek in-depth feedback on our draft questions before we put them in the field to St. Paul and Minneapolis Neighbors Forum members (this is not a survey about a city-wide online town halls).

If you can commit to reviewing our main question set and offering feedback, please .

We will bring you into a collaborative experiment using Google Docs comments to gather and share feedback. Please include in your offer to help some information about your research background or your involvement in online civic engagement/open government/etc.

Where did the questions come from?

As the questions have evolved from our survey review, our  internal working group, working with Network Impact, etc. our draft is an amalgamated soup.

At the core, we are trying to ask questions that tell us something we need to know. We want to ask questions that are somehow actionable as well. We can use the responses to improve our work or comparatively see the civic value we are generating in different neighborhoods or with different kinds of people. Other independent researchers might have different questions.

We owe many thanks to others like the UK Neighbours Online Study for breaking ground as well as Jakob Jensen for his survey work with us a decade ago.  This online metrics conversation on the Democracies Online Exchange helped us get started.

In addition to the survey, there are a number of things we can measure that are baked into GroupServer, via content analysis, via Google Analytics, and through other qualitative methods.

You may also request access to this Google spreadsheet to review most of the questions we collected if you like.

And, if you would like to be part of our small review quick review panel over the next two weeks (through September 15),  and we will share access to our set of Google Docs for comment. You may choose to send us private comments as well.



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