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E-Democracy.org – Project Blog

February 2009 E-Democracy News

Written by Steven Clift

E-Democracy News

February 2009

Volume 1, Issue 2

In This Issue
From the Founder

Steven Clift photoWhat’s New Is Now

With each new post, with each new participant, with each new community and Issues Forum, we are building the future of public life in our communities today. We is all of us – everyone.

We click. Every time we read a local post, view a local photograph, watch a local video, our community’s “public life” is being built, strengthened, and made real. Listening is the cornerstone of relevancyin digital democracy.

We converse. Every time we ask a question, share information, report news, or present an opinion, we are living participatory democracy for the benefit of our local communities. Some say “talk is cheap.” We say conversation is cost-effective.

We account. Most online opportunities for participation effectively work against empowerment by encouraging the use of aliases. We’ve learned that for most topics and in free nations, real names give us power and credibility when we stand by our words. Compared to local online news site-hosted comments on political stories, it is a design choice to bring out the worst in humanity or instead work to build community online.
We respect. Traditional online activism connects like-minds and isolates differing groups from one another. Our elected officials and governments, with almost no capacity to “e-listen” are the targets for protest and complaint. We bring people with diverse perspectives into the same space in the local common interest. Some topics reflect divisions and others unify – that’s real politics. Sustaining participation in an online space where people respect the right of others to hold and express differing views is almost a miracle.We believe in public life. Powerful social networking sites like Facebook (which picked up on the power of real names a decade after us) are fundamentally about private life. Combining innovations in social networking to engage people in everyday public life presents exciting opportunities we are beginning to comprehend with Issues Forums in neighborhoods and small town communities. Discovery through action is the best way we will evolve what we do.We volunteer and share. With Issues Forums across 15 local communities (up five-fold from 2004), we are part of a shared network – driven by volunteers with a small but growing contract staff. We share costs and leverage innovations, lessons, and support across the network. With existing grant funding, your past donations, some earne d revenue, and about $20,000 (U.S. dollars) to raise, the E-Democracy.Org Board adopted a $100,000 (U.S.) budget for 2009.
We engage.Despite these difficult economic times, we know that we can contribute to and strengthen our local communities through participation and engagement. Together, we will build “anywhere, anytime” democracy to raise voices, increase listening, and ultimately help each of us and our communities as a whole make better decisions about our futures.

Steven Clift

Co-Founder, E-Democracy.Org

Newsletter Name UpdateThanks to all of you for sending us your suggestions on what to name this newsletter! So far, the majority of votes say we should leave the title as is — E-Democracy News. We’ll leave the survey open for another month, and we encourage you to vote for your favorite name early and often!If you have other suggestions, please send us an email at news@e-democracy.org.

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‘Knowledge Raiser’ Underway through March 1
Earlier this month, E-Democracy.Org sponsored a Webinar on Citizen Media and Online Engagement. Part one highlighted dozens of interesting often local citizen media and online engagement projects. Part two focused intensively on the secrets of starting an Issues Forum (or learning from what we do to help your own project). Each section is roughly 50 minutes.As part of a “Knowledge Raiser” mini-fundraiser, E-Democracy.Org is providing on-demand access to the webinar slides with audio. Presenters put dozens of hours into these features and would like to share them with you and encourage you help us build our future with a donation.

Donate any amount to E-Democracy.Org between now and March 1, 2009 we will send you a special link so you can tune-in right away on-demand.

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Featured Volunteer: Stephanie Jenkins
Photo of Stephanie Jenkins
Editor’s Note:
Periodically, we will feature an E-Democracy.Org volunteer. To become an active volunteer, join our new Projects@ online group. When the Headington-Marston area in Oxford, England decided to start a neighborhood issues forum through E-Democracy.Org, Stephanie Jenkins was a natural choice for Forum Manager because of her commitment to community history.
A resident of the Headington ward in Oxford since 1982, Stephanie Jenkins created a Web site for Headington history in 2000 as a place to share the history of the area she’d “dug up” as she says on her E-Democracy.Org profile.
She has also created sites for Marston and greater Oxfordshire history, and she tends to the content on these Web sites. Jenkins has served as forum manager for the Headington-Marston forum since it started up in early 2008.“It’s fair to say that without her, the forum wouldn’t have been created and wouldn’t have survived,” said David Rundle, Oxford city councilor for the Headington Ward. “She’s certainly got my vote of thanks.”

Jenkins manages the forum brilliantly, according to community leaders, by contributing content that adds to constructive discussions and by using a firm but polite manner.

Forum member Joan Williams said, “She is a wiz at starting new threads/diverting things when we are at odds here, and her recent pictures of Headington Hill in the snow (posted to the forum) are great!”

Added City Councilor Ruth Wilkinson, “Stephanie devotes a huge amount of time to the forum, not only as the forum manager (and that’s certainly not always an easy job) but also by doing research on the issues raised by residents in the north east of Oxford. She contributes news posts and photos that spark off a great deal of interest and keep the forum posts lively. On top of all that, she maintains a great sense of humor and manages to combine this voluntary work with looking after her chickens as well as her day job. Thanks Stephanie – you’re a star!”

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Around the Issues Forums – What’s Kept Them Humming This Month A diverse mix of topics greeted readers during late January and early February on E-Democracy.Org Issues Forums. Sprinkled amongst the series brow-wrinkling posts about public policy an d social justice were helpful announcements for community events, speeches, preparing for spring gardens and other community activities.
Brighton and Hove posters discussed uncovering potential government shenanigans, from a freedom of information request for records for the management of th e East Sussex County Council pensions, to members of the Brighton and Hove City Council signing a petition to discover how much public money had been spent to fight legal claims brought by a transgender teacher.Themes of economic struggle and the need for sustainable local economies were also woven through forum threads.

Other posters discussed parks and community green/garden space.

In addition, several posts announced upcoming events, and others celebrated the lives/mourned the passing of community leaders.

In the U.S., many posters mused abo ut the presidential inauguration, and posted vignettes from friends and family who may have attended the event. In addition, forums featured discussions of how economic stimulus funds will be dedicated and whether the infusion of funds will help get communities back on track.

In political news, the Minnesota forums also focused on the never-ending U.S. Senate contest between Al Franken and Norm Coleman.

Neighbors reminded neighbors to attend precinct caucuses (a straw-poll type primary election) as cities throughout the state prepare for municipal and school board elections later this year.

UK Forum Topics

  • Sustainability talk
  • Brighton Councillors sign petition
  • Talk on building more resilient local economies
  • Gloomy forecast for small shops
  • Setting up a local climate change group
  • Bike racks on North Street
  • Great gardens
  • Spring clean up
  • Racism versus underachievement
  • Refuse and recycling containers

US Forum Topics

  • Off-road vehicles
  • Quarterly safety meeting
  • Free vision screening and flu shots
  • Victory garden
  • Graffiti perpetually
  • El Colegio students give back
  • Main Street recovery and you
  • Housing turnover
  • Scout pancake breakfast
  • Home-based businesses
  • The new Seward Co-op
  • How Green Columbus?
  • Security cameras in St. Paul
  • Winter bus

New Zealand Forum Topics

  • Light-rail for Christchurch
  • Stopping crime
  • Voting system scanda

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Online Civic Engagement 101: What Is a Wiki (and How Do I Use One)?Though the name may suggest otherwise, wikis aren’t exotic drinks, dances, or rituals. They’re a Wikipedia Logotechnology platform that’s emerged in the last several years to help people share information.Simply put, a wiki is a collaborative Web site which can be directly edited by anyone with access to it. It’s most commonly used as a place to collect information of common interest to an online community, while encouraging those with access to add their own knowledge to the existing knowledge base.That’s the concept behind the most commonly used wiki – Wikipedia. Though in recent years, the posting controls and procedures have evolved, it is still possible for just about anyone to add content to Wikipedia. Veracity is lent to content by citing sources and linking to other sources.Many businesses are now using Wikis to collect institutional knowledge and encourage less formal internal discussions. It’s all about collaboration – wikis provide an easy to maintain way to share information, evaluate what’s been posted, refine it, and create a common understanding around a common theme.

There are several available platforms for starting a wiki. MediaWiki, originally created for Wikipedia, is fairly common (E-Democracy.Org also uses MediaWiki). You can download the software at the MediaWiki site – or you can play around with the feature on the Web site before you download.

Twiki and TikiWiki are also open source wiki software packages. Once you register on either site, you have access to background information about how they work. You will need to download these platforms, so it makes sense to research each one before you choose. For advice on wiki hosting options, see these Google search results.

Which one you choose is totally up to your comfort level. Like sites that host blog spaces, each has different features that make them easy to use. The key is to control “membership” so that you can some say over what gets posted on your wiki – you also want to avoid inviting spam and vulgarity that will keep other Web users from visiting your site.

Though wikis are easy to use, they’re not necessarily for the faint-hearted, or the Internet newbie. Give yourself some time to become acquainted with wikis. Search for wikis online and become a member. Check around at work and see if there’s an internal wiki you can use. Contribute content and learn how it works. Once you get a little more comfortable, wikis can be a great way to encourage collaboration.

Some political wikis to check out:

Coming up next month: A Twitter Newbie Explains the Social Networking Phenomena. Have a topic you want us to explore? Send us an email at news@e-democracy.org.

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What’s Hot Online: EuroPetition and more
Editor’s Note: The “What’s Hot Online” feature will serve as a space to highlight trends in online civic engagement, as well as interesting sites we’re visiting/reading. If you have suggestions for items we should feature, send us an email at news@e-democracy.org.EuroPetitionThe European Commission has launched a service to assist local regions with preparing and submitting electronic petitions to the European Parliament.Not only will the platform allow for groups to coordinate signatures and opinions, it will translate petitions themselves into the local languages. According to news accounts, the platform integrates with social networking utilities such as Facebook to help raise petition visibility, as well.

Though the petition service will remain in the testing phase for the next two years, it could prove to be a powerful tool, sponsored by a government entity, to engage citizens, even beyond traditional geo-political boundaries.

Read more about the utility on the European Union’s Web site.

Democracy 2.0

Leave it to the Wunderkind to take online civic engagement to the next level. In January, the U.S. National Constitution Center hosted a simulated 21st Century Constitutional Convention, where youth from around the nation competed for funding to support their online civics projects.

The Constitutional Convention: Building Democracy 2.0” conference featured innovative ideas such as School Board 2.0, intended to engage students in school board governance and encourage participation by providing an interactive format.

Five total projects were chosen to receive financial support, including other initiatives to engage students in public policy problem solving and to encourage young people to pursue careers in the non-profit, service sectors.

Check out the full list of winners at Mobilize.org, which convened the event.

Voting Online

Boston-based urban planning blogger Rob Goodspeed recently posted about a unique solution that engaged citizens in practical municipal problem-solving. And it didn’t happen in the United States or Europe.

It was in Brazil.

Elected officials in Belo Horizonte, capital of the Brazilian state Minas Gerias, set aside $11 million in taxpayer funds to build projects in each of the city’s nine wards. To decide how the money would be allocated, the officials put it to a vote.

Registered voters in the community had a 42-day window to long on and vote for one project in each ward. The city established 178 voting points throughout the city, including a mobile unit on a bus.

When the votes were tallied, nearly 173,000 people (nearly 10 percent of the city’s registered voters) had weighed in. A forum for discussion received more than 1,200 posts. (Note: voter registration is mandatory for adults in Brazil.)

The first experiment in 2006 was repeated in 2008, with more people participating online than in the traditional, in-person listening sessions.

Posting Bills and a Little More Change

So far, the Obama administration is continuing to provide opportunities for the public to weigh in on important legislation and matters of public policy.

In January, the White House posted the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 following passage by the U.S. Senate and in anticipation of U.S. House action, and has begun soliciting feedback on the legislation.

One drawback, according to Federal Computer Week: other comments are not visible, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the interactive element.

Also, last month we wrote about the exciting prospect for greater openness in the Obama administration with the transition of the Change.gov Web site into the structure of WhiteHouse.gov.

This month we briefly point out memorandums from the Obama administration regarding openness in government and greater access to government/public information.

Take a look at the memo on the DoWire.Org site.

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