History of E-Democracy

E-Democracy has been a consistent pioneer in online civic engagement work in local communities for nearly two decades. We began in 1994 by creating the world’s first election information website, powered by volunteers. These key milestones shaped our history:

  • 1994 – World’s first election information website. First online candidate debate. MN-Politics online forum launched creating longest lasting statewide online citizen-to-citizen discussion active to today.
  • 1995 – Our statewide “online town hall” takes hold and E-Democracy becomes a trusted, neutral, nonprofit host of dialogue among people with differing views and backgrounds
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  • 1996-97 – E-Democracy invited to share lessons starting in Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, and more
  • 1998-99 – The Minneapolis Issues Forum and St. Paul Issues Forum took the online town hall model local. More women, elected officials, and active citizens participate
  • 2000 – Winona Community Forum launched; global Democracies Online Newswire promoting civic participation online grows to 1,000 members
  • 2001-03 – E-Democracy receives Minneapolis Award from Mayor R.T. Rybak, the John F. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award, and is listed among the 25 Who Are Changing the World of Internet and Politics
  • 2005 – British government funds pilot forums and “how to” guidebook for the UK; E-Democracy receives Honourable Mention for online communities in the Ars Prix Electronica Awards in Linz, Austria
  • 2006 – E-Democracy receives Minneapolis Foundation MSNet Fund planning grant for inclusive Minneapolis neighborhood forums targeted to lower income, highly diverse, high immigrant areas; lead founder Steven Clift’s election to the Ashoka Fellow fellowship for “leading the way to healthier democracy by using the Internet for local discussion and citizen participation” allows him to focus on the nonprofit full-time
  • 2007 – Bristol and Oxford neighborhood forums launch; E-Democracy blog starts; MSNet funded Neighborhood Forums Project starts; Minnesota Rural Voices project launches with Blandin Foundation support; Forums launch in Minneapolis in Cedar Riverside, Roseville, Seward, and Standish Ericsson neighborhoods, and in Las Vegas, Nevada
  • 2008 – New forums include Twin Cities: Minneapolis- Northeast, Powderhorn; St. Paul- Frogtown; Greater Minnesota- Bemidji, Cass Lake Leech Lake, Cook County, Grand Rapids, Minnesota Voices online community of practice; UK- Bristol: Brislington, Greater Bedminster; Oxford: Cowley, Headington and Marston, Central and Southwest
  • 2009 – PACE, in collaboration with the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, features E-Democracy in the guide “Funding and Fostering Local Democracy: What Philanthropy Should Know About the Emerging Field of Deliberation and Democratic Governance;” new forums include St. Paul- Highland Park and the United States Issues Forum
  • 2010-2011- E-Democracy receives a multi-year Ford Foundation grant to deepen inclusive – serving lower income, strongly immigrant/diverse neighborhoods – online forum engagement in the Cedar Riverside and Frogtown neighborhoods and to prepare for expansion; Digital Inclusion Network, Locals Online, and other online communities of practice launch
  • 2012-2014 – Major Knight Foundation funding received to expand inclusive online community engagement to reach 10,000 forum members across St. Paul and to share lessons nationally. Minneapolis forums in Standish Ericsson and Powderhorn cross 1,000 members each and connect an estimated 25% of local households daily. E-Democracy in collaboration with Code for America, serves as the host for Open Twin Cities, an open government civic technology meetup and network.
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  • 2015 – 2016 – World’s most comprehensive “neighbors online” participant survey results released showing many reason why forum members love their forums.  E-Democracy transitions to self-sufficiency doubling the number of individual donors to support forum hosting and support 100%. Contracts with the Kettering Foundation to lead experiments with their Common Ground for Action online deliberation platform and with UK-based mySociety to grow the global Poplus.org to over 80 nations in their online community. As a global convenor, E-Democracy brings their Open Government and Civic Technology Facebook Group to nearly 5,000 members from 120+ countries.

connectedheartCurrently, we have over 40 online forums with over 26,000 members across the globe focusing on inclusive online community/civic engagement. Of the 18,000+ forum memberships in the Twin Cities, over 80% of our participants engage at the neighborhood “community life exchange” level where our funded programming is currently focused. As of today, our story has been told by co-founder and Executive Director Steven Clift, around the United States and in over 35 countries.

Survey Says – 56% credit their Neighbors Forum for increased community satisfaction and more

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While we have more in-depth analysis to do, we wanted to share the top line results from our 1350 respondents. That’s a big pool – about 10% of our individual participants just on our Twin Cities Neighbors Forums (not our city-wide forums or other cities) with active accounts.

If you are new to E-Democracy and our Neighbors Forums (our BeNeighbors.org project), our online neighborhood spaces (combined email/web forum/social network) connect up to 30% of households ~daily in some areas.

Here are our top line results in PDF and responses comparing Minneapolis and St. Paul forums (PDF) (notable differences) – the answer tables for questions 9-12 are most insightful.

connecting-neighbours-online-strategies-for-online-engagement-with-inclusion-london-2013-13-638The questions PDF might be useful for those creating similar surveys for use elsewhere – we spent nearly two years crafting these based on dozens of surveys we collected and gathered feedback along the way including support from Network Impact who was commissioned by the Knight Foundation to work with a number of leading civic technology projects they had funded.

We will add more analysis as it is available here.

Here is some useful background on the three year inclusive outreach project which ended with 2014 funding wise. We even received some White House Champions of Change recognition along the way.

SONY DSCWe used Census data to help target our Saint Paul outreach and our forums use official city neighborhood boundaries which in theory mean Census data can be used in further analysis (we used this data source on neighborhood profiles extensively). We are seeking opportunities to further this extremely unique online inclusive engagement work as part of a research initiative for greater lesson-sharing. Along those lines, our public forum data is generating useful research and leading to academic papers and publications. We are interested in how survey data might be combined with forum data (of course on an anonymous basis) to generate more knowledge on impact and what works.

Some analysis now:

Some compelling results …

Percent of participants who said “as a result of information or discussions on your Neighbors Forum” (Q11) they:

  • 79% are more informed about community issues
  • 67% were introduced to new ideas and views
  • 45% learned more on how to influence community decisions
  • 32% learned more about neighbors of difference races, ethnicities (39% in the lower income parts of St. Paul we targeted for inclusive field outreach)

And amazingly (to us anyway):

  •  56% credit their forum for making them “more satisfied with my local community as a place to live or work.”

In deeper analysis, we’ve found that increasing community satisfaction is an indicator question where respondents on our four most engaged Minneapolis forums credit their forum far more at 70% for increasing satisfaction. For neighborhoods and cities seeking to attract and retain residents including new talent, fostering online neighborly connections appears to be part of the secret sauce “welcome mat” for great communities.

While our funded inclusive outreach makes our network perhaps far more representative than other online civic engagement/online neighborhood efforts, participants are essentially self-selected. To that end, we are excited to share our rough analysis from the 3,000 respondent Minneapolis Digital Inclusion survey which actually allows us to see our forum’s likely direct impact on the population as a whole.

In terms of prompting action (Q12), forums that led “you to do or increase any of the following” the forums delivered (Yes, I did this AND it increased because of the forum):

  • 8.5% more volunteer locally (39% did this already at level not increased because of forum)
  • 11% donate more often to a local charity or cause (43% did this already…)
  • 15% work more with residents to make change (32% did this already…)
  • 16% sign a petition more often (34% did this already…)
  • 17% meet community members in-person more (36% did this already…)
  • 18.5% contact elected officials or government more (32% did this already…)
  • 22% do favors or share goods with neighbors more often (31% did this already…)
  • 28% attend more community meetings (28% did this already…)
  • 41% attend more community events and festivals (35% did this already…)
  • 42% visit a business, restaurant or hire someone recommended on forum more (25% did this already…)

See question 12 for results on what people already did (Neighbors Forums do attract community-spirited people). Separating out those who would have generated social capital anyway without our forum from those who credit the forum with moving the needle on civic engagement is hugely important. Future analysis on the characteristics of forums generating more action will be useful. Future projects that build on these positive outcomes would be exciting the explore.

Emerging analysis

  • Other Platforms – With question 19, it is notable to point out that only 19% of our respondents are members of NextDoor and 29% report being on a private online group/email list for their nearest neighbors. 32% in St. Paul compared to 23% in Minneapolis report being on a public or large Facebook group or other forum outside of E-Democracy for their larger neighborhood. In St. Paul, folks who are both E-Democracy and NextDoor members compared to all E-Democracy members are somewhat less likely to be immigrants or the children of immigrants, higher educated, less likely to be a renter, more white, and higher income. This requires more analysis, but initial results support our concern that without inclusive outreach online neighborhood groups will cement ties among neighbors who are most similar or already socially connected and leave out vital parts of our local communities by the design of their systems even if not by intent. (Mar 3)
  • Gender – Also notable is that 64% of our respondents were female. A 2010 survey by PewInternet.org found a similar gender mix. Notably a recent participant survey of mySociety’s online political participation efforts had the reverse gender mix – it is our view that intentionally connecting neighbors online up into civic participation is perhaps the best path to better representation in civics online. (Mar 3)
  • Word of Mouth Power – Despite the focus on our in-person outreach on St. Paul, more people in Minneapolis learned of their forum offline (44% offline, 38% online) compared to St. Paul (37% offline, 48% online). Why? An active and engaged online civic forum like those in South Minneapolis can spread via community connections face to face. Such invites probably increase trust in the forum building a virtuous circle. Of course this also suggests just how challenging it is to go into new neighborhoods with less existing civic capacity from scratch AND how important it is to do what we did with inclusive intent to go beyond existing ties. In future work, combining our inclusive outreach with our strongest existing forums presents an untapped opportunity for reaching all neighbors with an integration oriented and inclusive bring all neighbors approach (for example Latino outreach in Powderhorn or East African outreach in Seward neighborhoods).Here is a recap on how our participants found out about their forums:
    • St. Paul – 48% Online, 37% Offline
    • Minneapolis – 38% Online, 44% Offline
    • Of those who found out offline:
      • St. Paul
        • Door – 20%
        • Community event/festival – 41%
        • Word of mouth – 27%
        • Community newsletter – 7%
      • Minneapolis
        • Door – 1%
        • Community event/festival – 29% (we did table in Mpls at major/ethnic events)
        • Word of mouth – 66%
        • Community newsletter – 7%

(Added Mar 8)

This article is a work in progress …

Survey Says … (text from our e-newsletter)

The exciting participant survey results are coming in from Minneapolis and Saint Paul with over 1350 responses. They show great comparative success in reaching the broader local community with inclusion in Saint Paul while clearly our Minneapolis neighborhood forums are stronger.(1)

Door to door worked. Community festivals worked.

Working with two awesome summer outreach teams that spoke ten different languages total over two summers was amazing. The dedication and perspiration of young people who once lived in refugee camps in Kenya and Thailand to an African-American Grandmother homeless and living with friends when we hired her was was amazing.

Here is what participants find “very important” in ranked order:

  • Get community news and event announcements
  • Neighbors helping neighbors
  • Learn about local businesses and services
  • Share information or ideas
  • Discuss or understand others views on community issues
  • Get involved in local initiative or causes
  • Meet neighbors and other community members (in-person)

The survey tells us that the more active your forum is the more you are actually satisfied with your community as a place to live. Wow.

Because of your forums directly, more of you attend community events (41%) or meetings (28), visit local businesses or hire neighbors for odd jobs (43%), do favors for neighbors (22%), donate to local groups (10%), contact elected officials (18%), sign petitions (16%) or work for local change (15%), or volunteer in the community (8%). This is above and beyond the many who said they already did these things and did not credit the forum for an increase. Our members are community builders.

In fact, on our four super active forums in South Minneapolis 70% agreed that because of their forum, they are “more satisfied with my local community as a place to live or work.” On our less active Saint Paul and Minneapolis forums, the average who agree with this came in under 50%. Notably however, those who better represent the diversity of Saint Paul that we signed up at their door reported in with one of the highest percentages strongly agreeing with this statement – more so than all but one of our super active forums!

 

(1) Our South Minneapolis forums became well established a few years earlier before the diffusion of local online spaces like Facebook Groups and NextDoor. These new choices divided neighborhood attention and likely attracted the engagement of people in St. Paul similar to those who naturally flocked to our Minneapolis forums and to this day share community content actively. Participants who share – who post useful content are key to engagement. While not all Neighbors Forums in St. Paul today are more limited one-way community announcement services, two-way community discussions and trust-building community engagement on our strongest Minneapolis forums continues to thrive.

 

Key Tables and Charts

Here are someone detailed results. See the full PDF for more including how people learned about their forums specifically.

 

9. How important to you are the following things you can do on your Neighbors Forum?

edemQ9important

 

10. To what extent is your forum meeting your needs? How *satisfied* are you with the opportunity that your forum has provided in the last 12 months to…

edemQ10satisfied

11. As a result of information or discussions on your Neighbors Forum, in the last 12 months…

edemQ11value

It will be very interesting to compare Minneapolis and Saint Paul results related to learning about neighbors across diversity. As our field outreach was only funded for St. Paul and our four most active Neighbors Forums are in Minneapolis, to really test this goal new resources to do inclusive outreach in S. Minneapolis would be crucial. It is our experience that location-based neighborhood connecting, particularly on commercial sites, connect wired, wealthier, whiter home owners most easily and that inclusive outreach requires real intent and resources.

Being more satisfied with their community as a place to live because of their Neighbors Forum tells a big story about about forum quality. Those one our four “super” forums as noted above were far more likely to give their forum some credit. In forums that are honestly relatively quiet (particularly in areas of St. Paul with competing Facebook Groups or Next Door traction) I our view people were more satisfied than they should have been. If they only knew what they were missing from how our active forums really thrive. This question showed the impact of a strong forum versus those not used on a literally an hourly basis to connect the community.

12. In the last 12 months, did something on your Neighbors Forum lead you to do or increase any of the following?

edemQ12domore

Here are open ended survey responses sorted into theme.

Select survey comments/stories sorted by theme:

  • Promoting local festivals and events –
  • Promoting local businesses and service providers –
  • Discussing community issues and happenings –
  • We especially appreciate the neighborhood councils, recreation centers and libraries using the forums –
  • And the connections made between being alert about crime and building strong neighborhoods –
  • And other local issues that matter –
  • Being connected and informed helps us take action –
  • Together, we make things happen –
  • Our ideas get carried forward to committees and local councils –
  • We build strong communities when we meet –
  • That keep us in touch with our humanity –
  • We strengthen our connections when we exchange things –
  • And, together, we care for our companions –
  • And build welcoming communities –
  • And yes, there’s more work to be done –
  • But in the end –

 

Having just completed the participant survey, this is an opportune moment to give a shout out to those who make the forums thrive by:

Promoting local festivals and events –

 

  • Because of this forum my family attended several summer events in the area. Thank you.
  • Events shared are always appreciated and make me feel more involved in my community.
  • Without a neighborhood newspaper the forum has provided basic community happenings, which has improved my sense of community.

 

Promoting local businesses and service providers –

 

  • I think one of the biggest things the Neighbors Forum does is help you when you’re looking for a service. We discovered a new mechanic who we are extremely happy with thanks to the forum. Same goes for our plumber. It’s great to hear the different suggestions and experiences folks have had. Invaluable.
  • As a local business owner, I make an effort to support other local businesses near my own. I try and use the hardware store, gas station, restaurants and other service providers in my neighborhood.
  • I just contacted one person highly recommended for handyman, and discovered he had lived across the street on my block since 1980–the same year we moved here! He’s going to patch our ceiling soon.
  • Our neighbors forum has been celebrating small business in the area. My partner and I are launching our own venture, and it has been so helpful to have community support behind our shop. This has been made possible by the Neighbors Forum, as we meet people that we don’t really “know” but have a mutual affinity for, as they are neighbors, locals who really want us to succeed.
  • I found amazing locally sourced fresh strawberries available the last few autumns by a local farmer only available with E-Democracy.
  • Someone shared CSA options in the neighborhood and I signed up for one and I very much enjoyed it this summer.
  • Finding recommended vendors and service providers has taken the stress out of guessing.

 

Discussing community issues and happenings –

 

  • The forums keep me up to date on the issues of the city, especially the controversies that people want to talk about. They’re the best place to learn about what is going on with proposed developments, vacant lots, city ordinances that impact the neighborhood.  [combined]
  • Even though not all topics are of interest to me, reading them gives me a better understanding of community perspectives other than my own. I believe this to be a crucial component of an inclusive and diverse community.
  • I did learn a little more about the complexity/differences between long-standing community members and newer residents, differences in perception regarding whose voice is “authentic,” “credible,” “legitimate”.

 

We especially appreciate the neighborhood councils, recreation centers and libraries using the forums –

 

  • I work for SENA – the neighborhood organization for Standish & Ericsson. The forum has been a very valuable means for us to get information out to a large part of the community.
  • We were able to get the word out about National Night Out and had lots of participation from the neighborhood.
  • Excellent programs and lectures at the library are posted. I have discovered this is a much better resource than expected.
  • A community member on the Forum read one of my library postings about the Library Card Art Contest. She entered her art piece and it was picked as a runner-up!
  • I like when the police liaison and the neighborhood association chime in on discussions.

 

 

And the connections made between being alert about crime and building strong neighborhoods –

 

  • It has made a big difference to me to know about crime in my neighborhood and how connecting with others can make a difference in how we watch for each other.
  • Being informed and aware of what is going on has made me feel safer and more connected.
  • I think in general when someone shares about crime or suspicious activity in the neighborhood it is helpful. Everyone knows to stay more aware and keep their eyes open for things like that.
  • There was a lot of discussion about the Ray Widstrand incident — very heated at times, with opposing voices being heard, albeit not without some hurt feelings. I felt this ongoing discussion was very enlightening because it gave insight into how differently neighbors from the same community saw this and other negative events that occurred around the same time.
  • A few years ago, when the woman was sexually assaulted in Powderhorn Park at gunpoint, with her children present — the way people in the community organized an event and got the word out through the forum was great.
  • We have helped each other be more aware of increases in specific crimes, and helped each other take precautions against them.
  • We’re not in the safest neighborhood, but when we heard gunshots right outside our house, our friend and neighbor was quick to find the police report and post it for everyone. It made me feel a little safer, just that everyone was talking about what happened, not ignoring it or hiding, or becoming too scared.
  • I attended the open forum on crime at the local police station which was advertised in the forum. The tips on how to make your home, garage, and yard more secure were very helpful. I really appreciated the time and effort of the neighborhood crime specialists to share their expertise with the public.
  • It’s kind of like a virtual neighborhood crime watch. I love knowing what is going on in the area!!  It makes me feel more secure. [combined]

 

And other local issues that matter –

(formerly Campaigns/Elected Officials)

 

  • It really helped me to understand the rationale behind some decisions being made by our local government. It was nice to hear others opinions, both those that agreed with me and those that did not.
  • When I was an appointed official, it helped me stay connected to the community and plugged into their thoughts/ideas, and what was important.
  • It has been a very useful source for information about candidates running for public office.
  • Powderhorn Park hosted a school board candidate forum which was mainly geared toward the Spanish-speaking community. As a white person, it was fascinating to listen to the stories and hear candidates point of view.
  • The discussions about Ranked Choice Voting in St. Paul allowed us to discuss different opinions on that important subject, including a lot of misconceptions.
  • I enjoy reading others’ take on city matters–what our politicians are doing and the progress or lack thereof in the school district.
  • I like it when people who know the facts of a matter can share those facts and change perceptions and the tone of a discussion.

 

Being connected and informed helps us take action –

 

  • I learned about the city’s Adopt a Trash Container program and got one placed in a garbage-strewn area. It REALLY made a difference!
  • I attended several forums/community meetings because of the Neighbors Forum.
  • I went to a local meeting and learned about the plans for the Snelling and University area.
  • I learned about the Library Love Run and Historic Hamline Village and attended a community meeting.
  • It got me to attend a couple of meetings about biking and bike lanes at the NE Library.
  • I heard about meetings concerning the new co-op that I was able to attend.
  • I heard about – and attended – a crime meeting at Matthews Park.
  • I went to the community meeting at the church next to the Arlington library and got introduced to the Youth Ambassadors. I learned a lot.
  • I was prompted to attend a MPRB meeting about “the yard” and to speak at the meeting.

 

Together, we make things happen –

 

  • We were trying to get bike racks installed at the post office. I shared information about the City of Minneapolis bicycle rack program with neighbors and now we have two new bike racks at the post office. [two combined]
  • The city parks department was going to tear down a bunch of trees and make a parking lot in our community and the neighborhood forum announced it and organized a group to make our voices heard and we were successful in stopping their actions.
  • We helped to build the new playground at the St. Paul Music Academy.
  • We helped get the co-op built.
  • I volunteered to help spread the word about the Powderhorn365 Kickstarter campaign, and we used the forum extensively.
  • Our direct neighbor was being cited for junk by a new inspector. Everyone on the forum and many others signed a petition and got them to understand it was garden art. It worked.
  • We used the forum to help spread the word about the privatization of a local recreation center and got over 100 people to attend a meeting with officials. This stopped the process and allowed us to set up a community task force to discuss what a partnership would look like.
  • We used forum to organize group to care for Hamline Park– “Friends of Hamline Park.”
  • The controversial Marshall Avenue median galvanized me and my neighbors, and the forum was instrumental in exchanging ideas and motivating attendance at meetings associated with the issue. The forum helped coalesce support to reduce the proposed length of the median on Marshall at Wilder. [two combined]
  • I have been very grateful to the work and efforts of the folks trying to get MAC to listen to our neighborhood concerns about increased air traffic, decibel levels, and noise/air pollution. They have kept us much better informed about studies, meetings, and issues than the local news.
  • When I saw that the studies on the Snelling Avenue road design were coming to a close, I was able to dig a little deeper into what that meant for our block and intersection, the West side of Snelling and Taylor Avenues. We organized, met, and discussed how the closure of the left turn lanes would affect residents on our block, and the surrounding area. This led to a signed group letter, individual letters, and documentation being sent to the proper MDOT and other government staff involved in this project. As of today, we’ve been told that the project will leave the northbound left turn lane onto Taylor Ave. W. open. I credit e-democracy in alerting us to this important study while we could still have an impact on the outcome. It is important for us to be involved in important decisions which affect our everyday lives in our community. [Edited down]

 

Our ideas get carried forward to committees and local councils –

 

  • There have been discussions about a household hazardous waste site that was going to be placed in the neighborhood and due to a lot more discussion than some local officials expected, it appears such a site will be located in a different and more desirable location than originally proposed.
  • I enjoyed the discussion on the forum about what to do with the old Rainbow store building and brought some of those ideas to the Longfellow Neighborhood Development Committee.
  • I sent an email to the list to explore ways neighbors could work together to make their homes more energy efficient. Several people responded and as a result, a group of us met several times during the year and several homeowners did energy efficiency home improvements. We are continuing this energy efficiency work now through the District 10 Environment Committee.
  • When I was on ParkWatch we posted minutes and Park Board agendas on the forum with opinions of what we thought this meant to the city. This led to the MPRB actually putting their agendas and minutes online and actually announcing newly released agenda on this forum
  • I first learned about some controversial issues (Randolph Ave) in the forum and was able to bring those issues to the MGCC Transportation committee and worked with Ramsey County to provide feedback.
  • Discussions on the forum showed me that I was just as informed on issues as anyone else, so I decided to have more influence on the community by joining the Highland District Council.

 

We build strong communities when we meet –

 

  • I was asked to lead a neighborhood history tour (posted on the forum) that led into two free sessions (posted on the forum) for neighbors to learn how to research their houses’ histories at the Hennepin County library. Forty people got to know each other and talk about their houses. Soon I will invite them all (via the forum) to share their research findings at the Hennepin County History Museum.
  • We organized a book reading with a local author at our house. A lot of people from the neighborhood whom we did not previously know came to the event. A big driver for this was the announcement posted to the forum. A lot of neighbors met each other for the first time because of this.
  • I went on a Seward Walk and met a lot of people from the neighborhood while learning some great history and having a hoot!
  • It was a source of networking for my family and me when we first moved into the Powderhorn Neighborhood and did not yet know anyone. We were able to post about ourselves as a family and offer a gathering for other people interested in meeting for social engagements.
  • I have always liked the “introduction” email that pops up at intermittent times. Sometimes I wish people shared more about where they lived (900 Block of Wilson Ave, for example) because if I “meet” someone on the forum, it would be nice to know how close they are relative to where I live. At times I have taken the next step to ask more about them and say “welcome!”  [Edited down]

 

That keep us in touch with our humanity –

(formerly Help neighbors in need)

 

  • I like hearing about neighbors who help others and make a difference in the lives of others in my neighborhood.
  • A local neighbor with a lot of history died recently and her funeral was announced on the forum. I believe many more people came than would’ve otherwise. It was a great time to catch up with old friends, meet new ones, and learn some fascinating neighborhood history.
  • One of my friends who is getting older needed some help with heavy things, and he found a young person through the forum who was happy to help him. He didn’t know where else to turn.
  • I used the forum to create a list of those in need of snow shoveling help and those that could offer such help.
  • Last year during a huge storm that downed 100s of large trees in the neighborhood there was an outpouring of email exchanges sharing tools and offering help to residents who were affected. Wonderful to see.
  • I learned how quick neighbors are to help one another in times of need.
  • I am new in the neighborhood and had a bike stolen from my yard. A neighbor told me about the forum and when I posted, I think three people offered to lend me bikes if I needed one.  Heartwarming kindness and real neighbors!
  • After the New Year’s building explosion/fire last year, the forum was a great way to see what had happened and to know where/what to donate to survivors
  • I offered up some free worms for composting. Two ladies took me up on the offer so I left containers of worms on my porch for them to pick up. Later I got an email from one of the ladies. She had noticed my concrete front steps were falling apart after the brutal winter. She wanted to pay it forward and she offered to fix my steps for free. I agreed but wanted to learn a skill so I joined her. She told me that her neighbor had taught her the simple fix and she was so excited when I wanted to learn the skill, knowing that I could pass it on to others.
  • There was a call for the high school baseball team needing equipment that really stuck with me. I hope there are more requests from good people doing good things who could use more community support.

 

We strengthen our connections when we exchange things –

 

  • The reuse opportunities have been very valuable. When a neighbor took down a chimney, we were able to salvage them to better our property. They saved on hauling away costs and we saved by not having to purchase landscape materials.
  • I had a friend moving into the neighborhood from another state who was needing support with resources. I was able to help her find items for her home through postings from neighbors who were giving things away.
  • I was able to get a very nice ceiling fan for free because one of my neighbors was giving it away on the forum.

 

    • I have used the Neighbors forum to connect with other gardeners in the community, and we have shared plants. It’s fun to connect with other gardeners and to learn about gardening from people with actual experience in our neighborhood, and the plants I’ve gotten from them have been much more successful than nursery-grown plants.

 

  • I had a lawnmower that I wanted to get rid of and was able to give it to a new neighbor because of the forum.

 

    • I was looking for raspberry bushes and the forum help me find options to transplant from a neighbor.

 

  • I was able to find a free A/C unit for my daughter’s father for his apartment. The outreach from the forum was enormous and fast! I really enjoy the frequency and timeliness in which people share their ideas/post questions, etc. on this site. I visit every day!

 

  • I was looking for a Cherry tree branch to graft onto my Cherry tree. I happened to find the exact variety I needed through a neighbor.
  • I was feeling overwhelmed by yard work and hired a youth in response to his mom’s post. Not only was I glad for the help, I enjoyed connecting with the mom and the young man.
  • I was able to get many perennial plants for the teen program I facilitate at a homeless shelter downtown.

 

  • I have been trying to find a home for Christmas tree that was given to me, and was delighted to pass it along and so relieved to have it out of my house.

 

And, together, we care for our companions –

 

  • I love all of the posts about missing pets. Having lost a pet, I understand how hard it can be. Given our technological advances, it pleases me that we go to the forum before sending a rogue pet to the shelter. Very inspiring!
  • We rescued a puppy and needed to fence off our yard quickly. We posted on e-democracy and within 30 minutes a neighbor offered to lend us his posts and wire fencing and we were able to contain the pup immediately and keep her safe until we could put up a more permanent fence.  
  • We moved in to this neighborhood in March. I posted about our cat who escaped and many helpful neighbors responded and we got him back!
  • A chicken appeared in our yard and we were able to locate the owner via the forum.

 

And build welcoming communities –

 

  • I just moved here from out of state, and it has been incredibly helpful to know that there’s a community of people out there working to make this place a more welcoming, equitable, livable place.
  • We are new to the community so having access to the online forum helped us decide if it was the right neighborhood for our family. We were able to gauge how involved people are and what they do. We are looking forward to participating in this on a regular basis.
  • I enjoy living in a large city, and the sense of community that the forum provides enhances the experience.

 

 

And yes, there’s more work to be done –

 

  • I wish the city council leadership and police had actively used the forum to help us understand the discussions.
  • In the last few elections, even the primaries, I didn’t just feel like I was checking off random names on the ballot based on a few lines of political propaganda written by someone’s campaign manager; some of these people had actually engaged with each other over local issues in a forum that wasn’t carefully vetted and scripted, which too few of our candidates for elected office are willing to do these days.

 

But in the end –

 

  • It’s really inspiring to see how benevolent the community is. I appreciate reading about people taking animals in, or giving away free stuff, or standing up for things.
  • I just love that it exists. It makes me feel connected to the people in my community.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

RSVP not required.

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

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

The session will cover:

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

Here is more information about DigiDaze …

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

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

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

Click here for a slideshow from past DigiDaze Fairs.

E-Democracy Outreach-001

100,000 Participants – Copying An Idea for Posterity

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 BeNeighbors.org initiative is primed for “awesome” by innovating with next generation civic tech to reach 50%+ of households.

 

Introduction

 

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 BeNeighbors.org 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 ofBeNeighbors.org.

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 BeNeighbors.org 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 BeNeighbors.org 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

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

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.

 

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.

Neighborhoods USA Presentation – Slides and Video

We had a great time at the Neighborhoods USA conference the other week here in Minneapolis.

We added some general content on email newsletters and Facebook Pages for neighborhood associations presented by Executive Director, Steven Clift and then a nice and condensed version of lessons from our inclusive BeNeighbors.org effort by our Outreach Manager, Corrine Bruning.

Long story short – don’t underestimate the value of neighbors inviting you into their email inbox where you retain full control over when and how you want to communicate with local residents. With Facebook “edgerank” determining whether your updates are actually seen by those who use Facebook regularly, ironically you might find your organization using email to drive viewers to your Facebook Page with the hope of it then being shared with that social ecology.

Slides

 

Video – Part 1 – Opening, Email Newsletters, Facebook Pages – Steven Clift

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Small Groups Reports –  available here, but poor sound quality

Video – Part 2 – Inclusive Online Engagement – Corrine Bruning (fast forward to 7:22 to get to Corrine’s main presentation, note that the final 3 minutes are cut off)

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One interesting side note – as you can’t see the raising of hands during the in-room survey. It was clear that very few of the neighborhood-focused government civil servants and neighborhood association staff wanted to use their named personal Facebook accounts as part of their public work … except for some the elected officials in the room (of course a third are also blocked from Facebook at work). Facebook terms only allow you to have one account. We think it is vital that staff with community groups and government offices (from the place of worship secretary to the local park director or librarian) should be able to engage the local public online without over exposing their private life online.

One other survey result – while well over half of the room reported “electronic block club” like activity in their community, when I asked if it covered more than 5% of blocks, all but one hand went down. This put the challenge of how we spread online nearest neighbor connecting beyond those block with a communications “maven” or leader.

Community Outreach Team 2013 – Exciting Summer Work in St. Paul – Deadline May 8

Join our 2013 “BeNeighbors” Community Outreach Team! – APPLY BY MAY 8!

SONY DSCWe are deepening our Knight grant-funded inclusion campaign to grow our St. Paul forums with the greatest diversity possible to over 10,000 members. We’re also planning fundraising to include Minneapolis and other communities in future years.

  • Do you care passionately about building inclusive community?
  • Do you believe commitment to diversity is an important institutional value?
  • Do you want to be part of raising diverse voices?

If so, consider applying for one of 5 part-time, contract outreach positions. These new outreach staff will work both individually and with a team to recruit members for our neighborhood forums primarily among African-American, Southeast Asian, African immigrant, and Latino communities.

Location: Saint Paul with some travel in the Metropolitan Area

Description: Work as part of a team to develop and carry out diverse community outreach. Tasks are likely to include tabling at community events and venues (including outdoor events in sometimes inclement weather), interacting with attendees and/or presenting at neighborhood meetings and events, door knocking and posting flyers, and conducting face-to-face, phone, and online recruitment. The team goal for the summer is to recruit 2,000 new members to the Saint Paul neighborhood forums by focusing efforts on our most highly diverse, low income neighborhoods. Imagine the possibilities for empowering all voices!

Your outreach efforts will be supported by initial training, weekly team debriefs, coordinated outreach strategies and activities, and shared lessons in inclusive outreach and digital technologies. You will also work closely with other E-Democracy staff, contractors and volunteers to develop, refine, and further the goals of the inclusive outreach campaign.

Time Commitment: 12 weeks from late-May through mid-August 2013. Contractors will work 10-20 hours per week and must be flexible, reliable, and able to work mostly late afternoons, evenings, and weekends, sometimes with short notice.

Rate: $12.50/hour. As an independent contractor, you are responsible for all of your own Federal, State, Social Security taxes, and any insurance you choose to carry.

Requirements:

  • Passionate and enthusiastic; positive outlook and willing to lead. Inspires other contractors and volunteers to do high-quality organizing and outreach work
  • Proven ability to work as part of a team. Willing to pitch in to help others with day-to-day project tasks (event logistics, preparing/delivering materials, record-keeping, data entry, etc.).
  • Excellent personal accountability and follow through. Can meet deadlines and manage multiple tasks in a fast-paced work environment; highly flexible and able to handle high-stress situations. Highly self motivated, self directed, and organized.
  • Effective communicator.  Values and fosters open communication; uses and understands the importance of active listening skills, and is an effective public speaker with above-average English-language writing skills.
  • Detail oriented and respectfully work with volunteers
  • Willing to learn and values self-improvement. Able to accept and offer praise and critical feedback; seeks and offers feedback and evaluation.
  • Reliably and consistently available via email and mobile phone
  • Must have reliable transportation to anywhere in the Twin Cities, including ability to haul materials for events and activities

Desired Qualifications and Experience

We are looking for exceptional people who may have talents in the following:

  • Experience or training in leadership development, multicultural outreach and communications, political science, online civic engagement, digital technologies or other related fields
  • Field outreach or organizing in diverse communities (tabling, door knocking, etc.)
  • Bilingual in Hmong, Spanish, Somali,Ethiopian, Burmese, Oromo, etc. (Not required.)
  • Deep connections to the targeted communities in Saint Paul, including involvement in neighborhood/community organizations
  • Proficient with Google Apps, social media, and digital video devices

edemsquarelogoHow to apply: Send a cover letter describing your qualifications and how you heard about the position. Also, attach your resume with three references to team@e-democracy.org by Wednesday, May 8, 2013. We will make the final decision shortly thereafter. Use the subject line: Community Outreach Leader Application. Include any questions in your email. No calls please. For more information, about this effort, please our website, and click on both “Blog” and “About”.

If you see this posting late, check here to see if the position is still open.

E-Democracy builds online public space in the heart of real democracy and community. Our mission is to harness the power of online tools to support participation in public life, strengthen communities, and build democracy.

Thousands of New Members Across St. Paul – BeNeighbors Outreach Highlights from 2012

What an exciting year!

Thousands of St. Paulites have joined their new local online Neighbors Forums (info) and you can too.

Last January, we announced our BeNeighbors.org outreach campaign to inclusively connect 10,000 neighbors online across St. Paul by 2015.

Our dynamic 10 member, part-time, summer outreach team, led by our Outreach Coordinator Corrine Bruning, hit the pavement in late May.

They delivered.

Today, we’ve almost tripled our forum memberships to just shy of 6,000 (up from 2,189 on Jan. 1) across the full network of St. Paul Neighbors Forums.

Our goal is to lead a respectful and meaningful effort that reflects the vibrant diversity of St. Paul as the city approaches 50% people of color. We will not just recruit the easiest-to-reach people to achieve 10,000 neighbors online.

No one in the world has attempted a local online civic engagement effort at this scale with this level of inclusive outreach seeking such a great diversity of participants. The support from the Knight Foundation and our partnership with the City of St. Paul is just the start of a lesson generating effort for all communities interested in civic technology that raises new and diverse voices. Building community bridges across race, ethnicity, income, generations, political perspectives, and more is important and challenging work.

Building Diverse, Lively and Compelling Forum Engagement

Donna Evans is our African-American “grandmother” and the Summit-U volunteer Forum Manager for E-Democracy.  This summer, Donna worked with our Outreach team going door-to-door to connect with neighbors and invite them to our forums.  Donna worked with youth baseball coach and outreach team member Vang Yang, who recruited his baseball team of 11 and 12 year olds to help.  These youth were able to help Donna by translating in Hmong, as the team went throughout the neighborhood.

“Working with these young people and seeing them connect with the Hmong-speaking community in a way that I could not, brought to life the importance of building connections and reaching out to people where they are.” – Donna Evans

Donna’s rewarding experience of working with these Hmong youth culminated in late summer when the team assisted her in her own personal journey.  Nearly six years ago, Donna was living in her truck and on friends’ couches after a house fire left her homeless.  Near the end of this summer, with the help of some of Yang’s team, Donna moved into her first permanent housing since the fire.

“These youth, at such a young age, understand the importance of building community. Their desire to connect with their neighbors and to help me in building my community, is what E-Democracy is all about.” – Donna Evans

If we want to build virtual connections that build bridges in real community, we first need to reach people where they are.  Second, we simply need to ask. We can’t let fears about the digital divide or concerns about someone’s ability to speak English stop us from giving people the opportunity to decide if an online local community connection is relevant and useful to them. By creating an outreach team made up of community members already connected to their local and cultural communities, we not only give neighbors the opportunity to say “yes,” but we instill a sense of trust and comfort in what our online forums can offer.

Walking the talk of inclusion and diverse community outreach is hard work that takes real resources.  We have the Knight Foundation to thank for setting in motion the nation’s largest locally concentrated effort to inclusively connect neighbors online.

What We’ve Achieved – By the Numbers

 

St. Paul Neighbors Forum Growth

  • Recruited over 3,600 new Neighbors Forum members across St. Paul—Up 266% to almost 6,000 members from 2,189 at the start of grant on January 1. This number above does not include the over 1000 memberships on our long-time citywide online town hall for St. Paul.
  • We now have over 16,000 forum memberships across the Twin Cities on all forums. St. Paul is catching up to Minneapolis, where the combined neighborhood and citywide number is 9,200+ members today. We are seeking support to extend inclusive outreach across Minneapolis. It works.
  • 3,000 members signed up in-person through door knocking and across 129 different outreach events. Our part-time, 10 member Summer Outreach Team, spoke six different languages and each worked about 15 hours a week. They recruited:
    • 917 new members by door knocking in 20 targeted areas; 132 individual assignments
    • 692 new members at 39 community events
    • 340 new members at 28 community locations (tabling at libraries, etc.)
    • 182 new members at 10 National Night Out sites
    • 89 new members at 4 ethnic soccer games
    • 76 new members at 12 community meetings
  • Over 10 new forums launched across St. Paul’s, including the very diverse East Side, North End, and West Side areas. Central Corridor forums were bolstered and are among our largest with Frogtown, the most diverse and lowest income area of the city, now reaching almost 800 members. Some neighborhoods host their own forums on Facebook, YahooGroups, etc., which we also promote through our “Got Milk?” style BeNeighbors.org directory.
  • Gathering diverse neighbors into a unified virtual room is only the beginning. Making the experience useful, relevant, and reflective of the diversity in that room is our current focus. The evaluation of our previous Inclusive Social Media pilot supported by the Ford Foundation shares lessons in-depth that are guiding our work. Stay tuned for a future blog post on our forum engagement and volunteer development strategies.

 

Thank You Team

You made a real difference for people of St. Paul that will have an impact for years.

You’ve also inspired deliberative democracy and civic technology projects around the nation to explore ways to step up their inclusion efforts. In October, we shared lessons in Seattle at a community event and at the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation. Our view is that it is not good enough to build a good “civic app” that in reality ends up being used almost exclusively by those “who are already show up.” Expanding social benefits and generating new social capital is a challenge the engagement and technology field can tackle together if we capture and share lessons from outreach efforts like we had this summer.

team-excited

We are excited to announce that Will Howell and Donna Evans from our summer team are still with us on a part-time contract basis. Stay tuned for future position announcements for diverse community forum engagement and our next wave of field outreach as we innovate further in 2013.

Help E-Democracy Win the $10,000 Golden Ticket – Nov. 15th is Give to the Max Day

Today is a big day in Minnesota. It is a day of giving to the non-profit organizations that inspire and serve you.

Donate Now.

Whether you are a Neighbors Forum participant in Minneapolis or an e-democracy supporter in Europe, Asia, etc. your donation matters.

We’ve opened up our network to local non-profits seeking to reach their neighbors on this special day as well. Go local. Donate online today – Nov. 15.

On the hour, one donation will earn the lucky non-profit $1,000 and across all the organization one of the participating non-profits will win $10,000. Whether you give $100, 50 pounds, or 10 Euros, a donation of any amount may win that prize for our mission. Exciting.

So press the big button below to learn more and help us extend our work to thousands more people!

Donate to E-Democracy on Give to the Max Day

 

Here is our letter this morning to forum members:

Subject:  Good morning. Support the Lasagna Revolution.

Good morning!

It is Give to the Max Day in Minnesota – http://givemn.razoo.com/story/Minnesota-E-Democracy/

I wrote this up this morning …

I’m excited about the power of connecting people.

Not just those who already show up or have the same background – everyone, ALL people in local communities right down to the neighborhood level.

* Yesterday, on my area’s Neighbors Forum, Julia posted that she needed help right away to bake eight lasagnas for a memorial service later that day for a dear friend. Within the hour Julia posted back that all eight were baking away across in neighbors ovens.

* Also yesterday, in District 1 in St. Paul, on a new very diverse forum built with door to door outreach, a very dynamic and open exchange about the proposed closing (and likely passing on to a non-profit for some programming) of the local Conway park center involved the local city council member and very concerned residents and neighborhood association staff.

* The other week, a found dog was reunited within 45 minutes with its owners via the forum. (I swear lost pets are our number one forum recruitment tool.  People join out of necessity and stay for community life exchange. :-))

From unleashing the capacity of neighbors to help each other to building community to raising diverse voices and generating greater understanding across diverse communities who live together, this doesn’t just happen.

Why does this work?

1. You are here. You take time to read and reply.

2. You share. You post community announcements and forward posts to others.

3. You volunteer. Each forum has a dedicated Forum Manager (and stay tuned for all sort of new volunteer opportunities where you can help in small ways.)

In the last year we crossed the 20,000 site members mark with about 15,000 forum members in the Twin Cities. With Knight Foundation grant support, over 4,000 new forum members were recruited across St. Paul’s many new start-up forums led by our amazing summer outreach team. (See their picture … linked below. They spoke 6 languages.)

When I heard the story how Hmong youth baseball team members from public housing coached by our outreach team member Vang volunteered to translate when needed for Donna, our African-American grandmother outreach team member, while going door to door in St. Paul introducing these forums, it choked me up. This is real. You can “Like” everything you want on Facebook, but if you really want to connect everyone, all people in local communities you have to go to people whether they are at community events and their homes. With inclusive outreach it takes dedicated people and real resources to build trust and engage people together from across ALL communities in relevant and meaningful ways.

Whether you are on one of our rocking forums with over 1000 members reaching 25% of households daily or on a quiet *for now* start-up forum trying to figure out what it means to be instantly connected with interested neighbors across your local community, you help make this happen.

So let me add two more numbers:

5. You invite others. Invite them to: http://beneighbors.org

4. You donate: http://givemn.razoo.com/story/Minnesota-E-Democracy/

Today is Give to the Max Day in Minnesota. Your donation might just be the one that wins us the $10,000 Golden Ticket. If we win, we will door-knock your neighborhood with our outreach team just for your local forum. If we raise even $500 in combined donations across your forum, we can organize a special door knock and for example bring Spanish or Somali speakers if that is part of your community that is least connected on your forum.

There are three main reasons we encourage you to donate any amount to E-Democracy for hosting this forum:

A. You value it. Perhaps you learned something, raised your voice, saved a buck, or got a free couch.

B. You believe in inclusive, open, and civil connections in community and you want us to do more outreach in your area. Our grant resources are focused on lower income areas of St. Paul when it comes intensive door to door outreach. With donations we can expand to your area and do more inclusion work overall.

C. You want to increase our support for your local volunteers. Thank them for their time. Adding new volunteer roles and training to bolster forum engagement is a top priority. If your time to volunteer is limited, a donation will help us coordinate those efforts across our network.

When I woke up this morning with a headache and didn’t know what I’d write, I decided to think of you across the table with a cup of coffee in hand.

It has been an exciting year. We’ve grown more in the last year than at any time in our first 18 years. For the first decade I subsidized this effort with my business (speaking about democracy online around the world … it was fun) and lots of volunteers. Then slowly we built up more volunteers, some funding, and a few donations. We broke through with a three year grant – our first multi-year grant ever. Our work is on fire and our staff team (many are part-time, seasonal) is awesome. I want to give them more work and create more summer jobs for students (mostly.)

Even with social media exhaustion, there are thousands of people to reach – from new residents and immigrants to young people and seniors who are online (our likely oldest poster is 93 and has lived in Phillips since 1958 … her son types for her due to arthritis ) – who if asked would join you on your forum tomorrow. Let’s make this happen.

If you’ve read this far you are awesome … let me note that while grants can help us bolster inclusive outreach on a temporary basis in some targeted areas, it will be your donations, forum sponsorship, and local events that drive our volunteer-supporting work in most communities. The more people who step up and donate any amount, the more likely other funders will be inspired to help us reach more people in great leaps.

So there we go, it is up to you, if you value your forum today or want your start-up forum to reach hundreds more people and join the fun, please donate today on Give to the Max Day:

http://givemn.razoo.com/story/Minnesota-E-Democracy/

(See the slideshow of our summer outreach team and some video.)

Your participation and support is appreciated.

Sincerely,
Steven Clift
Founder and Executive Director, E-Democracy.org

 

 

 

Top Six Tips for Networking Neighbors Online

Blocks Collage

On the first Tuesday of August, ten of thousands of neighbors will gather block by block across St. Paul and Minneapolis and around the United States as part of National Night Out, Nite to Unite, and other similar events.

Crime prevention is the name, but in our view community building is the game.

To leverage this night into year round neighbor connecting, here are some simple suggestions:

1. Gather E-mail – Pass around a sign-up sheet like this (template) to collect e-mail addresses, mobile/text numbers, etc. Text messaging on very urgent matters with neighbors is a new opportunity. Alternatively pass around a flyer people can read (example).

2. Create Directory – After the event, type up a simple directory of neighbors who shared that information and e-mail them a copy. Print copies for those not online. You don’t want to exclude often older or lower income neighbors.

3. Connect Simply – Send everyone a cc: message so at the most basic level people just “reply to all” to people on your blocks. Millions of Americans connect in simple ways with neighbors online. It doesn’t need to be complicated.

4. Gather Ideas, Be a Connector - Join Block Connectors the new online group for people who want to make their block safer and more connected. While police departments will share information with you one-way about building neighborhood watches, etc. this online group can connect you peer to peer with other inspiring neighbors like you ready to make a difference on your street.

5. Network Nearest Neighbors – Consider creating an automated private online group for your block or two … let’s call these “electronic block clubs.” You can do this using tools like Facebook Groups (some cautions), Google Groups, YahooGroups, etc. or check out some specialty tools. Simple e-mail lists seem to work well for most. Because Facebook Groups are really e-mail lists in disguise when under 150 members, they are increasingly popular. Unfortunately, the crucial ability to “add” not just “invite” someone from a paper sign-up sheet is now not supported by these services. E-Democracy is piloting electronic block clubs and testing different open source technologies. Contact us if interested. With our system you can crucially “add” people with their permission on paper sign-up sheets you can take door to door.

Do not create a private virtual gated community covering hundreds or thousands of people limited only to residents if you seek to build an inclusive, open, and civically engaging online space – one that builds community and connects residents, local businesses, places of worship, and community organizations ALL together. Resident-only and private makes sense on your block, but NOT for larger communities. Unfortunately, national National Night Out has picked out a single venture funded .com start-up that promotes large neighborhood-wide private online networks. While a fine tool for small sets of households, that approach and unfortunately their government partners are planting seeds of division with their technology design. I guess large groups are fine for an actual gated community, but it is so fundamentally anti-Midwestern values that this choice needs to be made clear and pointed out. Areas covering full neighborhoods or communities with thousands of people should be far more public and open to the full community. (Disclosure: E-Democracy.org hosts very public Neighbors Forums for population areas from 5,000 to 20,000 people and design them to include ALL people across income, race, age, etc. differences. National surveys point out that wealthier people like connecting with their neighbors and rather than embrace that commercially, we seek to broaden engagement with a non-profit model. More numbers on new divisions we can prevent are available. I guess this is like the Walmart versus the farmers market choice.)

If you want to create a public online Neighbors Forums request one here. Our largest neighborhood networks reach over 1,000 people daily and are approaching 25% of households.

6. Keep Having Fun – Don’t let your block connecting momentum slide. Set a date for a winter potluck. We are proposing the Great Potluck the week of January 15 when our neighborly warmth can counter the cold and dark. Join Block Connectors to get involved. Or explore one the many block activities on this mega-list.

What is missing from this list? Add your ideas in the comments.

For similar ideas, see this article we wrote in 2004 before brought our online townhall model to the neighborhood level.