E-Democracy’s 2015 Year in Review

E-Democracy’s 2015 Year in Review Highlights





1. Your Neighborhoods/Neighbourhoods

  • We love neighborhoods! – Our strongest Neighbors Forums continue to thrive – from lost dogs being reunited to free stuff to vital community issues being discussed the local communities online movement is spreading – particularly on Facebook Groups – all around the world. Our “how to” lessons with Neighbors Online are useful across all platforms. Our volunteer-based, non-profit, inclusive public space and open source for local communities online remains a unique around the world. In addition to serving our communities, we are a lesson-building test bed and passionate about open sharing. What new ideas do you have for communities online? Share them! Let’s get creative.
  • Twin Cities Participant Survey Released – Amazing insights were shared with all from a whopping 1300 respondents on our blog. 56% credit their forum for being more satisfied with their local community. 79% more informed about community issues, 45% learned more about how to influence community decisions, 32% learned more about neighbors of different races and ethnicity, 22% do more favors for neighbors than before, 41 attend more community events, 42% visit local businesses or hire neighbors for odd jobs more. Over 750 people have reviewed these results and the University of Pittsburgh continues to generate related research from our activities.
  • Finished BeNeighbors.org Report to Knight Foundation – We strongly believe that inclusion is vital including connecting local communities online across race, income, and immigrant/native born is vital. If you would like review our grant report, please contact us. Unfortunately, the venture funded and commercial-based neighbors online connecting efforts with the major resources today are hyper-connecting the most wired and higher income neighborhoods far more than lower income areas. They are not working to intentionally building bridges among diverse communities. We have have many ideas about what is needed to promote more inclusion that is socially essential to counter the exclusive resident-only gated-community approaches so attractive to Silicon Valley investors. Get in touch if you want to help us make those ideas a reality. We will continue to build on our inclusion mission with volunteer capacity in our neighborhoods to show how openness and inclusion works.





2. Your Community

  • Growth – Our community-wide efforts in Framingham and now Westwood in Massachusetts continue to grow. The Saint Paul Issues Forum was a hopping forum this year and the #stpaul15 Election 2015 directory and experimental Local Candidates Facebook Interest List collecting posts from scores of local candidates promotes social media connecting with candidates and elected officials.
  • Our city-wide “online townhall model” – like the Minneapolis Issues Forum – remains an important missing gap for participation in almost all cities. While neighborhoods online is spreading on many platforms, spaces for city-wide civil discussion of happenings in local city councils remains very rare.
  • Open Twin Cities with Code for America – E-Democracy is the proud fiscal agent for one of the world’s best local “Brigades.” With 2 local meetups each month and hackathons, this is a great example of community-wide open government and civic technology innovation.


3. Our Democracies – Local Democracy on up to Worldwide Impact

(These are volunteer or contract revenue generating activities that further support our forums.)

  • Global Convening – E-Democracy’s exciting Open Government and Civic Technology Facebook Group is approaching 5,000 members from 100+ nations. Join in on this global sharing engine. This year we’ve hosted civic tech social gatherings in Washington DC (after our Executive Director met one on one with staff from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) and Brussels via the “events” feature on the group. Our Democracies Online Newswire email list remains our most powerful knowledge sharing tool and our directory of over 100 e-democracy related online groups remains popular.
  • Taiwan, Philippines, Community of Democracies in El Salvador and more –  E-Democracy’s work and 20 years of e-democracy lessons were shared by our Executive Director Steven Clift as a guest of the U.S. State Department in Taiwan in July. Check out this geekier version of the presentation in video (with Chinese translation). Presentations continued in the Philippines including one to nearly 1,000 students at the City University of Manila. Weeks later, we presented a case study on E-Democracy from our neighbors online work at the 106 nation Community of Democracies conference (a network of national governments promoting democracy). Next up is participation in the World Forum for Democracy hosted by the Council of Europe next week. Steven has been working for the UK-based Knowledge Hub and his 1 Radio News start-up while volunteering for E-Democracy which he co-founded in 1994. These efforts need to be thanked for their flexibility with time spent on E-Democracy.
  • Online Deliberation – E-Democracy finished our report to the Kettering Foundation on lessons from our pilot use of their Common Ground for Action platform for online deliberation. E-Democracy provides contract services where possible as grants for inclusive online civic engagement work have dried up with more focus on technological solutions and open data. E-Democracy remains a people first, technology second organization.
  • Global Civic Tech Collaboration – Contracted by UK-based mySociety.org, E-Democracy led a special three month project to expand online engagement in the Poplus.org civic tech collaboration effort. Unlike most tech projects that under-invest in human-centered outreach and engagement, Poplus.org made engagement a priority. We increased the number of countries represented on the group from 60 to 80 and added 200 new members. Read the exciting round of introductions.
  • YourNextRepresentative – E-Democracy is collaborating with DataMade in Chicago, mySociety in the UK, and Congreso Interactivo of Argentina to deploy YourNextRep for the Minnesota state legislative election early in 2016. This will be the first pilot deployment of the innovative UK YourNextMP project which made candidates for parliament far more accessible online. The crowd-sourced data was so good, Google used it as the semi-official data source of candidate links. Join the Poplus.org online group and/or MN-Politics forum to get involved or contact us.
  • Ideas for Open Government and Inclusion – In our meetings with White House staff, the Sunlight Foundation and others, people have expressed an interest in new data from a census survey of 40,000+ Americans on their Internet use which includes a question on e-government service use. We analyzed the previous survey here and see an opportunity for the “open government” community to better understand who is and is not being reached with government online so we can target our scarce resources to do something about it. Join here and contact us for more information. We are seeking funding to lead a research and dissemination effort building on this just released data (which buried e-gov use in “other”). We also included use of this data in a Knight News Challenge proposal about the “democratic data deficit.” That proposal includes some of our latest thinking about filling the gaps with open government/civic tech/e-democracy that need to be filled.

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
7 pieces of advice from professionals
  • 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.
  • 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

Make article

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?



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…


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


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?



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.



Fundraiser: Most Important Message from E-Democracy this Decade, Donate Today, Thank You Supporters


Short Version 🙂

Thank You Supporters!
We broke our record for the number of donors in one year with 184 contributing so far in our end of year pledge drive. We’ve raised $6,684 on our way to meet our essential goal of $10,000 US.

(For those who have donated already, skip to the long letter that shares our future optimism and an honest sense of reality.)

We need you.
If you haven’t donated, please join your neighbors/neighbours who are standing up for community connections that matter online. From our new friends in Framingham and new participants in Saint Paul to long-time Minneapolis members to global supporters of our knowledge sharing efforts, together we are making this happen!


Or simply mail your check to:

E-Democracy, 3211 E. 44th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55406 USA

Donations to our non-profit are tax-deductible in the U.S. and depending upon tax laws in other places. You may donate anonymously or set a recurring regular donation.

  • The $10,000 will cover our bare-bones technology and help desk costs for all of 2015. This directly supports your online community forum and your awesome local volunteer.
  • I will personally match the first $5 of every donation made in the next 48 hours.
  • As our major grant funding for forum work is now finished and we see no grant opportunities for our vibrant online forum work, all forums must cover their real costs going forward.

To get involved in a “Forum Futures” meeting/teleconference, please fill out our simple volunteer form and mention this meeting. Time to get creative on costs and resources. If you are an existing volunteer, contact us: contact@e-democracy.org

(For the long-version below, grab some coffee and read on! – Steve)

Letter from Steven Clift, Executive Director, E-Democracy

Steven Clift

In a world filled with buzz words, we do something simple:

  • We connect you to your community.
  • You make it happen by participating in local public life online.
  • Together, led by local volunteers, we do this with an inclusive spirit to make our communities more open, friendly, and proudly better places to live.

To keep this civic dream alive we need your financial support. (Bored already? 🙂 Donate here.)

As a Midwesterner, I honestly get extremely uncomfortable asking for money.

For the first decade of E-Democracy, I and many others simply donated our time – lots of it – to this digital era civic cause. We innovated with the world’s first election information website and the local online town hall using real names a decade before Facebook.

And then we grew up.

In our second decade, our tech improved and we went open source. We expanded from two city-wide online town halls to dozens of very local community AND civic life online forums attracting over 25,000 forum memberships. Heck, combining our global convening and knowledge sharing on all things e-democracy and open government, we even received White House recognition last year.

I’ve personally entered an E-Democracy phase informed by an exciting community life with a family – a wonderful wife, a house and two cute kids – that connects so well with our neighborly focus. I feel connected to my local community like I could have never imagined.

We attracted small grants and an Ashoka Fellowship that allowed me and others to go from subsidizing the organization to actually working for E-Democracy.

Then over the last three years the Knight Foundation (after five years of pursuit) invested in an audacious and unparalleled inclusive community engagement online effort. We thank them for all of their support.

We’ve sought to expand Neighbors Forums across all of Saint Paul that actually include ALL kinds of residents including lower income neighbors, people of color, immigrants, renters, older and younger residents, etc. The $625,000 we’ve been able to invest in online community engagement has focused on Saint Paul but it benefited our entire network. It is also generating lessons of interest to community builders and democracy activists around the world (from Finland to Estonia to the United Kingdom).

Survey Says …

The exciting participant survey results are coming in from Minneapolis and Saint Paul with over 1,350 responses! They show great comparative success in reaching the broader local community with inclusion in Saint Paul.

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 you 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 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 percents strongly agreeing with this statement – more so than all but one of our super active forums!

Inclusive forum recruitment is NOT truly inclusive on-forum engagement

Building on our base, the next big challenge we attempted to present in over a dozen grant proposals to local Twin Cities foundations was how to build on this inclusive base of participants. The honest truth is that on our rocking South Minneapolis forums, where most people were invited by neighbors off-line, we have a vibrant week’s worth of activity in a day compared to our forums in lower income areas built with in-person outreach. Forums will be used differently and even have a bigger social impact where community news is less accessible, but we need to do better.

Having important inclusive engagement work to do – that is fundamentally charitable in nature – on likely the world’s most representative local online forums doesn’t make funding appear. With the shrinking pool of community engagement funding, it is hard to compete with so many compelling needs that are far less speculative than our online engagement approach.

Today, we are innovating in the face of private resident-only online models (aka gated communities) that exclude our community’s civil servants like our crime prevention officers, library and park staff etc., small businesses, journalists, places of worship from full online participation. Efforts like NextDoor have attracted $100 million in venture capital. Today, Facebook Groups now work a lot better and Facebook has a near monopoly with online engagement but share no revenue with those seeking to do more than just connect the easiest to gather in our communities via their tools. From printing flyers to going door to door, those activities have real costs.

While we’ve been told that national foundations figure the market is taking care of neighborhoods online, we see reinforced barriers and enclaves emerging that connect neighbors who are the most similar. We see governments cutting themselves off from direct citizen engagement that our very public community forums offer. This may be the Silicon Valley vision of neighborhoods, but it doesn’t need to be ours. As location based advertising grows on Facebook and likely gets turned on with NextDoor, we fear for our cherished neighborhood press that is vital to community information and local government accountability and engagement.

What to do?

Where we are strong now, where we have a foothold, in an new era volunteer energy, we can do something different. We must.

Our non-profit, community-driven network touches the lives of thousands of people everyday. Within our network are ideas and passions that will sustain us.

We can also share our lessons so that those who love their neighborhood Facebook Group or NextDoor community can step it up with inclusive in-person outreach to build stronger communities for all. In fact, we see engaging other communities via multiple platforms as a good path to greater social impact while still innovating within our base.

Core costs – real money, but under 50 cents a year per participant!

We must raise $10,000 to cover our base technology and help desk costs for 2015. We literally make over a million individual community connections via email every year. We don’t have a fancy Facebook-like “filter bubble” where a computer tries to send you only the community messages in which it thinks you will be interested. Our embrace of active community serendipity has a real cost.

Over the last five years we’ve carefully built up a reserve of around $10,000 from fee-based contract work, public speaking, etc. So, this year we have the time to “right size” our organization costs, increase the role of volunteers (Become one!), etc. I am committed to our efforts, but when it comes to our community forum work it will also become again a volunteer effort that generates amazing community value for the effort.

To get involved in a “Forum Futures” meeting/teleconference, please fill out our simple volunteer form and mention this meeting. Time to get creative on costs and resources. If you are an existing volunteer, contact us: contact@e-democracy.org

Ideally we will build on our open source approach and find creative ways to cover the real and increasing costs of our technology independence (now $6,000 a year up from a fairly subsidized $2,000 a few years ago via our OnlineGroups.Net partner who keeps our service up 24 x 7, 365 days a year).

So, please donate any amount. (If you have donated THANK YOU!)

I will personally match the first $5 of every donation we receive in the next 48 hours. While big donations are important, setting a recurring donation of $25 a year or more will shorten our yearly pledge drive.

The next decade … or next year anyway …

If we don’t see funding opportunities to subsidize our forum network, you might be asking what other plans do we have to pursue our broad online civic engagement mission?

I thought I’d take this opportunity to share where we do see fundable opportunities:

  1. Expand global knowledge exchange on open government and civic technology – Our new Open Government and Civic Technology Facebook Group has rocketed to over 2,700 members from 100+ nations. We seek sponsors to grow this group to 10,000 participants from all nations and add a weekly “best of” email newsletter along since our our long-time Democracies Online Newswire service.
  2. Innovate with Open Twin Cities – We’ve served as a vital incubator for Open Twin Cities, which is emerging as one of the nation’s leading local Code for America Brigades. With partners, we are seeking to be one of three cities nationally funded to use open government data for social impact engaging and serving lower income communities. The national funder will require local funders to match. Stay tuned.
  3. Online engagement and outreach – We are being contracted by mySociety to lead creative online engagement efforts within the global Poplus federation. Based in the United Kingdom, mySociety is one of the world’s most respected and innovative civic technology initiatives. We will be fostering engagement in their online group and reaching out nation by nation, city by city to technology developers and democracy builders to further this truly next generation sharable technology components approach to sharing democratic innovations across borders.
  4. Civic technology and open government “test bed” – Leveraging perhaps the world’s most representative base of online civic engagement participants in our most active local areas, we see an exciting opportunity to build on the experience of helping test the Kettering Foundation’s beta online deliberation platform. As someone from Google once said to me, it doesn’t do any good to only test civic technology with early adopters who already show up. With thousands of users not locked into a proprietary platform, we have some very unique flexibility. If someone wanted to test a civic app with immigrant youth for example, we have the trusted community relationships to foster meaningful engagement.
  5. Neighbors online and real life community building – We are exploring, with the University of Pittsburgh and potentially other partners, a research grant proposal to bring neighbors online down to the block and building level within our strongest neighborhoods to develop knowledge and research on what works build bridges from online activity into off-line asset-based community connections, social capital generation, and more. As the only open source, non-profit, public life online civic engagement project with online exchange in the Creative Commons, we see huge potential in being both an authentic local-up civic engagement project and a global engine for knowledge generation and lesson sharing. In fact, it is our view that had we not built in wide lesson-sharing into our Knight-funded BeNeighbors.org effort, it would be hard to justify the resources invested. If accessed, our lessons will help civic technology projects everywhere be far more effective with the inclusive outreach needed to be far more representative in their work and not just further empower the already powerful.

We excel at convening and hosting online exchange be it in a neighborhood or in a global online community of practice – we seek to help other organizations meet their civic goals online.

In general, we expect our future revenue to come from projects and other fee-for-service work. The era of the big grant is likely over.

That said, should a door be opened or an opportunity appear, we have no shortage of big ideas from 3333 Community Sparks to Open Groups for Internet freedom to launching a collaborative effort to promote inclusion across the civic technology and open government field to proposed Open Minnesota legislation to smaller scale efforts to build on our base ideas like an online emerging leaders network led by immigrant across ethnicity led by the kinds of young people who led our field outreach to collaborating with groups like the Somali youth arts group Kajoog to foster inclusive participation on our Seward and other forums. We do not have a shortage of ideas that seemingly do not fit the priorities of funders NOR are they appropriate to fund with donations meant to support the core needs of your local forum.

The reality is that community-based foundations, who care deeply about inclusion and equity, may well think of technology as by its nature an exclusive tool or are not comfortable with our integrationist, multi-ethnic approach. Or as they say, we have hundreds of applicants and fierce competition for resources. National foundations want to fund national efforts that can “scale” or they want skip ahead and focus online tools on national decision-making and addressing partisan gridlock rather than fostering the widespread community engagement we see as the precursor to rebuilding democracy and civility in public life.

Perhaps in time, these kinds of ideas will find a receptive ear, but not tomorrow when our well funded initiative comes to a close.

So, if you read this far, I suppose I should you pay you. 🙂 The best I can do today is match the first $5 of your donation via PayPal, GiveMN or check sent to:

E-Democracy, 3211 44th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55406

It is important to note that everyday we’ve connected more people to their local communities online than the day before for twenty years. We need to keep reasonable expectations, for momentum is more important than an instant success as a non-profit. While the coming year will be challenging with many changes, that makes it a time of opportunity. Necessity is the mother of all invention, so let’s innovate together!

All the best in 2015,

Steven Clift
Executive Director, E-Democracy

Facebook-Native Politicians – Slides, Webcast and Live Hangout Q and A Dec. 3/4

Minneapolis City Council Members - Source MinnPost

Are you ready for something completely new?

Introducing the “Facebook Native Politician” … meaning someone on Facebook from their teens or college days now entering elective public office. Facebook user first, politician second.

In my view, Minneapolis has the most exciting 24/7 “Facebook” engaged City Council in the world.

With this embryonic case study, you can decide for yourself, explore the lessons, and adapt them to your community.

This unfolding story is about what happens when you elect seven new city council members with an AVERAGE age of 33 who are Facebook Natives. This is combined with 6 returning council members and a new Mayor who in their own right  are also quite social media savvy and engaged online with their constituents.

This is no longer a story of using social media to gather votes and then going silent once power is gained. This “engagement generation” sees things differently.

You may have heard about #pointergate. Now check out the deeper context of social media engagement in Minneapolis public and political life and join our live online Hangouts and Facebook Group topic to share Facebook engagement stories from your elected representatives around the world.

Image Credit: MinnPost


Watch the snappy half-hour presentation by E-Democracy Executive Director Steven Clift hosted by Involve with the University Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy  (Clift starts at 5:15):


Google Slides (includes updates)

SlideShare (as of Nov 18 2014):

Blog Posts

About this event/presentation:




UK Engagements 2014 – Consultation Institute, SOCITM, Involve, Norbiton, MozFest, mySociety and more

Steven Clift, our Executive Director, will be visiting the UK on a speaking and engagement tour from October 20-28.

My Facebook Native Councillors presentation starts at 5:10 and goes for 28 minutes:


While I will not be offering my Neighbors Online seminar on this trip (unless someone would like to sponsor it the morning of Oct 27 or on Oct 28). These current slides and and two earlier video options, one with discussion mixed in and the other with discussion at the end, are available.

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

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


Digital Outreach for Civic Hacking Awesomeness

Practical ideas for promoting your local civic technology hackathon*

Written for local National Day of Civic Hacking organizers by Steven Clift, E-Democracy.org

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

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


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

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

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

Getting started with outreach:

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


Advanced Civic Tech Event Community Outreach:

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

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

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

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


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.




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


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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.