History of E-Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will add more analysis as it is available here.

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

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

Some analysis now:

Some compelling results …

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

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

And amazingly (to us anyway):

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emerging analysis

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

(Added Mar 8)

This article is a work in progress …

Survey Says … (text from our e-newsletter)

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

Door to door worked. Community festivals worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Key Tables and Charts

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

 

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

edemQ9important

 

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

edemQ10satisfied

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

edemQ11value

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

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

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

edemQ12domore

Here are open ended survey responses sorted into theme.

Select survey comments/stories sorted by theme:

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

 

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

Promoting local festivals and events –

 

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

 

Promoting local businesses and service providers –

 

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

 

Discussing community issues and happenings –

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

And other local issues that matter –

(formerly Campaigns/Elected Officials)

 

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

 

Being connected and informed helps us take action –

 

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

 

Together, we make things happen –

 

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

 

Our ideas get carried forward to committees and local councils –

 

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

 

We build strong communities when we meet –

 

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

 

That keep us in touch with our humanity –

(formerly Help neighbors in need)

 

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

 

We strengthen our connections when we exchange things –

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And, together, we care for our companions –

 

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

 

And build welcoming communities –

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

But in the end –

 

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

 

 

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

Knight Green Line Challenge

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

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

Join our special public drafting effort via Google Docs.

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

3333 Community Sparks – Copying Another Idea for Posterity

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

 

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

Steven Clift

by Steven Clift | Mar 21, 2013

Summary:

It starts with you. Yes, you.

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

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

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

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

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

How will it work?

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

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

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

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

5. Innovate with online nearest neighbor connections and more.

Let’s get started now! Sign-up: http://e-democracy.org/beaspark

 

Your idea

Title of your idea

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

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

It starts with you. Yes, you.

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

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

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

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

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

How will it work?

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

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

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

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

5. Innovate with online nearest neighbor connections and more.

Let’s get started now! Sign-up: http://e-democracy.org/beaspark

Website address (if applicable)

Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

Impact

This Entry is about (Issues)

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

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

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

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

Sustainability


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

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

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

100,000 Participants – Copying An Idea for Posterity

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

100,000+ Participants. Local. Inclusive.

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

 

Introduction

 

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

A: You:

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Participation in what?

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

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

The core project features:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

3.B. Solutions and Listening

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

4. Engagement Tech

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

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

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

5. Engagement Initiative – Lesson Sharing, Convening 

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

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

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

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

What is your project? [1 sentence max]

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

Where are you located?

St. Paul/Minnesota/United States

How did you hear about the contest?

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

 

More pictures

BeNeighbors Logo

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

europeclift

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

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

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

 

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

 

Related

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

 

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

Payne Phalen Neighborhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quotes from the Forum

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ray Widstrand poster

Knowledge Maximizer – Please Join Our Draft Survey Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Draft input opportunity

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

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

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

Where did the questions come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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