April 2009 E-Democracy News

E-Democracy News

April 2009

Volume 1, Issue 4

May 1st
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In This Issue

From the Founder

Steven Clift photo

A Penny for Your Thoughts

Pop quiz – what would motivate you to support E-Democracy with:

  • Your participation?
  • Your volunteer time?
  • Your money?

Answer three quick questions right now to help us prepare a full survey we will take to a wider audience.

Your Money
We’ve done some math. We’ve figured out that it will cost us three pennies (US) per day per participant to support a network of 40+ issues forums across 20 communities with 10,000 registered members. That’s currently an average yearly cost of $10 U.S., 7 GBP, and $17 NZ per participant to maintain what’s running with a few part-time people and our technology infrastructure (or $100,000 a year total to maintain real service for all existing communities). Because we are set to grow from our current base of 25 forums and 6,000 participants, now is the time to transition how we support established issues forum communities (and this newsletter, as well).

While we’ve used amazing volunteer support, earned revenue from consulting, grants for expansion, and support from my Ashoka Fellowship (the three-year paid part ends later this year) to support our efforts, we all know that this is a shared endeavor and ultimately you as participants get to determine the “right size” of the issues forum services we provide to local communities. While we continue to seek grants and major donations to execute our full strategic plan, it is common sense that every community in our network will need to contribute something toward the costs they generate for us to maintain sustainability.

Based on input from a previous survey, participants and supporters get to decide what they value and support that with their donations. In the UK, our advisory committee strongly recommends seeking service fee support from local councils to cover their share of costs (folks pay taxes for the BBC and generally expect that their taxes have already paid for this kind of core democratic service). As a result, we need participants to help make the case (see question 3) and help set up such a relationship with your local government. UK participants may donate, but at this point, no American-style “pledge drives” for you. In New Zealand with our one forum, our survey said, you are flexible – you accept either model or a hybrid. We get tremendous service, much of it donated, from OnlineGroups.Net, based in Christchurch.

If this seems like a bit of tight rope walk, it is.

Making Local E-Democracy Exciting and Valued
We know that the services we provide to local communities and the future ideas we explore with major funders to take democracy and community online to the next level must be useful, effective, and innovative to make a real difference. Here are some more things that we know:

  • We are about two-way interactivity and the online spaces we craft and host must be effective and agenda-setting.
  • Civility and facilitation are essential to generating local public value. (We must contrast with the nasty scene we see with most anonymous local online news and blog comments.)
  • Neighborhood and rural/small town issues forums are really exciting, they are big “C” community first and small “p” politics second.
  • Readers matter just as much as those who post and share content.
  • Volunteers are our backbone, and coordination takes real resources.
  • Genuine, socially inclusive outreach is a job and must be properly funded to happen. Lower income and diverse areas will be left behind with “e-democracy” without grants and other investments.
  • Ultimately, what we do has to be very low cost to be sustainable as we grow to more communities. No one is going get rich with what we do.
  • Participating in local community online is both fun and important. Keep it that way.

In addition the quick preliminary survey, feel free to contact me with your ideas and suggestions directly via e-mail or other means. Sharing your confidence in your local issues forum or your support for E-Democracy.Org with a donation today is something we will appreciate considerably. It will make a real difference.

Steven Clift
Executive Director and Co-Founder, E-Democracy.Org

P.S. Are you interested in using social media to build local community? Don’t miss the blog, video, twitter, and other highlights from the Minnesota Voices Unconference – we co-hosted with the Blandin Foundation, as well as the local social media links, and my presentation on government and online transparency from my visit to Boston.

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Briefly — Upcoming Events and Recent Resources

E-Democracy.Org UK Advisory and Local E-Democracy Networking Gather in London
Join our UK-based E-Democracy.Org advisers and a mix of folks interested in local e-democracy on April 23rd at 6 p.m. in central London. Please RSVP via our contact form and we will send you the latest details.

Citizen participation workshop April 22 in Prague
Reconnecting Citizens with Politics and Policy-making, a joint workshop of the European eParticipation study and the Demos@Work project, is planned the evening of April 22 in Prague.

The event will focus on what’s happening now and what should be done in the future. In addition, this workshop will present initial results from these two initiatives, giving participants an opportunity to learn firsthand what the research is demonstrating and how future work should be designed.

For more information, visit the Demos@Work project site.

NewsOut and Unconference Materials
Materials from the recent NewsOut meeting in Boston and E-Democracy Unconference in Duluth are now available. If you weren’t able to attend the meetings, you can view presentations and connect with participants to continue the conversation.

Nominate an E-Democracy.Org Volunteer-of-the-Month
Know an E-Democracy.Org volunteer we should feature in this newsletter? Send us a message at news@e-democracy.org.

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Guest Column — The Unconference Experience

Ellen PerraultBy Ellen M. Perrault

With a focus on connecting rural Minnesota with new media so every place can share its voice in the Internet age, more than 50 people gathered April 4 in Duluth for the “Minnesota Voices Online Unconference” sponsored by Blandin Foundation and E-Democracy.org.

Wikipedia defines an “unconference” as “a facilitated, participant-driven conference centered on a theme or purpose.” This format allows for conference participants to easily offer, share, learn, and express their experiences rather than sit and listen to speakers.

Upon arrival, participants are given a schedule for the day with breakout sessions that were not defined. It was left to the participants to decide what would be discussed. The unconference format was a good match for the topic of online communication because just as people are creating their own content for social media through Websites, blogs, and videos, conference participants were asked to create their own content for the day.

The day, which was facilitated by Marc Osten from Summit Collaborative in Massachusetts, began with a “fish bowl” exercise in which six people, identified by Osten, sat in a circle in the middle of the room. The conference participants sat in circles outside of the inner-circle. Osten gave the inner-circle four different topics to discuss, such as: print media are dying, will there be newspapers in 10 years; and local businesses are the fabric of a community, are online transactions hurting communities. The inner-circle discussed each topic among themselves, and then people in the outer circles were invited to comment.

At the end of the exercise, based on the discussion during the fish-bowl session, people were asked to identify what strategies and tools they would like to discuss during the four breakout sessions that comprised the remainder of the day. People wrote their ideas on pieces of white tag-board, put their names on them, and taped them on a wall.

Conference participants then helped narrow down the topics within each of the four breakout sessions. The person who had the idea for the session was asked to take leadership of the discussion. Conference participants were encouraged to “pollinate” by attending more than one breakout group and share what was happening in other groups, or “butterfly” and just stop in at a number of groups.

The breakout sessions ran the gambit from Facebook 101, to how to build a local focus on a global stage, to how to harness the energy of social media to solve Minnesota issues. With sessions attended by both people with questions and people with experience, the conversations were informative and lively.

The conference was live streamed, and people used flip cameras to capture video to post on their Websites at a later time. Check out photos, video, and other information from the Minnesota Voices Online Unconference.

Learn more about the Minnesota Voices Online project or track progress by joining the MN Voices Online Facebook group or following the project on Twitter.

Ellen M. Perrault is the communications and outreach coordinator for Growth and Justice, a progressive economic think tank in the Twin Cities area.

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Red River Valley Flooding Provides Opportunities to Connect Online

Across the Web, the first round of Red River funding at the end of March motivated thousands of people to connect and share information, using various traditional Web and social networking platforms.

In the traditional Web context, news organizations flooded (pun intended) the region and posted stories, videos and photos from the scene. Several also blogged the event (check out blogrunner). My favorite was Bob Collins’ NewsCut blog (on Minnesota Public Radio’s site), largely because it didn’t take long for Bob’s objectivity to be replaced by pure empathy and affinity with the residents of Riverview Circle. You’ll understand, too, when you watch the videos and read the accounts of the families’ fight to save their homes.

Examples of news coverage

In the Web 2.0 sphere, Facebook and Twitter were abuzz with Red River updates.

Several Fargo-Moorhead area organizations created groups on Facebook to organize resources and announce needs for volunteers and donations. The Fargo-Moorhead Volunteer Network group, organized by FirstLink has nearly 6,000 members. The group’s page announces sandbagging activities and also has a section for videos, photos, and other updates.

Dozens of others groups on Facebook served a similar purpose, from the government employees fighting the flood to the group where students from nearby universities posted information. The Fargo-Moorhead Flood Forum group encouraged people to post information about their flood stories and discuss the flood. The Support the Fargo Flood Fighters group offered support from afar.

Twitter served as a great way to provide quick updates, both during the crisis in the Fargo-Moorhead area and since (as the river continues to flow above flood stage as it winds toward Canada). Users posted items about river levels on the Red River and smaller rivers that feed it throughout the valley. But people also used Twitter to organize sandbagging activities, pinpoint areas where dikes needed to be raised, announce road and railroad closures, point folks to flood and recovery resources, and discuss issues related to the flood. They also joined news organizations to post links to stories, photos, and other videos chronicling the flood. Volunteers who went to the area also used Twitter to keep folks at home informed.

Below are a few tweets from the event:

To view more results, go to http://search.twitter.com and search for #flood09, #fargoflood, or #redriver.

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Around the Forums: Events, Economic Worries, Community Gardens

Discussions on E-Democracy.Org’s issues forums reflect the prevailing concerns across the globe: worries over the state of the economy, resulting budgetary struggles of governments, and questions regarding local business viability and development.

The forums also served as a venue to announce community events and discussions about prevailing issues.

And it’s clear we all need a little spring (apologies to our friends in the Southern Hemisphere) as forums were abuzz with discussions about organizing and maintaining community gardens.

Groups announced online surveys to gauge both public opinion and public awareness of issues. Others announced rallies to encourage government action. And neighbors queried one another about the fate of once-bustling and now-empty pub on the corner.

Below is a sampling of the different topics from the countries sponsoring E-Democracy.Org forums.

U.S. Forums Topics

  • Education
  • Involvement in government
  • Local government budget issues
  • Sulfide mining
  • Bemidji State hockey team (national tournament bound)
  • Downtown development
  • Gas pipeline
  • Effort to save Indian languages
  • Community action and fighting poverty
  • Environmental protection
  • Health care
  • Energy conservation
  • All-terrain vehicles
  • Telecommunications service
  • Area recreation planning
  • Agriculture cooperatives
  • Local African community development center
  • Hydro-power development
  • Business development and competition
  • Local government elections and instant-runoff voting
  • Restaurant reviews
  • Viability of local newspapers
  • Local recycling
  • Wrongful death civil suit involving police
  • Vacant properties
  • Urban sustainability
  • Affordable housing
  • Bicycle commuting routes
  • Plant swap
  • Missing puppy
  • Host families needed for exchange students
  • Transit corridors
  • Local wildlife/signs of spring (robins)
  • Baseball park development
  • School bus transportation

New Zealand Topics

  • Water planning
  • Nightlife
  • Sale of a public pool and citizen activism
  • Safe communities
  • Liquor licenses and liquor retailers
  • Road and transit funding
  • Community gardens, buying locally and time banks

U.K. Forum Topics

  • Use/demolition of an aging hospital building
  • Council procedures and governance
  • Local rail service maintenance and improvements
  • Camera club and digital photo project
  • Public planters/boulevards, beautification
  • State-funded Muslim school
  • Requiring people to carry and present identification
  • Probation center in residential areas
  • Violence and anti-social behavior among youth
  • Pubs and economic viability
  • Parking and construction
  • Subway system upgrades
  • Developing vacant businesses
  • Elections to replace councilor
  • Community car club
  • Crime, litter and other nuisances

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Online Civic Engagement 101: Start a Website in 6 Easy Steps

From Poynter Online
This month, we’re flattering Poynter by borrowing a resource from their Website. It provides six basic steps for starting your own Website, and provides some good tips to beginning your foray into Web publishing.

Below is a taste. For the full list, visit Poynter Online:

1. Think about your site’s topic and name.
2. Buy a domain name.
3. Buy hosting.
4. Link your domain name to your host.
5. Install WordPress.
6. There, you can write.

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What’s Hot Online: Public Affairs and Social Media, Editor’s Choice and more

Editor’s Note: The “What’s Hot Online” feature will serve as a space to highlight trends in online civic engagement, as well as interesting sites we’re visiting/reading. If you have suggestions for items we should feature, send us an email at news@e-democracy.org.

Michelle Fure PhotoEditor’s Choice: Social Media’s Impact on Policymaking
I’ve been spending a lot of time researching the value of social media for government – in my day job I’m a communications coordinator for a government agency in the Twin Cities. What I’ve discovered is that European agencies have enough experience with social media platforms (such as Facebook and Twitter) to be discussing the value of the tools and whether this form of communication is effective for policymaking. U.S. agencies are just now catching on, but perhaps in the next year, enough agencies will join the experience to enhance our greater understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

Simon Wakeman, a communications consultant and marketing professional for a local council in England, raises the important question of whether local government agencies belong on Facebook. The questions being raised include whether organizations can establish an effective presence on Facebook, particularly given that social networking is fundamentally and individual activity. Other writers have questioned the potential pitfalls of blurring the lines between personal and professional lives (and whether there should be/will be a separation there at all).

Ingrid Koehler writes about the top 10 myths surrounding social media and government. She provides helpful tips for ways government agencies can use social media.

The U.S. General Services Administration recently signed an agreement to use four social networking platforms. The GSA manages federal properties and other purchasing processes for the federal government. Read more at Nextgov or discuss at the DoWire Democracies Online group.

The issue of social media and their role in “revolutionizing” the Internet and connecting individuals will likely be key discussion topics as these platforms for interaction continue to develop and evolve. Is Facebook the way people will change their government? Or will it help lead us to another tool?
Stay tuned to this column for more resources – new tools are popping up daily. Do you have one that you think works? Email us at news@e-democracy.org.

Social Media Leaders
As newspapers struggle across the country to stay relevant (and make a profit besides), it’s interesting to see the Austin American Statesman sponsoring an event to honor social media leaders. The Austin, Texas event singled out the 25 individuals who were using social media to make a difference in their communities. Read Kami Huyse’s account – be sure to check out the video of the top award winner, Austin blogger Michelle Greer.

Balkan E-Democracy
An initiative in the three Balkan nations of Serbia, Macedonia, and Albania is encouraging participants to connect online. The project, sponsored by the European Union, is encouraging citizens to interact with decision-makers online. Read more at the Radio Serbia (Srbija) site.

Improving the Virtual Town Hall
FCW Insider writes about the virtual town hall sponsored by the Obama Administration, which garnered more than 100,000 questions (from nearly as many people). The story focuses on what is good about the feature and what can be improved, in the spirit of lessons learned.

Among the items missing on the White House site is the ability for dialogue and discussion. Check out the story to see the other things that work and represent opportunities for improvement.

Political Advertising Online
India’s Business Standard notes the use of the Google Adwords and Adsense applications for promoting candidates in the Indian Congress.

In addition, candidates of various parties are launching campaign Websites. Studies in India indicate that nearly half of the country’s Internet users are also eligible voters, making it a powerful tool for candidates to use for disseminating their messages.

Read the full story at the Business Standard Website.

How Are They Doing?
InformationWeek and TechWeb recently conducted a survey for Bearing Point on how government is implementing collaborative online strategies and how government agencies are evaluating use of these technologies.

View the study’s results (powerpoint slides).

Turning the Corner?
A recent survey in the United Kingdom shows almost half of the population in the UK accessed a government Website for one of several purposes and nearly 70 percent of those surveyed say the Internet makes citizen participation easier.

Though this survey indicates tremendous strides for e-democracy and online participation, the survey also showed that many people still prefer the traditional means of connecting with public officials and another large group were unaware of the range of services and information available online.

Read more about the survey.

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