Note: a version of this article is also running at EngagingCities. Just so’s you know.
About two weeks ago I spoke on a panel with Chris Haller of Urban Interactive Studio and Tim Bonneman of Intelletics at the International Association of Public Participation’s North American conference. Tim had organized the session as a conversation around the topic of “Navigating the Online Public Engagement Space,” with the intent to explore the issuess and challenges facing communities and organizations who are trying to figure out how to use online public engagement in their work, and navigate the dozens of potential ways to do that.
So I set my own comments within the two perspectives of my professional life: as a user of several online public engagement tools through my consulting work, and as an observer of the field through Engaging Cities. And I thought it might be useful to share those big issues with you.
Here’s what I told them from underneath my consulting hat:
1) The most important thing you can probably do is make sure that you have matched the tool you choose to your objectives. One of the most consistent errors I have seen is people selecting an app or platform because they like how it looks, or it seems cool or exciting, or another town use it for their project and loved it. But it is not a one size fits all, or even an easy off-the-rack kind of situation.
3) Channel, channel channel. I harp on this in all public engagement, whether online or in person. A wide open platform does no one any good. Good teachers manage their students’ ability to meet their objectives through how they structure the learning process. They don’t just throw it open and let whatever happens happen.
In my role as EngagingCities’ Editor, I focus on the leading edge of interface between technology and public engagement. We try to bring our readers the information, trends, new ideas that they might not find otherwise. As a result, I read a lot of pretty obscure blogs–and learn a lot about online engagement trends across the world, including many that I would have never encountered otherwise.
Here’s what I see as the strongest emerging trends at this moment–I’d be very interested in whether you see the same, or if you’re perceiving something else.
1) Visual interfaces. as the technology matures, I find the growth of interfaces and interaction methods that rely on maps, photos and graphics fascinating. They’re being used more and more to not only improve people’s grasp of the information, but also to give them new methods of participating. I’m a verbally-oriented person myself, but I know enough to know that I am the minority. Most people do not want to read a paragraph, let alone write one to get their opinion across, but historically that’s what we have defaulted to. Accommodating other types of communication, both for people who can’t write and those who just don’t want to, is critical to broadening engagement. The fact that Pinterest and Tumblr are the two fastest growing social media sites tells us a lot.
2) It’s a multi-platform world. I swap between my phone and tablet and computer without thinking about it, including flipping over to one when the other is running slow. If that’s the case for an old lady like me who still has a computer, how much more is that the case for the increasing number of people who have learned to default to their mobile–or who, among less privileged populations, do most or all of their internet access through mobile? We provide interpreters for public meetings, but a community that decides to use only web-based methods is excluding a large subset of their population in exactly the same manner they are trying to avoid. And typically the ones that they’re excluding are the young and disadvantaged. An unintended but undesirable side effect.
3) We’re starting to move past using online for only idea-generating or feedback. If you’re thinking about developing an app, I would say, don’t do something that looks like a survey or a “hey! Tell us your great idea!!” thing. I assure you, it’s been done and done over again. But we are starting to see platforms that actually enable discussion, consensus-building, meaningful evaluation of alternatives, deliberation, decision making. The higher order tasks that we truly need if we are going to, as I’ve been pushing for all over, crowdsource wisdom. We’re starting to see some interesting tools that take people through the impacts of different choices, and we’re stating to see the development of platforms that actually lead people through a deliberate process, much like a professional facilitator would.
4) Open data is moving swiftly from a “gee whiz, look what we can do!” to a transformative tool that’s starting to live up to its long-vaunted potential. I am all in favor of hackathons, especially if they pull people into thinking transformationally about the way communities work and how they can meet their new and articles challenges. But hackathons alone won’t develop the deep fixes that we need. They’re just a first step. But we’re starting to see more and more that people who have gotten a taste of how open data can help connect people more meaningfully to their communities, and that’s yoking a much-needed new set of skills and, more importantly, perspective, to the challenges that face us.