The idea of using technology to promote civic engagement is a popular one. Each new interactive mapping tool or open data app, it seems, sets off another round of giddy media buzz, not only with the Wired and Gizmodo crowd but among publications across the board.
Admittedly, Next City is no exception. Many of our most popular stories involve the space where cities and the digital world intersect — thanks in no small part to the fact that techies are, well, all over the Internet.
What this can (and often does) lead to, however, is the sense that civic engagement is a luxury enjoyed by a well-connected elite: Those with smart phones, easy broadband access, extra cash for gadgets and apps, and most importantly the know-how to navigate online.
Code for America’s Catherine Bracey wrote an excellent blog post in December on how the Bay Area tech bubble often consists of “a bunch of Stanford guys making tools to fix their own problems.” Meanwhile, those with the power to improve democracy through tech tend to ignore more pressing national issues, like the federal reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The same concept applies to engagement at the local level. The ins and outs of a city government are complex, and making them comprehensible on the Web has great value in terms of keeping the public informed. But as the Federal Communications Commission reported last summer, 119 million Americans still lack Internet access. Neglecting to ensure that everyone, regardless of income level or digital literacy, can use the newest given civic tool diminishes the voice of an already marginalized population. In other words, it reinforces a city’s existing power structures, rather than disrupting them.
This explains why the philanthropic collaborative Living Cities wants to find ways to better engage low-income young(er) people in the civic process. Setting its sights first on the city of Louisville, Living Cities and its technology partner, the non-profit OpenPlans, hope to “explore new ways to increase and encourage civic engagement with urban millennials living in poverty,” according to a press release.
“Many traditional mechanisms for engagement around planning (e.g., planning meetings) tend to reach small numbers of people who are not representative of low-income communities as a whole,” Arthur Burris of Living Cities writes on the group’s blog. “Despite the recent growth of civic apps focused on planning, we’re still far from having a full set of tech tools that supports engagement in a truly systematic way.”
Specifically, Burris writes, Living Cities will try to develop a tool that gives low-income Louisvillians a voice as the city pulls together Vision Louisville, its 25-year plan.
It’s a tall order, and one easier said than done. I don’t have any hard-and-fast answers myself, and I realize that posting this on a blog is indicative of the very problem discussed above. But we’d like to use this moment to turn to our readers — Louisvillians, advocates, techies and concerned urbanists everywhere — who might have ideas for how Living Cities and Louisville can reach this goal.
Sound off in the comments, send emails or tweets. Since this issue goes well beyond Kentucky’s largest city, it’s as good a time as any to have this conversation.