One of the most exciting things about the use of new media in cities and government is its potential to engage a larger share of the populace in civic matters. Even when cities are committed to fostering public participation, space and resource constraints act to limit the number of people that can fit into a meeting room or be contacted by telephone or mail. So with traditional methods, it’s pretty hard (and expensive) to reach more than a few thousand people. By contrast, the Internet has the advantage of allowing cities to contact large numbers of people and share and gather all sorts of information at relatively low cost.
However, this extraordinary ability to connect people than ever to their communities comes with a downside – namely, leaving out people who don’t use or have access to the Web. While the so called “digital divide” has been steady closing, as of November 2009, the FCC estimates that 22 percent of Americans aren’t online. And among certain groups, such as lower-income households, Hispanics and African-Americans, and especially seniors – the percentages without Web access are much higher (less than half of Americans over 65 use the Internet).
Why the disparity? Cost remains an issue for lower-income households, and in a few areas (mostly rural) broadband access is still hard to come by. Other non-adopters simply don’t see the value in the Internet, or are hesitant to use it for fear of falling victim to identity theft or fraud. To address these issues, some cities have tried creating free municipal Wi-Fi networks (to mixed success), and the Federal government has promised millions to expand broadband access in rural areas. Digital literacy training programs have sprung up in communities across the country to help seniors and other reluctant adopters get comfortable with using the Web.
In the meantime, there are alternatives technologies that cities can use to reach populations that may not have a computer and Web access at home. For example, the FCC report shows that while only 59 percent of African-Americans are Internet users, 75 percent send and receive SMS messages on the mobile phone. Hispanics use SMS messages at a similar rate (compare that to only 63 percent of whites). With even the lowest cost cellular phone plans are starting to offer web access, mobile phones offer a growing opportunity for cities to reach traditionally underrepresented groups (not to mention all the digital elite with their iPhones).
Some cities have already begun to experiment with SMS messages as part of their outreach efforts. The City of Minneapolis uses SMS messages to alert residents when a snow emergency is declared. In Los Angeles, the Hollywood Property Owners Association is using SMS messages to alert residents about traffic jams and transit delays in the area (full disclosure – I was a consultant on this project). And abroad, cities are using SMS to send alerts when a parking meter expires and vote on discretionary capital projects in municipal budgets.
As cities move forward with new media engagement and communication tools, there’s no ignoring the fact that not all citizens are able to go online. While web tools can offer advantages for cities and residents alike, traditional printed notices, in-person public hearings, and paper comment forms will still have their place for years to come. That said, cities who can embrace a full range of technologies such as SMS messages and mobile web access may find that they are able to include residents who have been traditionally excluded from both offline and online channels.