Monday, October 12, 2009 - By Ben Berkowitz - No comments

The Participatory Divide

"Are you concerned about the Digital Divide?"

This question is asked every time a new piece of socially enabling technology enters the hands of tech savvy early adapters. The question becomes even more likely when the technology stands to replace existing systems.

As people start to see SeeClickFix as a viable, powerful and healthy alternative for communicating with our leaders we get asked this question more and more.
We anticipated this question early on and responded by providing a phone number: 877.853.1552.
Here's an update: Hardly anyone calls the phone number but we still see reporting across diverse economic communities via the web.

This is my gut un-researched answer as to why this might be happening: Our country has been plagued with a participatory divide long before we were plagued with a digital divide and SeeClickFix might have unlocked some potential solutions to the original problem with a simple principle: If you make it easier to engage and give a reason to engage more people will engage. The Internet provides more places to connect not less and SeeClickFix gives a reason to engage: you can get something that is bothering you fixed.

The question of the digital divide is one of access. It is presumed that there was previous accessibility that will be removed from certain communities once technology is introduced. When it comes to engaging with our leaders, technology can create greater accessibility no matter where you live in the US.

The Internet is readily available in schools, libraries and in many homes where you would not expect it. I would guess that the majority of people can more easily get to the Internet than City Hall or the community Meeting down the block.

What many Americans do not have is time. Multiple Jobs and Children make it so most do not have time to make it to city hall or community meetings so decisions are left to the few that do. This does not just include poor families struggling to get by but women or men who can not get away from their children or the careers they are trying to keep. Some are excluded simply because of their age because its presumed that public forums and voting are not for children. When you expose a tool like SeeClickFix to a community through existing universal channels it makes sense that you would see engagement where it was previously not seen. Even if Internet use in that area is not prolific, you are engaging more people because you are doing it on their own time.

Bring City Hall and the Community meetings to the people on their time and the people will attend. Community leaders should not be afraid to use computers as a policy for engaging and connecting citizens because a fraction might not have access. We may not be reaching the whole pie but we're getting a much bigger slice. And the more neighbors we can reach the more unreachable neighbors we can reach through them. Not every community member needs to have access to represent the needs of a community. All you need it one child with access to a computer and they can voice a family's concerns.

So now to answer the harder question: If access is granted, will you participate?

We believe that the answer is yes but we have to capture that participation and the energy of participation where its most likely to occur. People show up to community meetings when the topic effects them personally and likely when they are upset. We chose to build SeeClickFix in this spirit because we believe that the average person is most engaged when they want something fixed or improved. Yes we are encouraging people to complain because we believe that complaining can lead to bigger things. There is energy in complaining and if there is energy then there can be positive energy even if its starts negatively.
When people complain they are speaking up and when they speak up they are engaging.

People vote when they want change. Why can't that emotion be captured everyday at the report of a pothole or bigger requests to improve a community?


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