Reinventing Public Participation with SMS

A few weeks back, Allison Arieff of NY Times contributed a thoughtful piece about Give A Minute, a new SMS-driven project launched by CEOs for CitiesUS Initiative. The program asks citizens of Chicago to text their ideas on how to make the public walk, bike, and take public transportation more often. Similar projects are slated to launch next year in Memphis, New York, and San Jose. So far thousands of Chicagoans have submitted ideas ranging from implementing greener buses to clearing bike lanes of snow more frequently.

Quoting Jake Barton of Local Projects (the design agency that built the program), Arieff explains how Give A Minute consciously distances itself from “the often-overrated concept of crowdsourcing,” in which users submit ideas and vote on their favorites. Rather, says Barton:

It's about people in a specific neighborhood saying 'let's put in a garden here'... I'd say it's a more nuanced approach to crowdsourcing, less the winner-takes-all model but rather getting a group to rally around something specific. The entire process is designed for maximum participation to some kind of constructive end. The basic idea was to reinvent public participation in the 21st century.

The website's format reflects this innovative approach. Unlike other policy-centered crowdsourcing projects, such as the G.O.P.’s America Speaking Out initiative, there’s no opportunity for users to vote on other ideas. Likewise, there’s no reward for the submission with the most votes. Instead, explains Good Design’s Alissa Walker, “The best ideas get a text or email back. There are certain city leaders... who are charged with sending personal responses to their favorite ideas” that include advice on where to turn next, as Arieff clarifies:

In tracking responses, Local Projects will be able to point to particular ideas and causes in common, and direct individuals into larger efforts through other technology platforms like MeetUp or Kickstarter... it's not NIMBY [a pejorative term for invasive or top-down policy], it's 'how can this community work together to make change happen?'

In the case of Give A Minute, building this community depends on the fluid interaction between citizens and the government through SMS and the Web. Give A Minute capitalizes on the omnipresence of mobile phones in major cities to give the public an easy avenue to make its voice heard. Indeed, the project’s marketing strategy reveals its dependence on mobile; rather than advertise on TV or in newspapers, Give A Minute concentrates its ads on trains and bus shelters -- places where Chicagoans are most likely idle, already with phone in hand checking the latest scores or news. So sending out a quick text to Give A Minute headquarters is easy and only takes a couple seconds out of their day.

Despite the convenience of mobile-enabled citizen participation, a couple concerns must be addressed by the folks behind Give A Minute. Who determines the “best ideas” that earn responses and guidance for other forms of engagement and organization? Logistically, how carefully can three people sift through thousands of submissions and respond to them in a meaningful way?

Most crucially, what are Chicagoans expecting out of this initiative? When I text in an idea such as “play classical music on the L,” I expect a response, and I expect a reasonable explanation for whether this suggestion will be followed. Some citizens might feel disenfranchised when all they receive from the city is a thank-you and a direction to a MeetUp group. Others will read this guidance on their mobile phone, head to MeetUp.com, and engage in a meaningful process of citizen action.

It’s that second group that projects like Give A Minute seek out. With the help of mobile phones and the Internet, this new initiative holds a lot of potential to bring public participation into the 21st century and empower citizens in hyper-local organizing and policymaking.