The city of Boston jumped on the civic technology bandwagon early when it launched Citizens Connect, a mobile app that mirrored its 311 hotline service, in 2009. Users could photograph problems like potholes or graffiti, send it to the city and get a tracking number and alert when the city fixed the problem. The app was considered ground-breaking, attracted a large number of users and even won an award.
But while the app was a success in making it easy to complain and report problems, it was primarily designed as a civic engagement tool, and a survey of users indicated that the app didn't really make people feel more connected. Few people used the app's social media features and 38 percent never used the app to look at other reports about the city. For Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics (a 2011 Governing Public Official of the Year) the lack of engagement was disconcerting. "We keep asking ourselves: How do we know if we actually are impacting peoples' lives?"
The days when local governments could deliver services to a captive audience of citizens who didn't question the value of the service are gone, replaced by a growing sense of distrust about the role and purpose of government. Finding ways to regain that trust and to show citizens the value of government services has become more important in recent years.
Many local governments see civic engagement as a way to help reconnect citizens to the public sector. And many cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco see civic technologies -- including the rapid proliferation of mobile apps -- as an easy way to reignite interest and interaction. The theory is that making things more visible and engaging to citizens will raise the level of trust people have in government.
But having a theory is one thing. Actually knowing whether technology works to engage citizens in the civic process is unclear. So Boston began working with long-time partner Eric Gordon, director of the Engagement Game Laboratory (EGL) at Emerson College, to figure out how a local government can learn what works and what doesn't when it comes to civic technologies -- and more importantly, why.
Gordon, who works to understand how games and social media can affect urban life and democratic processes, said the current approach to civic technology is very scattershot.
"It's a lot about throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks," he said. "We're at that moment where so much of civic technology is new, and it's not clear what works nor is it clear what 'working' even means."
To help cities figure out what improves civic engagement, EGL and Boston's office created an evaluation framework called Design Action Research with Government (DARG), which takes the guesswork out of designing apps. DARG is designed to work not just with new mobile apps but with other types of existing tools, such as 311 hotlines. Its step-by-step approach includes setting goals, finding partners, establishing research questions to find out what change in civic behavior is desired, figuring out how to measure that change and finding the tool that's best for testing whether the goal has been achieved.
"It's all about asking the right questions prior to deploying a civic app, so that the focus isn't so much on absolute success or failure but finding insight or knowledge that a city can use," said Gordon.
The first of the DARG-based technologies designed by Boston and EGL is called Street Cred. It's an app that will allow people to accrue a score for their civic reputation based on their activities that are visible to others.
"One of the key barriers to getting more people to engage civically is the lack of transparency," said Jacob. "Once people see how you are engaging -- whether it's writing blogs about improving neighborhoods or using Citizens Connect to report problems or attending community meetings -- it will encourage others to engage and behave in similar fashion."
If all goes well, Jacob hopes to apply the DARG evaluation to other civic apps like one that's designed to help parents assess the schools their children attend. The city hopes the app will help change the way parents think about their child's school and help them make more informed choices about education options. Another app, called "Where's My School Bus," is aimed at building deeper trust between parents and the school system.
Given the huge investments cities make in traditional services like public safety and transportation, the role of mobile apps may seem trivial. But to Jacob, finding out what makes people engaged with and trusting of their governments is very serious. Trust in government has been dropping for some time and for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and other public officials, reversing that trend is extremely important.
"Everything from resilience to health and economic vitality of a city is tied to how well people are engaged," said Jacob. "It's in everyone's best interests to encourage people to report their concerns and become engaged. We want to encourage that behavior."