What to Expect Next from Civinomics

Our new partnership with the City of Austin will allow online voting on City Council Agendas.

Our new partnership with the City of Austin will allow online voting on City Council Agendas.

As many of you may have been noticing, Civinomics has been going through some changes recently. Specifically, we have taken to rewriting a huge portion of our internal code, while also fixing some user interface problems. This hasn’t been for nothing, and has actually been in preparation for a whole new product that we are in the midst of testing right now. This new product is not entirely new, but rather a redeployment of something we used to do, built out with the lessons learned from our previous efforts; that is facilitating direct voting and commenting on local agendas.

The benefits of such a product are fairly obvious, but heavily dependent upon execution. Rather than having to attend say a City Council meeting at 3pm in the afternoon to weigh in on an important item, or send an email into the abyss without getting a formal response, our new platform will facilitate you being able to have an interactive space for discussion and idea sharing with both your fellow community members and your elected leaders.

Now we have implemented something like this in the past, but it was sparsely used and took a great deal of our time to maintain and set up each week. Well now, in direct partnership with the City of Austin Texas, we believe we have solved these problems, and are soon to arrive at a point of public implementation.

What’s different about it this time? Well for one, this time there is no maintenance required. Our new platform automatically creates an interactive City Council agenda (or any public agenda) from an exported .xml file, meaning that any government agency using the SIRE file management system (a majority of both big and small agencies), could easily create an interactive space for public discussion and voting in seconds.

Below is a short video demonstrating alpha version of this functionality from a couple of months ago.

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 8.34.12 AM

The second major difference is the built in reporting of the new platform, making it easier for elected leaders and city staff to quickly sort through all of the public feedback they are likely to get, all in one automatically generated .PDF file, which is sent to them before every session. That’s right, our systems goes through and tracks every vote, every comment, every vote on every comment, every comment on every other comment, and automatically generates and easy to understand (and respond to) packet that can be accessed at will. What’s even more handy is that since we worked directly with the City of Austin to develop this new product, City leaders will be given a full rundown of how this can make their civic life easier, while also giving us direct feedback on how we can improve their experience, allowing us to test our assumptions in the market place directly.

Imagine receiving an email every week informing you of what’s on the next public agenda. You can easily click through to view the agenda, vote on whatever items you want, make statements for and against, ask questions, or even make suggestions. Your fellow community members and elected leaders can respond to your comments (constructively), and even make their own. A full report of every interaction is then archived indefinitely, documenting the exchange in its entirety as an item of public record. In less than a month this will be a reality for the citizens of Austin, Texas and any other city that wishes to adopt our platform shortly thereafter.

As one of the founders of Civinomics I can speak directly to what this means for us. For a long time we have all been fascinated by the idea of direct democracy, and the potential for the internet to get us one step closer. I have written extensively on this topic, and have even given a TED talk about my perspective. One of the major takeaways from my experience has been the understanding of incremental change, and just how important it is to be patient, to celebrate the little victories here and there. Sure, one day internet democracy will have spread to all corners of the earth and will be as commonplace as the clothes on our back. It may even render the exact sort of outcomes needed to overcome many of our greatest political and social challenges… But for now, if we can just lower the barriers to entry for greater civic participation, and City by City, community by community, implement something that will empower people to have a greater impact on local issues, that will be something worth celebrating.

Stay tuned for our official release of the new functionality including instructions for how to implement it in your own city.

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Jean Brocklebank says:

    How will your platform be able to confirm whether or not a participant actually resides in the city or county of Santa Cruz? In other words, what if a vote is packed by people who do not live here (just as online petitions about local issues end up with signatures of people all over the nation)?

  2. We can already keep track of City and County agendas, comment on them and read comments submitted in the agenda packet, without going through a third party.

    Such a third party process would depend on Supervisors’ and council members’ willingness to read and pay attention to the PDF files made available to them, no matter how well organized, just another thing to take up their time.

    Reading the agenda and packet and commenting online is not the same as being in the Board of Supervisors chambers and listening to the discussion as it occurs and commenting to Board members face to face. Nothing takes the place of personal involvement in the process.

    While “digital democracy(sic)” may be more convenient and pragmatic for some, it is, in the end, not the same as personal involvement with supervisors and council members face to face.

  3. great conversation here re: the divide between the virtual and the actual worlds and how they will (ever) interplay successfully. It’s been well known that handwritten letters to our elected officials get priority acknowledgements from mass mailings or even phone calls. I could see this pattern continuing as the virtual reaches into the real…with virtual connections being given less weight

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