WASHINGTON — Next Century Cities released a playbook on tech-powered civic engagement on Thursday detailing lessons learned over the past year among its three Benton Next Generation Engagement Award winners: Austin, Louisville and Raleigh.
The Washington, D.C.-based broadband advocacy group wants the guide to serve as a checklist for cities’ future projects.
Communities are encouraged to engage all stakeholders in a civic tech project area, collaborate across sectors and have their approach match project function.
“The issue of digital inclusion, especially from an urban, inner city perspective, really it’s important that it has an economic imperative,” Kevin Fields, Louisville Central Community Center president, said during the release event at Google’s offices in the nation's capital. “Civic engagement is great. Education is wonderful. We’re champions in both of those spaces, but in order to see the kind of change of conditions in urban environments, we really need to make sure that access to technology has an economic objective whether it be from a business development standpoint to advance a product or service.”
Louisville sited its Gigabit Experience Center in the community center’s Old Walnut Street Development with the hope of encouraging economic development and eliminating poverty in the western part of the city. The Russell neighborhood where it’s located dates back to 1948 and served as the cultural and commercial corridor of Louisville’s black community until the late 1960s. Now the neighborhood is the third-poorest U.S. Census tract in the country.
An anchor institution, the center boasts gigabit-speed internet access that residents can interact with and learn to use for education and work. The center hosts classes, demos and visiting experts teaching digital skills.
“We can use [high-speed internet] not only to attract businesses … but it also allows businesses to grow,” Fields said.
Then there’s Austin’s Smart Work, Learn, Play initiative, which started out working to improve low-income families’ access to transportation but ended up gathering data to calibrate public transit routes.
Declaring 2017 the “Year of Mobility,” Austin is teaching residents how to use digital tools access transit and partnering with stakeholders to learn where they want to go, when only 15 percent of locals had internet as of 2015.
“Mobility is the deciding factor for families that are trying to achieve family self-sufficiency,” said Catherine Crago, Housing Authority of the City of Austin strategic initiatives and resource development head.
Jan Morgan, now a mobility ambassador for the program, struggled to use a smartphone before taking a computer class through the housing authority.
Morgan thought the word app was short for appointment, not application, and the Google Play store was a physical place. Now she teaches installation of mobility apps.
“We weren’t raised in the language,” Morgan said of most seniors her age.
The people she trains can now use smartphones to attend doctor visits or pick up their prescriptions from the pharmacy, where once the city was simply trying to get more seniors to provide feedback on the siting of a bus stop or make 311 reports. Many now feel they have their “dignity” back, Crago said, when technology was previously passing them by.
Raleigh developed InVision Raleigh, a web app publicly showing how proposed buildings will transform the city and soliciting feedback regarding zoning decisions. A predecessor tool saw 1,800 participants, leading the city to expand the functionality to engage citizens around the built environment.
“Consumer technology now supports engaging citizens in new ways,” said Jim Alberque, Raleigh GIS engagement technology manager.