Mapping the landscape of emerging civic technologies

While organizations like the Knight Foundation have begun to chart the field of civic tools, the designations are often assumed to be apolitical and merely representational of the genres of tools that exist in the space. But as the area of civic media begins to get more attention and such tools are increasingly the subject of (warranted!) criticism from academics (myself and Eric GordonDan Kreiss, Jenny Stromer-Galley, and Jim Katz have all written about how pseudo-engaging tools are being adopted in campaigns and in governance).

As governments adopt ICTs as a way to improve service delivery and meet the needs of their communities, the very use of such tools also implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—sheds light on the democratic values encouraged or emphasized.  For instance, a tool designed with the goal of streamlining intra-governmental communications or practices values efficiency; open data initiatives value transparency and an informed citizenry; calls for online town halls value deliberative practice and a governing institution that solicits feedback from its citizens. Although these projects share broad goals of improving governance, information-related goals differ from those that are engagement-focused. As a result, a categorization scheme that attends to this information/participation continuum helps better illuminate the democratic norms upheld and furthered by such tools. Even just looking at emerging media in a civic, non-campaign setting, the landscape of tools begins to look like:



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Civic tech research methods

As part of a recurring interview series over at the Qualitative Political Communication Research blog, I shared some of my ideas about civic tech and methods with Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. Among them, thoughts on generalizability:

For me, the more important divide is between inductive/deductive, rather than qualitative, quantitative. In addition to excelling at depth, etc., qualitative research is important for its ability to get at inductive questions. In that case, it can certainly be generalizable, revealing broader, emergent concepts or happenings, which are really important for this moment in political communication and civic media research.

as well as what type of questions political comm should be grappling with more broadly.

Another part of this is that I think an important follow-up to the big question “What does citizenship look like today?” is “Well, how can we make that better–less transactive, more meaningful, reflective, and overall better?”

Check out the whole thing over there!

Beyond Strategy

It’s no secret that campaigns want to control public discourse. Political professionals admit it, and while the democratizing potential of the internet is a refrain we often hear, persuasive arguments that we are merely having the wool pulled over our eyes while we are controlled in ever-more nefarious ways have been pretty compelling (see: Phil Howard, Eli Pariser, Matt Hindman). Despite this seemingly obvious truth, in many ways, the 2010 midterm elections marked a change in campaigns’ ability to control messages. Across the nation, communications offices still attempted to tamp down on messages that are misaligned with their own, and publicized those they preferred, but their ability to do so—or at least to do so overtly—was diminishing. While digital technologies are certainly used to control which potential voters get what messages, digital media are also confounding the traditional stranglehold campaigns have had on the information that circulates about a candidate.

Ultimately, campaigns used social media tools in ways that made a significant move away from traditional, overt control, which involves the direct censorship of comments. Rather than relinquishing control entirely, they moved toward new methods of control that have varying levels of openness. Often, when shifts in strategy occur, they are just that: strategic. But the tactics and strategies deployed by campaigns in 2010 tell a more interesting story.  When traditional forms of control such as censoring or deleting public commentary became dangerous, rather than slip into a slightly less visible form of control, campaigns—due not to their desires, but because of the consequences of their technical choices for media platforms and their shifting organizational structure—found themselves needing to deploy new and different forms of control.

Most commonly, campaigns realized that overt control was not as productive in a digital environment due to the ability for opponents to digitally document, reproduce, and circulate any missteps:

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Governance and aesthetics

In the midst of the many great discussions about the technological shortcomings of Obamacare’s website, the frontend has largely escaped commentary–mostly because it has functioned. But the user interface is more than just functional; its aesthetics are also interesting enough to merit some discussion.

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It has a look that has been described as “lean,” “slick,” “ungovernmenty,” and “compared favorably with top commercial sites.” These are not exactly things we expect to see from our government websites.

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Despite the fact that cities’ ( innovation offices’ pages are often easy on the eyes (see: Boston, San Francisco), the .gov ones are what we’ve come to know as a governmental aesthetic. And as far as aesthetics are rhetorical, they contribute to the claims these sites make about the goals, responsibilities, and interests of the government as they relate to the audience of citizen-users. They say “we can provide you alllll of the information and connect you to alllll of the appropriate services. And we don’t particularly care how enjoyable the process is, because success is predicated on delivering those services.” Service is about information here, not interaction. Moreover, by visually demonstrating a dedication to providing all of the information a citizen could possibly want, they  hedge their bets—it is, quite literally, all in front of your eyes (it’s just not the most legible in the form of giant lists). Great for citizen relations, right? Continue reading

Performing absence and infrastructure

As Americans collectively sighed over the fact that the National Zoo’s Panda Cam went dark during the shutdown, I also saw a friend’s complaint that her need to peek into the digital archives of the Library of Congress was thwarted. A quick look revealed NASA had a similar error message.

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Even the official White House, though functional, put up a large splash page that darkened the site’s content and clearly articulated that the shutdown could affect the site. More than just a notice,’s response to the shutdown was (is, as I’m writing) to literally take the actual homepage dark (literally, but briefly; anyone can click through to the actual site).

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Sure, websites need to address the fact that they are not changing/updating content, just like museums and national parks need signs that say they are closed for the time being But other government websites like the Smithsonian managed to place a notice on a page without closing its virtual doors. So why the big show?

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Designing for better citizenship

Here, I’ve often written about how tools and texts construct visions of citizenship, but I’ve been spending a lot of this year focused on actually making those tools and texts that construct better forms of citizenship. This policy brief, authored with my colleague Eric Gordon, lays out some specific ways to do that. Focusing on tools for reporting issues to the city, often referred to as CRM (constituent relationship management) systems, we discuss the existing state of these tools while also making recommendations for how to make them more engaging and more productive for civic life.

While this brief argues that a lot of government’s current use of technology are transactive and therefore lead to more shallow or thin possibilities for citizenship, it’s by no means limited to that (nor do governments–especially those like our New Urban Mechanics partners in Boston–necessarily want to limit citizenship in this way). By providing recommendations for how to get to deeper, more interactive forms of citizenship, hopefully this brief  also makes it clear that academic work doesn’t stop at investigating and illuminating what exists, but should try to develop ideas for how to improve the state of things when practical.

You can read the whole thing here, but there’s also a version translated into the great language of charts if you click through…

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Something old, something new

A complete cycle of blog post, chapter, article in Journal of Information Technology and Politics for the concept of skeptical citizenship–exciting day!

And, really completing the circle of life aspect of academia: now for an official sharing of a major new research agenda. My colleague Eric Gordon and I have written a document to describe our ongoing collaborative work with the City of Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics—affectionately known as the Design Action Research in Government project. Broadly, our goals are:

  • Develop tools that both increase participation and (more importantly) move civic engagement from a merely transactional process with government to one that is interactive.
  • Engage in design-based iterative research that informs the creation of new civic tools, studies their outcome in nuanced ways that can get at deeper engagement, and use those findings to iterate and improve the tools themselves.
  • Develop collaborative relationships between government and stakeholders that provide locally-productive solutions and open the civic process to new and different groups. Continue reading

Deeper into Death Star politics

By now pretty much everyone (especially anyone who might stumble across this blog) has read about the White House’s official and hilarious answer to the We The People petition to build a Death Star, but it really is more than a hilarious gag. Amusing or entertaining forms of engagement can do more than draw eyeballs or clicks. Rather than simply being an instance of “White House Staffers: They’re just like us!” wherein we learn that pols are Real Humans who understand humor, they should also be seen as a productive part of democratic culture. They have the potential to engage people more deeply, and in ways that matter, but are less immediate (or immediately measurable than campaigns or governments often like. Fun can be productive for civic life.

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FEC lacking efficacy?


As campaigns have been rapidly hopping on board with a wealth of new digital tools, the FEC has struggled to figure out how to best ensure credibility and validity of campaigns’ messages. While they’ve decided web ads need text disclaimers, and microsites need the same paid-for language as direct mail. Facebook’s proven to be more difficult to regulate, with skirmishes over how much ads have to say (and where) and where to place the language on pages. Facebook Timelines seem ripe for a similar disagreement.

The asserted purpose of FB timeline is to give a “history” to brands or people. The Obama campaign has largely done just this–from making birth certificate jokes to highlighting his move to community organizing. Moreover, he combined it with a web video that doesn’t specifically name Timeline, but clicks through “The Story of Us” (covering the past five years) in a similar scrolling pattern, and exemplifies the use of the genre of the timeline in general to pitch a campaign narrative. Narratives have always been built on history, and anyone can write their version, but Timeline gives people a platform to push this narrative and a form through which to systematically prove its validity. The FEC, in turn, ensures that readers know who’s authoring these histories.

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Not Endorsed.

The Sun-Times is closing up shop for candidate endorsements. And in doing so, they’re making some pretty dramatic changes to campaigns.

Endorsements are a Very. Big. Deal. to campaigns. I remember a rather frantic process of running downtown and waiting outside the Sun-Times office to give a backup tape recorder to a communications director. I remember the monotonous and soul-crushing work of transcribing the endorsement interview. I remember running to the grocery store next to the campaign office to get the paper version of the Sun-Times when the endorsements ran, cataloguing and analyzing the minute differences. And those were the pretty inconsequential parts.

The endorsement process not only reports on information, like the Sun-Times asserts; it creates information. And that’s exactly what this op-ed overlooks.

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