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Jackson Hts., New York, June 13, 2012 - I recently requested the support of a bright young urban planner in identifying and developing engagement and collaboration tools for use by the city’s dotNeighborhoods. He declined my invite saying that Google was getting better every day at finding things, that good domain names were unimportant in locating resources; and if one needed local information, or to file a complaint, sites such as EveryBlock and 311 were available. Therefore the dotNeighborhood names were probably unnecessary.

With Google’s near-magical ability to locate information, I can appreciate the “If you need something, just ask Google” viewpoint. And if the need is to buy a book, auto, or find a movie, then most certainly it does. But living within a world of civic activism, I question the extent to which finding things helps us do things - other than in some atomized, subject-to-master complaint filing manner. Indeed, for the consumer, Google is God. But how well does it support the needs of civil society, citizens, and the cultivation of livable neighborhoods? 

Subject ~ Citizen ~ Consumer 

At the recent Freedom To Connect conference, author Barry C. Lynn spoke about a transition of residents of what’s now the United States of America from “subjects” to “citizens” during the colonial days. The above graphic from the draft of the Declaration of Independence, shows the hand of Thomas Jefferson changing residents from being “subjects” to “citizens.” (Hyperspectral imaging by the Library of Congress enabled the discovery in 2010.) That change in viewpoint had a huge impact on residents’ view of their role and responsibilities in society. For example, the “subject” exists under government and petitions power, the citizen grants the use of power to government. According to Lynn, “The subject passively consumes, the citizen produces goods, and ideas, and work.”

In the later part of the 20th century another change in attitude occurred when citizens became “consumers.” Lynn placed the origin of this shift with an agreement by the hard right and hard left to change government’s role from protecting markets to protecting the consumer. The significance of this change is becoming increasingly apparent as the Net eases consolidation and fosters efficiency. Lynn stated that this change toward efficiency will foster bigger scale and efficiency, and that the drive for efficiency has historically led to autocratic rule. He used as examples the efficiency Rockefeller heralded to defend his oil monopoly, and Stalin’s defense of his monstrous reign on the basis of the need for efficiency.

Lynn didn’t draw a parallel between the googles and Stalin, but he cited Justice Brandies to the effect that “the preachers of efficiency are always aiming at autocracy.” And speaking of the desirability of aware and responsible citizens, he spoke of the “liberty of the citizen to make a community with one’s own neighbors,” and quoted Justice Marshall on one of the benefits of inefficiency: the friction that sustains democratic society. (See Barry Lynn’s 30 minute talk.)

Neighborhood Consumer or Citizen?

Since about 1950 there’s been a growing abundance of information about the world in which we live, indeed, the late decades of the 20th century were frequently referred to as the Information Age. And for the last decade or so, as the Net and Google-like entities have evolved, it’s been increasingly easy to find that information.

Getting back to my discussion with that urban planner and his view that the power of search and 311-like complaint services provided suitable tools for addressing local needs, let me raise some concerns with some recent experiences. 

My hands-on experience with civic issues, solutions, challenges, opportunities, tasks, and the like has largely been at the local level. Having a 30 or so years involvement with making more livable neighborhoods, I can say that the information abundance has not helped me to a significant degree. Let me provide three examples from this past week.

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  • Sleeping Beauty - My apartment is conveniently located near a well stocked neighborhood retail street with a great supermarket separating my building from the street. At the supermarket’s rear are two bottle recycling machines. The machines are turned off at night but with their accoutrements, they sometimes provide shelter for a homeless fellow (see picture right). Yesterday a neighbor saw him “relieving himself” on a parked car and called the police. While awaiting their arrival another neighbor urged him to go to a park or the local pedestrian plaza. When the police arrived they joined the residents and, using their power of intimidation, suggested he “go home” and “leave this place” - which he did. A Google search of “homeless services in new york city” provides any number of institutional remedies - NYC department of Homeless Services, New York City Homeless Shelters, Coalition for the Homeless - that I’m certain provide a variety of worthwhile services. But the beat cop did just what they’ve done for generations. And the availability of the Google links (46,040,000 listings for “homeless services in NYC”) did not adequately engage what I know to be caring residents.
  • The Transportation Study - Living just off a busy retail street I’ve been quite aware of the traffic snarls that have afflicted our neighborhood for the 20 years I’ve lived in my current residence. The horn honking that is the penultimate expression of that traffic was for years just far enough away that I was able to say to myself - “how can the people living there bear it.” That traffic problem was taken up in a significant way two times in the 14 years I was a member of the local community board, to no avail. But in 2009 our congress member addressed the issue with a 500K traffic remediation study. This began a year or so of car counting, public meetings, and engineering studies seeking a solution. A digital feature of the study was a website provided by the city’s Department of Transportation, and my Google search of “Jackson Heights traffic study” returned 204,000 results. And halfway down the first page of results was DoT’s portal to facilitate public participation in the planning process - http://a841-tfpweb.nyc.gov/jackson-heights/. Not a good domain name, but google did a reasonable job of finding it.
  • Queens World Film Festival - This past week my wife met with a co-worker in Astoria, a neighborhood or two away from us, and mentioned a Queens World Film Festival in which she had participated. The co-worker expressed regret that she’d missed the event and asked “How can I find out what’s going on in Jackson Heights.”

Google made it easy to find the available services for the homeless, and if you knew there was a traffic study underway, Google would help you find it. And the co-worker could sign up for a Google Alert and learn about a plethora of events taking place in Jackson Heights. But a missing factor in these situations was a geographic center point for identifying these needs and the means for acting on them.

The Empowered Citizen

Which brings me back to the dotNeighborhoods. Imagine we cultivate these names, creating digital commons where local issues and opportunities could be found, a place of permanence that utilized an existing intellectual resource - the neighborhood name. And imagine if these dotNeighborhoods - Astoria.nyc, BrooklynHeights.nyc, Corona.nyc, Ditmars.nyc, EastHarlem.nyc, Flushing.nyc, GreenwichVillage.nyc, etc. - had alert capabilities, and provided state-of-the-art engagement, organizing, and coordination tools that linked residents to one another and the existing civic infrastructure.

It seems to me that placing these tools in the hands of residents might re-enthrone Jefferson’s citizens, empowering them to improve their neighborhoods and their world. And that the alternative is an increasingly atomized population of consumers that petition distant masters through invisible channels, channels that were not designed to foster civic life.

What do you think? (Images: top, from Library of Congress, bottom the CnI library.) 

Learn more about The Campaign for .nyc on our wiki pages.

UK-online-neighbourhood-study-2010.jpgJackson Hts., New York, December 19, 2010 - The London based Networked Neighbourhoods Group today published its long awaited Online Neighbourhood Networks Study. The research, by Hugh Flouch and Kevin Harris, provides insight into the impact neighborhood networks have had in 3 UK towns. The report concluded that they have:

  • stimulated social capital and strengthened cohesion
  • contributed to citizen empowerment and engagement, and
  • build citizens’ capacity and willingness to work alongside public services. 

While much of the information is supportive of neighborhood networks, one finding screams for additional attention:

“Data from Hitwise Experian suggests that affluent people, with high educational attainment, are over-represented in the population that uses the websites. This appears to be confirmed in the socio-demographic profile of our survey respondents.”

In other words, the digital divide continues. The Study focuses our attention on the need for education, training, and access projects to broaden awareness and use of these new local governance tools as they are introduced at the neighborhood level. Follow our response to this research on our Education Programs page.

The Online Neighbourhood Networks Study is available at http://networkedneighbourhoods.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Online-Nhood-Networks-4-page-summary.pdf.

Learn more about our overall effort from our Wiki Pages

My-Issue-Communities-Map-2010.JPGNew York, January 31, 2010 - Last year 1,200 applications were submitted to the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge grant and we were one of 50 finalists. They funded 9 applications, most regrettably, not ours.

This year we submitted an application entitled Issue-Communities and are delighted to announce that we have been selected to enter round two. Our proposal promises to empower residents to create “Issue-Communities” reflecting areas of interest or concern. User generated web maps will enable the creation of self selected and narrowly focused Issue-Communities that will, ipso facto, engage their creators in the identification and resolution of local issues.

This year’s application differs from 2009’s in that it requires those claiming their projects will be ongoing to explain the business model. We proposed offering a publishing partner with exclusive access to Issue-Community activities for  a limited period in exchange for operating assistance. Let us know what you think of this.

Our proposal can currently be found on the Knight Foundation’s site. There you can comment on our proposal and give it a rating (we suggest giving 5 stars unless you can hack the site and give 6 or more).

For the longer term, we’ve also created a wiki page where our application can be found, and where we will provide updates on our News Challenge grant application.

Learn more about The Campaign for .nyc on our wiki pages.

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