11 March 2012

What Civil Society Can Learn from the Social Web: Live from SXSW

Entrepreneurs from community and socially minded start-ups spoke about what civil society can learn from the web at a 2012 South by Southwest Interactive Panel on Sunday, March 11, 2012. I stumbled upon this panel by accident. My original intention was to attend the panel "Reprogram Your Yard, Then Eat It." For the past two years, I've been an avid backyard vegetable gardener and have turned into a farmers market junkie. To my disappointment, the panel was canceled. I would have loved to see how many other locavores would have shown up, among whom I could express my true geekiness.

Not wanting to make a mad dash from the Stephen F. Austin Intercontinental back to Convention Center, in order to catch the next session there, I quickly scanned the schedule to see what might be closer. And there it was - another passion of mine: using the internet for social good and solving real life community problems.

This panel was being presented by the founders and owners of various crowd sourcing start-ups, as well as other community efforts, who discussed whether the social web enables more informed and engaged communities - and more importantly, whether it enacts significant offline change.
  • Ben Berkowitz (@BenBerkowitz) of SeeClickFix.com 
  • Daniel Hengeveld (@TheDaniel) of NeighborGoods.net 
  • Lenny Rachitsky (@LennySan) of LocalMind.com 
  • Kathryn Fink (@KathrynFink), Community/Media/Movement Making Maven at Meetup.com
  • Doug Matthews (@dougray_earl), Chief Communications Director at City of Austin
Berkowitz' inspiration for SeeClickFix came from a desire to improve his own community in New Haven, CT with his neighbors and his government. He saw issues in his neighborhood that needed to be resolved, but there wasn't an efficient system in place to provide solutions. Collaborating with media and government partners, as well as existing community groups, they are able to give citizens the tools they need in order to report non-emergency issues in their neighborhoods.

Matthews of the City of Austin comments that these tools "empower folks to step out of who they may otherwise be." He adds, "One of the biggest challenges in government is that there's always small group of people who will stomp down others who don't agree. What happens then is that 95% of population won't show up for a meeting."

Tools such as SeeClickFix create a safe space for people to have a voice and speak out collectively against injustices and problems in the areas they call home. Matthews says, "Society is civil. If you create a space for people to gather - whether virtual or physical - people will police themselves and work towards a positive end."

Local Mind is real-time, location-based Q&A platform that sits on top of existing check-in services. It provides the ability to know what's happening anywhere in the world, at any given moment, in very specific locations. Rachitsky describes the services as being able to help with the most trivial questions to the most life-threatening ones. People have used LocalMind to find out about whether baby hippos have arrived to the zoo and it's worth their trip. They also used it to check in with friends and relatives in Japan during the tsunami in 2011.

Now think about this - the household power drill is used for an average of eight minutes before it winds up in the trash. That's where NeighborGoods comes in. The website encourages its community of subscribers to share and borrow items in order to save money and resources. Ironically, says Hengeveld, the "most active and excited neighborhood users are less interested in borrowing and saving money, but more interested in lending helping others." This is a similar problem - a good problem, in a way - with LocalMind where users are more eager to answer questions than to ask them.

"Doing work at the local level is extremely challenging, than something that is strictly online," says Fink of Meetup. "There's an extra sense of commitment and responsibility." That kind of accountability doesn't exist if you're commenting on national forums where others are strangers to you. With these locally based online communities, the person you're replying to is literally your neighbor.

Another challenge, adds Berkowitz, is how to scale these crowd sourcing tools to serve under-represented, lower-income communities. One proposed solution is face-to-face grassroots canvassing - physically going out into the communities and posting fliers and talking to people. Another solution is partnering with existing community groups and strengthening the weak links among them, rather than reinventing the wheel.

"We haven't landed on the right mix of partnerships," says Matthews, "which is the reason we are still having this conversation."

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