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Wikis And Blogs As Instruments Of Citizen Participation
This morning, as I was driving inside the Rome traffic on my way to the office, I realized something interesting, about blogs, wikis and all these new forms of grassroots communication.
Photo credit: Robin Good
Blogs and wikis can be great enablers for local district and community support and they could easily offer much greater opportunity for citizen participation to key issues and problems to be addressed locally.
The whole reasoning was sparked by a traffic event.
As I was slowly going through a new roadway section that has just been completed at the point where via Trionfale meets via della Pineta Sacchetti and the new North-West underground pass (longest urban underground pass in Europe - 3Km) something stroke me as worth exploring.
Lots of resources and great efforts have gone in this yet to be completed urban masterwork but one of the few glaring negative end results is that the last 100 metres of via Trionfale (via Pestalozzi to be precise) have been cemented into a true bottleneck that slows down traffic to a crawl worse than the one we were used before all this underground pass revolution.
The culprit is an innocent sidewalk, placed within the road itself (not on the side) and possibly intended to separate local traffic from mainstream one. Fact is that the width and positioning of this new physical barrier makes traffic much worse and physically reduces the capacity of the roadway in a significant way.
Since urban works are done with citizen money, I felt bad two times: one because I was wasting a lot of time for a bad architectural decision that was not visibly benefiting anyone, two, because I felt very aware that the waste and damage had been done with my own money.
I asked myself: "How I could ever affect or influence such things, in a way that included:
a) not wasting enormous amounts of time by having to write to mainstream newspapers and media to get their attention to this issue.
b) doing something that would actually help me change the status quo of this problem and not simply allow me to complain about it (which is not what I am after)?"
Well, I have heard from my friend Tova that in San Francisco, where she lives, if something of public interest in the city does not go right, one can call Channel 4 KRON TV and possibly get their attention to do some coverage of the issue at hand. (I was so impressed by Tova's own recounting of a situation in which she did call Channel 4, and her recall of how they immediately dispatched out a reporter to check the facts, that last time I was in Frisco, I looked at a Channel 4 truck passing on Van Ness as if it was the 5th Cavalry Regiment ready to go
and rescue someone.)
In Rome, and many other places around the world, there is no Channel 4 or nothing that comes close to it, but even if there was, the on-air space that can be made available to such a topic is nothing more than a few minutes, within a 24 hour schedule, and within a spectrum of other tens if not hundreds of channels.
Since the coverage created by such a community-oriented news report is aired generally once or twice at most, what percentage of the intended beneficiaries are going to be able to see it (outside of being able to act upon it), in the chaotic universe of TV, radio, newspaper and Web messages coming to us?
Next to none.
The message is going to dissipate into nothing and even when it doesn't the TV and radio media make it still very hard for individuals to aggregate and work together around common issues and projects.
So, Mr. Good, which is the way out?
Here is what I saw.
Each district in a city could have an online, a well publicized and easily accessible wiki that brought together in the open, the key issues and priorities to be addressed by that community.
If you are not familiar with it, a wiki is a web page, that can be edited and updated with extreme ease by non-technical people.
So, this wiki page of the Trionfale district of Rome, would have its key priorities both for the ongoing budget and program, as well as for the future.
The district wiki (editable only by registered users that work for the district) would also allow for a comment section where citizens would list new topics and issues needing attention.
In this way, citizens could fully participate in raising the attention of the district managers to issues and problems that may have been overlooked. By having the ability to comment on the district wiki, citizens would have the possibility of
linking to issues on the wiki from their own blogs. This would provide the ability to offer more inormation and detail on any issue, including photos, video clips, or other reference information useful to the district and to other citizens to
evaluate the issue at hand.
Now, once an issue has been proposed, there is no need to formally approve it.
Citizen blogs can now intervene directly in voting what are the issues that count the most to them.
Any citizen can be enabled by the local government with a free blog (unless one has already her own) that can be used also for grassroots participation into the life and management of the local community/district.
(For what is a blog please see: http://tinyurl.com/b2y3n)
If most people have a blog then they could vote the issues and problems raised by other citizens simply by pointing to those preferred issues with a link from their own blogs.
Issues collecting more link popularity by citizens would be then addressed with higher priority and larger budgets, while allowing in this way much greater transparency and opportunity for citizen participation in the local political activity.
The issues of spamming or fraudulent voting can be quite easily managed by distinguishing anonymous votes (links) from authenticated ones.
Those of us, like me, who wanted to have some weight in the decision-making process of their community would have to go once to the Postal Office to authenticate themselves and receive a key unique identifier to place on their blog pages devoted to community participation. Once that authentication code is placed on my blog, and I am willing therefore to openly state my opinions and preferences, my vote can be used to tally and measure key issues and problems to be addressed in the community.
Nonetheless my incompetence in the political arena and in the bureaucracy and logistics of local governments, I see the above fantasy scenario giving much greater incentive to the individual citizen to participate and to feel ownership and responsibility for the direction and decisions that her district/community/town will be able to make.
What do you think?
Good grief this was over 3 years ago. This was just cited in a Tweet by @liz_azyan.
You were bang on Robin, but for my money (and with the benefit of the passage of time), we should probably be looking to social networks. AND, I believe those networks will only get real traction if they're run by residents not local councils. I'm involved in one successful example in the UK - www.harringayonline.com.
Back in the mid nineties I helped launch "Knowhere", a web site about places in the UK, which was intended as a self-creating source of information about the community. People could add new places, new types of information about the places and so on. It was always (and is, still, I believe) a real struggle to maintain.
It seems to me that the wikki and blog approach would work much better with their built in self-policing mechanisms. I think you're right: these technologies mean that this idea may well be about to come of age.