Informed and Engaged Communities Foster Strong Democracies: How Can Technology Help?

Lilian Coral, Knight Foundation

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Credit: Seth Doyle

The internet has become our new public square — a place where people connect, build ideas, voice their grievances, and come together to celebrate community successes and address challenges. Its success in linking people and devices worldwide has outpaced expectations, enabling new forms of personal and commercial interactions that have reshaped communities across the globe.

Leaders, decision-makers, and governments are increasingly relying on technology to gather citizen data, deliver information, automate services, and implement Smart City solutions such as light and flood sensors. On the whole, however, citizens, continue to be left out of the design and management of their communities. This trend can lead to widening gaps between those who increasingly use technology to participate in the economic, political, and social interactions that drive civic participation and those who don’t. The result: low trust in democracy, poor policymaking, economic and social dysfunction, and communities that don’t reflect the needs and preferences of residents.

The challenge for all of us is to understand why — if technology is a tool to be harnessed, why haven’t we, as a collective, harnessed it in a way that puts people at the center of community-building? How can technology be used to create shared prosperity for all?

PACE’s Infogagement paper builds on the premise that the vehicles of public engagement have dramatically evolved. Traditional forms of engagement — voting, volunteering, attending town halls — have given way to issue-driven engagement. The report makes a distinction between “thick” engagement — driven by groups acting together (i.e. a community network that works to increase neighborhood safety) — and “thin” engagement, which is fast, convenient, and motivated by individual preferences (i.e. clicking a cause on Facebook, or signing an e-petition). Both rely on technology tools.

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Credit: Tomasz Ganclerz

At Knight Foundation, we believe that informed and engaged communities foster strong democracies. We are committed to exploring new ways to accelerate civic participation, both ‘thick’ and ‘thin’, and harnessing the growth of digital tools to improve how communities respond, connect to, and engage with residents.

As technology increasingly reshapes the world we live in, it poses a great opportunity: To create communities built by all. But we cannot reach this co-created reality unless leaders, policymakers, and governments put people at the center of decision-making, creating communities that are responsive to the needs and preferences of residents. They need to change not only the ways they engage with communities, but also how they think about engagement, working to better understand both the thick and the thin, and the ways technology interacts with and supports both.

Residents have to trust that their engagement is valuable, is needed, is defining. True engagement must then reflect the diversity of input that drives the creation of inclusive, equitable communities. This requires a commitment from leaders to invite feedback from people across backgrounds and income levels, and ultimately, a more open and accessible public square. Only then can we truly begin to harness the power of digital technology to foster more informed and engaged communities.

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Lilian Coral is Knight’s director of national strategy, where she manages the national portfolio and focuses on the development of the foundation’s Smart Cities strategy. She came to Knight from the City of Los Angeles, where she served as chief data officer for Mayor Eric Garcetti. In this role, she led the mayor’s directive on Open Data beyond the lens of transparency and towards his vision of a data-driven Los Angeles through the management of the City’s Open Data program, the expansion of the use of data science and analytics, and the development of user-centered digital services. Coral led the development of the GeoHub, a first-of-its kind data management solution for integrating geospatial information across the City of Los Angeles’ 41 departments, and oversaw the publishing of 1,100 city datasets and APIs, the management of five portals of operational and financial data, and the roll-out of 15+ digital services, applications and public facing dashboards.

This piece is a commentary on the PACE paper: “Infogagement: Citizenship and Democracy in the Age of Connection.” Please see the publication for more commentaries and the original paper — and follow #Infogagement to continue the conversation.

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