Collab is a digital tool that could support communities hoping to increase participation and make more inclusive, collaborative decisions. Try the prototype at https://collab.sidewalklabs.com/ (Image: Sidewalk Labs)

Collab: A new digital tool for community participation

Sidewalk Labs and Digital Public Square teamed up on a new prototype to help people shape their communities.

Ariel Kennan
May 14 · 6 min read

This article was written with Farhaan Ladhani and Sean Willett of Digital Public Square

The long-term success of a neighborhood is predicated on its community members feeling a sense of ownership and belonging — of believing that, together, they are the stewards of their community. But it’s increasingly rare for 21st century city residents to join in the shared project of shaping their neighborhoods. Stop to consider: when was the last time you attended a community meeting? Volunteered at a neighborhood charity? Called your local representative? For many of us, the answer is never.

While there are many reasons for this decline in civic participation, one contributing factor is transparency. It’s not always clear how input will be used or if the organizations charged with community decisions are able to receive and act on that feedback. Another factor is that people may not always feel they are sufficiently knowledgeable on certain issues to meaningfully contribute.

To help address these challenges, governments and companies around the world have begun building tools that leverage technology to make participation more informed, transparent, and relevant to people’s daily lives.

The City of Barcelona is at the forefront of this trend, having created Decidim, an open-source digital tool inspired by social media that keeps residents up to date on processes and garners their input (the tool has since spread globally). The City of Bologna recently launched an Office of Civic Imagination designed specifically to build greater participation through regulation, engagement labs throughout the city, and digital tools. Startups are also getting into the mix, such as Neighborland, which offers a customizable platform for engagement between city planners and communities. And some communities have even started creating their own tools, such as YouthScore, which allows youth to rate their neighborhoods based on their youth friendliness.

These examples are part of a promising trajectory towards inclusive digital participation that could enable people to engage with and enhance the places where they live, work, and visit. We’re excited by the idea of a future where community members can easily influence the decisions, spaces, and technologies that impact them — and where decision-making entities can be even more responsive to community input.

Our hope is that these tools kickstart a virtuous cycle: the more community members feel empowered to shape their communities, the more they will participate. The more they participate, the more decision-makers can be enabled to be more inclusive and responsive to community voices, inspiring more community members to participate. And so on.

As Barcelona, Bologna, and Neighborland show, there are many different ways that digital tools — in coordination with strong in-person and more traditional approaches — can unlock civic participation. One promising approach is leveraging technology to bring transparency into processes and decision points that could allow community members to better understand the issues at hand, provide input, and, hopefully, feel satisfied that their voices have been heard. What’s more, we believe that by providing community members with an informed, nuanced understanding of the required trade-offs of a decision, digital tools could even encourage more decisions that put collective good ahead of individual interests.

So we decided to create a prototype — one small contribution towards a more civically-engaged urban future.

Creating Collab

As a first step, we partnered with Digital Public Square, a Toronto-based non-profit that works globally to rethink and redesign how to leverage technology to support communities. Together, we came up with the idea for Collab, a digital tool that could support communities hoping to increase participation and make more inclusive, collaborative decisions.

As a first use case, we wanted to create a tool that would allow community members to propose their choices for events in public spaces and then walk them through the trade-offs associated with each proposal. For example, a farmers market provides fresh produce and draws a lot of foot traffic, but the space may then feel too congested for a community picnic.

We designed for privacy to be the default in Collab. While many participatory planning tools require personal information, such as an email address, we designed Collab so it can be used without people submitting any information about themselves, as we do not need this information to test the prototype. We are also transparent about what data we are collecting and how we are using it in our Privacy Policy and Responsible Data Use Assessment.

With these guiding principles in mind, we got to building and — quickly after — testing initial prototypes with Toronto-based neighborhood associations, subject matter experts, and non-experts, too.

To ensure we were receiving inclusive feedback on how Collab could serve a diverse range of community members, we worked with Code for Canada’s GRIT Toronto (Gathering Residents to Improve Technology), a Sidewalk-funded program which brings usability testing to people of all digital skill levels, cultures, ages, and backgrounds wherever they are — in community spaces outside of working hours, for example — and incorporates their feedback into the creation of new digital services and products.

(Learn more about this process on Code for Canada’s post about testing Collab.)

The result is a prototype that aims to make the decision-making framework of public programming and all community inputs transparent and legible for all users. Our hope is that Collab users will not only understand where their individual contributions fit into the community’s decision, but feel more trust in civic processes overall.

To help us get there, we’d love your feedback before, during, or after you try Collab. Based on what we learn, we hope to improve Collab and eventually grow it into an open-source tool available for everyone to use in their communities on the issues that matter most to them.

In the future, we imagine that Collab could be utilized by organizations, such as a neighbourhood association or public space non-profit, to make more inclusive community decisions.

For instance, imagine a community planning an upcoming winter festival. Community members could receive a digital notification of a pending decision, add their input while considering the trade-offs, and transparently compare their choices to those of others in the community. Then the neighborhood association could use the input to inform its decision, report the program and schedule to the community, and then use other tools to receive feedback and measure the success of the event.

This is just one possible scenario. But no matter how Collab develops or evolves with community input, our hope is that, with technologies like Collab serving as easy entryways to engagement, we can all be activated to shape our communities — and become true stewards of our communities.

Would you be interested in using a tool like Collab in your community? Please email us at collab@sidewalklabs.com

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Ariel Kennan

Written by

Director of Civic Innovation @SidewalkLabs. Formerly @NYCMayorsOffice @NYCOpportunity @codeforamerica. Passionate about people-centered public services.

Sidewalk Talk

Where technologists and urbanists discuss the future of cities.