State College pilots web project to boost civic engagement

Dec 11, 2014

    

The research team asked participants to visit the GeoDeliberator website every day during the one-week community issue review process. Gary Miller said he logged on two to three times a day.
Credit Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

What stops people from being engaged in your community? Perhaps local government meetings aren't held at convenient times. Or people feel like they don't know enough about local issues. Or maybe they don't think they can make a difference.

Whatever the reason, it can be tough to get residents involved in community matters.

A Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology research group has piloted the Geodeliberation Project in State College, meant to get residents to weigh in on local decision-making. They've made the bet that citizens will be more willing to participate if they can do it online.

Community Issue Review

Jess Kropczynski, a postdoctoral researcher dedicated to the project, started up the week-long process like a typical community meeting. She invited participants to a conference room in the municipal building. 

But actually, that in-person meeting was just an introduction to the project, which primarily takes place online. For the next week, the eight participants committed to log on to a website every day to learn about—and deliberate over—a community issue.

In the pilot run, the question was whether or not the borough should install security cameras in a State College neighborhood. Borough planner Meagan Tuttle said it's a fitting topic. 

"The team wanted to pilot a project that's of current interest to the community," Tuttle said. "We knew the Highlands [neighborhood] has been working to decide whether or not this was a project that they wanted to move forward with. We have heard both from the pro and the con side of this issue. We thought this would be a unique opportunity to see how this model could work."

The community-engagement aspect of the project was adapted from the Oregon Citizens' Initiative Review, which brings a random sampling of state residents together to deliberate a ballot initiative. Kropczynski said it's kind of like jury duty, except instead of deciding whether someone is innocent or guilty, it's a community issue that's on trial.

But in State College, the deliberative process is done primarily online.

"The goal is to use technology to scale up citizen participation in community politics," said Guoray Cai, one of the principal investigators of the National Science Foundation-funded project.

His co-investigator, John Carroll, added it's not so much about reinventing the wheel, it's about bringing together already-existing technology like online mark-up tools, interactive maps, and discussion forums.

"No one has put all these pieces together into a collaborative system," said Carroll. "We think it could make democratic participation more accessible, more available, to a greater number of people."

So how does it work?

The actual website (called the GeoDeliberator, created from the ground up by Penn State PhD student Ye Tian) is divided into three sections: documents, claims, and discussions. The documents--with videos, maps, and images--included the official borough Neighborhood Surveillance Camera System proposal as well as proponent and opponent statements.

Participants were asked to go through all the expert testimony and data, post questions, and highlight the most important facts. 

Gary Miller said during the week of the project, he accessed the website two or three times a day. He said the flexibility to log on whenever he wanted made the process convenient.

Miller, a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, also said that although he hasn't in the past considered himself an active member of the community, being part of the project has made him want to participate more in the future.

Big potential

A week after the first meeting, the participants returned to the municipal conference room to finalize a citizens' statement. The group narrowed down the key findings they had identified to the top 20 "claims" and then voted on a recommendation. (Six voted in favor of implementing surveillance cameras in the neighborhood, while two voted "no." To be clear, the vote is meant to inform the decision-makers and the public--it's not an actionable decision in itself.) 

The last meeting made it clear there are still kinks in the system—some participants expressed frustration at the limitations of the web interface, while others said one week wasn't enough time to go through the process.

But there was optimism that even though the process might need some work, it has big potential.

"With improvement and a little tweaking," said participant Alex Wiker, "this kind of process can probably be expanded to other areas as well. This is a great way for a wide range of people to participate in discussing issues and building consensus."

Looking forward

Borough planner Tuttle said she sees the GeoDeliberation Project as an opportunity to "help the community get information in an unbiased way" and expand the borough's reach to bring more voices to the conversation. 

The GeoDeliberation Team plans to roll out four or five more pilot projects in State College in the coming months, with the intention of seeing whether the process can become a permanent part of Borough decision-making.  And beyond that? The team hopes the model can eventually be adapted for use in communities across the country.
 

Keystone Crossroads is a statewide public media initiative reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities. WPSU is a contributing station.