January 21, 2018

How Technology Keeps Us from Being Citizens

Repurposing this from my recent post for SAP because I think it’s really important:


Every now and then we have to remind ourselves that not having access to a computer or a smartphone has more serious consequences than missing out on playing Candy Crush whenever we feel like it.

That’s particularly true when it comes to being a citizen. For every person who tweeted during the Arab Spring, there were many others who could not. In fact, every nation, regardless of its wealth and level of political control, has its share of people who cannot participate as citizens because they lack access to technology.

Ines Mergel, in her book, Social Media in the Public Sector, describes this phenomenon in the United States as the “Town Hall Divide,” according to research by my colleague Regina Maruca. The lack of technology access, combined with increasing apathy and frustration among citizens in the US and elsewhere, means that governments need to do more to keep the technology loop from tightening only around the more wealthy and educated among us.

This isn’t easy to do. There aren’t any comprehensive solutions – not even on the horizon. “I think you can draw a direct line from the problem as it exists today right back to the inception of what we think of as online government,” says Mark Headd, Philadelphia’s chief data officer. “We got saddled with this problem and I don’t think we’ve done a very good job addressing it.”

Take Small Steps
The good news is that even small steps taken to address the problem can make a difference. Philadelphia, for example, has a set of about 80 different public computing centers designed to encourage people to engage with the city through digital channels. The city also has a program called “PhillyRising,” a pilot program that puts city staff members on the ground in troubled areas of the city to engage with residents directly and also to use technology assets to try and bring more people into the online engagement world.

In Boston, meanwhile, the city is trying to use its own technology as a way to fill the online access gap. Using data from different departments, Boston is creating a heat map that reveals what properties around the city have the most emergency calls and police incidents, tax problems, utility issues, and so forth. With these different systems coming together, the city’s task forces can operate on fact rather than on feeling. They can make decisions more quickly, with a higher confidence level than they ever had previously.

More needs to be done, however. How are you seeing this issue play out in your community?

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