It is vital for cities to engage in dialogue with their citizens. One solution being piloted in towns in the United States is a mobile messaging platform that does not require Internet connection.
Cities are becoming ever more aware of how important it is to canvass their inhabitants’ views. However, the traditional town-hall type meeting has some major drawbacks. Apart from the fact that they can be costly to run, fixed-date community meetings do not always represent the full spectrum of local opinion as many residents simply cannot spare the time to attend. The Textizen platform, a startup supported by the Code for America non-profit organisation, is designed to help city government garner citizen feedback. Starting from the basic reality that a substantial percentage of a city’s inhabitants may not have Internet access at home, the platform uses phone-based SMS messaging technology to encourage citizens to get involved in shaping their city.
Mobile survey platform
Textizen invites community members to respond to questions on major issues affecting their city, such as public transport provision, recreation facilities and use of centre-city spaces. Each survey built with the aid of the Textizen web interface is allocated its own phone number. The survey puts a series of questions which build on each other depending on the answers of the person texting back, thus creating a real conversation between pollster and participant. The format may be open questions or multiple choice answers. Once the citizen has sent a reply to a question, s/he receives a further question, and the survey starts to feel like the kind of interaction that people are used to having with their friends and family.
Opening civic dialogue to new participants
Online surveys are of course nothing new, but the Textizen platform provides a novel approach by turning the poll into a sort of chat. The system has been designed to help cities achieve new levels of civic engagement among residents. The Textizen founders, an interdisciplinary team with experience in consumer technology, online mapping, journalism and digital citizen engagement, explain that in order to encourage people to take part in the poll campaigns, an initial effort must be made to attract the attention of the city’s inhabitants, e.g. through poster advertising at bus stops, in parks and community centres. By connecting citizens with those who are designing the future environment of their cities, Textizen hopes to help city authorities do a better job of shaping their towns. The first set of surveys have been launched in Boston, Salt Lake City and now Philadelphia as part of the City Planning Commission’s ongoing Philadelphia2035 initiative, and Textizen hopes that the idea will catch on in other US cities.