Civic Innovation: Redesigning the Future of Community Engagement

by Alberto Altamirano

My name is Alberto Altamirano and I co-founded a startup called Cityflag, a mobile application that aims to increase community awareness and public participation in local governments. Our inspiration comes from what we believe is the inherent power and value of every community member’s voice. Given the emergence of the millennial generation along with changes in technology and communication, we see the convergence of collaborative networks and the newly emerging interest in social entrepreneurship as an opportunity to unlock forms of engagement that craft innovative public narratives and initiatives while also strengthening involvement with local government. Our goal is to create a more inclusive and transparent relationship between civil society and local government by using a gamification user-friendly interface based on an incentives and rewards system to foster a participatory culture.

Today, more than ever, thanks to technology and other resources, citizens have taken important roles in the collective decision-making process. I believe Government works best when citizens are directly engaged in policymaking and public service delivery. But what conditions are necessary for inclusive and effective citizen engagement? And how can we engage disenfranchised communities (like the colonias in South Texas)? In the 21st century technology will play an important role in our lives, and I want to be part of the movement that will transform cities into technological platforms were citizens can participate at a greater scale.

I spent a lot of time organizing communities in Austin, Texas, mainly the east side or the city’s historically African American and Latino neighborhoods. Members of these communities complained about their local government, and most of them did not know who to talk to. Although they complained about social issues, most of the time they complained about infrastructure issues. Residents said that they would vote for the candidate I was campaigning for, but that who would fix the potholes, the graffiti, the missing stop signs, the power outages and so on. Little things like these, research shows, matters in the health and well-being of a neighborhood.

I insisted that they could call 311 to report these type of incidents. And their reply was instant. Some residents said they didn’t have time to be on the phone for more than 5 min – they had to take their kids to school, clean the house and work. Moreover, many of the residents were undocumented, and feared the government – so they never complained – even if there was vandalism all over their neighborhood. They had no one to call or report these issues to – they were alone.

So  shared these concerns with a political communications professor and that led to the development of a mobile application.  With Cityflag citizens can “flag” issues in real time using a CRM and a GEO Location platform. Citizens can report issues such as potholes, power outages, and vandalism just by using their mobile phone. They can snap a picture or video and send this information directly to public works. When you snap a picture a red flag is posted on a visual map in real time – in that moment, you’ve reported an infrastructure issue to the city or county.

The Cityflag app creates an opportunity for marginalized citizens to get involved in local government decision making.
The Cityflag app creates an opportunity for marginalized citizens to get involved in local government decision making.

The central idea driving Cityflag is to provide a platform of hope where the community can express their concerns, contribute to the well-being of their city, and gain a voice. When public works receives the report, the flag becomes yellow – we’ve connected the local government with its citizens. Then citizens can share their report using a social media outlet, and can ask for support from their peers to compel action from city officials. By having friends and neighbors vote on the report, city leaders can take notice of the issues that require immediate attention. When the city addresses or closes the case, the flag becomes green. Cityflag creates an opportunity for typically marginalized citizens to take on a leadership role in the government’s decision making process.

My father often jokes about the possibility of City Council members getting frustrated with this initiative because it will uncover a lot of issues in the city. My response is immediate – if I was a City Council person and had a platform where I could see my constituent’s reports and concerns, I’ll be a more efficient public servant. We are stirring the conversation and providing tools to public servants.

What is more interesting is that we are also building a gamification layer, where citizens will earn rewards for being active participants – the more they flag issues, the more points they get. And they can exchange those points for real time incentives like a two for one at a coffee shop or a 30% discount at their favorite local restaurant. We also believe in the social media principle and as I mentioned above we are creating a medium where local enthusiasts can interact and vote up or down public initiatives in order to gather support and influence local government. Our goal is to redefine what citizen engagement means in the 21st century.

I chose the mobile phone because millennials lead the way in mobile internet adoption. Nielsen Research shows that millennials own more smartphones and use more apps than any other generation. Millennials are relatively unattached to politics and government but fiercely committed to community service. They seek to add value to their local community and are optimistic about their role in building a better future. This generation is open to adopting new features on their devices and nearly all users access social networks on their cellphone; they create social-driven campaigns for the best engagement. We want to engage millennials by building up the capacities and orientations of citizenship so that those spaces can be effectively used.

I believe millennials are more likely to contribute their time and efforts to resolving their city infrastructure problems when they have ownership of the tool and some part of the process. We want to introduce an alternative civic opportunity to create more space for millennials to directly participate in public decision-making through city and community driven initiatives. Local governments can facilitate urban economic growth and make the political process more inclusive by investing in infrastructure paradigms that increase civic engagement. If pursued at scale, our model has the potential to bolster the civic activities of the millennial generation, which in turn can lead to greater local participation over the long-term. The millennial generation places their faith in their ability to solve problems rather than wait for the government’s top-down approach. Millennials don’t want a government that just speaks at them, they want to contribute and build it together.


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