Government Technology: This Week in Civic Tech Google Rethinks Democracy, Redesigning Boston.gov, 'Improve Detroit' App Fixes 10,000 Issues

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Originally posted at GovTech

By Jason Shueh / October 22,2015

Google is testing a new method of voting it hopes will cut election spending and improve decision making.

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

GOOGLE RETHINKS DEMOCRACY WITH GOOGLE VOTES

After a three-year study with Googlers as guinea pigs, the search giant is rethinking democracy. Yes, this entails a rework of the democratic system itself: elections, voting, representation -- the whole ordeal. Under the premise of better collective decision-making, the company has conducted a social experiment with staff by allowing them to participate in a new kind of voting, what it's calling "Google Votes." The system tests what would happen if citizens had the option to either vote directly or delegate their vote on a particular issue to another voter.

Skeptics might be saying, “Wait, we already have this system with local, state and national representatives.” But Google takes it a step further: If a friend is considered an expert on transportation issues, you could hand that friend your vote, essentially giving your friend the ability to decide two votes on transportation issues instead of one. Doctors could be empowered to vote on health issues, teachers on education, conservation groups on environmental issues, and hypothetically, any thought leader on any area of expertise. And, of course, the citizen could vote directly without any delegation. The argument in favor of such a concept, dubbed liquid democracy, is that the system would eliminate costly election cycles — candidates, for example, pandering to special interests and wealthy investors — and it would drastically reduce emotional or uneducated voting — since the average citizen can’t be an expert on every political issue.

Google has tested the voting method on staff (described in detail via YouTube) using Google+, and ballot issues have included cafeteria foods, T-shirt designs and company events, to name a few. The vision is for liquid democracy to be applied on weightier issues inside government, or as a consensus tool for the private and nonprofit sectors.

How something like this scales in government is a big unknown. Politically, the system would have to get backing from state and local representatives -- representatives who might not want to relinquish their wealth of political powers. There are also questions of voter privacy, security and the complexities of implementation. To give greater detail, the Google Votes team will speak on Oct. 28 at a Civic Tech Showcase event hosted by Innovate Your State in San Mateo, Calif.

BOSTON.GOV ‘UNDER CONSTRUCTION’

Boston’s site is undergoing a redesign, and Mayor Martin Walsh has tasked the city’s digital team with designing Boston.gov with and for citizens. What this translates to is a community engagement campaign and a contract with design group IDEO and Acquia, a company known for its open source expertise.

Citizen outreach is already well underway. Last summer, Boston’s digital team even crafted a homemade Jenga set to call attention to the project at the Boston TechJam. In a blog post, team members said they wanted to convey, at least metaphorically, the interconnected nature of such an endeavor with the game. Twister was originally chosen, but, the team joked, human resource issues quickly scrapped the idea. Going forward, the city plans to collect input and release updates on Next.Boston.gov, a collaboration site launched to drive the co-creation process.

Officials have said that the timeline for development is unclear. Part of the process began with the selection of Acquia and IDEO, but next phases include user research, prototype design, user testing and iteration, a beta launch and feedback, followed by final adjustments before officially replacing the old site.

“Philosophically, our beta site may be just another beginning, but it will certainly have a hard date for launch,” the team said.

Overall, the goal is to make city services easy to find and intuitive to request. The permitting civic tech startup Open Counter has worked with Boston for the past year to digitize and simplify licensing and permitting into easy-to-use steps and data visualizations. These improvements are likely to be incorporated as well.

'IMPROVE DETROIT' APP FIXES 10,000 ISSUES

Detroit launched its Improve Detroit in April, and now officials are celebrating the non-emergency service app’s successful adoption. In six months, the mobile app was downloaded more than 6,500 times and has helped to fix more than 10,000 issues, which include everything from potholes to graffiti to blight. Mayor Mike Duggan commended the 311 app, created by SeeClickFix, for its ability to communicate citizen needs and combat languishing problems that, in some cases, endured for years.

Within the six months of usage data, the city reported that Improve Detroit led to the clean-up of more than 3,000 illegal dumping sites, the repair of 2,092 potholes and of 991 running water complaints in abandoned structures. Other statistics for the app showed it helped to remove 565 abandoned vehicles, restore 506 broken water mains, and fix 277 traffic signal problems.

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Jason Shueh is a staff writer for Government Technology magazine. His articles and writing have covered numerous subjects, from minute happenings to massive trends. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Shueh grew up in the east bay and Napa Valley, where his family is based. His writing has been published previously in the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Amazon Publishing, Bike Magazine, Diablo Magazine, The Sierra Sun, Nevada Appeal, The Union and the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza.

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