Engaging citizens with local government

By Cliff Lampe

How can we create new information tools and services that fundamentally reimagine how citizens interact with their local governments? Citizen Interaction Design is a new project in the Initiative for Information Impact at the U-M School of Information that seeks to answer that question through multiple opportunities for engaged education for both our undergraduate and graduate students.

Cliff Lampe

Cliff Lampe is an associate professor at the School of Information, where he also received his PhD. Before returning to Michigan, he taught for several years at Michigan State University.

Recently, there has been quite a bit of design work around new information tools that help citizens of cities to use data and information tools to engage in new ways with the systems in their local communities. From tools that track public transportation, to crowdsourcing ideas, to tracking the status of blighted housing, larger cities have been working with technologists to find new ways to use or create data in their cities.

However, the vast majority of these efforts have been focused in larger cities, or have rarely been assessed for their sustainability. With this project, we are going to examine how these tools might work in smaller cities, as well as rigorously study the effectiveness and sustainability of these tools.

To accomplish these goals, we have formed a three-year partnership with the City of Jackson, Michigan. Jackson is a strong partner for UMSI because they have a high level of interest in the overall effort, a strong civil society layer, and like many smaller cities they need to think carefully about the effectiveness of solutions they adopt. Working closely with city leadership and local nonprofits, including the Jackson District Library, we are identifying projects where we can use information tools and services to effect a major change in how the city and citizens of Jackson interact.

The project offers many opportunities for engaged learning for UMSI students. The major effort will be a Winter term project studio where our graduate and undergraduate students will be working with teams from Jackson to analyze information problems and implement solutions. Students will be traveling to Jackson to work directly with stakeholders, and each group will have the goal of creating a tool or service that is ready to be adopted by citizens, and is constructed in a way that the city can adopt it in a sustainable fashion.

In the Fall terms, students have been engaged in a reading seminar where they critically evaluate the literature on citizen engagement and discuss previous civic media efforts. Members of Jackson city government have been attending this seminar, discussing these ideas with students on a weekly basis.

The SI 501: “Contextual Inquiry” class has also implemented three student projects in Jackson this semester, adding to our involvement with the city. This past summer, MSI student Dustin Hodge completed an internship with this project that helped construct new social media strategies for the city, conducted a comprehensive survey of citizen attitudes towards technology, and worked on an application that would allow people to track the status of condemned housing. We expect more such internship opportunities, as well as integration with the popular Alternative Spring Break program.

To support the students, Kelly Kowatch is leading UMSI educational efforts, and we’ve hired Scott TenBrink, a long-term nonprofit executive from Jackson, to manage our community relationship. The school is also providing some resources to help students create professional products for our stakeholders.

This is a project with big ambitions, but we believe that the incredible students in our school are up to that challenge. We hope that this model proves to be effective, and that we can replicate successes to other communities across the state and nation, learn more about our own citizenship, and hold up the proud tradition of engagement that is core to our schoolís values.

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