phronetic social science | MIT Center for Civic Media

Action Path: A Location-Based Tool for Civic Reflection and Engagement

This is the talk I delivered for the "Civic Media Geography: Experiments In Cosmopolitanism, Citizenship and Accountability" panel I organized at Place, (Dis)Place and Citizenship: Eleventh Annual Conference in Citizenship Studies at Wayne State University, Detroit, MI on March 21, 2014.

Today, I'm going to talk about a tool I'm building. It's a smartphone app called Action Path. But it hasn't been deployed yet, so I can't tell you how it's revolutionized civic learning or engagement. But I can tell you about my motivation for building it. Specifically, I want to talk about the theories of citizenship which inspire me and what I see as currently missing in the landscape of approaches to civic technology, and even civic engagement more broadly.

Balancing Deep and Wide Impacts in the Design of Civic Tech

These are the prefatory remarks I made as moderator during the panel "Balancing Deep and Wide Impacts in the Design of Civic Tech" at the Digital Media and Learning Conference, Boston, MA on March 8, 2014.

I'm working on a project called Action Path. Similar to Promise Tracker, which will be the featured case study in this session, Action Path is a smartphone app for civic engagement. Specifically, the app uses geo-fencing, a technique based on the awareness of the user's GPS coordinates, to send notifications to users about opportunities to take quick actions in the form of polls or documentation of a local area for easy, yet contextually-relevant civic engagement. As indicated by my promo slide here, it's meant to marry mobile computing with the concept of a "Jane Jacobs Walk," whereby you only really understand a city's needs and resources through walking its streets. I hope you all agree that this sounds great... at least in theory.

But what does this look like in practice? Well, right now it looks like three two-hour public meetings per week, where I sit and learn about the ongoing planning processes in Somerville—the city where I live and hope to do my research. I am building trust with folks in the planning department at the City of Somerville and the leaders and organizers in civil society organizations who work on issues like land use, affordable housing, and beautification in different neighborhoods around town.

There are lot of conflicting agendas among these different groups, all of whom I need buy-in from in order to, 1) make sure that I have enough people test my app, and 2) ensure the app is stocked with relevant actions that a) make my partners feel good about endorsing it among their members, and b) make the city and private developers happy because the feedback will be in a form that can inform their planning processes, WITHOUT becoming overly politicized. I want to have real impact, and tying the technology to real impact is important for my research

In the end, I have to write this up as a thesis. And that means I need a rigorous study of some kind showing that people's understanding of their ability to make a difference in their city has changed.

I appreciate that this is an iterative and interactive process that demands flexibility, but it's also hard from the perspectives of design, research, PLUS overall impact. And it's actually the social processes around the technology that are harder to design than the mobile app itself.