These days, even your mother is likely to be on Facebook. And her letters written in careful cursive affixed with postage stamps likely have given way to email messages, if not cell phone texts. It has taken local government a little longer to embrace the digital revolution. But West Hollywood is doing so with enthusiasm.
Last month the city launched InfoMap, a web-based interactive map that provides detailed information on construction projects in West Hollywood.
And on Monday, June 17 the city will launch WeHoDIRECT, a multi-media program that will allow residents to report street and sidewalk maintenance problems and other issues directly to City Hall via a text message, email or a smartphone app.
“My first couple months on the job, I spent a lot of time talking to people in the community,” said Stephanie DeWolfe, who was appointed director of WeHo’s Community Development Department last December. “One of the most frequent requests I heard was for more information about the projects that were going through our department, and this request came from everyone: neighborhood leaders, business owners, developers, nonprofits, across the board with the same kind of request for information. So at that point we decided to go ahead and make the InfoMap.”
This lines up nicely with the city’s overall approach to new media, according to Brett White, WeHo’s digital media coordinator. “We’re definitely here to embrace and foster innovative ideas and communicative ideas so that we can better serve the public,” he said. “Our core strategy is to continue to look for ways to expand our communications with our constituents. Historically we focused our efforts on the web site, the streaming video function and our social media platforms. Now with WeHoDirect and InfoMap, you’re beginning to see the first fruits of our next level of expansion, with the ultimate goal of getting to or maintaining a high level of civic engagement.”
A higher level of engagement might not only allow residents digital access to report problems, but could also allow them to see how city government is performing through an “open data initiative.” “Open data is a way to release your data to the public so that they can look at it, manipulate it, develop apps from it. It’s a way of sharing information,” White explained. “I love what the city of New York and the city of Austin are both doing with their open data initiatives, and I hope that one day West Hollywood can possibly move in that direction to the full extent that they did.”
The goal of the New York City and Austin initiatives is make data such as every parking ticket issued in New York City in 2012 or the reasons for every call to Austin’s 311 city information service available to the public. Such data sharing increases government transparency: if citizens can track the city’s effectiveness in responding to 311 calls, they can hold the city accountable if it does a poor job.
“Recent breakthroughs in technology, digital and social media, mobile computing, and the Internet have increased and facilitated communication and collaboration between city government and residents, businesses, and organizations,” said Francisco Contreras, the city’s Innovations Liaison, in a press release. “The city recognizes that innovation and technology are critical elements of a citywide infrastructure that enhances the efficiency and effectiveness of communication and service delivery by the city to its residents.”
The city also plans a quarterly newsletter, launching this month, to inform residents of the latest local and national innovations in civic technology. After all, West Hollywood isn’t the only city embracing digital technology to communicate directly with its residents. A resident of Macon, GA, or of Houston, TX, can send a photo of a damaged traffic light or a pothole to local authorities using the SeeClickFix mobile phone app. Closer to home, Santa Monica’s Virtual City Hall and Los Angeles’ MyLA 311 let users connect with local officials to submit service requests and keep up with City Hall news.
Other creative examples include:
- Civic Insight, a web tool first launched in New Orleans, which allows users to report blighted properties in their city directly to local government. Users can track the status of reported properties in real time.
- Textizen, which functions like a town council meeting conducted through text messages. City employees plaster neighborhoods with posters asking questions about the quality of government services, and residents can text their response to the phone number on the poster.
- PHL2035, an interactive computer game that the Philadelphia City Planning Commission debuted in January that allowed players to learn about public projects slated for the city’s southwestern neighborhoods.
Damian Thorman, national program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which provided financial support for SeeClickFix, said that the easier it is to communicate with government, the more active citizens become, an issue in West Hollywood, where typically fewer than 20 percent of voters turn out for city council elections.
“It starts with a pothole,” Thorman said, “but can lead to more widespread and more meaningful citizen action, affecting issues like city budgets, superintendent appointments.”
But are those without a smart phone or Internet access in danger of being left out of West Hollywood initiatives to relate more directly with local residents?
No, said Francisco Contreras, West Hollywood senior planner and innovations liaison. “By innovation we don’t just mean new technology, it could mean a different way of doing things.” Contreras cited Boston’s “City Hall To Go”, a bright red truck — inspired by the popular food trucks on city streets — that drives to different neighborhoods to offer residents city services. “So we’re including a little blurb in the newsletter on what they’re doing there in Boston to get people to think, oh, things can be done differently,” Contreras said.
The Knight Foundation’s Thorman agrees. “There is a real potential here to dramatically change the relationship” between citizens and governments, he said. “Imagine citizens not as passive recipients of government services, but co-creators of community solutions.”