How to Engage Citizens on a Municipal Website…

Sometimes, it’s nice to be small, the City of Nanaimo has been pushing the envelop on open data and open government for a number of years now.

Recently, I was directed to their new Council Agendas and Minutes webpage. I recommend you check it out.

Here’s why.

At first blush the site seems normal. There is the standard video of the council meeting (queue cheesy local cable access public service announcement), but them meeting minutes underneath are actually broken down by the second and by clicking on them you can jump straight to that moment in the meeting.

As anyone who’s ever attended a City Council meeting (or the legislature, or parliament) knows, the 80/20 rule is basically always in effect. About 80% of the time the proceedings are either dead boring and about 20% (often much less) of the time the proceedings are exciting, or more importantly, pertinent to you. One challenge with getting citizens engaged on the local level is that they often encounter a noise to signal problem. The ratio of “noise” (issues a given citizen doesn’t care about) drowns out the “signal” (the relatively fewer issues they do care about).

The City of Nanaimo’s website helps address this problem. It enables citizens to find what matters to them without having to watch or scroll through a long and dry council meeting. Better still, they are given a number of options by which to share that relevant moment with friends, neighbours, allies or colleagues via twitter, facebook, delicious or any other number of social media tools.

One might be wondering: can my city afford such a wizbang setup?

Excellent question.

Given Nanaimo’s modest size (it has 78,692 citizens) suggests they have a modest IT budget. So I asked Chris McLuckie, a City of Nanaimo public servant who worked on the project. He informed me that the system was built in-house by him and another city staff member, it uses off-the-shelf hardware and software and so cost under $2000 and it took 2 week to code up.

2 weeks?

No million dollar contract? No 8 month timeline? No expensive new software?

No. Instead, if you’re smart, you might find a couple of local creative citizen-hackers to put something together in no time at all.

You know what’s more, because Chris and the City of Nanaimo want to help more cities learn how to think like the web, I bet if the IT director from any city (or legislative body) asked nicely, they would just give them the code.

So how Open is your city? And if not, do they have $2000 lying around to change that?

15 thoughts on “How to Engage Citizens on a Municipal Website…

  1. Keith McDonald

    Hi Keith McDonald of the toronto.ca web re:Brand project here. I’m noting your comments for the team. We’re working on a retool of pretty well everything for our web and are actually very interested in hearing more from users – just like what’s going on here. (Note to Neil: we are manipulating our Google search engine in hopes of having it grind out way better results.)

    The best way to make some noise is to go to our toronto.ca/comment page. From there you can participate directly by letting us know your concerns, wishes, etc. You can also go to our survey (if you want to stay anonymous) or, better yet, agree to become a tester for us. Simply follow the links: “anonymous survey” and “become a tester”. We’re doing lots of user tests and will be launching a labs area and blog space very soon. The business of Council is huge and we definitely want to make the toronto.ca beast user-centric. Help us out! I’d be glad to continue any dialogue here as well.

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  3. David Humphrey

    So did you suggest that he release that code so other communities could a) use it; and b) improve it? Open data needs open platforms for participation to scale.

  4. kferaday

    Great idea. I just tried it and it's really simple to use. The only thing that would make this better would be if they included the ability to leave a comment and/or include a poll beside issues (maybe not all but at least important ones to the community).

  5. Neil

    I'd be happy with the City of Toronto simply improving its search functionality to 1994 levels. Half the results are useful only to city employees — no one seems to have thought about making search citizen-facing.

  6. ndrwclrk

    It would have been even better if instead of using micro$oft technology they had done it with open source. University of Toronto KMDI has developed an open-source tool that would probably work. Check it out at epresence.tv

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  8. Vancouver citizen

    Maybe I am dense but I was unable to find videos for previous meetings on the Nanaimo site. When I searched previous meetings I could find links to minutes and agendas that gave me PDF documents, but I could not find a link to see the video for the meeting.The City of Vancouver provides links in the minutes posted on the web to the video clips for each item as well, but do not have the social media links. I am not sure there is much value in having all the social media links, but I am guessing they are probably easy to add.Here is an example of City of Vancouver Council minutes with video links: http://vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/cclerk/20090728/cs

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  10. pmocek

    Providing hyperlinks from a meeting index to corresponding points in its videorecording seems like a no-brainer, but Seattle City Council, for instance, does no such thing with its meeting archives. It's somewhat unfortunate that Nanaimo had to use proprietary software instead of free software.As described in the Time article to which Mr. Eaves linked, Nanaimo has take the progressive step of making public data available on Google Maps. Even more progressive would be to provide this information in a manner that allows the public to use it in any way they see fit, without restrictions from a commercial entity, specifically, with OpenStreetMap and derivative projects. Google Maps is free (gratis) but not free (libre). OpenStreetMap is completely free. In short, OSM is to maps as Wikipedia is to encyclopedias. It does appear that OSM's map of Nanaimo is presently rather incomplete. Open data advocates in Nanaimo should consider getting involved with building a public map of Canada.

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