Open My City with Humanity in Action

It was my pleasure to be invited speak with Humanity In Action‘s  2009 Summer Fellows. The organization does great work engaging student leaders in the study and work of human rights. I was there to talk to them about the Open My City project and get them excited enough about the idea to volunteer in support of it.

Open My City KeyA big part of the idea is to get perspectives from marginalized communities by recording video interviews with them. It’s important to include groups that otherwise wouldn’t have a voice in the conversation of how technology is and should be changing the world.

Take for example one of my favorite government 2.0 initiatives, the Apps for Democracy project in Washington, DC. While a truly innovative way to stimulate innovation in a city, there’s definitely a question about whose voice is being heard and so who is benefiting from the applications that are created. Programmers tend to be from a very specific young male demographic. Those filling out internet surveys on government 2.0 issues aren’t necessarily much different.

Since community based organizations tend to have a pretty good sense of what they need, the idea is to get a broader demographic of citizens by engaging them on the issues that they already find important, but thinking strategically about what government data could make their lives better. For example: were I to know the amount of money being spent on refugee services, I could show resettled communities where they could access services. Or If I knew how to arrange the necessary city permits, I could realize more community and public art projects.

I’m particularly excited to continue the conversations with this years fellows given their focus on human rights and the issue’s connection to government innovation.  I’ve been thinking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 19:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Do New Yorkers see the internet as a privilege or a right?  As infrastructure or entertainment? Given that the focus of their work is human rights and many of the people that they are currently speaking with in NY are involved with those issues, I’m curious to see the linkage that they find on the ground.

Ministry of the Impossible

Steve Lambert also came by to present the Ministry of the Impossible, a place to experiment with new ideas, to expand consciousness through imagination and discovery, and to raise the level of discourse about the problems we face in a new century. They’re working to collect stories of the seemingly impossible to show that impossible things can change the world. My favorite example is the Mayor of Bogota, Colombia who used mimes for public behavior control to slow down traffic.

I was most excited to get the chance to bounce the idea off of Herb Sturz, who was kind enough to listen and give advise. He’s sort of a legend in NYC and there was recently a book written about his life – A Kind of Genius: Herb Sturz and Society’s Toughest Problems

From The Washington Post’s Book World/ Reviewed by Liam Julian Social reformers toiling at ground level are often unknown. Herbert Sturz, who has spearheaded far-reaching changes in New York City, is no exception. Sam Roberts’s book is the first extensive account of Sturz’s remarkable accomplishments, which include transforming an unjust and inefficient bail system, preparing former drug addicts for the workforce and unclogging city courts. Sturz was but a young man when he tackled bail reform. In 1960s New York, the bail system penalized the indigent: Prisons were packed with people accused of minor crimes who were too poor to pay even small sums to a bail bondsman. Sturz hypothesized that suspects with strong community ties (a spouse, a job, kids) would not be flight risks. If many people could be released on their own recognizance, he reasoned, prison populations would thin and taxpayers would save money. Experiments proved he was right. Roberts does a fine job of showing how Sturz succeeded not only by having good ideas but also by appealing to “government’s enlightened self-interest.” Systems change when systems see a selfish reason to change. In our time of national transformation, it’s a valuable lesson.

Over the course of the conversation he gave some pointers from his experiences. What particularly resonated with me was his method of operating without media. In fact, his anecdotes were often about the problems that media attention made for his work. He sees the importance of working with people as people and that seems to be his rallying cry. Instead of the hype that many groups deem necessary to have a successful campaign, he prefers to work behind the scenes, talking to people, understanding their concerns and working out solutions. Rather than media 2.0, this is 0.0.

Simple takeaways were these:

  • Draft releases for government rather than for the press.
  • Don’t be just a lobbying group.
  • Look for agencies will have a big open door for new things
  • When asking people to tune into video, they might tune out
  • Find where decision making power really is and focus there
  • Give maximum credit to public agency.
  • When people don’t get paid a lot, there’s paranoia.
  • Sometimes you just need to take the fall.

As the Open My City project moves forward, we’ll be looking at how life in the city can be made better with the aid of government data. How groups would they do things that are otherwise impossible. But that data will come through intervention as we answer “why do you want it, what would you do with it and does it have wider ramifications.” We’re working on finding intricacies of what’s in the way of getting things done.
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1 Comment

  1. July 28, 2009 at 11:46 am · Reply


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