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Using Technology to Develop Communities

By William Hatcher

techToday, local government experts and practitioners are calling for cities to be more tech-savvy. The creative class jobs of the modern economy are being drawn to communities that use technology in community development. An appreciation of technology can improve community development strategies in the following ways:

  • First, communities can use technology to solicit public input for the drafting of development goals in a more effective manner than traditional participation tools.
  • Second, communities can use technology to help track and measure performance to determine whether or not goals are being achieved.
  • Third, communities can use technology to advertise their assets to their citizens, potential new citizens, and possible tourists.
  • Lastly, communities can become technology providers to create the infrastructure needed in order to compete in the modern economy.

In a recent article, Governing magazine reported on how communities are using innovative tech tools to replace the hated public hearing, and in doing so, they are improving their overall planning procedures. For years, Austin, Texas has found itself in gridlock on a number of policy issues. To help alleviate this and solicit representative public input, the city instituted an online forum, SpeakUpAustin. The site encouraged over 18,000 people to participate in the city’s vision-building process. The city used this site in addition to interactive forums and social media to draft Imagine Austin. The public’s growing access to the Internet, social media and mobile technology is aiding cities in their efforts to use technology to communicate with their citizens. In the past, cities would have simply shared their planning ideas on the web. But now, many municipalities are moving to the next public participation step and directly engaging the public through more effective websites.

In 2012, the New York Times published an article on how the world is moving toward a focus on “big data” and analytics. I.B.M., for example, has rebranded itself as one of the main companies helping organizations and cities make sense of big data. The company’s Center for the Business of Government is helping cities collect information and analyze that information to solve public problems. However, many cities are setting up their own data analysis shops. In 2013, the New York Times profiled New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s “Geek Squad,”  the city’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning. The office is comprised of statisticians and policy planners using technology and big data to identify policy problems, develop solutions and track the effectiveness of those solutions. One problem that the office tackled was illegal dumping of grease from city restaurants. Using tech and a little statistical power, the office was able to identify 95 percent of the dumpers. Many cities, like NYC, are relying on their citizens to help inform their geek squads about city issues, a form of municipal crowdsourcing. Louisville, Kentucky, along with a number of other communities, has invested in mobile apps for the reporting of problems from criminal behavior to the mundane, but troublesome, pothole. By using technology, cities are able to track data about public problems, generated often by citizens, to develop effective policy solutions.

In addition to helping with internal planning and addressing municipal problems, cities can use technology to advertise their assets. In the past, I have discussed the importance of websites for community promotion and e-governance.  Communities need fully functioning websites to compete for new residents and possible tourists. But what makes a city’s website a quality one? Government Technology, a news outlet produced by the Center for Digital Government, gives awards annually for best state, county, and city websites. A review of these award-winning websites shows that a community’s website should accomplish two main goals: allow citizens to interact with government and put the city’s “best face” forth on the Internet. The website for Martin County, Florida is an excellent example of how a community can use its website to promote its assets. When one visits the county’s site, she sees stunning pictures of the community’s beaches and is presented with an easy to navigate page that includes not only appealing photos, but also engaging narratives and video to attract potential residents and tourists.

Lastly, communities can become technology providers in order to make themselves more competitive in the modern economy. In the past, I have discussed the weaknesses of our nation’s broadband network and how these limitations are hindering development in many communities. To address this policy problem, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the federal stimulus) included $7.2 billion of funding for efforts to improve broadband access. However, these efforts are largely focused on demand-side policies—pushing local leadership groups and citizens to increase their demand for broadband. With this increase in demand, the hope is that broadband providers will respond by expanding service in an affordable manner. However, cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee and Lafayette, Louisiana demonstrate the benefits of communities being directly involved in broadband provision. Both of these cities have been involved in financing their local broadband networks, and today, those networks are providing affordable access to citizens at high-speeds and attracting tech-based industries to the communities.

Communities can use technology to plan, track the efficacy of solutions and promote their assets. And a handful of our communities are taking the next step to ensure that they’re magnets of the new economy by providing broadband and other key technology assets. Community development scholars and practitioners need to continue advocating for these tech-based solutions to development problems.

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One Response to Using Technology to Develop Communities

  1. Pingback: Promoting Your Community on the Web | PA TIMES Online

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