UMSI and Jackson, MI collaboration aims to connect citizens and government
A partnership between the city of Jackson, Mich., and the University of Michigan School of Information aims to develop information tools such as mobile apps and social media sites designed to help citizens interact with their local government in new ways.
The three-year project, Citizen Interaction Design, takes lessons learned in the business sector—namely that social media and technology can help people communicate and work together effectively—and applies them to local civic life.
"In recent years, we've seen an explosion of new information and communication technologies that have proven to be very effective in business settings," said project leader Clifford Lampe, assistant professor of information. "While some of these tools have been used in individual projects in government applications, there haven't been many systematic efforts to use new information tools to improve interactions between local governments and citizens.
"Our goal is to implement new information tools that help inform citizens, help them become engaged in local issues and get their feedback to policymakers in effective ways. We believe these efforts could revolutionize local citizenship."
While a few larger cities have attempted similar endeavors, Lampe says he knows of none in communities the size of Jackson, which has 33,000 residents. He hopes the project can serve as a model for other places. What makes Citizen Interaction Design especially unusual, officials say, is the sustained, three-year partnership between the university and the city.
"With this initiative, the city of Jackson is working to address 21st century challenges with 21st century solutions," said Derek Dobies, city council member and sponsor of the resolution supporting the project. "As the challenges for municipalities become more complex, we have to adapt and find new and better ways to interact with citizens."
Today, city officials typically communicate with residents on an individual basis through phone calls and emails, and in person at city meetings. By leveraging mobile, social and web-based platforms, Dobies hopes to broaden the conversation—reach more citizens, hear from more of them and engage in more two-way dialogues.
"After all, communication is the foundation of a strong democracy and a strong community," Dobies said.
Lampe says the U-M team is excited to work with Jackson.
"Jackson is in the midst of some changes in their planning, which creates a great context for these types of services," he said. "In addition, they have a rich civil society layer, and some excellent groups working together already. We see our role as making the collaboration between these citizens and their government more efficient."
Once approved, the project will begin immediately. The School of Information will hire a project manager and graduate students to work on projects over the summer. One goal for the summer would be to determine how Jackson's residents currently use information tools—how many use smartphones, for example.
The U-M team would also work closely with the city to identify needs and solutions that can be implemented in the short term. One example they would explore is a tool called Blight Status, an app or site that gives citizens easier access to information about properties the city is planning to rehabilitate or demolish. Another joint effort would involve strategizing about when and how to use social media to help get relevant information to Jackson citizens.
Over the course of the project, the team plans to develop close to a dozen different information tools. Not all of them would necessarily be high-tech, and they would be designed to fit the specific needs of people in Jackson. The primary responsibility for developing the apps would fall on the students who enroll in Lampe's Citizen Interaction Design course, which will be offered for the first time in January 2014. The U-M Ginsberg Center, which specializes in community-based learning, is also participating.
In the fall semester, the team would begin creating those early apps, conducting additional surveys and working closely with citizens and members of city government in Jackson.
The project is funded by the U-M School of Information.