Shedding light on city development: Early success with online involvement tool EngageOmaha.com

Last Saturday I stood in line at the farmer’s market, while a woman beside me clicked the tiny keys on her phone with the fervor of a child opening a gift. Interested in her eagerness, I snuck a glance. She was “tweeting” a plug for the new crop of yellow squash. Within minutes, her phone was beeping like a car alarm, nearly as brash and startling.

This is the world of social media, where everyone can connect without verbal communication, or seeing each other in person.

During President Obama’s campaign, his team brilliantly used social media to draw younger voters. Other politicians have seen social media affect voter turnout and involvement in public affairs.

After some 2009 budget meetings, Mayor Jim Suttle was sold on the possibility of involving people with new city projects.

“The mayor wanted to hear from a broader spectrum of people in the community,” said Nikola Jordan, his executive assistant. “Public forums are great, but they are difficult for everyone to get to …”

A free social media outlet was needed.

The administration decided the answer was an online tool called EngageOmaha.com.

“We found an Omaha-based company, MindMixer, that does what we were hoping,” said Jordan. “They're one of the only companies in the country who do this.”

CEO Nick Bowden was eager to contribute.

“MindMixer has been around for about a year, although we have only had fulltime staff for about three months,” said Bowden. “All of the founders of the company are former urban planners and have spent our careers working with cities around the country on traditional public involvement projects (face-to-face). It's incredibly difficult to get people to show up to meetings, so MindMixer was actually our answer to that challenge, a web-based participation portal where people can participate at their convenience.”

“We had worked with city staff on other projects in the past,” he said. “This combined with the mayor's desire to create a better opportunity for citizens to provide ideas and feedback served as a catalyst to work together on these efforts.”

Bowden and the administration share the same ideas for getting people involved.

“There is a lot of research out there that suggest citizen involvement is correlated to satisfaction as well as improved quality of life,” said Bowden. “It makes sense that the more engaged and involved you are in your community the more invested you are in the community's future. I think the Engage Omaha site is one tool to increase citizen's passion for Omaha.”

Residents acquire a free account with EngageOmaha.com. A list of topics is provided (Parks and Recreation, Transportation, Library Hours, etc.). Inside each topic are questions (How would you like to see library hours extended?), and a short video by the point person of each organization, which is also written out.

People can answer by clicking on the “What’s Your Idea?” tab.  The more detail provided in an idea the more likely it will be “liked” by other members. A vote is held after topics are submitted. The topic receiving the most votes goes to specific departments.
EngageOmaha is working on Suttle’s vision for citizen engagement.

“We're nearing the 1,000 mark for people who've signed up on EngageOmaha.com,” said Jordan. “But, we've had over 5,000 visits. People are spending an average of six minutes each time they visit the site. They're spending time looking at what they are interested in and what they can discuss and make their opinions known about.”

“We are still having physical public forums,” said Jordan. “EngageOmaha.com is supplementing those forums, not replacing them. We have said that since we announced EngageOmaha.com in April.”

“The contract with MindMixer is for $12,000 the first year,” said Jordan. “Compared to the labor costs of setting up a similar number of public meetings, then having staff at those public meetings, EngageOmaha is comparable, if not a cost-saving.”

The process is being refined.

“The first round of questions gave us a lot of information that we're sifting through. For each following round, we're asking fewer, more specific questions,” said Jordan. “There has been growth on specific things from MindMixer with the site in general, such as adding the "Ideas Implemented" page, tweaking the sites appearance and connecting with Facebook …. But, we're very happy with all of the information we've received and the input we've gathered thus far.”

posted at 11:15 am
on Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

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