State College pilots web project to boost civic engagement
by Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU
What stops people from being engaged in your community? Perhaps local government meetings aren't held at convenient times. Or people feel like they don't know enough about local issues. Or maybe they don't think they can make a difference.
Whatever the reason, it can be tough to get residents involved in community matters.
A Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology research group has piloted the Geodeliberation Project in State College, meant to get residents to weigh in on local decision-making. They've made the bet that citizens would be more willing to participate if they can do it online.
Community Issue Review
Jess Kropczynski, a postdoctoral researcher dedicated to the project, started up the week-long process like a typical community meeting. She invited participants to a conference room in the municipal building.
But actually, that in-person meeting was just an introduction to the project, which primarily takes place online. For the next week, the eight participants committed to log on to a website every day to learn about—and deliberate over—a community issue.
In the pilot run, the question was whether or not the borough should install security cameras in a State College neighborhood. Borough planner Meagan Tuttle said it's a fitting topic.
"The team wanted to pilot a project that's of current interest to the community," Tuttle said. "We knew the Highlands [neighborhood] has been working to decide whether or not this was a project that they wanted to move forward with. We have heard both from the pro and the con side of this issue. [So] we thought this would be a unique opportunity to see how this model could work."
The community-engagement aspect of the project was adapted from the Oregon Citizens Initiative Review, which brings a random sampling of state residents together to deliberate a ballot initiative. Kropczynski said it's kind of like jury duty, except instead of deciding whether someone is innocent or guilty, it's a community issue that's on trial.
But in State College, the deliberative process is done primarily online.
"The goal is to use technology to scale up citizen participation in community politics," said Guoray Cai, one of the principal investigators of the National Science Foundation-funded project.
His co-investigator, John Carroll, added it's not so much about reinventing the wheel, it's about bringing together already-existing technology like online mark-up tools, interactive maps, and discussion forums.
"No one has put all these pieces together into a collaborative system," said Carroll. "We think it could make democratic participation more accessible, more available, to a greater number of people."
So how does it work?
The actual website (called the GeoDeliberator, created from the ground up by Penn State PhD student Ye Tian) is divided into three sections: documents, claims, and discussions. The documents--with videos, maps, and images--included the official borough Neighborhood Surveillance Camera System proposal as well as proponent and opponent statements.
Participants were asked to go through all the expert testimony and data, post questions, and highlight the most important facts. Everyone would read and interact with the material on their own, then reconvene as a group at the end of the week to write up a summary of the issue in a statement that will be passed out to their neighbors and local leaders. It's meant to give an informed and unbiased overview.
Participant Gary Miller said during the week of the project, he accessed the website two or three times a day. He said the flexibility to log on whenever he wanted made the process convenient.
Miller, a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, also said that although he hasn't in the past considered himself an active member of the community, being part of the project has made him want to participate more in the future.
A week after the first meeting, the participants returned to the municipal conference room to finalize a citizens' statement. The group narrowed down the data to the top 20 "claims" and then voted on a recommendation. (Six voted in favor of implementing surveillance cameras in the neighborhood, while two voted "no." To be clear, the vote is meant to inform the decision-makers and the public--it's not an actionable decision in itself.)
The last meeting made it clear there are still kinks in the system—some participants expressed frustration at the limitations of the web interface, while others said one week wasn't enough time to go through the process.
But there was optimism that even though the process might need some work, it has big potential.
"With improvement and a little tweaking," said participant Alex Wiker, "this kind of process can probably be expanded to other areas as well. This is a great way for a wide range of people to participate in discussing issues and building consensus."
Borough planner Tuttle said she sees the GeoDeliberation Project as an opportunity to "help the community get information in an unbiased way" and expand the borough's reach to bring more voices to the conversation.
The GeoDeliberation Team plans to roll out four or five more pilot projects in State College in the coming months, with the intention of seeing whether the process can become a permanent part of Borough decision-making. And beyond that? The team hopes the model can eventually be adapted for use in communities across the country.
This article is available on the Keystone Crossroads website here.
Or listen to the WPSU Morning Edition broadcast here.
Highlands residents chosen for surveillance study
BY JEREMY HARTLEY
[email protected] December 2, 2014
STATE COLLEGE — The requests were sent out, and the residents responded.
Ten residents from the Highlands neighborhood have been chosen to evaluate a proposal for surveillance cameras in their community.
The panel is part of a Community Issue Review, a citizen-oriented activity that’s part of theGeoDeliberation Project. The project, conceived at Penn State, is designed to “analyze and facilitate civic engagement and spatial decision-making in a community planning context.”
Residents are asked to form a panel, Penn State researcher Jessica Kropczynski said. The panel will be presented with a proposal in their community. Based on input from advocates for and against the proposal, along with neutral experts, the panel will create a citizen’s statement about the proposal along with statements supporting and opposing it.
The borough already has installed a camera system through the downtown area. According to the initiative, the next step is cameras in other neighborhoods.
The Highlands was chosen to pilot the neighborhood cameras because, according to document statistics, the neighborhood has a higher number of reported offenses compared to other neighborhoods.
The first step for the panelists is familiarizing themselves with the proposal and the advocates, Kropczynski said. Through software developed at Penn State, they will be able to read through the proposal and highlight statements they feel are important. A supporting statement by Highlands Civic Association President Susan Venegoni and an opposing statement by Penn State lecturer Marc Friedenberg also will be evaluated and highlighted.
These statements will be categorized and prioritized, Kropczynski said, creating a summary of the issue. On Monday, the final day of the project, the panelists will determine the 10 most important statements and present them along with five statements supporting the initiative and five statements opposing it.
Neutral experts will be available to answer questions, she said, including the borough’s information technology department and Police Chief Tom King.
“The findings will help define the issue,” she said. “The hope is the statements and the pros and cons will encourage other citizens to take a stance on the issue so they can bring it forward to their council members.”
Based on citizen response, she said, council could be persuaded to fund a project or encourage fellow citizens to contribute to see an initiative realized.
Highlands resident and panelist David Stone said he saw a lot of promise in the review, saying, “It’s a great opportunity to get involved in something like this. This is the kind of thing I would like to see more of in this area.”
Kropczynski said more reviews are planned for the future, with the next one taking place in early 2015.
“I’d be excited to see a controversial issue,” she said. “Maybe an issue people are divided on.”
Penn State and State College Borough Partner to Promote Civic Engagement
by Michael Martin Garrett on November 29, 2014 6:00 AM
Imagine a world where every State College resident is an active participant in local government, with well-informed and well-rounded opinions about the state of the community.
That’s a world Penn State Information Sciences and Technology instructor Jessica Kropczynski envisions, and she’s taking steps to make it a reality.
Kropczynski is a member of the Geodeliberation Project: a partnership between the College of IST and the State College Borough government. Their goal is to foster greater community involvement when it comes to making important decisions in the State College community.
“Municipal planning is an under-appreciated activity, not just in State College but all over the country,” Kropczynski says. “Most of the time it’s not until something groundbreaking is happening that people really decide to take action.”
She says citizens need to be involved with their government before groundbreaking decisions are made so they can shape the future of their town. The Geodeliberation Project works toward that objective by creating a forum for residents to come together and learn about issues facing the community.
Kropczynski says the project is based off a process used by the state of Oregon for its public referendums. Citizens are gathered randomly from across the state then brought together to hear experts discuss the issue in question and ask questions. After thorough debate and deliberation, each person writes a statement presenting their opinion on the issue. These statements are then mailed to every registered voter in the state, which helps give voters new context and perspective concerning issues on the ballot.
“We saw an opportunity to make that process more affordable and accessible by putting it online,” Kropczynski says.
With the support of the borough and the National Science Foundation, the Geodeliberation Project has been refining its process for how to bring people together and how to distribute the results through its website.
Kropczynski says that, unlike Oregon’s process, anyone who looks up the results of the citizen review process will also be able to see the materials that shaped the opinions of the citizens who were part of the forum.
This process has gone through a couple test runs, Kropczynski says. Project members brought State College residents together to discuss the State College Borough master plan and the school district’s high school renovation project, where they worked out some of the kinks in their system.
Now they’re on to their first “community issue review,” which Kropczynski says deals with an issue that directly impacts residents of the Highlands neighborhood. The project is gathering 20 randomly selected Highlands resident to serve as panelists to learn more about the issue, which will be revealed to the public in December.
Panelists will have the opportunity to hear from experts, learn more about the issue, and have their opinions made available to borough council and fellow residents. The public is invited to come observe the review sessions on December 1 and 8 at 6:00 p.m. in the municipal building.
Kropczynski says the Highlands review is the first of five panel sessions between now and May that will give residents the chance to shape the future of the borough.
“We hope to take on more planning activities,” Kropczynski says. “We want to let citizens weight in more and allow them to take more of a stance on the issues facing this community.”
State College Highlands’ residents to get invite to engage on borough issues as part of Penn State project
Some State College residents soon will receive an invitation in the mail.
It won’t be an enticement for a credit card or car insurance, but a different kind of pitch: a chance to serve on a 20-person panel and become closer to local municipal decision-making.
The mailing stems from a partnership between State College and Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology.
Called the GeoDeliberation Project, the effort began about two years ago, Penn State researcher Jessica Kropczynski said, through IST faculty members John Carroll and Guoray Cai. The first venture focused on understanding the different kinds of citizen engagement that affected decision-making in the borough and creating ways to visualize this information.
“Being tech people in IST,” Kropczynski said, “we came up with a lot of fun graphics that broke down these community issues.”
But the project lacked a meaningful way for people to approach that information, she said, so researchers spoke to the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State and were introduced to the Citizens’ Issue Review.
The review is a project adopted by the state of Oregon, she said. It randomly selects voters in an area whenever there is a ballot initiative introduced.
“These randomly selected panelists act like a jury,” Kropczynski said, “and put that initiative on trial. Rather than determining the guilt on an issue, they create a citizen’s statement that is used by all the voters when they go to vote on that initiative.”
Based on that format, the GeoDeliberation Project created the Community Issue Review, she said. The project worked with the borough to identify an issue that will affect an area in the borough.
Throughout the week, about 100 letters will be sent out to residents asking if they would like to be part of a panel that will hear advocates for and against this issue.
“We worked with the borough to access the taxpayer database,” she said. “This issue will affect the Highlands, so invitations will only be sent to people living in that neighborhood.”
Kropczynski would not say what the issue was. Panelists will find out Dec. 1 during a public meeting.
“One of the goals of the project is to get new people involved,” she said. “Rather than an open call for people interested in that particular issue to be panelists ... we want them to come out because they’re more interested in the process than the issue itself.”
The panelists will have a series of 30- to 60-minute online meetings from Dec. 2 through Dec. 7, she said. The second and final meeting will take place on Dec. 8.
Panelists will receive a catered dinner and a $50 Amazon gift card.
Advocates for and against the issue will make their cases to the panel, Kropczynski said, and neutral experts will be available for additional information. The panel will then create a 20-highlight statement for the borough and the Planning Commission as part of the information the borough considers when deciding the issue.
The statement will also be available on the borough’s website and through local media.
“I think the work (the project) is doing is consistent with the online community engagement programs we’ve been running here,” borough Manager Tom Fountaine said. “We think it provides additional opportunities for the community, for citizens, to be engaged in the governance of the borough and reaches a broader audience for that conversation.”
Jeremy Hartley can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @JJHartleyNews.