Urban Informatics, Big Data and Community Engagement: A Study of Enabling Organizations

Project Sponsor: Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement

Project Team: Piyushimita Thakuriah (Vonu), Piyushimita.Thakuriah@glasgow.ac.uk , Lise Dirks, ldirks1@uic.edu , Yake Mallon-Keita, ykeita2@uic.edu

Duration: 2012-2013

Project Summary: Sensors in the transportation, utility, health, energy and environmental management infrastructure, when connected to the Internet and to personal devices have the potential to connect communities to a vast array of information and to foster interaction, collaboration and citizen engagement. Such sensed data, called “Big Data”, has been the subject of substantial recent research interest, as evidenced by a new $200 million federal initiative on understanding its scientific and societal outcomes.

How can such information reach community residents? Do such technology services lead to increased awareness, interaction and community engagement? How can community residents contribute to such information through sensing and communication? This project examines one perspective in this complex environment: that of “digital infomediaries” or enabling organizations. Enabling organizations can be two types: technology/ICT companies or they could be community data organizations where the leadership is composed of ICT-oriented social entrepreneurs (who we call “digital civic entrepreneurs”).

ICT-oriented technology companies have played, through software, web services, Web 2.0 and social media, a transformative role in community engagement, ways to use and manipulate information, formation of social networks and ways to connect with others in the community. In a wide range of services offered, some are involved in Location-Based Services while others are involved in Smart City initiatives. They do not typically have explicit social objectives, although some support social enterprise activities as well as business solutions related to smart and connected communities.

Another group of enabling organizations, community data organizations, have openness of information, engagement and participation as explicit goals. Such organizations typically attempt to directly involve citizens in experiencing, engaging and collaborating in the city. Such organizations may very well consist of one or two persons with technology skills who are passionate about specific aspects of cities. They are likely to be capitalizing on recent open data policies, Application Programming Interface (API’s) being used by governmental and other resources to tap into data, open source technology and social media/Web 2.0 technologies.

Both types of organizations will play an important role in shaping the future of technology-based public discourse and the extent to which Big Data and urban informatics can benefit community engagement. They have the potential to impact access to collaborative community resources (a far from complete list include shared transportation, health and wellness programs, neighborhood monitoring and wellbeing).

Digital infomediaries also have the potential to channel community engagement in specific directions. Community engagement includes urban sensing (information-sharing about communities), idea-sourcing (crowdsourcing ideas for neighborhood improvements), civic sensing (reporting information about the community to the government), local news gathering and other aspects of interaction and conversation.

In this project, we are studying a sample of such organizations with the goal of understanding the transformative role that they can play on community engagement. We are using the term “community engagement” broadly to include urban sensing (information-sharing about communities), idea-sourcing (crowdsourcing ideas for neighborhood improvements), civic sensing (reporting information about the community to the government), local news gathering and other aspects of interaction and conversation.

Research Approach: Our workplan calls for the development of a list of enabling organizations. Then using a mix of web-based research and a web-based survey, we are examining the nature of such organizations, including types of services offered and technologies involved (particularly open-source software and technologies for “wikification” of information). Web-based research include text mining and clustering to generate groupings of organizations that are similar in objectives, outreach and services. The ultimate objective of both research approaches is to develop indicators of community engagement activities facilitated, barriers experienced and their perspectives on digital divide and digital citizenship. The work will document key ingredients and building blocks for successful community engagement from the perspective of these organizations.

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