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Jan. 24, 2011, 11:30 a.m.

SeedSpeak: A geolocation app for better civic engagement

We’re all too familiar with terms like “community” and “engagement” when talking about online news. But what if we take it back to the root? Not Twitter followers, blog comments, or Quora questions, but instead a group of people trying to do something together?

SeedSpeak, a 2010 Knight News Challenge winner, is trying to figure out how to merge the the online and IRL concepts of community and engagement. And next month, they’ll have an iPhone app to put their civic-minded efforts into people’s pockets.

SeedSpeak‘s app will allow people to target and tag ideas (“seeds”) to places in their community that they would like to see some action taken. Think of it like SeeClickFix, or the numerous “report a problem” apps municipalities are creating that allow residents to call attention to areas that need fixing. SeedSpeak goes further by trying to create a mechanism to draw attention to projects and generate the type of interest to turn an idea into reality.

But the first step is building the right app, which SeedSpeak plans to launch in February. The app would allow allow people to create seeds as well as post photos and locate other seeds and users. Retha Hil, SeedSpeak’s co-founder told me the app needs to be intuitive in a way that makes it easy and familiar for people to post their seeds.

“Once you are used to taking a picture or posting something, like a local restaurant in Yelp, we think people would be more inclined to say ‘Let me share this idea with my neighbors to improve our community,'” she said.

If geolocation seems like a good bet right now, it’s likely due to the success of games like Foursquare and Gowalla as well as services like Groupon and Yelp. The lesson from the location-based boom is that “user experience is very, very important. You don’t want it to be so complex that it turns people off,” Hill said.

But unlike the larger players in location-based apps, or even newspaper apps, SeedSpeak has to get their product right from the beginning or risk the possibility of not getting a large base of users, Hill said. Anyone with a smartphone can tell a story of an app they tried once and never used again, in that way the technology breeds loyalty through the ability to use an app repeatedly.

In rolling out SeedSpeak Hill and co-founder Cody Shotwell are focusing on the Phoenix metro area to start (though the site and app will allow you to plant seeds anywhere) and reaching out to specific groups, such as neighborhood associations, to test the app. From there they may try to find partners who could promote or integrate the service. Hill said news sites and blogs focusing on specific communities would be a natural fit. But as they grow Hill said she could see SeedSpeak being of use to nonprofits, advocacy groups or even politicians looking to gauge the viability of community projects.

“This is a way to try and get your neighbors excited about an idea and its important to give a path to make it happen,” Hill said.

SeedSpeak fits with the Knight Foundation’s goal of meeting the information needs of communities, but in another way what they are creating is a tool for citizen journalism with seeds taking the place of stories. [Disclosure: The Lab also receives funding from Knight.] When someone creates a seed calling for stoplights at a dangerous intersection it meets the same civic role of bringing awareness to problems in a community. It’s no different than a homeowner/neighborhood group pitching a story to a newspaper. (Which, if you think about it, could also potentially make SeedSpeak a tool to discover stories for local journalists.)

Hill said the goals are similar, put people in better position to change their community. “If you can show there are people behind an idea or momentum and show it to officials in power you can make a difference,” Hill said

POSTED     Jan. 24, 2011, 11:30 a.m.
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