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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Sept. 15, 2011, 2 p.m.

Community PlanIt turns civic engagement into a game — and the prize is better discourse

The project aims to use game dynamics to encourage more and better user input about how best to evaluate schools in Boston.

If you’ve ever attended a Boston school committee meeting, you know that it can be the opposite of “bowling alone.”

Community PlanIt logoThis community is not only engaged but raucous: At one meeting, protestors carried in a casket and tombstone to symbolize budget cuts. At another, parents fought with police trying to block a packed chamber. Fed up with the booing and shouting and constant interruptions, the committee drafted a code of conduct to try to keep people in line.

But along with trying to curb negative behavior, the committee is trying a civic-media experiment aimed at generating positive behavior. Today the Boston Public Schools is adopting Community PlanIt, a web-based social network that turns planning — in this case, designing standards for gauging school performance — into a big game. This isn’t just for grown-ups, though. Students, teachers, parents, and administrators alike are encouraged to play (nicely), and participation is rewarded with virtual currency. It’s an attempt to apply game dynamics to the pedestrian world of public comment.

The platform was created by Eric Gordon, an Emerson College professor who has done a lot of work with civic media and gameification at his Engagement Game Lab. (See also: Participatory Chinatown.) It’s a nonprofit, Knight Foundation-funded project that Gordon plans to make open-source. He walked me through the project a few days ahead of the launch.

Users log in to find a familiar social dashboard that displays recent activity. Every few days, BPS assigns a new “mission” that includes dozens of thought exercises based on one of the ways local schools are evaluated. For example, a mission called “Proficiency” leads with a secret-agent-style video introducing the concept (which will be broadcast in homerooms at Boston’s English High every week).

Participants are asked to answer cerebral multiple-choice questions and essays, some with graphics and maps. An example: “How much do you agree with the following statement: Some students should get more than 4 years to graduate — and schools should be given credit for getting these students to graduate eventually? Explain your answer in a comment.”

Users earn “tokens” for completing activities. The more tokens you earn, the higher you ascend on the community leaderboard. (Kids love racking up points, Gordon said, even if there’s no actual prize.) You spend the tokens on the values you support, such as “School Environment and Safety” or “Family and Community Engagement.”

At the end of a 35-day trial, all of the participants are invited to a special meeting — in real life — to talk about what they learned. At that point, Gordon hopes, the issues will have been explained and hashed out, and people will already know each other. A pie chart of aggregate token spending will demonstrate visually how the community prioritizes its values.

Gordon said 600 people have pre-registered.

The key to making this work, he says, is student involvement. Kids don’t necessarily like to hang out online where the adults are. Those kids in the secret-agent video? They are being paid small stipends to serve as “technology interpreters,” sort of the educational equivalent of guerilla marketers. They are spreading the word about the platform and helping people use it.

“The youth are the ones who are going to know how to use this thing without even thinking, and they’re going to be much more savvy, even though the content may not be as interesting to them,” Gordon said. “Setting up a place where the adults rely on the youth to make this process meaningful is really what we want to do.”

The students will attend the meeting at the end of the trial, and Gordon said BPS will make a point of highlighting the most interesting contributions to come from youth. And to make sure everyone has a shot, BPS has contributed about $5,000 to the project to translate all of the content into Spanish and Haitian Creole, the other languages most commonly spoken at home.

“What you often see at a meeting is, ‘Write your public comments on a sticky.’ And you have no idea what happens to those things.”

The first Community PlanIt pilot happened earlier this year in Lowell, Mass., which sought community input on that city’s master plan. In that nine-day trial, 175 participants contributed more than 1,000 comments and spent more than 400 tokens, he said.

Gordon has since redesigned the user interface in response to user feedback and made other adjustments. For example, Lowell did not require participants to provide demographic data such as race, ethnicity, geographic location, and income. Hardly anyone filled it out, and the city said much of the data was unusable as a result. On the Boston Public Schools site, users will have to fill that out upfront — which could deter participation. That’s the trade-off, Gordon says: low barriers to participation versus high-quality data.

So what if the Boston project is wildly successful? Might Gordon have a wonderful problem — too much community feedback? It might sound cynical, he says, but a lot of city planners don’t want a lot of community feedback. Too many cooks in the kitchen. I mean, Apple makes great products and never does focus groups. So there can be resistance at the government level to projects like his.

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Gordon does not see his platform as more so much as better. “What you often see at a meeting is, ‘Write your public comments on a sticky.’ And you have no idea what happens to those things. So this does a couple of things: It creates a public record of those comments so that they’re there and they will continue to be there, and then it has a clear sort of path between conversation and values.”  Community PlanIt is a like a long pre-meeting, a place to separate the wheat from the chaff, a place to filter out the back-chatter and squabbling that steamrolls progress. Gordon said he is “under no illusions this will absolve the vitriol” at school committee meetings, but it’s a start.

There are some websites doing similar work, such as Change By Us, which is live in New York and expanding soon to Seattle and Philadelphia, and the Nebraska for-profit MindMixer. Gordon said he is in talks with Boston’s southern neighbor, Quincy, to bring Community PlanIt to that city.

POSTED     Sept. 15, 2011, 2 p.m.
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