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Textizen wants to make civic engagement as easy as texting with a (really wonky) friend

The Knight News Challenge winner creates mobile surveys to help communities increase input from residents on important issues.

Wherever you live, it’s likely your local government makes big decisions without you. Should the city sell the old fire station to a condo developer? Where should the light-rail stops be located? In any given month, city councils, planning boards, and other committees make decisions that impact a community, and often with minimal input from residents. (Be honest: Did you want to take time to attend that committee meeting Tuesday night after a long day of work?)

Textizen, one of the winners of the mobile round of the Knight News Challenge, wants to give a boost to civic engagement through a suite of technology tools that allow residents to give feedback on community issues. Using its $350,000 award from Knight Foundation, Textizen will expand and begin working with cities around the country.

Textizen is a hybrid of the physical and the digital that gives people in a community real-world prompts to answer questions about important issues in their city. But instead of asking people to mail in a survey, responses are handled through mobile devices.

So let’s say your local planning department is trying to figure out what to do with a problem intersection. Using Textizen, the planning department could craft a series of short survey questions using a web interface. Flyers throughout town would direct residents to a number to text responses to the survey. Using Textizen’s web dashboard, the city would also be able to track and graph responses.

Web surveys aren’t new technology, but Textizen takes an interesting mobile-centric twist by turning the survey into a kind of chat. After texting their initial response, users are sent a new question, and the survey begins to resemble the kind of texting back-and-forth you might have with a friend who is really into public policy.

“Textizen allows you to build a survey that sounds like a conversation and less like red tape,” said Michelle Lee, CEO of Textizen. Lee said the software is designed to help cities and towns gain new kinds of engagement from residents. In order for a Textizen campaign to work, she said, you have to capture people’s attention and ask focused, rather than general, questions. Places like bus stops, parks, or community centers are the ideal location because they provide a ready audience. From there, municipalities have to be creative in the ways they appeal to people, Lee said.

Textizen got its start as a Code for America project based in Philadelphia, working with city planners on surveys for various neighborhoods. Lee said one the reasons officials in Philadelphia were eager to work with Textizen is because of the uneven Internet access throughout the city. In parts of the city, many don’t have Internet access at home, but mobile access is fairly high, she said. In that way, Textizen was the perfect tool to get feedback from areas officials have had difficulty reaching.

Lee said the pervasive nature of mobile technology is at the heart of Textizen. The number of cellphones in the U.S. is unlikely to shrink any time soon, so giving the mobile device a bigger role in civic engagement is a bet on the future. One key component of that, Lee said, is the use of SMS. Building the system around texting rather than a smartphone app — even as some news organizations step back from texting — gives Textizen access to the widest audience possible.

“Even though the SMS platform is rooted in reaching across the digital divide, SMS is still a first-class technology in the digital world,” she said.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    July 22, 2014
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