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June 22, 2010, 1 p.m.

Knight News Challenge: CitySeed’s mobile app wants to grow some fresh community engagement

Have you ever come across an overgrown lot in your neighborhood — and wondered what it might become? Have you thought, “You know, that could make a great playground” — or “Hey, why don’t we make that into a community garden”?

The founders of CitySeed don’t want those kinds of thoughts to be fleeting; they want to harness them. They want you to take your ideas and capture them and spread them around — to, yes, plant them, seed-like, and see what grows.

CitySeed is a mobile app that aims to increase community engagement by breaking down community concerns into small nuggets of information. Rather than tackling broad themes like “safety,” “sustainability,” etc., the app encourages community members to address specific, physical issues: the vacant lot, for example, or the pothole-covered street, or the empty space where a street sign might be helpful. (A “seed,” co-founder Cody Shotwell explains, is “a thought, an idea, a suggestion tied to a physical location in a community.”) The platform is designed to create conversation over the geographical aspects of a community — to create broad-scale changes by going from, sometimes literally, the ground up.

Or, as Shotwell puts it: CitySeed “sees community engagement as a platform, not just a utility.”

CitySeed has a lot in common with SeeClickFix, the geo-based platform that the Washington Post (among others) is using to bring community members into the process of community improvement. Unlike SeeClickFix, though, the CitySeed app directly emphasizes conversation and, by extension, community. (In that sense, its $90,000 award reflects the Knight Foundation’s increased emphasis on the information needs of communities.) The big idea, co-founder Retha Hill (a Washington Post web producer before becoming ASU’s new media lab director) told me, is to help people “have conversations with their neighborhoods.” The even bigger idea: “to bring civic journalism into the 21st century.”

The project came out of the multimedia journalism program at Arizona State University — “this big, cool, rising entity out in the desert,” Shotwell calls it — where Hill was Shotwell’s professor. As part of his Capstone project, Shotwell decided to explore the potential use of smartphone apps in local communities. “We’re big believers in the iterative design process,” Shotwell says, and after much conversation, CitySeed was born.

The CitySeed team is hoping to have a Phoenix-based beta version of the platform by this December, Shotwell says, and then will keep tweaking and retweaking its infrastructure — “as many times as it takes to make it great.” From there, they’ll make the platform publicly available through an API — with the hope of extending its reach far beyond Arizona. The ultimate goal: to transform communities, one fleeting idea at a time — by “positioning those ideas to become realities.”

POSTED     June 22, 2010, 1 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2010
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