News & Press

Text It Forward – A New Way to Engage

Want to get more involved in One Region Forward but don’t have time to attend a meeting?

Text It ForwardText It Forward is a new engagement campaign launched by One Region Forward, a regional planning effort in Buffalo Niagara. The campaign utilizes an SMS-based survey tool that allows citizens to text their responses to questions that will inform One Region Forward’s planning.

Text It Forward is set during a time when mobile technology is becoming increasingly important in our daily lives; redefining the way we interact with one another and the world around us. We can now share with, learn from, and work alongside our peers across municipal, national, and geographic boundaries. Yet planning and public policy efforts have struggled to use mobile technology to interact with their citizens in a meaningful way. When they do employ mobile technology, they tend to do so through a one-way, top-down approach that doesn’t build trust or allow for true partnerships with citizens to develop.

The non-profit, Code for America, has set out to change that, envisioning a government “by the people, for the people, that works in the 21st century.” Through their fellowship program, Code for America is able to match developers, designers, and researchers with local governments who have a demonstrated need for creative problem solving. These teams of three to four tech savvy individuals are tasked with developing smartphone applications and websites. These in turn will help address pressing issues faced by local communities by rethinking the way governments and citizens can work together towards a common goal.

Some of the success stories that have come out of the fellowship process include Civic Insight, a 311 tracking system that helps residents more easily submit and track quality of life complaints with the city; decreasing wait times, and increasing responsiveness and transparency. Another, LocalData, is a data collection app that empowers residents and governments to quickly and efficiently collect parcel-level information to improve communities through data-driven decisions.

textizenAnother example is called Textizen and it has made its way to the Buffalo Niagara region as part of One Region Forward. Textizen was developed out of a 2012 Code for America fellowship with the City of Philadelphia. The developers behind Textizen worked closely with the City’s Planning Commission to learn how they could leverage mobile technology to re-imagine public meetings and citizen input in the planning process.  Planners stated that many residents couldn’t make it to the few in-person meetings the agency could afford to hold, and that those who did often only represented vocal minorities. The fellows also learned that only 3 out of 5 households in Philadelphia had access to broadband internet, but more than 90% of residents had access to mobile phones with text messaging. Consequently, they decided to create an SMS-based survey system that would allow the city to gather real time, site-specific feedback through text messaging.

One Region Forward, a three year regional planning initiative, has set out to find more sustainable ways for Buffalo Niagara to grow its economy, building communities, travel, produce food, and meet the challenges of climate change. Thousands of citizens across the region have weighed in at various fairs, festivals, farmers markets, community events, presentations, and large, interactive public meetings called “Community Congresses”,  to chart a more sustainable course for Buffalo Niagara over the next forty years.

Much like the planners in Philadelphia however, those working on One Region Forward realized they needed to think beyond the typical avenues of public engagement to better reach traditionally marginalized populations in a conversation about the region’s future. The opportunity costs associated with traditional public meetings and focus groups are often too great for many to participate. While these people share a deep concern for the future of their community and the region their children will inherit, taking time off of work or paying for child care to make their voices heard is often not an option.

Instead of compelling individuals to attend special events, One Region Forward hopes to engage these underrepresented populations by bringing engagement opportunities to them. One way One Region Forward is by launching Text it Forward, a texting campaign leveraging the Textizen technology.

The questions asked through Text It Forward reflect common themes and issues that were brought up during a series of community workshops held across Buffalo Niagara by One Region Forward. They allow those who were unable to attend the meetings to still weigh in.

0403141253dLook for Text it Forward posters on buses, in Metro stations, and at bus shelters around the community!

Through a partnership with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA), large format print ads will be placed in the interior of every bus in the system, at approximately 50 bus shelters located throughout the city and region, and at various metro stations. These ads will feature a brief synopsis of what One Region Forward is and what it hopes to accomplish, along with a starter question that will prompt individuals to text their answer to the number given.  There is a combination of multiple choice and short answer questions, which shouldn’t take more than five minutes of a respondent’s time to complete.  In addition to the large format transit ads, flyers and posters will be distributed to libraries, coffee shops, and other community meeting spots throughout the region to increase the pool of potential survey takers. The results for each month’s poll are available online and in real-time; adding to the overall transparency of the campaign.

Perhaps what’s most exciting about the development of tools like Textizen and the rollout of local campaigns like Text It Forward is their ability to redefine public engagement and participatory decision making. Mobile technology is helping us move away from a linear one-way system of meetings that serves to inform and consult toward a circular two-way system of continual conversation and feedback that seeks to build a true partnership between a government and its citizens.

Add you voice to the conservation today:

TextItForward_infoflyer_FINALSHARE IT FORWARD

Visit our Share It Forward Toolkit to find out how you can help spread the word about Text It Forward.