Ph.D. Dissertation (revised)
2019 Best Dissertation Award, Association of Internet Researchers
Civic technology should empower us as citizens. Despite its breadth as a field, civic technology often takes its lead from Silicon Valley companies that espouse design goals potentially hazardous to participatory democracy. In this dissertation, I explore: How might we design civic technologies for citizen empowerment and evaluate their impact on this goal?
With their growing role as mediators of democracy, it is insufficient for civic technology designers to evaluate their designs in terms of ease of use and increased engagement with their platform. Research from political and developmental psychology shows the importance to lifelong civic engagement of learning experiences that cultivate a citizen’s perception they can make change (political efficacy) and their belief in having responsibilities to the public good (civic identity). To achieve these positive feedback loops, we need a richer framework for civic technology design.
This dissertation proposes two solutions: 1) empowerment-based design principles for civic technology and 2) a prototype toolkit for evaluating the impact of civic technology on political efficacy. Because empowerment is contextual, the proposals here focus on tools and platforms built to support “monitorial citizenship,” an increasingly popular form of civic engagement aimed at holding institutions accountable. To see these solutions in action, I report on a case study of SeeClickFix, a civic technology company that builds tools enabling citizens to report infrastructure problems to local governments. Two surveys of political efficacy and a randomized experiment with active users of SeeClickFix, followed by interviews with SeeClickFix staff, indicate the validity and utility of evaluating political efficacy as a measure of empowerment as well as the limitations of testing for incremental improvements.
The text of Section 1.3 Research Questions in the submitted dissertation was missing. The proper text for this section is included in the revised version of the dissertation on this site. Note: this errata has not been submitted to MIT’s archive for approval.
Many platforms for civic engagement, whether online or offline, require that citizens leave the places they normally inhabit physically or virtually and commit to a separate space and set of processes. Examples include town hall meetings, occurring during specific times and in specific places, and online forums, where deliberation occurs within profile-based websites for which you need to sign up and to regularly return. This thesis responds to the design challenge and research question: How do you address barriers to minimum effective engagement in community projects, and ensure that all citizens can contribute their input on how to improve their local communities? In order to raise levels of participation in community projects and expand the range of voices heard in governmental decision-making, there is a need for a civic engagement platform that is lightweight and compelling enough to enjoy continued use. To this end, I have developed a theoretical basis for effective citizenship through monitorial actions aided by mobile computing, finding connections between various theories of citizenship and learning to fill a gap in the literature and in terms of civic technology design. My argument and design goals for such a system are reinforced by findings from a needs assessment of Boston-area municipalities that confirmed a desire to use new technologies to elicit feedback on community issues from a more diverse demographic than those who currently attend public meetings. Based my analysis of the literature and the distilled design goals, I built and completed early-stage user testing of a prototype smartphone app-based civic engagement platform called Action Path, which uses location-awareness in the form of geo-fences along with push notifications to prompt users to respond to one-item surveys dotting their urban landscape. Interviews with users suggest Action Path might help people see their communities as filled with opportunities for civic intervention, and might increase their sense of efficacy. Additionally, workshops about geo-fence design and curricular design with potential stakeholders showed how Action Path might be effectively deployed through civic technologists and in schools.
This thesis earned a First Class mark.
‘Social capital’ and ‘the digital divide’ live double lives; in popular media they are buzzwords, and in academia they are debated theoretical constructs. Literature on both of these topics has proliferated from social theorists to The World Bank to new academic research to public policy initiatives to reportage and back again. Digital divide researchers wishing to study the intersections of social capital and internet use find themselves faced with an increasingly muddy field of enquiry. A significant part of this muddiness is the promulgation of ill-defined conceptions of social capital which seem to lack any context-sensitivity. To help clear this up and advance the field of inquiry, this dissertation offers: 1) a redefinition of social capital and 2) a new case study. After a critical evaluation of past literature, social capital is redefined as an individual asset related to normative behaviour, social networking across various communication media, and positive and negative products of localized social interactions. Using a qualitative methodology tailored to relevant fieldwork, individual practices and perceptions of the aspects of social capital and internet use were studied in the rural town of Alston in Cumbria, which enjoys an unusually high level of broadband internet access. The results of this case study are presented as evidence of the need to fundamentally understand community-specific social relations through individuals’ networks and norms. The research supports a thesis of the ‘social shaping of technology’, which explains differentiated adoption and use of the available information and communications technology. In the conclusion, community informatics, a promisingly context-sensitive approach to researching and deploying technologies, is recommended for future study. However, community informatics like any other research and practice approach needs to realize the distinct advantages of a bottom-up method of technology deployment should be complemented by a bottom-up approach to studying contextually-specific phenomena like social capital.
I conducted interviews in the rural English town of Alston to understand how a pilot broadband internet program had changed the community’s social landscape.
Details of Work
- Established contact with key informant at the broadband provider office in Alston, Cybermoor
- Developed semi-structured interview protocol
- Traveled to Alston, living in the local youth hostel, and interviewed residents, April 14-21, 2009
- Transcribed and coded all interviews
- Wrote and submitted thesis
I won an undergraduate research grant to work to build a prototype of a web platform in Ruby on Rails that would enable users to add personal annotations to government documents and share them with other users. I continued work on the prototype and wrote up the documentation in Spring 2006 for my honors thesis.