From User to Citizen: Evaluating Online Engagement as Civic Learning

Presentation Recording



We should optimize the design of civic technologies for developing effective citizens, thus I argue we must put civic and political learning at the core of how we evaluate civic technology’s impact. This will require new definitions and measures that capture the complexity and needs of contemporary, digitally-mediated democracy.

In this talk, I will propose a research agenda for civic learning including definitions, measures, and design goals for our community to explore, using existing literature and analysis of a pilot deployment of the civic app Action Path.

Recent work by Bennett (2007) and Cohen and Kahne (2012) has helped push scholar and practitioner communities to understand how citizens, especially younger generations, are changing in their civic goals and practices—often using social media to consume and share political information, express their voices, and organize civic and political communities. Unfortunately, we lack a definition and operationalization of how “users” grow into the citizens contemporary democracies need. Research should be attempting to tie designs holistically to gains in targeted skills, experience, and self-efficacy.

We must develop and validate measures for civic learning by combining rich qualitative understanding with trace data to evaluate users’ civic trajectories as they explore tools and platforms; and these must scale as large as Facebook and across the diverse contexts in which users are embedded world-wide.

In partnership with SeeClickFix in New Haven, I recently piloted Action Path, a location-based mobile app that invites users to engage in local planning and governance via push notifications and short surveys. I interviewed users and traced their app usage to evaluate the efficacy of location-triggered notifications for increasing knowledge of local issues and engagement in governance. I will highlight the implications of this deployment for civic learning and how it represents a small start to the research agenda I am proposing.

Civic Media Impact

Presentation Recording


Workshop Description

Goals: To share approaches for understanding impact in civic media – from randomized controlled trials to qualitative evaluation to artistic research methods. The workshop will explore the variety of ways in which people are responding to the increased need to demonstrate the impact of media interventions, including how we evaluate the impact of research, practice, and classroom-community partnerships.

The Fires book review

The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of CitiesThe Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities by Joe Flood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joe Flood writes a solid history of the twentieth century city planning through the lens of The War Years fires that burned out large swathes of the poorest parts of New York City. It’s well-researched and hangs together nicely. He cribs a good bit from Robert Caro’s massive biography of planner Robert Moses, and some of his points get repetitive—disrupting the otherwise nicely narrativized of history and analysis that Flood puts to paper.

Students of cities and planning and of power politics will find this an interesting read touching on the complexity of decision-making and the way that politics and management are bound to the times and trends in which they occur. And of course, the indictment of RAND’s systems analysis is an important reminder that we can’t play god even when we are good with all the numbers. The Fires is as a political biography of the men of New York City that did this work and why they did it. As such it offers a companion of different style and scale to James C. Scott’s masterful Seeing Like a State, which makes a similar point about reductionist system analytical planning but over a longer historical and geographical arc.

It’s a quick, fun read. New Yorkers especially should pick up to learn how their city evolved into what it is today and the long development of the city’s racial and economic politic (which were unfortunately replicated around the country).

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Civic Media: Communities Making Change



Civic Media encompasses a broad array of tools, practices, content, and communities that foster or enhance civic engagement. While civic media has always existed, it has recently flourished and been transformed thanks to technologies like smartphones and social media.

At its heart, civic media is best understood as a social phenomenon empowered by technology. Civic media reaches and engages a diverse audience, inviting all to create, share, remix, and share again. Young people are creating memes as political speech, as naturally as they might share a photo of their last meal. Developers are volunteering to build humanitarian software after disasters, enjoying the thrill of solving a hard problem and producing something that matters. And libraries, working at the nexus of information and public interest, are creating spaces in which communities can make change.

“Civic Media: Communities Making Change” will explore prominent examples of civic media; how tools, practices, content, and communities can be designed to be more civic; and the roles libraries can, and already are, playing in making civic media.