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Without Neighborhood Trust, Tech Won’t Work

Technology, by itself, will not trigger a turnaround of struggling neighborhoods.

Nor will Big Data … which might be useful to corporations with “data-mining” departments, but remains too dense and inaccessible for use by community groups.

So when the next “shiny object” is announced by Silicon Valley, be it crowd-sourcing software or a new wireless gizmo, give it a one-handed clap. To make some truly productive noise, experts say, put that tech in the hands of neighborhood residents who are both organized and trained to use it effectively.

It’s this second ingredient – direct, in-person citizen engagement of the kind orchestrated by LISC Chicago – that too often has been missing when it comes to technology’s role in community development.

“There are a lot of shiny new toys out there, but technology cannot substitute for trust,” said Susana Vasquez, LISC Chicago’s executive director, at the annual Urban Forum of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning & Public Affairs. “It’s neighborhood strategies that matter.”

Susana Vasquez, LISC Chicago’s executive director, speaking at the annual Urban Forum of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning & Public Affairs.

UIC Photo Services

Vasquez spoke Dec. 5 to some 300 tech-savvy attendees at a Forum panel titled “Creating Informed Communities.”

LISC Chicago is, of course, deeply involved in spreading digital expertise in the city’s more challenged neighborhoods (see Neighborhoods Apply ‘Civic Tech’). It turns out that academicians and public-sector practitioners are coming to a similar conclusion – that techno-tools, for all their flash and promise, are just tools. It’s the users that matter.

“The Valley doesn’t understand what’s going on in cities,” explained panelist John Tolva, former chief technology officer for the City of Chicago. “The ‘app’ economy and ecosystem are pretty disconnected from ordinary matters. They don’t understand that we’re solving real problems here, Medieval problems.”

Others on the panel, moderated by public radio’s Natalie Moore, were Tim Wisniewski, director of civic technology for the City of Philadelphia, and Brian Kelly, MD, a senior executive for Quintiles, a national firm that helps drug companies test new medications by recruiting and monitoring patients who use them.

Tech and trust

It was Kelly who voiced the strongest appreciation for tech’s ability to promote trust within communities. Trust is key in drug effectiveness research, Kelly said. Patients typically are leery when first approached about connecting digitally with far-flung groups of strangers impacted by the same chronic illness.

“People want community,” said Kelly. “Once patients engage in a digital community for their disease, when they find information and find other people with similar issues, that engenders trust … and with trust comes a willingness to participate” in clinical trials.

Other panelists more or less agreed with Vasquez that techno-advances, in and of themselves, do not “move the neighborhood needle,” unless folks who live there learn to manipulate – and ultimately trust – the processes involved. They also need to know that their input matters.    

“This is the big question for cities as we move toward the notion of open data, of transparency, of access for everyone,” Vasquez said. “It’s not transparent if regular citizens can’t use it. It’s not transparent if decision-making is still not transparent.”

“People aren’t screaming for technology,” she continued. “People are screaming to have public services they believe in. People are screaming for jobs, for solutions to the foreclosure issue, for ‘Where do I send my kids to a good school?’”

So just salting a neighborhood with wireless access points, say, or iPads, does not by itself create community or improve the quality of life.


“Technology has to be subordinated to the public good,” Vasquez argued. “At LISC we do it with community organizing – having residents be part of what their issue is, be part of solving the problem. And then, and only then, is technology the right fit. That’s where civic tech comes in. We start with civic, then add the tech.”

Trouble is, she later added, too many foundations, corporate givers and government programs get tunnel vision on next-gen hardware, software or databases.

“At the end of the day it’s a resource question. If you start with people first, with citizen engagement processes that are true, then we need to support the local organizations doing the organizing and doing the training at the local computer centers. That means upping the game in terms of the resources we have to work with to create this better world.”

UIC Urban Forum panelists in community tech (l-r) Moderator Natalie Moore, John Tolva, Tim Wisniewski, Susana Vasquez and Brian Kelly.

John McCarron

Vasquez cited one of the white papers prepared as background for the Urban Forum by Professor Jane Fountain of the University of Massachusetts. In Connecting Technologies to Citizenship, she augers for a strategy of “co-production” in which grassroots efforts are coupled with technical resources provided from outside the neighborhood.

“The close contact necessary to understand specific neighborhoods and their challenges,” writes Fountain, “while inefficient because it is labor intensive, is vital to progress … Technology alone will not build engagement or trust … Effective co-production requires face-to-face interaction at the neighborhood level to closely engage with what citizens need in their specific context.”

Fountain’s findings square with another Forum paper that summarized recent research on the Chicago experience. Former UIC professor Karen Mossberger, now director of the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University, compared Chicago neighborhoods with the highest and lowest use of the Internet. Not surprisingly, the low-use neighborhoods tended to be the city’s low-income, high-unemployment neighborhoods. In Chicago the digital divide is no illusion.

But her before-and-after study of neighborhoods that participated in LISC’s Smart Communities program found that “between 2008 and 2011, broadband at home, and Internet use for information on jobs, health and transportation experienced a statistically significant increase.” That Smart Communities work was cited in the Chicago Technology Plan (Initiatives 4 and 5) as a model for spreading digital skills to all Chicago neighborhoods. In other words, the digital divide can be bridged.

Mobile v. PCs?

Other portions of the discussion proved anything but academic. Tim Wisniewski described how Philadelphia uses 311-style apps, such as, to troubleshoot civic problems, from “finding volunteers for manning a swimming pool that had been abandoned for five years” to “getting computers donated to the local community center.”

There was also a nuts-and-bolts dissection of the relative merits of mobile devices versus PCs, texting versus email. Tolva observed that “some of the coolest work” in digital, as far as cities are concerned, is being done for mobile. Example: bus and train tracking apps.

But Vasquez noted there are trade-offs, and that both mobile devices and desktop computers need to be mastered. She said that three times as many people approached by LISC affiliates about health insurance enrollment said they’d prefer to be texted rather than e-mailed with follow-up info. And yet, “You can’t very easily fill out a job application on your iPhone … or do your homework. There has to be a diversity” of technologies that everyone can use.

More information: Dionne Baux, LISC Chicago Program Officer,, 312-422-9564. Read more about LISC Chicago’s work in Tech.


Posted in Civic Tech


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