Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ships Passing: Technology and the Civic Engagement Field

While the civic engagement domain scurries to ramp up civic engagement through volunteering, voting, community service, organizing and other tactics, there’s another group of people attempting to do likewise, albeit through different—and some say more efficient—means. These are the Tekkies, the NetRoots folks, the Internet users, the geeks, and technologists—a rapidly growing swath of the population who are using the power of technology to create new forms of public spaces that connect people around the world to take action on issues that matter to them...

These sites are engaging millions of people everyday, but for some reason, they continue to be overlooked by the civic engagement field. In fact, the service and civic engagement conferences I’ve attended have nary a mention of how technology could or should be used for civic purposes other than a throwaway line or two about “technology’s really important” and then it’s back to the discussion about more traditional programs.

What’s going on here? Why aren’t there more opportunities to merge and leverage the enormous brainpower, talent, enthusiasm and savvy of both those using technology for civic purposes and those working “on the ground” to increase engagement?

Perhaps we could begin by nudging the service and civic engagement field to start incorporating more serious and substantive discussions and planning about the role of technology in their efforts and, most important, how to use it effectively. On the other side, technologists could be gently reminded from time to time that not everyone is IM’ing and blogging 24/7 and that a surfeit of citizens are, let’s face it, still a bit daunted by the Internet. Rather than exclude these folks or dismiss them as Luddites, the tekkies might ratchet down their esotericism and get a bit more real with real people who could and should learn more about this democratizing medium.

Luckily, there are some of these efforts afoot, including one led by the folks at Compumentor who recently sponsored the second NetSquared event in San Diego. More than 300 nonprofits, tech practitioners, innovators, philanthropists and visionaries participated in the conference. Prior to the event, participants were asked to vote online to select projects -- from a larger applicant pool -- that they thought had the greatest potential to leverage the social web to create social change.

But we need lots more of these kinds of gatherings that bring together the civic engagement and technology communities. What could be developed to make this happen? Post.

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