Field notes: neighborhood community platforms: questions about ownership and governance.

Gebiedonline.nl is a cooperatively owned social media platform for neighborhood communities that is being used by a number of local networks in Dutch cities such as Amsterdam, Gouda and Amersfoort. The initiative was launched at Pakhuis de Zwijger on January 20th 2016, and the discussion that followed touched upon a number of issues that are of interest from the perspective of The Hackable City. The first deals with the question of ownership of social media platforms: how can local communities take and retain ownership in the development of these platforms as well as of the data these platforms produce? Another important point: how can these neighborhood platforms facilitate relations between citizens and local governments in new ways?

Gebiedonline in Pakhuis de Zwijger

About the platform

Let’s start with a brief description of Gebiedonline.nl. The project can be traced back to an initiative of IJburg-resident and software developer Michel Vogler (IJburg being a new housing development in Amsterdam). Moving into a newly built neighborhood, he felt the need for a platform to connect with his new neighbors, and to contribute to building a local community that could also collaboratively exchange ideas about the improvement of the community. This resulted in the platform HalloIJburg.nl, a site that has now around 4000 registered users, out of around 20.000 residents. The site offers a number of functionalities, such as a calendar, a market place, an opportunity to announce projects and engage a public around them, and a discussion forum in which future wishes for the neighborhood can be expressed and discussed.

In the last few years Neighborhood platforms like this have become more and more common in the Netherlands. In his research at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences Citizen Data Lab, Ruurd Priester counted around 90 different platforms in Amsterdam, varying from local Facebook groups to full-fledged community websites and neighborhood newspapers.

Discussion about ownership

One of the issues that came up in Priester’s research was the issue of ownership of online platforms, both in relation to the software as well as the data. A number of communities expressed an interest in finding ways to have a greater say about the development of their platforms. Functionalities are now determined by existing platforms, some of which may be commercial (like Facebook), while others are open source. The latter category allows for development of one’s own modules, but this requires of course the capacity to write software, or resources to hire coders. Whereas many local communities may have similar wishes for new functionalities in their platforms, it would be a good idea to pool resources.

A second issue is related to the collection of data. The business models of free platforms such as Facebook is to collect data about social interactions and use these for either targeted advertising, or sell the patterns that emerge from analyzing these data to interested parties. For instance local governments may be interested in data sets about traffic movements and can buy these data from websites that provide navigation services to consumers. The users that produce these data usually have no access to these insights.

For many participating at community websites, this is problematic. First, many people don’t appreciate it that their investments in a local community are being turned into a marketing opportunity that does not directly benefit the community. Second, the aggregated data that could reveal interesting insights about issues in the community is not accessible to that community, unless they buy the data back from the commercial platform providers.

Gebiedonline.nl was partially born out of these considerations. Currently the first one – pool resources to collaboratively develop a platform – is the driving force. To achieve this, a number of local neighborhood communities got together to start a cooperative. The main income right now for this cooperation is a membership fee from members, and this is spent on the development of the platform.

What’s interesting from a hackable city-perspective is that here a new organization model is sought to manage collective goals (the development of a platform). This organization model is also connected to what we could call a ‘civic economy business model’, where income is sought to develop the platform. On the one hand we see a leading role for citizen-professionals – people who combine their capacity as a professional and their interests as a citizens – in setting up the project, but working towards a cooperative structure to extend ownership of the process to members. The project has just started, and it would be interesting to see how these structures for governing the cooperative and managing the civic economic business model will emerge.

Gebiedonline bij Pakhuis de Zwijger

Discussion about relation between citizens and governments

A second discussion of interest emerged in one of the sub-sessions of the evening, in which ‘gebiedsmakelaar’ (‘Neighborhood broker’) Ellen Weers shared her experiences with neighborhood platform HalloIJburg.nl. ‘Gebiedsmakelaars’ are government appointed officials present in all Amsterdam neighborhoods, working as ‘human interfaces’ between citizens and local governments. On the one hand, they connect with local community groups, residents and business owners and make an inventory of their wishes, issues, and ideals for the neighborhood. They translate this into input for policy makers, and when relevant can also connect citizens with city officials in charge of particular policies. The other way around, the neighborhood broker can also connect to translate city policies to local networks. Ideally, for instance, if the city has introduced a new policy for the advancement of ‘green roofs’, the neighborhood brokers contact local networks and informs them about opportunities to take part in the execution of the policy, or might try to mobilize a coalition of various citizens or location action groups that might be interested in taking up this issue.

For a neighborhood broker, community websites such as HalloIJburg.nl are a great resource, according to Weers. Discussions on the website give her insights in what issues are important to the community. Particular functionalities of the website are helpful for this. For instance the ‘share’ button and discussion fora give her some insight in how many people share a particular concern or idea. It also allows her to quickly poll residents. The website also provides her with the means to identify networks that are interested in particular issues. For her the site is a great tool to on the one hand translate community issues to policy makers, and on the other hand to identify persons and networks that could be interested in taking up particular policy concerns.

Around this process, a number of discussions emerged:

  • Representation: to what point is what happens on a neighborhood platform really representative of the community at large? What does it mean when 117 people out of 20000 residents like a particular issue? This point often comes up in discussions about online communities in relation to governance. Weers’ answers was twofold: first, HalloIJburg is only one of the many networks, both online and offline, that she consults, it provides indicators of what topics are of concern to the community. Often, issues of concern resonate across a broad variety of those networks. A second point she made is that while indeed not everybody joins these platforms, the audience they attract is usually broader than existing instruments for government participation like the discussion meet-ups that local governments usually organize. It may not be perfect, but for her, it’s a great addition to existing instruments.
  • Relation between government and the citizens. If interfaces like these between governments and citizens are found important for local governments, shouldn’t platforms like these be provided by the government rather than by citizen groups?
  • This question was brought up during the evening, but not discussed thoroughly. I’m adding it here because it is of some interest for the positioning of these platforms. There is something to say for the argument that it is a government task to safeguard the functioning of a local public sphere as well as instruments to interface with the community. On the other hand, a public sphere can only thrive when it is independent of the government. It is a platform where citizens or groups of citizens can organize themselves to present their concerns and criticism to the government. In a network society, there is usually not just one centralized public sphere, but rather a network of sites (on and offline) where citizens organize themselves to present their points or lobby for their interests – which may not always be congruent with the interests of others. My position would be that while government could provide the conditions for these platforms, they are best managed independently of government. Government themselves should rather think of ways to interface with these platforms, and to connect policy making and execution with what happens on these platforms, for instance through persons like the ‘Neighborhood Broker’, but other means could also be explored.
  • The possible role of these platforms in a direct democracy. Could these platforms be further extended to have citizens also take votes on particular policy decisions? With regard to this issue, Weers articulated some reservations. Whereas the platform is a great way for a group of citizens to come together and discuss what they would like to see change in their neighborhoods, she argued that decisions can only be made legitimately by elected officials through local democratic procedures. They are chosen by the constituency at large to balance the interests of all citizens. There are some experiments with involving citizens more directly with policy making, for instance through the set-up of ‘buurtbegrotingen’ – or neighborhood budgets that are to give citizens more insight in the government’s budget.

This debate is again an interesting one that will not be easily resolved and need further discussion. What role can neighborhood platforms legitimately play in the interaction between citizens and governments? Are they mainly an extension of a citizen organized public sphere? Or should they move towards in the direction of a ‘direct democracy’ and become part of governmental institutions for decision-making? Or could new hybrid forms of these emerge in the future?

On a side note: It’s interesting to connect these discussions to the recent study on the ‘Montessori Democracy’ by Evelien Tonkens et. al. In this study they explore the rise of the so-called ‘participation society’ and the ‘do-democracy’ in relation to existing political institutions and their procedures for democratic governance. The authors signal a shift in which groups of citizens have indeed started to act upon issues they deem of concern, seeking for new ways to come to decisions and act upon them outside of the traditional channels of representative democracy. This in turn could lead to what they describe both a ‘juridification’ and ‘informalization’ of local politics. ‘Juridification’ meaning that elected officials do not so much set the policy agenda, but rather act as mere legal controllers for civic action. Informationalization means that civic groups have started to directly negotiate with city officials in order to reach their goals. Both lead to a ‘de-politization’ of traditional politics, meaning that representative bodies are no longer the site where political clashes and differences in opinion are played out. Rather the process in which policy and decisions are made had become more opaque.

Gebiedonline bij Pakhuis de Zwijger

Conclusion

In The Hackable City-research program, we often make use of this diagram to understand the dynamics of city making:

Lemniscaat

 

What has emerged from these discussions (and what would be of interest for further scrutiny) is on the one hand the left part of this diagram: we see individual neighborhood communities organizing themselves in a collective (a cooperation) looking for new organizational structures and civic business model to keep ownership of their own platforms and the data these produce.

The second discussion is related to the right part of the diagram. On the one hand we see these neighborhood platforms emerging as new interfaces between citizens and governments. In extension to that, important issues have emerged from this debate about the nature of urban governance itself. Where does the legitimacy rest to decide upon collective actions and to balance the interests of various (neighborhood) groups? To what extent should existing structures of democratic governance change to accommodate the self-organizing capacity of social groups in the platform society, and how do we deal with issues of legitimacy?