Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A touch of love...

I love recap posts. For those of us who weren't able to attend the CommunityNext summit, I found recaps by Anastasia, Lee and Tara quite useful. I personally find it helpful to see how others view the same content -- that alone makes it that much more insightful and authentic.

Loosely related...it was great to see folks point out that the community space is not at all monolithic and there are multiple community camps. On the one hand, you have those who more or less set out to build a community, and if money happens, then it's a good thing. Others set out with money as the primary driver (either making it or saving it) by using a community. As similar as these may sound, they represent two very different philosophies. To make things more complicated, sometimes you may encounter situations where the two different camps are working on the same project!

Having worked in both camps from time to time, I would like to suggest that there is yet another piece to this matrix -- the people who build the tools used in community. Think of this as the Belgium of the community space. It doesn't fit into either camp perfectly, and instead prefers to remain neutral, and flexible so it can benefit the masses. I don't believe I belong to any one camp, but rather I tend to float between, adapting to the needs and the circumstances of the day. If pressed though, I'd say that I lean more towards the focus on the community first. What about you? What's your community philosophy?

Heh -- I just noticed that I started and ended this particular post with love -- explicitly in the first sentence, and implicitly in the last with philosophy. While I'm at it, here's another loving post from the Windows Live QnA Team


Getting into the flow of campaigns

The year 2007 is barely two months old and we are well into the thick of things when it comes to presidential politics for 2008. With candidates announcing their intention of running, or that they are actually running just about every week, it certainly makes for interesting times. And by judging by the websites and presence online for each of these prospective candidates, we've come quite a long way from the "early days" of online fundraising a la Howard Dean. Unfortunately, it also seems that not much ahs changed with regards to people "getting it."

Recently I ran across a few posts by Zack Exley on this topic. In his first post, he talks about the role of authenticity. Specifically:

Building a “genuine relationship” with your supporter base online doesn’t mean simply writing the same boring emails, but writing them yourself. No, it means writing to your supporters from the campaign trail in the same way that you might write to your spouse (without the smoochy stuff) or to a close friend: tell them the exciting things you experienced that day, what they made you think of, a joke you heard, and what occurred to you is really at stake. Some emails could be four pages, and some could be four sentences. Maybe sometimes you should just send a picture you snapped yourself.
In another post Zack continues on this theme of writing one's own emails to would be supporters:

If you can spend six hours per day on high-dollar fundraising, you can take 15 minutes to jot out a note to your supporters.

These posts are echoed by Eve Fairbanks (via Personal Democracy Forum) where she says:

assimilating Internet tactics doesn’t mean you have to assimilate Internet culture, too
As I wade through all of this in my spare time, I am struck by the juxtaposition of reasoning for people in New Hampshire wanting to keep their early primary. Every time the Presidential election rolls around, the state of New Hampshire gears up for the onslaught of cameras and visits by Presidential hopefuls. While there is something likely to be said for the "I shook so and so's hand" the common theme conveyed by a recent ABC News report was that this hands-on, personable campaigning is the way it's supposed to be.

"It's the way politics should be," New Hampshire resident William Juch said of the onslaught. "These people should come and present themselves."

Put another way, I would suggest that this is a more authentic approach as people are able to look a candidate in the eye, talk with them face to face, and perhaps even challenge them as one would a peer. In other words, the interactions with a candidate provide a sense of feedback to those engaged in the process. Sounds a bit like flow now, doesn't it?

survey in need of usability

Kudos to the City of Seattle (and partners) for launching the Seattle Civic Engagement Project. In terms of what it's up to, so far it seems to want to broaden the outreach methods of current engagement. Specifically:

Partners are encouraged to expand their current methods of communication by creating opportunities to talk about issues with friends, family, and colleagues, to listen respectfully to their opinions and to contribute their own. Then members are asked to complete a simple web 'Opinionnaire,' designed to determine levels of agreement or disagreement around the issues. This process is not a scientific poll, but is instead an opportunity to connect with others and engage people in the important community functions of civic conversation and dialogue. The results of these surveys will be shared with partners, public officials, and the media.

You can read more about it at Seattle's Brainstorm.

This sounds pretty neat, however I have some serious usability concerns with how it's all put together. First off, the videos linked from the survey page crashed one of my computers. I tried running it on a different computer with a different OS, and it white washed the screen to launch the QuickTime app. Now granted, I'm not a guru of any kind when it comes to video integration for a website, but I don't think the experience should be jarring. Embedded videos a la YouTube, SoapBox, etc provide for a much more user friendly experience.

Aside from just the video itself, burying the links in the right column seem to de-emphasize their value. If it is important for people to review, make it easy to access. Given how many websites are designed today, things in the right nav are not always reviewed as they tend to be equated with ads. Do you really want to have valuable content associated in a space commonly associated with ad space?

In terms of the survey itself, I'm concerned that the length and organization of the survey will hinder useful information. First of all, there are eight demographic questions that do not seem to relate with the specific topic (transportation). If the questions were to end the survey early, (say if you lived in Nebraska) that would be one thing, but instead they take up way too much of the focus of a would be survey respondent. I would be curious to see what the drop out rate is for survey completion -- how many people start the survey and never finish? With eight demographic questions and at least twenty-two topic specific questions, that seems like a rather large investment of time and energy for a rather complex and polarized issue. Additionally, the issue of transportation is rather complex. It seems that the survey is intended for those who already know a fair amount of the issues at hand. If this is indeed the intention, ignore my next comment, however if people want a broad dialogue, shouldn't it be as accessible as possible for the broadest audiences? I realize that time and time again Seattle is ranked among the brightest and most literate of cities, however there's something to be said for simplicity (note to self -- follow own advice).

Though it is promising to see more and more groups embrace technology, there's a lot more that can be done. I believe that the dialogue that folks are hoping for would be better served by better utilizing blogs, video clips (three to five minutes long) and podcasts (also short in duration). Additionally, tying the content to offline dialogues (formal and informal) would likely do wonders for this initiative. A discussion board may be fruitful provided that expectations are set early on in the process. Wikis would be an interesting addition to this process, however, that is not something to take on lightly given how polarized the debate on transportation has become in the region.

Ultimately though, the means of discussion (how it's transmitted, and the messages being transmitted) really need to be relevant to those not currently involved. Who is the audience that folks are attempting to reach with this current implementation? What else competes for your audiences attention, and how are those "competitors" doing? The more information you know about your audience, the better the chances for success.

Related -- see Kathy Sierra's recent post on the intersections of marketing and learning. I would suggest that those points raised are quite apt for things of a civic nature as well.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Voting part 2

Just a quick little update from my whole ballot fiasco. Seems that my address is officially changed in the King County Records, Elections and Licensing Services Division as I received mail from them regarding the upcoming special election regarding the viaduct. Whether or not I get my new voter registration card and ballot, we'll see.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Are you a friend of Seattle?

For those that know me, I try to be involved on a civic level best I can. Whether it's through volunteering, politics, or other civic type events, I'm just passionate about community broadly defined. That's why I'm really psyched with all of the work that some of my friends have been doing with Friends of Seattle. Here's a bit about them in their own words.

Friends of Seattle is a membership-based advocacy group whose mission is to inspire elected officials and our fellow voters to support a more urban, livable, and sustainable city. We propose policy reforms, lobby elected officials, and support political campaigns.
I had the pleasure of attending their big kickoff tonight, and it was great. With over 200 ppl in attendance, and several electeds and press, it was great to see. It's hard to believe that FoS is so new, starting up just this past year.

As exciting as it was to see so many people, what was perhaps most inspiring was that there is a tangible sense of action associated with FoS. Instead of just talking about it, here's a group of folks getting together to try and do something about it. Whether or not people agree with the issues of FoS, I think we can all take a cue from them (I know I have) to get more involved with our communities in a meaningful way. In a representative democracy, isn't that's what's needed and expected -- an active and engaged electorate?

The other amusing little thing is that I randomly overheard Councilman Steinbrueck refer to the President of Friends of Seattle, Gary Manca, as a future candidate for City Council. With Gary's welcoming remarks, all I have to say is "Run, Gary, run!" :-)

First date scenario at a new Seattle Center

One of the items I discussed with volunteers the other night at the Seattle Center public meeting specific to this first date notion, really it's the notion of allowing people to just "be" however they choose. Right now, Seattle Center seems to be primarily a place to do stuff. Whether it's seeing a show, attending an event, or the like, it does not seem to be a place that fosters the notion of just "being" present in the place at a given time. I suggested that it might be worthwhile to consider fostering this notion of just being. Also I suggested that it would be interesting to allow for all sorts of "user flows" from being to doing.

An example of one scenario for a first date at the Center would involve people who wish to see a paid performance (at the Intiman, Rep, etc). They could first go to the Center and walk through any number of interesting paths on the campus. They could stick to the pre-made paths connecting buildings, or they could forge their own path that uses some of the well-traveled ones, and some not so well travelled. Additionally, they could sit by the fountain to watch mini-Bellagioesque shows, or they could wander by the skate park to watch people perform gravity defying tricks. In actuality, there's any number of things the would be first daters could see at the Center. They don't have to "do" much, but rather it's being present with others in this shared space at the Center. If they got a little hungry or thirsty prior to the show, they could pop into any number of restaurants that meet budgets (financial or time) of all sizes. Perhaps a cafe could be at the Intiman courtyard? Afterwards, they would attend their ticketed performance. The evening at the Center could be finished off at a little desert place for coffee, munchies, or drinks where they could further engage about the performance they just saw.

Of course, this is just one way in which a "first date" could be at Seattle Center. honestly, I'm not the best to ask as it's been awhile since I've had a first date :P Others feel free to chime in.

Houses vs Homes or Seattle Center Planning v2

Phew, catching up on a few blog posts here. In addition to my whole ballot fiascoes last week, I attended another open house for Seattle Center's 21st Century planning process. This time it was held at the Langston Hughes Arts Center. It was a gorgeous building, and fewer people showed up. Perhaps it was the time of day, perhaps it was the location, regardless, it seemed like that less people were present. Admittedly I got there about 30 minutes into it but still, not as many as I would have liked to have seen.

The format was essentially the same, and I had a great discussion with several of the volunteers around the notion of fun, flow, play and games. Mostly we were talking about what makes for an engaging experience and I shared some of my thoughts with regards to how elements of good game design / flow could be applied on a wider scale to say, planning for the Seattle Center :-) We also discussed the notion of what "a first date experience" could feel like at a revamped Seattle Center. I'll get into that first date bit in another thread. For now, I just want to provide some general thoughts and reflections.

I also found it interesting that a lot of the people there (volunteers or attendees) were architects. Really it's not too surprising when much of the focus of the topic areas are on buildings such as the Center House, Key Arena, memorial Stadium, etc. The notion of open space also is quite prominent, and closely related in my opinion, to the overall notion of buildings.

While having tangible discussion points is a great way to help focus people on direct and concrete feedback, in some ways I feel that this is putting the cart before the horse. In my day to day job of being a product manager, I try not to focus on the specific implementations much, and rather, I want to ensure that the best overall experience is what is ultimately realized. By focusing on the buildings, or programs that occur in the physical spaces, it feels to me that we're diving straight to the implementation. A risk that can arise from this is having all of these great buildings/programs/open space but there isn't that really ties them together in a meaningful way. In many ways, it's the difference between a great house and a great home; a house is really just an object, but a home is a feeling. I want Seattle Center to foster great feelings.

Ok, so how does one go about that? Personally, I would start back at the goals of Seattle Center. One of the goals listed says "The nation's best gathering place." Finding out what this means to people in the region seems to be a good place to start. Where do people currently gather? People, in this case are defined as those in the target audience of Seattle Center. Likely this is a mix of people from the region as well as tourists. It would be helpful (perhaps it is already known?) to determine where they currently gather. Of course, finding out where they gather is just part of the equation. The more interesting part, in my opinion, is why they gather where they gather. Is it because it's convenient? Is it because that's where their friends are? Perhaps it's a cost thing, or maybe their options are limited so it's the default choice. Regardless, taking a closer look at how targeted audience members interpret "gathering place" within the context of their current lives will help shine light on what to build and how to get there.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Best laid plans -- a rant of voter registration

Recently Public Radio International's This American Life had a series of stories who talked about the best laid plans of individuals not turning out as they wished. I have a similar situation with regards to voting in Seattle, WA. Apologies in advance for what is in part, a rant.

Apparently for whatever reason I have not received my ballot in the mail despite trying to get it delivered to my residence. Granted, I am not really a fan of the all mail in ballot but for a whole variety of other reasons regarding work, location of polls and the like, I get it (or at least try) delivered to my residence.

On at least two different occasions, I have tried to change my mailing address, however for any number of reasons I do not seem to get my ballot in the mail. The first was several months ago where a local nonprofit was helping to register voters (in addition to helping voters who moved change their address which was my situation. ) By the time the next election showed up, I did not receive a ballot. I contacted the nonprofit and was assured that the forms were mailed in, and I was directed to call the vote hotline (206-296-VOTE). I called them and then proceeded to ensure that my mailing information was changed. Regardless, I still did not receive a ballot and I ended up going to the Board of Elections. There, I also made sure to fill out a form to verify my address was changed, and I marked myself as permanent absentee. I also received a ballot for that particular election cycle. All was good, or so I thought. Turns out, with this latest election regarding school levies, I still did not receive a ballot at home.

Thinking that it may have been delayed in the mail, I waited for a week or so. Now with the election less than a week away though, I needed to do something to ensure I vote. Just last week, I finally had the chance to go down to the Board of Elections (again) to try and sort this all out. While I had the option of calling, I personally prefer face to face interactions to address problems. Also, I was not convinced I could get resolution via the phone as that didn't seem to work in the past. Anyway, I get to their office with about 15 minutes prior to them closing, given a hectic day at work, and lack of parking around the building where the board of elections is housed. I arrive and indicate that I did not receive my ballot and I am directed to fill out a form. Instantly my guard is up given my last experience with this and I make it clear that I do not want a repeat of my prior situation (filling out a form and not getting a ballot in the next cycle.) The gentleman who is talking with me explains how that should not have happened (duh) and proceeds to investigate why that may have been the case. It turns out that following my last attempt to change my registration, my residence and method of voting should have been ok. Unfortunately, it also appeared that a voter registration card came back to them from the post office and I was then removed from permanent absentee voting. It was unclear if the voter registration card was from the last time I filled out a form at their office, or if it was from the first time I filled out the address change and the timing just overlapped. Regardless, somehow my voter registration card with my current address was returned to the board of elections and I was removed from the list of people to receive an absentee ballot. I was instructed to talk with the post office to find out why my voter registration card was not delivered. Crazy, huh?

While the gentleman at the board of elections showed me the timeline of things associated with my account, I found this a little strange that my card would be returned. First off, I haven't stopped my mail at all. Also, I live literally across the street from the post office. I see them every day arriving to work when I leave for work. I know their schedules intimately from when the trucks show up and who all drives what car. That they could not deliver a voter registration card to me seems a little strange given that I seem to get a lot of other mail -- bills, advertisements or other.

In addition to finding it strange that I was flagged not to receive an absentee ballot, I was also concerned about all of the other folks who would not necessarily (or who could not) take the time to go and talk to someone about not receiving a ballot. From my experiences working as a poll worker (in Chicago, granted) I know how the access to vote, or the perceived access, was one of many ways in which a voter could be disenfranchised. I expressed my concerns as to the overall process and the worker at the Board of Elections ( I really should have got his name) then went on to explain that I was not technically removed from the polls, but rather I would no longer receive a ballot in the mail as it was automatically done when voter registration cards were returned. He explained that was fairly common (?!) and people could still vote at their polling location. I did not know that, and was glad to learn that I was at least still registered. He also went on to explain that I would be eligible to vote on a provisional ballot. He also said I could have called all of this in and they would have attempted to get me a new ballot prior to the election. There were other specifics, but by this time, I was still stuck on the fact that this whole process was rather silly. Wanting more time to read through all of my options, and finding out the specifics, I inquired as to where I could find more information hoping that I could get a pamphlet or something. Instead, I was directed to the website, and was then also instructed that this information could be obtained via email or on the phone. After checking the website I found no mention of these alternatives.

While I appreciate all of these options (searching the web, calling the board of elections, talking to my local post office, going to the board of elections, going to my polling place, emailing, etc) I must say that this whole thing is ridiculous. Why does this election system seems so stacked against the voter? Shouldn't I be drop dead simple for a citizen of the United States to be able to vote? I was initially going to say "registered" citizen…but then I realized that act of registration is rather silly in and of itself. We all have Social Security numbers. We all pay taxes. Somehow with all of that the government is able to find us. Why can't local boards of elections then find us for the elections that happen in our area? Why do we even need to register at all?

Aside from this notion of registration, I'm also wondering about the so called benefits of vote-by-mail. Though the benefits regarding voter participation with mail in voting seem are favorable, my experiences thus far, gives me all the more reason to oppose it. Aside from decreasing the significance shared experiences for a community, any system that is this fragile -- e.g. the reg card is returned by a dependent system, voter no longer receives the ballot, and information is not readily or consistently available as to their options -- certainly seems to hinder and/or discourage people from voting. The cynic in me says this is purposeful, but I may have been watching too many episodes of the X-Files or something.

Anyway, critiquing the system of voting in and of itself will not change much. Can it be better? Of course. Ultimately though, no matter how good the system is, if people are not actually motivated or inspired to vote, we will never have the active and engaged citizenry that the Founders envisioned so many years ago. Now, if there were only more flow like principles designed into civic action :-)