Governments from the smallest cities to entire nations have adopted technologies such as online portals and smartphone apps to help make their work more efficient and convenient for constituents. But are they losing out on a key part of the civic process in the process?That is one question posed by Eric Corbett, a Ph.D. student in Digital Media in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, in an award-winning paper published recently for the premier conference in human computer interaction, the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
“The impact of on-line services for connecting to public works instead of going through elected council people illustrates the case,” Corbett and his co-author, LMC associate professor Christopher Le Dantec, wrote in the paper, which won an honorable mention from conference organizers for being in the top 5 percent of submitted papers reviewed.
“While the former might fall squarely under what might otherwise be called e-government (creating on-line government access points for service delivery and provision), the latter has clear impact on the degree to which residents are connected to their representatives,” they wrote.
In other words, the current preference for government to act like a business and use technology to speed service delivery could be robbing elected and appointed officials of the opportunity to build stronger relationships with residents.
The paper focuses on how employees of Atlanta municipal departments frame civic engagement and how they use technology to carry out that work. Corbett and Le Dantec found wide disparities in how employees and departments seek to engage residents and how technology helps, or hinders, those efforts.
It is the latest entry in a growing field of research in digital civics, which Le Dantec defined in another paper as the growing effort to “understand the role that digital technologies can play in supporting relational models of service provision, organization, and citizen empowerment.”
Corbett, who earned a computer science degree from Savannah State University and a master’s degree in Human Computer Interaction from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, fell into the field after taking a pro-seminar in digital media shortly after arriving on campus.
During the class, he discovered the works of philosopher of technology Langdon Winner and his 1980 paper in which he asked, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” In it, he cited the example of New York developer Robert Moses deliberately building bridges too low for buses. That made it more difficult for the poor and African-Americans who often depended on them for transportation to use those streets.
More recent technologies, such as online portals and smartphone apps have raised similar questions, ranging from lack of access to online resources to issues of digital literacy and economic status.
How to design technologies that not only help governments act efficiently, but also foster deeper relationships among city and community leaders is something Corbett has yet to tackle.
But, he said, it is crucial to build technologies locally instead of relying on off-the-shelf solutions. He also argues developers and government leaders should think about ways to build features supporting person-to-person connections. They also should focus on trust as a key value, he said.
“If we would start trying to understand our civic ecosystem and then building technology from that, maybe it would be more in tune with our needs,” Corbett said.
The School of Literature, Media, and Communication is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.