One of the ways SeedSpeak will measure success is by the number of “seeds” that become successful projects or solutions in a community. Neighbors might suggest improvements to their community (“let’s turn a community lot into a neighborhood park” or “let’s paint a mural on a brick wall that faces a thoroughfare”), but unless the people who can make it happen buy into it and help make it a reality, those great suggestions might die on the vine.

To that end, one of our biggest concerns in designing SeedSpeak is to make sure we get feedback and buy-in from local leaders, including neighborhood associations, political leaders and city and county government types. The good news is SeedSpeak is coming along at a time when many cities and states are getting more comfortable with the idea of open government. In cities large and small, officials are starting to share data with local programmers and experimenting with ways to harness the wisdom of its employees and citizens when it comes to improving those communities.

The bad news is there is still a lot of hesitancy in doing so. Aside from cities such as Washington, D.C., San Diego and Boston, which are throwing open the vault to city data, many more localities are taking baby steps toward integrating openness as part of their daily operations. Even with social media, many cities are reluctant to interact with residents online beyond official web pages.

Haphazard Approach

Sure, many cities and counties have mastered Facebook and Twitter; they know how useful Twitter is during an emergency and they sort of get the efficacy of Facebook (though too many are still simply using it to drive traffic to their websites). But many will admit that their approach is haphazard. As one government official told me recently, some departments in his county are using Twitter quite often, but only because those departments happen to have a public information officer or other employee who is into it and has integrated it entirely on his or her own.

Enter SeedSpeak. We hope that local officials will use the application to hear what residents are buzzing about in their communities, discover what they want to see changed in their neighborhoods, and actually respond to them within the application. We want the head of the city parks and recreation to respond to neighbors suggesting an abandoned lot be turned into a community garden, or that a mural be painted on a local community center wall. Beyond responding, we hope local officials will use the application to report on what is being done to make those suggestions realities, so that a “seed” of a suggestion is “harvested” into an actual project.

So a part of what my partner and I need to do is both teach them the beauty of an application such as SeedSpeak to get citizens involved, and to really listen and learn about the concerns of public officials as they tip into this world of social citizenship. We need to listen to elected officials’ concerns about public records: Is a city council member’s post supporting the idea of a local park a public record? How can we build safeguards into the application to make sure those records are preserved in the same way a comment at a city council meeting is preserved? In listening to government officials, we hope we will be building something that works for them as well as for the citizens we hope to help empower.