Online Town Hall Lets Residents Improve Their Own Neighborhood Without Leaving The Couch

MindMixer is a virtual meetup where citizens and officials connect, share plans, and turn the most popular ideas into shovel-ready projects, from new crosswalks to $1 million roadways.

A few years ago, Omaha urban planners Nick Bowden and Nathan Preheim arrived at a conclusion that has haunted anyone who has ever sat through a four-hour plea for a new traffic light: The current model for city planning is broken. “We were doing traditional town hall meetings and nobody showed up to them,” Bowden says. People don’t have time to sit through an hours-long meeting for a couple minutes at the microphone, the pair thought. And the few who do are often loud, cranky or long-winded--those views about what towns and cities really need to improve are hardly ever representative. So Bowden and Preheim decided to build a town hall online instead.

Their web-based platform MindMixer is a virtual meetup for citizens and officials to connect, share ideas, and spur the most popular conversations into real action. Since launching in March 2011, more than 200 communities including tech hubs like San Francisco have signed on, paying anywhere from $4,000 to $25,000 a year to subscribe to a homepage where citizens log on to view a blueprint of upcoming city projects—or suggest their own— and then riff on ways those things should work. The company recently received $1.9 million in VC funding and--wait a second. Doesn’t this sort of thing already exist?

Sort of, but not really. While Facebook and Twitter help people connect and share ideas, neither is particularly adept at focusing local chatter into something actionable. As Bowden puts it: “Anyone on a social network can say, ’Well I want a burrito shop.’ We wanted to make sure the site generated legitimate ideas that could be legitimately implemented by a legitimate agency.” It all falls under the umbrella of Gov 2.0, a movement that uses connectivity and crowdsourcing to help speed stalled bureaucracies. Some sites actually do try to make those pie-in-the-sky ideas more practical. (One, called Popularise, allows users to submit ideas for tired or vacant spaces that then attract community and developer support.) But changing the infrastructure of a neighborhood gets a little more complex. Every funded project comes with opportunity cost. For instance, repaving one road might mean cutting funds for the emergency vehicles that run on it.

MindMixer makes that fun by borrowing a few tricks from other social networks. Rather than offering a thumbs-up or retweet, users can “second” a suggested motion—or revise it with their own thoughts in hopes of getting even more approval votes to help officials track what to prioritize. In Omaha, 21,500 users now help adjust the city budget and plan crosswalk locations. In SF, 13,000 have helped shape things like the transit authority’s new ridership campaign. (Final logo: An abstract “plus” sign made out of intersecting pathways. Tagline: “Moving Forward Together.”) In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, more than 9,500 people were able to log on and jump start rebuilding their city right after a tornado hit town last year. That’s important because the town was so messy that getting together physically seemed impossible. There was even a special call-in and text feature for those without Internet anymore.

Bowden says the site generally boosts participation at least 10 or 20 fold over classic meeting turnouts. Still, developing a site for better civic building has had its own unique challenges. A beta version, which tested in Omaha, Lincoln, Nashville, and El Paso in late 2010 turned off users because it replicated local politics too precisely. Much like petitioning to get causes on a ballot, the site had a complicated vetting process; the best ideas from early rounds were consolidated and presented again for a second round of judging. It didn’t really work, largely because social networkers don’t like to repeat their actions. The current version is streamlined so ideas with the most hits are simply seen as winners. Bowden and Preheim have added a budget widget that lets users understand what funds are available, what real project costs might be, and how spending would affect other projects. “Most citizens have no idea that a mile of roadway costs a million bucks,” Bowden says. “We wanted citizens to feel like the city and staff feels when they are having to choose through restraints.” Technically, cities can still torpedo proposed ideas that have popular support. But because city planners have introduced lots of other guidelines beforehand, many winners move straight to implementation.

Right now, the site’s main drawback is that it thinks local almost to a fault. There is no way to let users compare their solutions with other places facing the same issues. Bowden gets that. The next upgrade, slated for July, will aggregate far-flung discussions by topic, letting users follow and chime in on brainstorms happening around the country. There will also be a photo-sharing feature, allowing users to post pics of things they like around town or in other places. “Not everyone is an idea person but most people can say I want to see that in my neighborhood,” Bowden says. “We want people to feel empowered.”

Could too many suggestions be a bad thing? Nope. They are also working on an add-on to help people donate or volunteer for projects that don’t get funded.

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #USInnovation.

[Image: Flickr user Boston Public Library]

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