Town-hall-style meetings, a cornerstone of American democracy, are a wonderful idea–in theory. Concerned citizens show up to defend a cause, engage with their representatives, and let their voice be heard in the decision-making process.
But they also presume that anyone who’s passionate about an issue has the time and privilege to escape family and work obligations to show up in one place at a set time. The result is that “important policy decisions can be based on a really small sample size,” says Nick Bowden.
For the past two years his Nebraska-based startup MindMixer has tried to bring the town-hall experience online, through an interactive platform that lets cities and other institutions (including hospitals, universities, and school districts) define topical areas and open up a conversation to the public to receive feedback. The platform is now in use in 300 cities around the country–anchoring a discussion in Los Angeles about the future of the city’s public transportation system, for example, or helping the city of Sacramento solicit feedback about a proposed arena that would keep the city’s NBA team there.
“Cities have back-end access to the content, the demographics around the participant, and how something like location might impact someone’s interest and priorities,” says Bowden. This lets cities make more informed, localized decisions: “We had a city where they had a ton of support for longer library hours. When they looked at the [data], they found that 90% of the people who supported the idea lived in the downtown zip code.” The data-driven decision, should the city adopt it, would be to allocate resources to extend just the downtown library’s hours.
MindMixer will make it even easier for governments and organizations to take into consideration a diversity of opinions and know where they’re coming form. It’s acquired the social media insights firm VoterTide, which gleans and analyzes social media data around news topics to let politicians–or in MindMixer’s case, cities and institutions–know what constituents are talking about and how they feel about the matter.
With the VoterTide technology brought into the fold, MindMixer clients will have access to a new tool, which aggregates what their communities are saying on social media using “community-specific search terms” and highlights trends “which they can use to focus discussions and projects on the topics that are already resonating with audiences,” MindMixer said in a statement.
For MindMixer clients, this means a more direct line with community members, and the ability to gauge what conversations are worth having. And for citizens, this could mean the sense of satisfaction that when you tweet at your mayor, he’s actually getting the message.