This case study chronicles the city of Philadelphia’s development and implementation of Textizen, a cell phone application that uses the ubiquitous tool of text messaging to increase civic awareness and participation in local government activities.
Problems and Purpose
Despite advancements in technology and communication, the standard mode of public engagement in U.S. cities is to schedule meetings or public hearings, notify all potential participants, and hope for representative turnout as well as candid and useful feedback. But these in-person public meetings leave many stakeholders out of the policy process, as individuals must make time in their busy day to attend planned public discussions, often requiring changes in work and childcare schedules. Problematically, this traditional format makes it difficult for many groups, particularly low-income residents and youth, to make their voices heard within the policy process due to limited time and financial resources required to miss work or alter schedules.
According to Pew Research Center, 90% of adults have a cell phone, and over 81% use it for text messaging. This applies to all Americans, regardless of socioeconomic background. In fact, Americans earning less than $30,000 a year send and receive roughly twice as many texts as those who earn over $75,000, making the use of text message as an alternative to in-person public hearings a desirable means to expand citizen participation. Furthermore, text message engagement allows anyone with a cell phone to participate, including those who do not own a smartphone or even have Internet access.
In 2011, the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Philadelphia City Planning Commission, and national nonprofit Code for America partnered together to develop a tool that would open up public participation in the Philadelphia 2035 long-term planning effort to anyone with a cell phone, at any place or time of day. This project resulted in the creation of Textizen, a fast and unobtrusive method for gathering real time feedback using cell phone text messaging.
Background History and Context
Prior to Textizen, the capability existed for an organization to “broadcast” messages or send alerts to the mobile numbers of its constituents; however, receiving direct responses back from recipients was generally not possible. Code for America, a U.S. based non-profit that works with state and city governments to create open source technology solutions, came to Philadelphia to explore ways to close the feedback loop using cell phone technology. In doing so, an institution using Textizen could craft series of questions to gauge support for an initiative, elicit preferences and prioritization from among a list of issues/options, or collect feedback on a project from participants responding using their cell phone. This is different than existing text message systems used by organizations where the alerts are limited in subject matter to individual subscribers and are often time sensitive in nature (e.g. ZipCar time limit, airline flight delays, Amber Alerts by local law enforcement). Textizen has additional innovations to fully realize the value of two-way text message communications: a) the ability to structure question types for ease of analysis; b) the ability to customize survey flow depending on a participant’s responses; and c) the ability to send follow-up questions or messages to respondents after the poll has closed.
In partnership with the City of Philadelphia, Code for America provided the software team for pilot program design and development. Within the City, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics convened stakeholders, and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission provided staffing and executive support for executing the 2012 pilot. After a second pilot in 2013, Textizen was introduced to four additional City of Philadelphia agencies, including the Mayor’s Office of Re-integration Services for Ex-Offenders.
Because of the success of Textizen and increasing demand outside of Philadelphia, Textizen expanded beyond a Code for America project and is now an independent corporation operating in over 40 cities across the United States. The company has been primarily responsible for ongoing software development, training, and program implementation. For each deployment, Textizen partners with an agency or municipal leader who is the primary stakeholder and also provides local- and/or domain-specific implementation support.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Within the City of Philadelphia, operating budget for the program is currently $55,000 for the 2015 fiscal year comprised of philanthropic awards ($41,000) and local funds ($14,000). The budget may vary throughout the year, as the Mayor’s Office directs departments to engage with the program when need is demonstrated.
Program development expenditures were $129,000, comprised of local funding ($50,000), philanthropic matching ($75,000), and in-kind donations ($4,000). Program cost for the Code for America partnership with the City of Philadelphia was $250,000 for the extent of the 2012 pilot year with funding provided by the Knight Foundation.
Since its inception, the City of Philadelphia has received funding and support for Textizen in the form of awards and grants. Textizen was named a winner of the Knight News Challenge in January 2013. The Knight News Challenge, an initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, “accelerates media innovation by funding breakthrough ideas in news and information” to support informed and engaged communities. The award supports ongoing maintenance and expansion of the Textizen platform.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Initially, Textizen was conceived as a way to address two major challenges inherent to public meetings: (1) the difficulty for would-be participants to attend meetings at the scheduled time and location and (2) the desire of some citizens to provide feedback anonymously. A third issue, as noted in the Philadelphia 2035 planning process, was the engagement of low-income populations (approximately 37% of households in Philadelphia, according to the 2008-2012 American Community Survey). Cell phones were an ideal platform due to their convenience and wide adoption among low-income groups.
Textizen is adaptable for engaging nearly any population with relative ease, including those that are typically hard-to-reach. The target population depends on the client: low-income, youth, transit users, etc. Clients can select their audience one of two ways: public/open recruitment through advertisements and location recruitment or uploading a contact list of pre-enrolled respondents.
Methods and Tools Used
Textizen uses information and communications technologies to survey the public. Through text messages or 'SMS' , Textizen allows participants to provide feedback to local governments on their cellphones. The use of ICT is also beneficial to organizers since they can reuse lists of cellphone numbers.
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
The breadth of each public engagement effort is measured by volume of responses, as well as the demographics of respondents. For example, the pilot poll for Philadelphia 2035 drew 700 unique respondents. Compare this to public meetings which typically draw 30-100 participants. Where demographics are collected, preliminary analyses are performed to verify their representativeness for the target area or population. For example, in a public feedback campaign by the City of Nashville for their Nashville Next initiative, the ethnicity data for respondents were analyzed and found to closely match Nashville’s overall distribution.
Depth of public engagement is measured by survey completion rates, as well as, in the case of outbound surveys, response rates. The pilot program for Philadelphia 2035 achieved a completion rate of 90%, meaning that the vast majority of those who began the text-in poll responded to every question. Response rates for outbound surveys (those sent to a pre-enrolled list of phone numbers, usually past survey respondents) are generally at or above 50%. Based on agency estimates, this is ten times the response rate of the most common existing survey methods (on-paper and web-based).
Replication to other cities is an ongoing measure of overall success, and has been extremely positive since Textizen’s inception. By the end of 2013, Textizen had been scaled to 15 cities across the U.S. By the end of 2014, the platform was in use in 40 cities. This fast rate of growth was in line with expectations, as the tool was built to scale from day one. However, over time it was learned that the implementation process also needed to scale accordingly. By developing supporting materials such as kickoff worksheets and a Best Practices guide, as well as organizational improvements (such as structured client check-in points), implementation time was reduced from 12 hours to 3 hours. Based on past trends, ongoing improvements, and interest from ongoing improvements, and interest from new clients at the turn of 2014, Textizen is expected to continue growing in use by cities in the coming year.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The single most important achievement of Textizen is the ability to increase the number of participants in a public dialogue regarding a project, policy or initiative by local government. Textizen projects currently underway by City of Philadelphia offices reached an estimated 7,500 individuals. Additionally, decisions made based on Textizen engagement outcomes directly impact 118,000 Philadelphia residents, or approximately 8% of the City of Philadelphia population. Depth of public engagement is measured by survey completion rates, as well as, in the case of outbound surveys, response rates.
Textizen is not a replacement for one-on-one interaction at city offices or government meetings. Rather, it increases the opportunity for dialogue and information exchange by permitting engagement wherever and whenever it is most convenient for the citizen. The engagement is not limited to the survey aspect of the tool, as Textizen has been observed to increase participation rates for those enrolled in human services programs.
A supporting achievement is the increase in turnaround speed for acquiring and analyzing quantifiable data. As demonstrated in the pilot, Philadelphia city planners had immediate access to response rates (by time and location), and structured survey responses that allowed for quick tally and analysis of feedback. As surveys were structured to prompt respondents for a ZIP code, planners were able to map the concentration of responses. Mapping analysis greatly informed the decision support process by identifying the location of respondents in context of their feedback and was used by planners to evaluate the effectiveness of the overall outreach strategy in targeted geographies, or in the case of the program pilot, three Philadelphia2035 planning districts.
Textizen has been instrumental in establishing mobile technology as reliable, trusted method for citizen engagement by local government. The evidence for this is in adoption of Textizen, as well as other text-based citizen engagement or human service communications by additional Philadelphia city offices, as well as many other municipal governments and non-governmental organizations.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The program’s central strength also manifests as its greatest shortcomings: the lightweight text message format means that, currently, each message can be no more than 160 characters long. This limits the ability to have nuanced, in-depth dialogue through the platform. It also limits the complexity of questions that can be asked; text messages are best suited for binary or multiple-choice responses, and for posing questions that are unambiguous and easily understood (especially if posted in locations like the inside of a bus or a transit terminal). To address these concerns, the Textizen team is working on enabling messages longer than 160 characters, but cell phone carriers are often unpredictable when delivering longer messages, making this a design challenge.
Another consequence of the short message format is that key demographic information has to be gathered from respondents in multiple follow-up texts to ensure usable information is received. In a typical survey, the sequence will include two to three demographic questions such as race (selected from 5 multiple choice options), age, and the respondent's home ZIP code. In the majority of cases, participants who start a survey also finish it, including demographic questions. However, sometimes participant drop-off does occur once the questions turn to demographics. Due to technical limitations, asking the participant directly is the only way to gather location information; the program cannot currently incorporate native cell phone capabilities to geo-locate the respondent.
Demographic participation is a key component of Textizen as its stated goal is to recruit the participation of typically underrepresented groups and populations in the policy planning process. While data on the rates of cell phone usage are high across race, ethnicity and socioeconomic levels, it is not clear this translates into equal use of online platforms for political participation. A report from Pew Internet shows that political activity both online and offline is correlated with income. Only 10% of adults making $20,000-$39,999 participated in two or more online political activities in a year, as compared to 35% of adults with an income of $100,000 or more. While this data raises questions about the inclusivity of platforms like Textizen, there are signs that online participation will eventually level the playing field for participation as the current cohort of young, digital natives, mature and become more politically active.
Finally, the value of Textizen rests on the premise that participation will increase because individuals can weigh in more easily through the convenience of technology. At the same time, Textizen claims it is not meant to replace the traditional methods of democratic participation that allow for more in depth and substantive debate. The question then becomes what is the likelihood a citizen will feel compelled to participate further after submitting responses via Textizen? One scenario is platforms like Textizen will expand the number of people providing input into a planning process but decrease the overall level of engagement. Citizens using Textizen will assume they have done their civic duty by responding to a text message survey and opt out from attending future meetings on the topic. But sending a message over a cell phone does not provide sufficient opportunities for citizens to hear from important voices in their community, including public and elected officials, fellow citizens and neighbors. While two way messages can be sent, participation on Textizen does not promote dialogue between citizens and does not enable networks to connect on important policy questions.
Conversely, Textizen could enable easier and better recruitment to more traditional methods of democratic participation and increase the number of people attending to public hearings and meetings. More data points could result in advantageous outcomes ranging from targeted recruitment to meetings based on location, issue preference and previous participation. Furthermore, Textizen could be used to determine the most convenient time and location to hold a meeting for potential participants. Finally, prior engagement on Textizen might act as an important step in building awareness and engagement on an issue, prompting more citizens to invest in future participation avenues. More research is needed on this particular topic to determine how the use of Textizen is impacting a citizen’s future participation.
Lead Image: Textizen https://goo.gl/8bHXbh