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Exploring the Possibilities of Mobile Technology for Community Engagement

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This is part of a series exploring the opportunities and challenges of using mobile technologies to engage and organize communities, produced in partnership with the California Endowment.

 

In 2011, Pew Research found that only 35% of American adults owned a smartphone. Just three years later, smartphone ownership has nearly doubled to 58%, with 90% of American adults owning some type of cell phone.

 

Pew Research also found in 2013 that 72% of all online American adults use social media sites like Facebook, up from only 8% in 2005. Even President Obama is "hip to all these things"; he's hosted Twitter chats, Google+ hangouts, a live Q&A on Tumblr, and an "Ask Me Anything" thread on Reddit.

But this increased connectedness doesn't necessarily translate to increased engagement on a local level. Especially in a sprawling, decentralized city like Los Angeles, growing a sense of community has proven difficult.

Our voter turnout has been absolutely abysmal. In our last election on June 4, 2014, L.A. County's turnout was only 17%, the lowest of any county in California. And only 25.1% of all registered Californians voted, according to the secretary of state records. If that number stays below 28% at the end of the 28-day canvass, it will be a new low in California's history since 1914, as Capitol Weekly points out.

In a measure of volunteerism rates, Los Angeles was ranked 46th out of the largest 51 metro areas in the U.S., according to the LA2050 project, citing a 2011 study by the National Conference on Citizenship. "Compared to the nation, Angelenos are less likely to be involved in groups, less likely to engage in organizational activism, less likely to vote, less likely to be engaged in faith-based organizations, less likely to socialize informally, and less likely to be trusting," writes LA2050, citing a 2003 study by the USC Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy Research.

Community organizations already know that engaging the communities of Los Angeles will require ingenuity, teamwork, and persistence. But how does technology fit into the picture? That is what we aimed to explore at the Get Mobile Forum on April 2, 2014.

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Start from the Ground Up: The Power of Low-Tech

The Get Mobile Forum, a conference organized by the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP) and The California Endowment, invited local community organizers and tech leaders to explore how mobile technology can engage and empower communities.

"It's not about the next killer app," said Dr. Robert K. Ross, President and CEO of The California Endowment. "It's when something works, how do we scale it in a sense that a community can benefit from it in a meaningful way?"

Even though almost two thirds of American adults now own smartphones, low-tech communication technologies are still the most effective means of reaching people. When it comes to discussing local community issues, Dr. Shelly Farnham from Microsoft Research Fuse Labs found in a 2013 study that youths rely on email and face-to-face communication more than social media.

At the Get Mobile Forum, Games for Change co-founder Benjamin Stokes discussed the power of games to get people engaged with social issues and their communities | Photo: Mike Baker
At the Get Mobile Forum, Games for Change co-founder Benjamin Stokes discussed the power of games to get people engaged with social issues and their communities | Photo: Mike Baker

Many of the speakers at the Get Mobile Forum suggested text messaging as a starting point for organizations, not only because of its simplicity and affordability, but also because it "reaches virtually everyone," as Mobile Commons CEO Jed Alpert said. "It's the only media we know of that simultaneously is the best way to reach a rich person and a poor person."

To highlight the power of text messaging, Alpert shared a few case studies. For example, Planned Parenthood offers advice through text messaging, allowing teens to get answers from a certified health educator. Over 250,000 teens have used it in the last three years, and users of the service reported less anxiety in post chat surveys.

NYC Health sent inspirational text messages to people who wanted to quit smoking. "Among heavy smokers, 53% successfully quit after receiving texts, compared to 25% in the control group," said Alpert.

One of the greatest strengths of text messaging is its ability to reach traditionally underserved communities. Citing Pew Research, Alpert shared that Hispanics text 156% more than Caucasians, while African Americans text 224% more than Caucasians. Young adults of all ethnicities text the most, sending over 100 text messages per day on average.

 

Diverse Communities Need Diverse Technologies

Ride South L.A., a community organization dedicated to promoting health and community engagement through group bike rides, partnered with USC to incorporate collaborative mapping into their events, using a platform called ParTour. Because most of their participants didn't have smart phones, they built the system using multimedia text messaging. Participants could use their feature phones to send a photo and location, and the photos would automatically be uploaded to ParTour's website, where they could be viewed together on a map.

One of the keys to Ride South L.A.'s success was their use of multiple technologies, allowing everyone to participate and then build upon the work of others. Using feedback and photos from their earlier events, they designed a paper map showcasing the meaningful places in South L.A. identified by participants. Ride South L.A. printed and distributed those maps at their next events, inviting participants to contribute to the next iteration of the map.

As Ride South L.A. says, "pairing with print" is more effective than using printed maps or mobile technology alone. They recognized that their community members have different levels of access to technology, and different preferences for engaging with the project. Rather than telling everyone to participate in a certain way or not participate at all, Ride South L.A. took an inclusive approach that gave participants the flexibility to participate as much or as little as they wanted, using the tools they were most comfortable with.

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Healthy Food Map for South L.A. was created by more than 100 pedestrians and cyclists from the local community | Image: Ride South L.A.

 

Don't Forget to Have Fun: Using Games for Social Good

At the Get Mobile Forum, Games for Change co-founder Benjamin Stokes discussed the power of games to get people engaged with social issues and their communities. One example is Spent, a web-based game designed to raise awareness of poverty by challenging players to live a virtual life on $1000 a month. It's been played over one million times by people in 200 countries around the world.

But games don't need to be digital to be engaging. One example is Macon Money, a real-world social game that encouraged residents of Macon, Georgia to explore their city, meet new people, and discover new businesses. They distributed paper bonds to the residents of Macon -- in halves. If the players could find the matching half of their bond, they could exchange it for Macon Money, a paper currency that the players could use at local businesses just like cash. Motivated by these cash prizes, players used social networks both online and offline to search for new people who might have the matching half of their bond.

The Knight Foundation found that 92% of the players who visited a new business through Macon Money returned to those businesses later on, and 85% of players reported that their perception of local shops and parks had improved.

Tapping into our natural curiosity, games encourage an exploratory, playful mindset that can get people to step outside of their comfort zone and view their communities with a new perspective.

 

Working Together to Explore New Possibilities

Technology alone can't solve the problems facing communities in Los Angeles, but it helps by multiplying the connections between the people who can. Simple, low-tech solutions like text messaging make it easier to reach people than ever before. Combined with online platforms, mapping technologies, games, and multimedia, there are limitless ideas that have yet to be explored.

To successfully implement any of these new technologies, community organizations will need to collaborate both with other organizations and with community members. As USC professor and CCLP director Geoffrey Cowan said at the Get Mobile Forum, "When people work together, that in itself is an empowering phenomenon. It's one thing to give them something; it's another thing to give them the chance to participate in the creation of it."

We hope that the collaborations formed through the Get Mobile Forum and this series at KCET Departures will continue to spark new ideas and further empower our communities.

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