We are all living in a deluge of data, yet we have never felt more disconnected from each other. Some governments have made a concerted effort to move towards transparency by embracing open government, making many forms of government data publicly available for consumption. Yet even with such progressive programs, city, county, state, and national governments still struggle to understand the needs of their citizenry, which programs to invest in, how to track the impact of programs and how to best engage the public in general.

Below is my vision for how to use the best aspects of cognitive computing and playful design in order to transform the dialog of how governments and citizens communicate, collaborate, and engage.

1. Knowing citizens minds and tracking impact of programs

Do you remember the last time you ever really loved filling out a survey? Surveys in general are fallible. Not only are they boring, but oftentimes the questions are very poorly written. Then of course the responsibility is on the government to generate spreadsheets with all the analysis.

Consider instead, mining how citizens feel about programs from where these conversations are already happening. Mine Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and other forms of social media to gauge how people feel about that new city park, the new speed limit on the road, or the new mayor. Watson can be trained to recognize context and then to gauge sentiment of how people feel. Watson can be used to gauge if someone is joyful, angry, sad… it can tell you in one very crisp image the sentiment citizens feel about your top initiatives and what has more buzz than others.

Watson Sentiment Analysis on US election

Watson Sentiment Analysis on US election

Watson personality insights can then be used to segment citizens based on their personality, so that you may suggest certain programs to citizens or even curate special conversations based on their personality. The service outputs personality characteristics that are divided into three dimensions: the Big 5, Values, and Needs.

Empathetic Conversation Bots can be a great way to further engage citizens. Imagine being able to host a highly curated conversation with a citizen about a program using an AI based on real time inputs being gleaned from the user (their emotion, their location, even their personality). Is Juan angry that the park is closed, change the way that you are communicating. Does Mary’s personality demonstrate her to be someone that is very altruistic and intrinsically motivated? Then recommend ways in which she might be able to become more engaged civically in domains she has interest in.

2. Cities, counties, and states with personalities and feeling

Can you imagine having the pulse of a city, the sentiments of its people on a wide variety of subjects being transparent to everyone?

Everyone driving into the city of Raleigh, NC can see this beautiful mural (Cree Shimmer Wall) on the side of the Raleigh Convention Center. It is a beautiful urban art mural that changes and ripples. Imagine if this mural changed color based on how people were tweeting about the city of Raleigh.  If they are feeling joy the tree glows pink. If they are saddened by an event, the tree glows blue.  One can even tailor what sentiment is being captured. Example: Want to know what people are expressing emotions about? #raleighfeels

Shimmer wall on the Raleigh Convention Center

Shimmer wall on the Raleigh Convention Center

This concept of using a highly visual way of tailoring an icon to be dynamically changing based on sentiment is a great way to give an instant personality or feeling about a place and its people.

We have the technology now such that t-Shirts with a city of Raleigh insignia can glow with the same colors, matching the dynamic sentiment of its people. Learn about how IBM tailored a dress to respond to sentiment at the Met gala.

3. Social Apps for Good: Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation and rewards

Most governments are not taking advantage of many people’s willingness to do good for their community. Many are intrinsically motivated to be altruistic, to give back, to mentor and to make their town, city, state, country a better place. Most don’t know how or where to start because it is an overwhelming prospect. Well designed Social Apps for Good can be a great way to engage citizens to contribute their talents to solving problems in your geography. Some of these apps can have extrinsic rewards and even be ingrained in infrastructure such as Sweden’s speed trap lottery where those that follow the speed limit get an opportunity to win a monthly cash prize. Other social apps for good can be much more focused on intrinsically motivating citizenry to give back. Apps that have an intrinsically motivating slant are the ones that can be the most influential, the most impactful. Many of these apps can take the form of Games- see Games for Change, or Games for Good. Note all the categories of games listed here including Cities of learning, Environment, Civics, Recycling, Poverty, Conflict, Human Rights, and Health. One can imagine taking this kind of design and giving citizens micro-quests to complete in their own town, city, county, state, or country.

4. Build your roadmap… One seriously juicy carrot: Individual citizens directly affecting policy

The best reward for those that are intrinsically motivated to give back? Give them a seat at the table where they can have the opportunity to affect even greater change. As those citizens accrue points in their Social Apps for Good, they unlock new levels of participation in local government. This model has been replicated in the city of San Jose where for the past 6 years they have done a collaborative Budget Balancing game with citizens that have earned the right, through the accrual of points to be there and act as ambassadors. The more points accrued, the more responsibility at the table. (Blockchain, anyone?) Read more about Engage the Bay, Dec 8 – 9, 2016 in Silicon Valley.

Budget balancing game in San Jose, CA

Budget balancing game in San Jose, CA

5. Tap ecosystems for your pilots

You are not in this alone. Millennial students are an extremely altruistic intrinsically motivated population dying to get their hands on these kinds of projects. Governments can sponsor themes at local universities to engage students on the building of pilots. Then take those winning teams and show them off at conferences like Switchpoint or Engage the Bay that have a focus on Humanitarian design. Many of these conferences are attended by non-profits that are seeking software platforms just like these to invest in. Create an ecosystem to begin building the first tiers of your road-map.

6. Use advanced City Sim games in order to improve decision making

Imagine playing through city scenarios well before you actually implement changes to public policy through an advanced city sim powered by real historical datasets. We already have the ability to integrate Watson into top tier game engines (Unity and Unreal). We already have the ability to mine open data initiatives for information about what happens when there are changes in policy. Now imagine being able to capture that information in a highly interactive city sim game. Want to save the city money by turning off the street lamps? When Watson mines the dataset, the data says that the crime rate will shoot up. Instead of asking Watson these questions directly, have it power the rules of how the city same game responds to user actions. For a riff on this in the defense world, check out this Red Book.)

Technology is not something that I would ever suggest throwing willy-nilly over a fence assuming that it will solve a complex social problem all by itself. That being said, well designed applications that use cognitive computing can help tap into the psyche of large populations, and can inspire reach change, real advocacy in people. Gleaning how people feel about things on a visceral level, gauging impact immediately, being able to curate custom conversations and giving people greater opportunities for participation when they unlock levels of civic engagement are just a few of the ways that technology can spur an evolution in process.

Learn more about technology and civic engagement

Phaedra Boinodiris is IBM’s global lead for serious games and gamification at IBM and is based out of RTP.
Since the start of her career at IBM she has incubated a game development ecosystem on IBM’s cloud, and IBM’s first serious games practice solving complex problems across industry. She is also the author of Serious Games for Business, published in 2014 by Megan-Kiffer press. Boinodiris’ earlier work in serious games are being used in over 1000 schools worldwide to teach students the fundamentals of business optimization. Boinodiris was honored by Women in Games International as one of the top 100 women in the games industry. Prior to working at IBM, she was a serial entrepreneur for 14 years where she co-founded WomenGamers.Com, a popular women’s gaming portal. There she subsequently started the first scholarship for women to pursue degrees in game design and development in the US. In November of 2015, Boinodiris was elected as a member of IBM’s Academy of Technology and has 6 patents in the gaming space. Boinodiris happily mentors business school students at her alma-mater UNC-Chapel Hill where she is also UNC’s 2016 Social Entrepreneur in Residence.


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