OpenGov Voices: The role of transparency in the creation of new places
There are two processes in the public sphere that we all depend on but that few of us really understand. And what’s worse is that both are in trouble.
The first is the process of funding public projects. Public financing often involves a mix of taxation and the issuance of bonds or federal grantmaking to municipalities, counties and regions. Politicians so often pass it off to their constituents as a simple process: vote Yes on A, sales tax will rise a bit, this project will come. But without fail, there’s a complicated interworking of unreadable legislation, complex court decisions, backroom deals that no ordinary citizen could possibly follow. It’s a necessary process — but one that needs work (enter, Sunlight Foundation!).
The second process is “placemaking.” Simply put, placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. It’s how we shape our new parks, stadia and bike lanes and how we stitch them together into cohesive, quality places. In our hometown of Kansas City, it’s how we got the beautiful Country Club Plaza district. In D.C., it’s how the National Mall developed. Placemaking processes today usually (hopefully) involve participation and input from the public, perhaps moderated by an urban planner at a public meeting. A vision, plan or project design usually results from that public meeting. But key to an effective placemaking process is that social and political capital is created: It’s the “buy-in” from the public and politicians that, first, brings the allocation of financial capital by the public-funding process described above and that later sees out a vision’s successful implementation and healthy success.
Placemaking is and will be crucial to the continued progress of places like U Street in D.C. and the resurgent downtown Kansas City. Sadly though, the process — like that of public finance — is often poorly understood. It suffers from its own kind of obscurity. Its subversion by politics is not uncommon.
So concerned citizens and leaders across the nation have faced a dilemma: Broadly, how to harness the two troubled processes in order to bring about positive change in cities and communities. This challenge is complicated by the fact that public resources are dwindling, even as the demand for solutions to urban problems is higher than ever.
This is where Neighbor.ly comes in. Neighbor.ly is a new online civic funding platform for communities that we launched two years ago, to change placemaking. The platform works in three major ways — where communities are connected with funding sources, companies with earned media and citizens with community projects they care about.
Our model was based on those of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Community organizations can submit projects they need funding to our site and visitors can give to the projects they think are most deserving. If projects are funded, they can then move ahead — and their donors can even get perks (just like on other crowdfunding platforms).
Neighbor.ly wasn’t the first crowdfunding site — it wasn’t even the first civic crowdfunding site. But we wanted it to be the first to make a substantial difference. In order to make that happen, we knew we’d have to do things differently.
The first thing we did was to broaden our scope of services beyond basic crowdfunding.
We did this by:
- Being a platform with a toolkit for community fundraising
- Accommodating corporate social responsibility giving
- Providing a platform for cause marketing
The second major innovation was to commit Neighbor.ly to being open source.
From the start, Neighbor.ly has been open source, with its software posted on public repositories on GitHub. That meant our structure was transparent, but we wanted to bring light to the essence of what we do — raising money. So earlier this year, we came to the Sunlight Foundation with our proposal to develop a public data dashboard on which every dollar raised through Neighbor.ly would be detailed. We also proposed a well-documented API that would allow us to integrate with civic engagement sites like Mindmixer. We envisioned public projects being discussed and gathering support on those sites, then being forwarded via the API to Neighbor.ly for funding. Together, we hoped those features would make Neighbor.ly the most democratic and most open way to fund civic projects.
The Sunlight Foundation did, in fact, generously support our project — through their OpenGov Grants program. That confirmed our belief in a new standard of openness in public finance and its placemaking.
(Recently, we raised the bar. Our transparency project will now be part of our company’s effort to become an Open Company.)
We recently saw how our transparency features could be applied to larger projects. In January, we began hosting the $1 million-dollar drive to expand Kansas City’s B-cycle bikeshare system. The campaign involved federal grants and individual and corporate giving — exactly the mix we expect in projects going forward. Right now, our site doesn’t break down the funding — but when our data dashboard is online, any Neighbor.ly visitor will be able to see donors and the amounts they have given. That means large projects like bikeshare would not only be more democratic, they’d be fully transparent.
No more bridges to nowhere!
Those types of capital we mentioned earlier? Social, political, financial? With public resources dwindling, it’s good, clear information that will be the currency of those various kinds of capital, going forward. In public funding and in placemaking, transparency will be vital — transparency will be the key to quality American places.
Jase Wilson is the founder and CEO of Neighbor.ly, a Kansas City, MO-based civic startup. Neighbor.ly is a web platform that helps greenlight civic projects by giving people, companies and institutions a way to fund the places and civic projects they care about. Neighbor.ly is also a Sunlight Foundation OpenGov Grantee. You can reach Jase at email@example.com.
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