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Tackle citizen paralysis with hyper-local information

Echo chambers and filter bubbles:

Over the last three years, we have been reminded of the high cost of a society living in multiple realities (so-called “alternative” realities). Ever since the pandemic brought the world to a standstill, stories about the virus’s origins, its impact on people, and the effectiveness of vaccines haven’t stopped getting out of control. As a result, along with the pandemic, an infodemic was declared.

Misinformation and disinformation continue to have pervasive effects not only in the public health crisis but in almost every aspect of our collective lives. Activists and defenders of democracy around the world - like Filipino investigative journalist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Maria Ressa - have identified mis-/disinformation as one of the most pressing issues threatening democratic values around the world. And beyond political activists, scholars have also studied the proliferation of false news. A 2018 study out of MIT found that false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories.

We are not only fed false or misleading information, but we are also targeted to vilify opposing views. Let’s consider how the advent of social media has brought both connectedness to people across the world while also making us most likely to connect with people with views and opinions similar to ours. “Echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” have been exploited by polarizing political figures consequently radicalizing parts of the public. People increasingly dislike and distrust those from an opposing side, irrespective of whether they disagree on a specific issue - a phenomenon known as “affective polarization

Citizen Paralysis:

Factors like mis-/disinformation and polarization are few of the roots of a decline in citizen participation as well as the origins of citizen paralysis. Citizen paralysis occurs when citizens no longer want to engage in their civic life, because they can’t trust the information they receive and avoid having arguments with others holding opposing views.

The Democracy Index is an annual report published by The Economics Intelligence Unit that intends to quantify the state of democracy around the world using indicators in five categories. One of the categories is Political Participation which measures citizens' engagement and civic life. According to the 2022 report, voter turnout - one of the most basic forms of civic participation - has shown a decreasing trend in most democracies since the 1960s, mainly due to citizens’ disenchantment and apathy

The case for hyperlocal information:

To re-engage people in their civic life, we must first act to alleviate the negative effects of a broken information system. Currently, a daily tsunami of information overwhelms citizens who skim through news articles and struggle to find relevant content to understand the world around them. Traditional and digital news media have a heavy focus on international, national and municipal affairs. But little attention is given to neighbourhood developments.

Some information is shared through community or resident associations via newsletters, social media groups, and neighbourhood magazines. However, this content mostly focuses on community events, programs for residents, and commercial developments. When issue-specific news is available, it is rarely evidence-based, and it hardly makes a clear connection to how readers can help.

Here lays the case for hyperlocal data-driven information, which can aid residents to be better informed about what’s happening in their communities. This may include topics such as:

  • Accessibility and quality of our schools

  • Availability of healthcare services

  • Safety and conditions of our roads and transit

  • Quality of the public services provided in our neighbourhood.

An initiative to hyper-localize news could not only benefit the day-to-day of residents but it could empower them to engage in solutions counteracting the citizen paralysis. When we become aware of something happening in our neighbourhood, it is easier to care, relate and empathize, and we are more likely to take action as our acts ultimately will have a direct impact on ourselves and our loved ones.

YYC DataPost:

We created YYC DataPost as a response to the growing need for hyperlocal information. Our mission is to inform citizens about the state and issues right in their neighbourhoods. Beyond informing residents, we aim to empower them to act by connecting them with opportunities to contribute to their own progress in their communities.

At YYC DataPost, we develop and publish informative and appealing data-driven visuals that tell stories of our communities. Our content is customized for each neighbourhood in Calgary providing relevant and concise insights. We source our stories from open data, made public mainly by local governments. We create value and leverage open government by bridging the gap between open datasets and actionable knowledge.

Moreover, we want to not only inform citizens but also provide them with a clear path to action. Whether it is furthering their education on a specific issue, reaching out to their elected officials or volunteering with a local non-profit trying to improve the situation, every one of our stories provides opportunities for residents to spark their engagement.

Over the last month, supported by local organization Data for Good and its Micro-projects initiative, we have worked with a group of volunteers to develop our content. Our first communal effort is focused on leveraging the data from 311 Service Request - the City of Calgary information and non-emergency services for the public.

The 311 dataset (open to the public through the City’s open data portal) lists a wide range of interactions between citizens and the City of Calgary, including all sorts of public service requests such as property tax assessments, street and road maintenance, compliance with community bylaws, maintenance of parks and public spaces, reports on disruptions of public services, and more.

The outcome of our project includes data-driven stories and a dashboard where residents can review key indicators measuring how their communities are being served by the City of Calgary. This includes drawing their attention to requests with a higher incidence that might indicate deeper issues in their neighbourhood, or services with higher response times which might suggest a more agile response is needed from the City.

Reclaiming the Citizen Office:

Staying informed is only one of the duties of a responsible citizen and DataPost is starting its work on that front. But to boost citizen participation, we require a full-on reinvention of the citizen journey. More solutions are needed and should come from citizens themselves.

Traditionally, citizen engagement has fallen on the government which has created some channels of communication between institutions and citizens. Even though there are a few success stories, this top-down approach is still falling short to engage most citizens partly because City initiatives rarely take a citizen-centred approach. If we want citizens to engage and participate, we need to make it very accessible, simple, and convenient. These are principles that tech companies have been studying and applying for a long time.

We can use those same principles and guidelines to create tools that allow citizens to be more active members of society. In times when fiction spreads faster than facts, in times when consensus seems impossible, and compromise feels like a defeat; technology can be used as a tool to unite us, breaking the cycles of misinformation and bridging the gaps created by polarization.

Almost ten years ago in June 2013, the two main rivers crossing Calgary - the Bow and Elbow rivers - flooded due to a combination of heavy rainfall in the Rocky Mountains and the seasonal spring melting of snowpack. The City of Calgary soon declared a state of local emergency and as many as 80,000 Calgarians had to be evacuated from their homes. The floods in 2013 are reported to be one of Canada’s costliest disasters with losses and damages reaching $6 billion.

Amid the crisis, the City reached out to ordinary citizens to volunteer with flood support efforts. Posted on the City’s blog at 1:45 a.m. on Monday, June 24th 2013, a call was sent out for volunteers to meet only hours later at 10 a.m. at McMahon Stadium. The City had organized several buses to transport volunteers to affected areas and had printed forms to collect volunteers’ information to let them know of more opportunities to help.

The City had planned for tens, maybe a few hundred people to answer the call. But the event information spread quickly through social media platforms and local media. By ten in the morning, former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi made his way through the crowd received with cheers and applause. The response was overwhelming. Over 2,000 people answered the call to roll up their sleeves and help their neighbours in need.

When there were no more buses available to transport all people and no more forms to organize volunteer efforts in the coming weeks, Mayor Nenshi explained the limitations to all attendees. He then made a short but empowering ask: “Simply go out to the affected communities and help out in any way you can. When you get there, it will become evident what you can do”. This simple yet effective message empowered citizens eager to lend a hand. And that’s what people did. Over the following days, tens of thousands of Calgarians worked together to clear streets, clean houses, and assist evacuees. Their support not only accelerated the city’s recovery after the tragic event but also proved once again that citizens working together can stand up to daunting circumstances.

There is no shortage of challenges ahead of us: an overburdened healthcare system, homelessness and the housing shortage, mental health and substance use crisis, and the raising cost of living. To face all those challenges, just like we did in the 2013 floods, we need to lean on one another and recognize the power each of us has as Citizens to impact our communities and enact change.


Jorge Luna is a finance and business professional with 12+ years of experience in professional consulting services and the energy sector. He also holds an MBA from the University of Calgary and is a Certified Public Accountant in his home country Ecuador. Jorge founded YYC DataPost following his passion for leveraging technology to strengthen democracy.

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