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October 28 2010


SeedSpeak Seeks Government Feedback on Pushing Open Data

One of the ways SeedSpeak will measure success is by the number of "seeds" that become successful projects or solutions in a community. Neighbors might suggest improvements to their community ("let's turn a community lot into a neighborhood park" or "let's paint a mural on a brick wall that faces a thoroughfare"), but unless the people who can make it happen buy into it and help make it a reality, those great suggestions might die on the vine.

To that end, one of our biggest concerns in designing SeedSpeak is to make sure we get feedback and buy-in from local leaders, including neighborhood associations, political leaders and city and county government types. The good news is SeedSpeak is coming along at a time when many cities and states are getting more comfortable with the idea of open government. In cities large and small, officials are starting to share data with local programmers and experimenting with ways to harness the wisdom of its employees and citizens when it comes to improving those communities.

The bad news is there is still a lot of hesitancy in doing so. Aside from cities such as Washington, D.C., San Diego and Boston, which are throwing open the vault to city data, many more localities are taking baby steps toward integrating openness as part of their daily operations. Even with social media, many cities are reluctant to interact with residents online beyond official web pages.

Haphazard Approach

Sure, many cities and counties have mastered Facebook and Twitter; they know how useful Twitter is during an emergency and they sort of get the efficacy of Facebook (though too many are still simply using it to drive traffic to their websites). But many will admit that their approach is haphazard. As one government official told me recently, some departments in his county are using Twitter quite often, but only because those departments happen to have a public information officer or other employee who is into it and has integrated it entirely on his or her own.

Enter SeedSpeak. We hope that local officials will use the application to hear what residents are buzzing about in their communities, discover what they want to see changed in their neighborhoods, and actually respond to them within the application. We want the head of the city parks and recreation to respond to neighbors suggesting an abandoned lot be turned into a community garden, or that a mural be painted on a local community center wall. Beyond responding, we hope local officials will use the application to report on what is being done to make those suggestions realities, so that a "seed" of a suggestion is "harvested" into an actual project.

So a part of what my partner and I need to do is both teach them the beauty of an application such as SeedSpeak to get citizens involved, and to really listen and learn about the concerns of public officials as they tip into this world of social citizenship. We need to listen to elected officials' concerns about public records: Is a city council member's post supporting the idea of a local park a public record? How can we build safeguards into the application to make sure those records are preserved in the same way a comment at a city council meeting is preserved? In listening to government officials, we hope we will be building something that works for them as well as for the citizens we hope to help empower.

September 20 2010


SeedSpeak To Sprout Community Improvement Projects in Phoenix

The excitement continues to build in the Phoenix community over a new mobile and web platform that will help people sow positive change in the community. Since the June Knight News Challenge funding announcement, my development partner Cody Shotwell and I have fielded dozens of calls and emails from local people. They can't wait to help us put together the project that will allow users to plant the seed of an idea for a community improvement project, allow others to add on or grow that idea toward maturity and, finally, join neighbors and local officials together to harvest the idea into a reality. Phoenix, our test city, desperately needs this.

But first we needed a name.

The project was originally called CitySeed. However, as has happened to many an entrepreneur before us, the domain was not ours to have.

So SeedSpeak was born. You can watch this video from the Knight Foundation to learn more about the project:

Knight News Challenge: CitySeed from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Here's a concise explanation on our website:

SeedSpeak is an application with mobile, web and widget components that allows users to plant suggestions, ideas and thoughts (seeds) in Phoenix communities at the exact location where you get an idea or see an unmet need. SeedSpeak then empowers other community members to discover those seeds, add to them, and help execute those ideas.

User Feedback

Now that we had a name, and buoyed by that excitement, we spent most of the summer getting development bids, talking to lawyers and business types, and getting ready to move into full-scale ideation and development.

We selected the Phoenix-based interactive agency Gate6 to design, develop and build SeedSpeak. Gate6 has been named the best development company in Phoenix by the Phoenix Business Journal a number of times. In addition to working within our budget, the company has been a wonderful partner by getting started on the work even as we hammer out a contract.

In addition to making that critical choice, Cody and I kept busy with research. As huge believers in user-centered design, we spent a portion of the summer on that. Our design began with the simple question: What does our community want in a mobile, idea-sharing social network? In order to answer that question so we can push pixels and code with confidence, we conducted in-depth user interviews to understand the needs and goals of likely users, potential users, and any other stakeholders.

We interviewed avid social networkers, mobile mavens, city officials, leaders of community organizations, and news-gatherers. As new kinds of users emerge, we'll talk to them, too. This research has already helped us make choices about SeedSpeak's feature set, layout, and other crucial aspects of the project.

From that research, we were able to hammer out a prototype website design. We will continue to reach out to the community again and again until we've created an application that Phoenix can truly use.

In addition to our future Phoenix users, we'd love to get your feedback. Please share your thoughts with us as we share the development of SeedSpeak with you.

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July 14 2010


Is the Phoenix finally dead?

It began as a read on shoptalk aka tvspy. What caught my initially was:

One of the biggest criticisms of the millennial generation is that they confuse participation with winning. Everyone gets a trophy in the playoffs. They feel they deserve a promotion because they simply showed up for work everyday.

Wow does that sound like a lot of high school students I’ve dealt with.

But it got deeper as Graeme Newell delved into How Ratings Measurement Is Hurting Broadcast TV.

What I thought was a slam against today’s broadcasting in general is actually a finely focused look at the golden days of broadcast news (70s to 90s), rating vs. share, and finally…

Broadcast ratings will continue to decline in the coming years as cable channels proliferate, internet viewing takes off, and baby boomers die off.

Ouch. Rather than rating yourself on how much of the audience you have, you should be out recruiting a NEW AUDIENCE. The audience who isn’t watching your channel or any channel for that matter.

Gotta love the final line.

Just because your competitor loses doesn’t mean you win.

(Only halfway through what appears to be a pretty prolific day.)

December 14 2009


Lessons Learned From Launch of CityCircles Beta Site

In the journey to launch our CityCircles beta site, we encountered many bumps in the road that turned out to be valuable lessons, and important opportunities. Below is some of what we've learned.

And for those not familiar with our project, here's a description of what we're building:

CityCircles is a collaborative platform where users and journalists work together to create and share information around each light-rail stop in the Phoenix metro area. That includes news, events, promotions, classifieds and social networking. There's even a community improvement tool that helps our users create, join and accomplish projects that make the city a better place for everyone. Think of us as the context that makes your urban experience more meaningful, your digital sidekick in the city.

Listen More Than You Talk

In order to start building awareness and spread the word about CityCircles, we hosted a few "community preview" events in Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. Needless to say, we were humbled by the turnout at these events. These events gave us the chance to discuss our project with people and potential users in a more intimate setting. We gathered meaningful feedback that helped us prioritize and develop the features and functions we would soon roll out on the site.

It was very interesting to observe how different target groups got excited about different features and functions. For example, Arizona State University students were most interested in the events and promotions going on around each light rail stop. Citizens living around the rail were very intrigued by our "Fix It" function, which allows users to post community improvement projects and organize groups around those projects.

We also began to realize how crucial it is to develop a mobile version of CityCircles. We are now focusing our efforts on making that happen. A smartphone app is definitely in our plans as well. However, we're not as concerned with that right now because our market research showed that nearly 80 percent of our target audience does not yet have a smartphone!

Learn From the Competition

When we first started out, over a year ago, we didn't notice anyone else doing what we were setting out to do: deliver geographically-based information and build communities around that information.

Now it seems that competitors and substitutes are popping up everywhere. From FourSquare, to the smartphone app Where and CityVantage, we started to get intimidated! However, we are doing things differently from what's currently out there. We need to focus on what makes us different -- such as our team -- and continue to foster the relationships we've been building with our constituents. We also need to learn from what these sites are doing right and follow their example.

Ours is still very much a work in progress, and we are constantly learning -- that's the exciting thing about starting a new venture! We welcome any advice and feedback from anyone else who has gone through the process.

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