The Solution for Neighborhood Improvement? E-Democracy for All

by Tristan Pollock


In 1994, Steven Clift, founder of and Ashoka Fellow, spawned  the world’s first election information Web site.

That accomplishment led him to the development of a local model and other scalable online initiatives to bring together neighborhood communities across Minnesota, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. “We’re interested in how to connect everyday people in Internet life,” Clift says.

Clift and local volunteers took E-Democracy to the city level in 1998 with the Minneapolis Issues Forum, the success of which caught the attention of the British government. Britain embraced the idea of city-wide online community involvement and wanted to push the envelope farther to reach neighborhoods. The model was even more effective in the cities of Bristol and Oxford because it built community and engaged everyday citizens, not just the most political. Based on this success, created neighborhood Issues Forums within Minneapolis and St. Paul — places where neighbors can discuss issues in their community.

There are now over 30 local issue forums in 15 communities across three countries. Minneapolis neighborhoods Standish-Ericsson and Powderhorn currently lead the pack with nearly 500 users each, reaching 15% of area households daily. “Things you used to know at three to four blocks away, you now know at 30 to 40 blocks away,” says Clift, alluding to the impact of the forums.

Transparency and inclusion are also keys to the success of E-Democracy’s forums. Real names must be used, unlike normal mainstream media comments that more often than not lead to virtual attacks, and forum founders must have the support of 100 or more neighbors before they can create a neighborhood discussion board. E-Democracy also has an Inclusive Social Media initiative to help low income areas use Web 2.0 tools and techniques for their community’s advantage.

Clift and E-Democracy are also working on another, more organic, approach to online community building called Neighborly. The proposed open-source social enterprise would encourage residents to sign up, get listed, connect, discuss and explore locally. This trend is evident in other new online community-based start-ups like Portland-based Bright Neighbor — a combination of community involvement and social tools that promote livability, sustainability and relocalization.

“When neighbors know each other, they help one another,” Clift likes to say.