Omaha debates budget in a virtual town hall

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May 23, 2011 - 7:00pm

Omaha residents have a lot to say about how the city spends its money. The budget is one issue that had Mayor Jim Suttle defending his position in a recall election earlier this year. Omaha residents now have a new place to discuss their budget opinions - at a website called EngageOmaha.com that mixes social media with public debate. Ideas range from establishing free wireless Internet downtown to supporting After School and Summer School programs - currently the most popular idea.

The site was created by a small Omaha web company called MindMixer. For this Signature Story, Grant Gerlock went to MindMixer's office at a renovated furniture warehouse in downtown Omaha to talk to Nick Bowden, one of the company's co-founders.

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NICK BOWDEN: Engage Omaha was designed to be a tool to augment the city's outreach efforts to its citizens in the first stage here, most importantly to gather feedback on the city budget to help prioritize different services that each department is offering over the course of the next budget year for the city. And then moving forward it will be kind of an ongoing perpetual citizen engagement tool so people can continue to be submitting ideas for improving the city or different parts of the city.

GRANT GERLOCK: So we're looking at the main page here. Can you point out the main parts of the site? What are we going through?


BOWDEN: Yeah, so the main page kind of lays out how the site's structured so you can see each departmen has their own subpage. Library. Planning. Parks. Public Works. Police. Fire. And then the Convention and Visitors Bureau and Administration. And within each of these pages you can find those budget services that that department has laid out plus a video introduction from the department head. And once you're in as a user, after you've created an account and signed in, you have the ability to click into each of the budget services and pledge your support for that service or provide feedback through open ended comments. The founders of MindMixer, we all have backgrounds in city planning and in urban design. Our experience essentially was hosting traditional public meetings, so having the city hall meeting take place at a gym. And no one shows up to those. So we had done a lot of public meetings and had a hard time getting people to attend those at different projects across the Midwest. MindMixer is kind of an answer to that challenge of physical attendance at a meeting. Now people can participate from their home or from their phone.

GERLOCK: So you're calling it like a virtual town hall. Why is it important that it has that social media aspect to it?


BOWDEN: Well it's important for a couple reasons. First, people are familiar with that. They're familiar with Facebook and Twitter so linking to those services is obviously important for familiarity purposes but also it's a great way to share. So we encourage people when they submit ideas to share those across their social media networks and to Facebook and Twitter to not only create awareness about the site in the greater community but to get other people involved. And we know that it's much more powerful to have your friend tell you to get involved in the discussion than to have the city tell you, so encouraging people to share that is an important part of the platform.

GERLOCK: You get some word of mouth along with it?


BOWDEN: Yeah. Totally. I mean, the viral nature of the site accounts for probably more than half the site's traffic, just people sharing their ideas across their social networks.

GERLOCK: I think one of the frustrating things for people going to budget hearings or town hall meetings is, you know, you give your ideas but then the suspicion is always that those ideas end up in a filing cabinet somewhere and never really see the light of day. How is this different? Can people using this website be sure that this isn't just going to a digital version of a filing cabinet somewhere?


BOWDEN: That's a good question. That's a huge concern for a lot of people. The site actually has a page called Ideas Implemented. So periodically the Mayor's office here in Omaha is going to be picking ideas that can be implemented quickly or over time can take more time to be implemented, but communicating that success back so people know not only they are participating and being heard but there's actually action being taken. Then the future of Engage Omaha and other MindMixer sites will actually include the ability for people to organize themselves around ideas to take action on their own and report back to the others that something has been done on an idea that they or someone else has submitted.

GERLOCK: Who's watching the website right now, for the city? Who's actually watching these ideas come in?


BOWDEN: The Mayor's office and his staff and then each of the department heads. And actually many of the department heads are active members of the site themselves as participants, as citizens of Omaha. And we always include kind of a "who's listening" page to each of the city's sites. But yeah, there's a conscious effort on particularly the Mayor's staff to constantly be following it. Through weekly meetings with them they're committed to picking ideas each week or a couple ideas each week to move toward implementation.

GERLOCK: Have they been in touch with any big ideas that they noticed, any great ideas coming across from people?


BOWDEN: Yeah, and it's interesting, you know there are two kinds of ideas. One is the kind of "oh my gosh why didn't we think of that" idea - the simple low-hanging fruit that could just improve the efficacy of government and the city as a whole. The second form of ideas is "wow, these are really big ideas." For example, light rail is kind of a popular idea, but the root of that is better public transportation. So this has been a good validation to them that people are concerned and want to see better public transportation in Omaha, and whether that be through light rail, an improved bus system, or more trails for riding and walking to work and the places you go that those are ideas that they will continue to evolve over time and hopefully be implemented within the calendar year of 2011.

GERLOCK: One of the things I wasn't expecting when I went to the site is that it has a points system. How does that work and what's the value in that for someone using it?


BOWDEN: Yeah, the points system is kind of our version of coffee and donuts at a traditional meeting. Hopefully it's the incentive that pushes someone maybe on the fence to participating. But you earn points for quality participation, not level of activity. So the fastest way to earn points is to put up good ideas that other people support and second. And those points can actually be cashed in for a variety of civic awards. So free pool passes, free pavilion park rentals, lessons with golf pros at the city courses. At the end of each phase, so at the end of May here the top point getters for that particular phase will have a choice of their civic award.

GERLOCK: MindMixer is a three-man outfit. How long have you guys actually been active?


BOWDEN: We've been really active really only about the last 60 days. We did a lot of proof of concept to test it and see if it works in cities beginning last July. And then, when we had some validation that cities liked it and people were using it we sort of diverted some different resources to make sure that we could really push forward and have it be in as many cities as possible.

GERLOCK: So is this Omaha site a big break for you, you think?


BOWDEN: Omaha, it was a launching of our new brand and improved website based on feedback that we got from our first couple of projects in the end of 2010. So this is a big push for us and has resulted in a little bit broader brand awareness for us, and in the last 60 days we've been able to secure another 15 cities in large part because of the success of Omaha.

GERLOCK: You're still a really young company, but where do you think it goes from here?


BOWDEN: First we want to be in as many cities helping cities connect with their citizens as possible and I think ultimately if you can provide a good outlet that proves successful that people use the sky's kind of the limit for the number of places that could utilize the tool we've built here.

GERLOCK: And do you think if you're goals come along is Omaha a place you can stay to do your kind of work? Can you find the people you need if you need more people? Can you do your work from here?


BOWDEN: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, it actually plays well because we do projects on both coasts and in the Midwest it's easier for us to service those areas being centrally located. And I think Omaha is becoming an up and coming technology hub too. There's a lot of people in this market looking to get into a more startup culture and a more small company culture. So I think for us, yeah, it's something where we're certainly committed to being in Omaha for the foreseeable future.

GERLOCK: Talk a little bit more about that. I mean, you're tucked away here north of the new baseball stadium in downtown Omaha. How do you see yourself fitting into a rising startup culture in Nebraska?


BOWDEN: I mean, this past week Big Omaha was a fantastic example of Omaha beign recognized by I think they had 700 participants from around the country plus a speaker lineup that included some of the best and the brightest from around the country in technology. And I think that there's been a big push here in large part because of the work that Silicon Prairie News is doing and kind of the leaders and the technology based commerce and business here in Omaha over the last 10 years that have laid a good groundwork for the city to be successful moving forward as a tech hub that really provides a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurs and creative folks.

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