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Civic engagement through digital technology: the EPISODE project

In this video, Dr Darren Reed discusses his EPISODE project which aims to improve civic engagement with an open data archive.
Hi my name is Darren Reed and I am a lecturer in the Sociology department at the University of York, my interests include the design of technology, but also the way that people use technology to benefit themselves, their families and communities.
Well the Episode project is part of a large interdisciplinary project at the University of York called the Digital Creativity Labs; and the Digital Creativity Labs covers a wide range of interests from people in Sociology, through Archaeology, to Computer Scientists, people in TFTV (Theatre, Film and Television)… and it’s about developing technologies for people in their everyday lives. My project, called Episode, is specifically about civic engagement. It’s about civic engagement with what’s called the Open Data Archive at the City of York Council. The Open Data Archive contains all sorts of information, about York. It could be about voting patterns; it could be about crime rates; it can be about pollution..
and the Episode project is about designing a game or an interactive media technology to get people to engage with that data in a productive way. I mean, specifically it’s about engaging with that data and using it in ways that benefit people, so it could be, for example, that they engage with it and find out that the pollution level in their area is particularly high; they might want to engage with the council and their local councilor and ask them to do something about it. So this data is very powerful – it’s very useful – but the problem is, it’s quite boring. So people don’t know how to use it, they don’t particularly feel inclined to use it.
And the Episode game is really about engaging people initially in a fun way with this mass of data, but also showing them how it can be productive, how they can use it in productive ways and useful ways. Which will benefit them, their family, their community and the city as a whole. So one of the issues around digital participation is having the necessary skills to use the information that’s available, and use it in productive ways, and that’s quite a difficult thing to do. Participation isn’t just about a willingness to participate, or even a wish to participate with modern technologies;
it’s very often about skills: it’s very often about having the necessary skills to use the facilities; to use the information in a productive way… and also knowing how to use those skills to further particular issues or particular concerns, and things like that. So in this case, participation very much depends upon what we might call competencies; very much depends upon things like digital literacy. In this case it would be knowing how to access information, how to combine it in useful ways, how to share it with others, and use it for the basis for an on going conversation with people like the council. Participation – digital participation that is –
is something we do all the while: we are on facebook, use texts, we use email every day, and so we are used to participating in some ways. But we’re not so used to participating in very active and engaged ways with things like social policy. So for me the Episode game is very much about forms of civic participation. The whole idea of the Episode design is to first engage with people and to get them to engage with data; secondly to have them manipulate that data, in playful and trivial ways, perhaps, and thirdly to engage with that data in more serious ways.
And through doing that we teach them, if you like, how to use data, and also how it might be beneficial to them.
In this video, Dr Darren Reed discusses the EPISODE project which aims to improve civic engagement with an open data archive.
Environmental Policy In Simulation, Open Data, and Engagement (EPISODE) is a project designed to engage York’s citizens more fully with the City of York Council’s Open Data initiative, through the creation of playful data interfaces. It is being developed by sociologists and game designers in collaboration with the City of York Council.
At present relatively few of York’s citizens are aware of the Open Data Platform’s existence, and of those who are, few have the requisite technical skills and knowledge to meaningfully engage with this data. The EPISODE project is using the Digital Creativity Lab’s knowledge of games and gamification to develop ways to help people engage with this data in a playful and fun way, learning about data and hopefully developing more of an interest in policy. The project aims to:
  • Boost civic engagement in Council decision making
  • Encourage York citizens to learn about and get involved with the city
  • Become a York Open Data citizen

What are the features of EPISODE?

There are three features of EPISODE which have been designed based on the AIDA model (Attention Interest Desire Action):
  1. The first feature is a large information screen that will be in the centre of York and will present information from the archive in a playful and engaging way; for example, the correlation between ducks in an area and the crime rate.
  2. A second screen will also be available which people can use to interact with the data and present it on the large screen. By manipulating the data in fun ways, people should begin to appreciate the accessibility of the data.
  3. The third element is a smartphone application that takes all those other elements, so people can grab information and can combine it in interesting ways, but they can also then use that information and share it with others. So for example, it could be something quite serious: combining information about the number of potholes in their street with council tax rates to understand how much they pay the council for the maintenance of the roads. And maybe by combining that information they could then make a case for the council to spend more money on road maintenance. They could also use it as the basis for political campaigns: perhaps if there is a community group which is particularly concerned about pollution, they could grab the relevant information, share it with others, and use it in a productive way.
The EPISODE project will offer an innovative and unusual new solution to this problem of engagement and interest. The project will create a game that makes the examination of this data playful and fun, as well as removing the technical expertise barriers to engaging with it. In the process, it will open up York’s Open Data Platform to a far greater range of potential users.
The Digital Creative Labs have created a video talking through the features of the EPISODE project which you might find interesting additional viewing.
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