For a generation raised on games, anything can be made compelling, assuming points will be awarded. To that end, the site MindMixer has for the last year been dedicated to making a game out of that most dreaded of civic experiences: the town hall meeting.
The idea behind MindMixer, says CEO and co-founder Nick Bowden, was an attempt to get people to re-engage at that basic level. "I think people's perceptions of town hall meetings is you only go if you want to complain about something," Bowden says.
MindMixer works as a virtual town hall, giving citizens a forum to launch ideas that others can comment on and vote up. But the feature that's made it a success is that all of these actions award points to the ideas and their creators. It’s a “wisdom of crowds” situation. The ideas are listed randomly, so as not to bias people coming onto the site. As high-scoring ideas filter out, they can then supplement and refine those kicked around at the physical meeting, thereby convincing more people to participate than might otherwise be inclined or able to.
The sites can be set up to accept open submissions, challenges set by the city to address specific areas, or some combination of both. It's modular that way; there are lots of ways to "play."
The game elements work like this: You get 50 points for creating a profile, 25 points for referring someone to the site, 10 points for submitting ideas and two points each for seconding, commenting, or voting on an idea. To encourage better ideas than, "How about a giant chocolate fountain in the town square?" you'll also get 10 points if someone seconds your idea. If your idea is in the highest scoring clutch that moves on to the voting phase, you get points, too. The highest scoring idea then goes on to real-world deliberation and implementation, and you and your points get on the leaderboard. "Ideas lead to refinement which leads to some kind of constraint-based decision-making," Bowden says.
Those points can then lead to the next big gaming element: prizes. At the new San Francisco site, ImproveSF.com, for example, launched to improve transit in the Bay, they've incentivized idea-generation through a challenge to design a new logo for the San Francisco Metro Transit Authority. The winner by points gets their design slapped on buses, signs, buildings, and street furniture. There are also some prizes redeemable in the "Rewards Store": a lunch-date with Mayor Ed Lee in the Japanese Tea Garden (1,000 points), a Lee voicemail greeting on your phone (800 points), a ride on a transit vehicle in a parade (500 points), and parties, magazine subscriptions, guided tours, that sort of thing.
That Lee is game for this game says something about how city management is coming around to the concept.
"Two years ago, a lot of elected officials and staff probably didn’t view online ideas and comments very favorably," says Bowden. But now, "if it's used right, it should make elected officials’ and staff’s jobs easier."
MindMixer officially launched March 2011, though Bowden says he and his co-founders, Mark Hasebroock and Nathan Preheim, had been working on it since the summer of 2010. The three have backgrounds in urban planning, and worked together at a consulting firm in Omaha.
Bowden says they’ve got 125 projects going currently, from planning past 2020 in North Dakota to recovering from 2011 tornado damage in Tuscaloosa. Each has its own site with its own name, based on the MindMixer template and headed up by an official source, be it the city or an agency hired by the city. And the results can be impressive. According to Bowden, after Fargo held an initial meeting to update its city plan in which about 30 people showed up, the site went live and drew in hundreds of participants, whose numbers were reflected in subsequent meetings.
Kansas City’s BNIM Architects have been using MindMixer for their projects, which are split between regular improvement plans and disaster recovery. Director of Planning Stephen Hardy says participation is "a whole order of magnitude larger than ever before." After the May 2010 flooding in Nashville, 420 users went onto the BNIM-moderated site and fielded 165 ideas. Hardy says that for BNIM, which has been working on disaster projects since 1993, the boost in participation since they started using MindMixer has been significant. "People would participate but it never quite reached its potential until we used a crowd-sourced approach," he says.
Bowden doesn't necessarily think that a point-system and mayoral lunch dates are what drive people to participate, though. "More than anything it drives deeper engagement once people sign up. It keeps them interested beyond the content that's presented," he says. Then again, there was a scoreboard in Pac-Man for a reason. "Naturally, we all like to be rewarded through recognition and tangible items for our good efforts. The points model does this, it makes known that you are a top contributor to your community."
Disasters and transit plans aside, Bowden hopes MindMixer becomes a necessary complement to those meatspace meetings with their tricky scheduling and weird coffee. He sees it as more than just a game you beat once, but one with many missions. "The engagement doesn’t have to be episodic," he says, "it can be continuous."
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