Getting Engaged and Connected: Lessons from Somerville

This is a picture of a street sign that says "Somerville"

How did you get involved in your local community?  Well for me, it was my grocery store closing.  I walked into Johnnie’s Foodmaster and was greeted with “STORE CLOSING” signs everywhere.  West Somerville would be without a grocery store for at least half a year or more.  I’ve lived in Somerville for about a year and half now and despite trying to keep up with what is going on locally, our grocery store abruptly closing came to me as a surprise.  I wanted to get connected with people who dealt with issues like this or at least had more information for me.  I got onto the city’s website and started looking into various meetings that were going on pertaining to issues and projects in the city.  All cities and neighborhoods have issues, what struck me was that Somerville really seemed to have a unique way of utilizing the internet in tackling those issues.

Having an online presence seems to have shifted from being a badge of honor to being increasingly necessary.  With an online presence one has the opportunity for something important, access.  For the private sector this has changed the way companies and consumers approach each other, but this is also true for the public sector.  

This is not to imply that the internet includes everyone by any means.  In 2011, the Pew Research Institute ran a survey to analyze the state of the digital divide in the United States. The study found that one of five Americans do not use the internet.  Older adults, individuals who do not comfortably speak English, individuals with disabilities, people living with a lower income or education levels were among some of the people who did not have access to this online conversation.  

I had the opportunity to sit down with a city official to discuss how a small city government, like Somerville, is utilizing the internet to engage the community.  As a new resident of Somerville, Massachusetts outside of Boston, I have been very impressed by its unique approach to having a meaningful and purposeful conversation with its residents by its use of new media.  I sat down with Denise Taylor the New Media Manager and ResiStat Coordinator for the City of Somerville to get a basic overview of the city is trying to do.

A few years ago the city took on an initiative called SomerStat (Somerville Statistics), which was an internally focused decision making tool for the city.  This tool brought rise to ResiStat (Resident Statistics), which serves as the city’s “effort to bring data-driven discussions and decision-making to residents and promote civic engagement via the internet and regular community meetings.”   As of 2012, Somerville has also launched a major open data cloud based resource that is available to the public.  Residents can access the status of different incidents or issues that have been recorded and see how the city is going about handling them.  This offers transparency for the residents but more importantly enables the city to function strategically because more people are on the same page.  More people are engaged in the conversation.

The internet serves as a space for the city to quickly engage and access real data, but also to distribute information in a meaningful way.  The city’s intention behind social media is not to serve as an online bulletin board for residents but for the internet to serve as a space for conversation and civic engagement.

The data that is found online is then used at ResiStat community meetings in each of the city’s wards.  It is in these meetings that residents and key city officials are able to engage with one another about various community issues.  Denise said, “If these meetings were just about a lot of data and information no one would come.  It has moved from being just about data to a full-fledged community solving initiative.”  

The approach that the City of Somerville is using is unique but similar to Social Capital Inc.’s organizational approach.  Some of the key similar threads that I saw were:


There is value to being open.

This applies to the internet but also to SCI and Somerville’s emphasis on getting people connected to one another.  The internet is a great space for people to connect to information that they may not otherwise have.  SCI and Somerville also work to bring people together in person as to build residents’ connections to one another and to increase their engagement in the issues affecting the community.  

Social media is a two-way street

Social media does not need to be an online version of a bulletin board.  Social media is an opportunity to connect people to each other in ways that they haven’t been able to before. Cities and organizations can have a conversation with community members instead of approaching and addressing issues without the input of the community.

Information can drive engagement.

Information is key to giving all stakeholders the full picture as to what is going on in a community.  It is also the driving force in helping to get everyone on the same page so that communities can become engaged in the issues that our communities face.  

Cities, organizations, and people are re-envisioning ways for people to connect to one another.  I looked to the city because I was upset about losing my local grocery store; while it will still be some time before we gain access to a new grocery store, my perspective has changed.  I am no longer just affected by the closing of the grocery store (or any issue for that matter), I am connected to it.  I am engaged.  Through these new avenues we are able to have a constant flow of community solutions and innovations.  The question is shifting from “How are you affected?” to “How are you connected?”.