Engage Omaha creates virtual town hall

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May 26th, 2011

Lincoln, NE – 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. The site was created by a small Omaha web company called MindMixer. NET News’ 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. To hear the full interview with Bowden, click here.

Nick Bowden is the co-founder of Engage Omaha, a website created as a "virtual town hall" where Omaha residents can voice opinions and share ideas for a new, improved city. (Photo courtesy Engage Omaha)

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.

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.

Engage Omaha includes an "Ideas Implemented" section which will track ideas submitted by users that are picked up by the Mayor's office. (Photo courtesy Engage Omaha)

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.

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