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Citizen-inspired e-government for 'thin-skinned' cities

Three European city councils have joined forces to develop a new citizen-inspired tool that will increase the responsiveness of city services to user needs.

E-government is the ‘in’ thing and a growing number of public services can now be delivered online. A major challenge faced, however, is how to get citizens more involved in public life and encourage greater interaction between the public sector and the man in the street.

Three city authorities – Dublin, Helsinki and Barcelona – decided to get together to develop a new tool aimed primarily at improving citizen involvement in civic affairs and increasing the responsiveness of local services.

“All three cities already had special projects underway aimed at ‘e-enabling’ certain parts of the city and were working closely with local universities to achieve this aim,” says John Donovan, the project coordinator. “[But] we decided to join forces, along with a number of private companies, to develop a set of tools aimed specifically at facilitating citizen communication.”

Giving citizens a voice
The EU-funded ICiNG project was the result. Its platform and a range of services were launched at a conference of European City Administrations held in Barcelona, Spain, in June 2008.

“These are citizen-based tools, designed by citizens and for citizens, but that can also be accessed by city authorities in order to improve their services,” Donovan tells ICT Results after the launch.

The consortium behind the project set out to research new concepts of e-government based on a multi-modal, multi-access approach a so-called “thin-skinned city” – one that is sensitive to the needs of its citizens and to the local environment.

One of the first steps was to approach local community groups to determine real needs and preferred means of communication. The ICiNG platform provides more opportunities for citizens to influence the decision-making process and develop a shared understanding of city issues. It should also contribute to community building in city environments and go some way towards reducing the ‘democratic deficit’.

Easy integration and multi-modal access
Access to the ICiING tools is enabled through multiple devices (home computer, portable hand-held devices or mobile phones, environmental sensors) and at different levels. The intelligent infrastructure developed makes it possible to have both a public administration services layer and a ‘Communities’ layer.

One of the main components of the platform is the Urban Mediator software which enables communities to mediate local, location-based discussions, activities and information. UM uses interactive maps to represent local information and provides a set of tools for users to process, share and organise this information.

City administrations interested in using ICiNG’s tools benefit from an “invisible” communications platform which can be easily integrated within the existing information and communication structure.

“One of the concerns for administrations is that they do not want to dismantle their existing communications infrastructure. [Our] platform can be simply ‘wrapped around’ the existing structure to provide an extra service layer. This limits the costs involved in implementing it,” points out Donovan.

The consortium has also published what it calls its ‘ICiNG Cook Book’, a recipe for becoming an ICiNG city, which explains in detail how the platform works and what advantages cities can gain from implementing it.

Building the ‘sensitive’ city
Thanks to the collection of important feedback from citizens, ICiING hopes to contribute to the development of the ‘sensitive’ city, where response to citizen needs is improved and citizen input into local projects is efficiently integrated into final plans. Pilot projects are being implemented in the three participating cities in various areas.

In Barcelona, a combination of blue-tooth environmental sensors and citizen feedback are being used to monitor the traffic flow in a specific area of the city in order to gather information for a new traffic flow plan.

In Dublin, citizens are being asked to participate in the city’s accessibility audit, aimed at identifying areas where access may be difficult for handicapped or disabled persons. Using the ICiING platform, citizens can take photos of problem spots with their mobile phones and send them in to the city authorities with a comment. The platform can then organise the information received on the map interface, making it easy for city planners to access.

Similarly, the platform is being used to deliver improved citizen services. It will, for example, enable residents to report bins that need collecting. Residents need simply take a photo of the special plaque on the bin in question and send it (or simply the code) in to the city authorities. The platform will automatically locate the exact position of the bin and someone will be sent to deal with the request.

The potential application areas are very wide and the ICiING platform is expected to attract the attention of many other European cities keen to improve citizen participation.

ICiNG was funded by the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for research.

Christian Nielsen | alfa
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