XX.6 November + December 2013
Page: 27
Digital Citation

Empowerment through community crime-prevention technologies

Sheena Erete

Statistics suggest that crime is steadily decreasing across the U.S. However, we have recently witnessed some of the most horrific acts of violence in American history. These incidents have led to various conversations about violence prevention. On the national level, the focus is on policy, particularly laws regarding gun control. Conversations at the local level, on the other hand, focus on broader crime-prevention strategies such as increasing police effectiveness, improving community engagement, and creating after-school programs for at-risk youth. These discussions present a unique opportunity for human-computer interaction (HCI) researchers and designers to be at the forefront of describing the role of technology in crime prevention.

HCI researchers have traditionally approached crime prevention as an opportunity to change behavior by providing individuals with information to prevent victimization. For example, HCI scholars have developed mobile crime maps that indicate areas of the city where users feel safe or not [1]. Designing information and communication technologies (ICTs) for the individual is important; however, it does not address the institutional inequalities embedded in social, economic, and political infrastructures that affect crime (e.g., poverty, unemployment, educational opportunities, housing). For instance, in Chicago (like in most major cities), violent crime is disproportionately prevalent in low-income neighborhoods. Many of the inequalities that influence crime are perpetuated by local policies, which have been mostly shaped by groups with political power. Studies suggest the economic status of a group has an impact on their political power; the poor have not traditionally had as much political power to influence policies that have direct effects on their health, safety, and educational opportunities. Consequently, much of public policy around violence prevention has been created without the full participation of disenfranchised communities that disproportionately experience violent crime. However, in the past few years, technology has played an integral role in promoting civil liberties for people of various socioeconomic backgrounds across the world. This presents an opportunity for HCI researchers to address questions regarding the role of technology in crime prevention and how best to design ICTs that support community action toward crime as well as local policy.

As opposed to designing technologies to modify the behavior of a potential victim, crime prevention should be approached as an opportunity to design technologies that support local, public effort to confront crime. Toward this end, for the past three years, I’ve investigated how low-income communities with high crime rates use technology to address crime, and the degree to which online communication affects offline behavior. This approach has led to a deeper understanding of how technology use can support civic participation and influence broader political, social, and economic infrastructures. One aspect of this work suggests that citizens use technology to leverage their political power to affect local policies among law enforcement, local government officials, and city agencies. These policies range from increasing police presence and allocating public resources to demolishing abandoned buildings. Results indicate that technology can empower community residents when they are actively participating in structured deliberative governance processes by facilitating accountability, visibility, and participation. As HCI researchers and designers, we must consider the broader ecological infrastructures that affect social issues. Furthermore, we must go beyond considering how technology impacts “horizontal” social capital (i.e., how citizens communicate and share with each other) and instead explore the role of technology in supporting “vertical” social capital (i.e., how citizens use the political power of the collective to influence change).

Empowered Participation in Chicago

This project was not initially aimed at studying political engagement. The goal instead was to understand the role of technology in supporting citizens’ grassroots efforts in crime prevention. Often, community residents attempted to address issues they felt were within their control (e.g., neighborhood cleanups, safe passage from school to home for neighborhood children) by engaging in collective action. Residents used technology to organize their shared efforts with local churches and other reputable community organizations. Yet there were many issues they could not directly tackle, such as demolishing abandoned buildings and increasing the number of police officers. For such issues, residents voiced their concerns to city officials during the community-police meetings. I observed these meetings and found that residents used email lists, Web forums, and social media to not only discuss their concerns with each other but also to leverage their political power (i.e., vertical capital) during these in-person meetings.

In his book Empowered Participation: Reinventing Urban Democracy, Archon Fung describes how Chicago residents participated in monthly meetings with police and educators. He argues that residents were able to influence change by engaging in decision-making processes with city officials and law enforcement agencies. Fung’s work provides an example of what participatory governance looked like in practice during the late 1990s and offers a relatively optimistic outlook of the power that residents have in influencing their circumstances. Fung suggests that “accountable autonomy,” a hybrid of independence and transparent responsibility for government agencies, has the best impact on residents’ ability to participate in local governance about issues such as crime. Essentially, Fung found that residents were empowered by participating in the meeting due to the structure of the in-person meetings. Fifteen years later, the ICTs further empowered residents by improving how they hold city officials accountable, increasing visibility and enhancing methods of participation. Accountability, visibility, and participation are essential design elements to support community engagement with local government.


Improving Accountability

Accountability is essential to participatory governance. Local residents must have ways of making sure government officials adhere to their promises. In Chicago, community-police meetings have long been an opportunity for residents to do just that. Residents use technology to deliberate upon the most important issues (and sometimes solutions) and state these issues during the in-person meetings with the police, thus influencing the in-person-meeting agendas. They then use the technology to document the agreed-upon solutions between the community and police and use these documents to follow up with law enforcement, asking if specific tasks have been completed.

Though Fung also found that residents held the police officers accountable, technology adds a different dimension, because it provides residents an opportunity for online discussions among themselves without government influence. These conversations subsequently affect the topics addressed at the in-person meetings. Furthermore, it provides an opportunity to document and trace action items electronically in systems not directly connected to the government agency that made the promise. Residents voiced high distrust for certain government organizations, so having a system that was not linked to or accessed by the government agency was preferred when holding officials accountable. Those designing technology to support citizen engagement should consider the degree to which accountability is most effectively achieved in communities’ existing political structures.

Heightening Visibility

In addition to accountability, citizens often use their visibility to persuade city officials to address their concerns. Disapproval from citizens can be problematic for politicians, particularly those seeking reelection. Thus, citizens may feel their concerns are more likely to be addressed if politicians are under pressure from their constituents. ICTs have been a way to easily access those constituents and disseminate information about the state of the community. Specifically, residents created email lists and Web forums to connect with other residents about local issues. As time went on, more and more people joined the electronic mailing lists to receive resident-generated, community-based information. As the number of people on the lists increased, citizens stated that they received better responses from city officials and law enforcement agencies during the in-person meetings. Residents attributed the improved response to the fact that city officials recognized widespread citizen concern about issues that were discussed on the forum, even if only one person was stating the concern at the in-person meeting. Therefore, future work should explore how technology can influence non-users’ perception and the subsequent effect that perception may have on the topic.

Though the initial purpose of the citizen-based email lists and Web forums was to share information and have discussions about neighborhood issues, the technology also increased the visibility of the community’s concerns with city officials. In low-income minority communities, members of the neighborhood email list and Web forums were anonymous. The names were available to only one or two trusted residents because of fear of retaliation and lack of trust in police and city officials, both phenomena that have been extensively studied by social scientists. Tools that support citizen action and engagement must have features that account for the historical context of and power dynamic between specific communities and government entities. Furthermore, we should design ICTs that are not only mindful of issues of trust but also sustainable. For example, what happens when the few trusted individuals are unable to be the liaison between the government agency and the community? ICTs that support civic participation in governance must address issues of trust and sustainability, which may be unique to the social atmosphere of the targeted communities.

Additionally, we should consider the extent to which visibility matters, as well as best practices to showcase visibility to non-users without jeopardizing the trust of the users. Do city officials care when they don’t know how many people (and who) are on the list? Residents explained that by not knowing who is on the list, the alderman and other city officials do not know the number of residents (horizontal social capital), nor do they know if anyone with political connections is on the list (vertical social capital). For instance, after an employee of the state attorney’s office mentioned receiving messages on the community’s Web forum during a city meeting, residents reported that their alderman began responding more promptly to their requests. In this case, ambiguity of the community’s reach through ICTs seemed to encourage locally elected city officials to give them higher priority. Local officials do not want to be the subject of virtual community discussions regarding their alleged neglect, especially if those conversations have the ability to reach a large number of voters. Essentially, ambiguity may be beneficial in ICTs to support civic engagement in governance. Thus, we are challenged with designing technologies that support the visibility necessary for communities to leverage their political power, but that also maintain anonymity due to fear of retaliation and distrust of the government. By designing for both visibility and anonymity, we can create technologies that are effective at community crime prevention and that address the power differentials of the political contexts.

Diversifying Methods of Participation

There are numerous barriers to attending in-person community meetings, such as having a second job or being a single parent who needs to be home in the evenings. Some Chicago residents felt that they had to be physically present at the in-person meetings in order for their concerns to be heard by law enforcement. Technology can help address such barriers to participation. There is much HCI research that focuses on technology use for remote interaction in the workplace, but little work has studied the role of technology in facilitating remote civic participation in the context of local participatory governance. The grassroots use of social media and other online communication applications has the ability to support remote civic engagement. Residents, for example, shared their opinions about the contents of the meeting agenda and later followed up on the results from the meeting. Furthermore, numerous residents stated that they enjoy receiving community-police-meeting minutes via online websites that they already frequented.

While my work provides examples of how communities appropriate existing technologies (e.g., email, Web forums, social media), there were many issues, such as trust, transparency, and privacy, that the technologies did not address, which arose as a result of the sensitive relationship between government organizations and low-income communities. As technologists, we have a unique opportunity to design innovative systems that foster civic participation in neighborhoods to align with the specific political atmosphere. We must think critically about what defines participation versus engagement, and how that shifts the existing power structures. Imagine community technologies that clarify the political process and identify the best method of participation to enact change. Such technologies could, for example, alert citizens when it is essential to be physically present at a meeting versus signing a petition to show support. In one of the communities, neighbors petitioned that a convenience store be investigated as having “deleterious impact” on the community by supporting local gang activity and narcotics sales. Closing a business that is a nuisance to the community is an extremely difficult process involving city officials and numerous meetings during the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday. Though there was a lot of support to rid the neighborhood of the store, as evidenced by the numerous people who signed the petition, the community’s complaint was dismissed because not enough people attended a meeting at City Hall (at 10 a.m. on a weekday, when people are working). Technology could provide a clear understanding of the sometimes murky political process by deciphering when it is essential to actively, rather than passively, participate. There are many avenues of future research to not only keep people informed, but also provoke a strong sense of participation in the deliberative governance process.

Empowered, Really?

While optimistic that technology can be used to influence local participatory governance, I am also realistic about the limitations. First, technology did not increase political power. Instead, it provided an opportunity for residents to better leverage their existing political power during in-person monthly community-police meetings, which were instituted by the mayor’s office more than 20 years ago. The original purpose of the meetings, which was to establish a partnership between the community and police, has become deeply woven into Chicago residents’ expectations. Without this existing platform for offline participatory governance, it is unclear if the technology would be effective in empowering citizens. Future research should explore how communities that do not already have an established offline structure for participating in local governance use technology to engage local officials. Perhaps a city that lacks in-person monthly meetings with government organizations would yield a different result. Furthermore, ICTs that only allow communities to leverage their existing political power may not be helpful, considering that many low-income neighborhoods may have little political power in the first place. How do we design technology that increases political power?

As HCI researchers and designers, we must consider the broader ecological infrastructures that affect social issues.

Second, it is difficult to measure the actual action of government officials versus the promise of action. As researchers, we must think of ways to operationalize political power. While other scholars have used the voting patterns of city officials as a measure of political power, I operationalized political power by counting the number of times citizens confirmed that government officials had indeed taken action in their neighborhood as promised in previous meetings. However, it is difficult to know if those actions actually took place. For example, residents made an automatic assumption that if known gang members were no longer hanging on a corner, it was a direct result of police action, which may or may not be true. In future work, we should begin thinking about how to effectively measure the action of government agencies as a result of community engagement.

Last, what happens to the communities that don’t use technology? There are some communities where there is no widely used citizen-based technology that has been appropriated for collective use. In fact, two out of the three low-income communities in my study did not identify a communal technology that was widely used by residents. During interviews, residents cited lack of trust and the fear of retaliation as reasons why they would not use an online communication tool to talk to neighbors. They instead relied heavily on the in-person meetings. Are there benefits to in-person civic engagement only? What is the role of community organizations such as churches and community centers in neighborhoods that do less online grassroots organizing? These types of questions provide us with a richer understanding of the social and political factors that contribute to non-technology use beyond the traditional “digital divide” (i.e., lack of access) conclusions.


Crime is an incredibly complex issue that is a great example of the importance of understanding communities’ social and political environments. Though we often design technology to affect the behavior of a user, we must consider the greater ecological implications. What are the barriers to uptake? In Chicago, for example, early adopters appropriated the technologies to share information and support discussions among residents—not in an effort to hold the police accountable to their promises. Yet a subsequent effect of the technology use was that residents began influencing the agenda of in-person meetings by holding the police more accountable, utilizing their heightened visibility, and participating in various ways. As HCI researchers, particularly those who examine social issues (e.g., crime, sustainability, health), we must do more than examine technology’s influence on individual behavior. We must also consider how technology affects the ability of communities (particularly those that are disproportionately touched by challenging social problems) to influence their political, social, and economic circumstances.


1. Blom, J., Viswanathan, D., Spasojevic, M., Go J., Acharya, K., and Ahonius, R. Fear and the city: Role of mobile services in harnessing safety and security in urban use contexts. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2010, 1841–1850.


Sheena L. Erete is an assistant professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University. She received her Ph.D. from Northwestern University and her master’s degree from Georgia Tech. Her research focuses on understanding and designing collaborative technologies that address social issues that disproportionately affect low-income communities

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