Features

XXVI.6 November - December 2019
Page: 40
Digital Citation

E-gora: Online Communities for Cities


Authors:
Andre de Oliveira Bueno, Junia Anacleto

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In ancient Greek city-states, the people would choose a public space to discuss the management of the city. This place was called the agora, which literally means gathering place or assembly. Back then, agoras were the center of the athletic, artistic, commercial, spiritual, and political life of the city.

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This model of city governance supported by the agoras was known as direct democracy, where citizens (adult men from Greece) proposed and voted for city-management strategies. However, as cities started becoming bigger, they went from cities of neighbors (small cities) to cities of strangers (big cities). Communication between citizens became a problem: the larger the population, the weaker the ties between residents.

back to top  Insights

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In this scenario a gap emerged, where someone was needed to coordinate citizen communication and make decisions on their behalf when necessary. Since then, government has been playing that role, changing the previous horizontal model to a top-down urban system in which citizens tend not to participate in city management, but rather follow and obey whatever the politicians decide for them. In this way, direct democracy was replaced by representative democracy. This type of government faces constant complaints from citizens, especially in underdeveloped countries, where corruption among leaders has become commonplace. This model of governance also discourages citizen participation in city management.

With the advent of the Internet and the popularization of mobile devices, communication is no longer a problem. It has become easier and faster for citizens to inform themselves about politics and, when necessary, to strike back at the actions that politicians are taking on their behalf. Year after year, we are more connected, especially through the use of online social networks (OSN), for which the number of users has been constantly growing, now more than 3 billion [1]. At the same time, we have seen a big effort from many cities around the world to improve city management using technology—the so-called smart city. On the bright side, technology and the Internet are powerful tools with the potential to significantly improve city management and, consequently, the quality of citizen life. On the other hand, we’ve seen a number of smart-city projects fail, such as Dholera in India, Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, and Songdo in South Korea. These failures suggest underlying challenges in the concept of smart cities, as they often forget about citizens, community, and the organic context of urban spaces. Communities are the human, emotional, and cultural nodes of the complex system of systems that make up a city [2]. Many smart-city technological solutions are in fact a package of electronic systems that companies put together looking to profit from the urgent need we have to find solutions for creating a viable future for us on the planet. They tend to incorporate a whole city into a proprietary hardware solution for a lifetime, empowering top-down urban governance and urban bureaucrats, affecting citizens’ rights and freedom of speech and participation in democratic politics—not always in positive ways.

In the past few years, there have been a number of articles in this magazine discussing the merging of technology and civic engagement, what Patrick Olivier and Peter Wright call digital civics [3]. They talk about bringing citizens to the design process of technological solutions for cities—putting them in the center, as happens in the user-centered design approach used in software development. There are other proposals for citizen involvement in the management of cities (e.g., [4]), but they have not yet progressed past the point of identifying problems or providing a theoretical framework to inspire software development.

We argue that a smart city needs smart citizens, with smart referring to the sensing of community thoughts, structures, and impact with regard to social consequences. City administration in general needs a more anthropocentric social-economic-political perspective, ensuring the city meets the needs of present and future generations. The emancipation of citizens requires measurement systems that feed into the decision framework so that citizens can be counted. A social network can therefore be a form of community smart sensing for empowering and engaging citizens. Achieving citizen engagement on a large scale requires technology-supported social instrumentation and measurement systems to gather social telemetry tuned to smart city infrastructure. In essence, a smart city needs a smart community formed by connected smart citizens.

Our research targets leveraging and supporting a smart community, as we believe this is a key factor for the success of long-term smart city solutions. Our vision: For a city to become truly smart, there must be another layer of technological support over the smart city. As seen in Figure 1, we use a tree to represent our Digital Community Ecosystem (DCE) [5] for cities of the future.

ins03.gif Figure 1. The Digital Community Ecosystem is a community-centric management approach for sustainable cities of the future.

In the Digital Community Ecosystem tree, the roots represent the basic technological systems for electricity transmission and distribution of energy in a smart grid—the anchor and energy source for the tree. In the trunk are the smart city systems that manage city resources and services, delivering the sap to the crown. In the crown we have the leaves—the citizens—that with sunlight and air can convert sap into energy for the tree. The smart citizen systems, connected to each other by the technological branches to support life in a smart community, bring life, energy, and vitality to the whole smart-citizen system. This system instruments the citizens, who receive services and information, transforming it into a way of life in a digital ecosystem that will impact the governance model of the production and consumption of resources. Smart community systems bring technology to support citizen bonds, awareness, and engagement in the management of their city, adding the necessary element of sustainability to the whole smart city concept. The result of such connections between the crown and the trunk will be the tree bearing fruit and seeds (satisfaction and a sense of belonging), which attract birds and bees for pollination and communication with other trees (a repeatable model). A smart community would therefore allow the smart city to become sustainable.


It has become easier and faster for citizens to inform themselves about politics and, when necessary, to strike back at the actions that politicians are taking on their behalf.


We’ve been working since 2011 to transform the smart community concept into a feasible practice by running a Facebook group experiment in a town of 21,400 inhabitants in Brazil [6]. We use data gathered by users to develop our theoretical framework to support building such smart communities, which we named E-goras in allusion to the extinct agoras. A Facebook group was chosen because they have been broadly adopted and already provide some initial support for all four elements of a smart community: strengthening, socialization, public expression, and civic engagement (Figure 1). Support functions include:

  • Message exchange
  • Non-ephemeral posts
  • Free to use
  • 24/7 availability
  • Accessible to anyone with an account
  • Familiar to many
  • Allows posting text, pictures, and videos
  • Provides two views, one for members and one for group administration (GA), which facilitates the management process
  • Is scalable
  • Has a feature to pin posts similar to a news board, which allows the GA to highlight important information
  • Allows users to privately communicate with the GA whenever needed and vice-versa.

We believe other software platforms could be used to create a smart community, but none of them are totally supportive of smart communities as of yet. The Facebook group platform itself does not offer enough to ensure the formation of an E-gora, since it has a number of problems that still require solutions. These include:

  • Join requests from people not connected to the city
  • Aggressive marketing
  • Overwhelming number of posts with content not related to the city
  • Bullying and threats
  • Political propaganda.

These extreme behaviors lead to the disruption of the community and dilute the focus on citizenship and civic commitment, which in turn tend to lead to the failure of the community.

These issues inspired us to create governance guidelines to support the creation and management of E-goras. The guidelines were compiled and are presented in a model we call the Group Governance Model (GGM), shown in Table 1.

ins04.gif Table 1. The Group Governance Model.

As presented in guideline 8, an E-gora needs some rules, which can vary according to the community’s perspective, aiming at guaranteeing the four elements of the smart community (Figure 1). They should always be on display to the group members and organized as both restrictive rules (what is not allowed in the group) and expansive rules (what would be supported by the group). They are applied on a daily basis by the GA, who is responsible for dealing with members who don’t respect them. For each rule there is a procedure to be followed, such as: The GA removes a post and sends a private message to the author with a standard text explaining that s/he broke group rule number X, explaining the consequences (restrictive rule) and what the citizen can do to avoid breaking the rule again (expansive rule) in future posts. These strategies go beyond the current technological support provided by the Facebook groups tool, requiring the GA to manually perform a number of tasks concerning community governance. Such procedures still demand strong engagement with the group from the GA.

To gauge the success of our approach, in February 2019 we posted a questionnaire; 120 group members answered it, out of which:

  • 80 percent said they live in the city and 16 percent either were born in the city or have lived in it. Only 4 percent answered that they have another connection to the city.
  • 94 percent said the city inhabitants are aware of the existence of our Facebook group.
  • 95.2 percent said our group has the most impact in the city out of all the Facebook groups and WhatsApp groups in which they participate.
  • 64 percent believe the group represents the city in the virtual world.
  • 86.7 percent said they know the group’s rules.
  • 90 percent said the group’s rules are important to keep it working.
  • 75.8 percent said the group is succeeding well in helping its members.
  • 72.5 percent believe the group influences its members somehow.
  • 68.3 percent said the group helps in solving city problems.
  • 58.3 percent said the group is making them more interested in city management/politics.
  • 98.3 percent said they feel free to post anything in the group at any time they want.
  • 76.7 percent said the group has a good administration.
  • 69 percent said the group’s administration is impartial.

Figure 2 shows how members interact with the group.

ins05.gif Figure 2. Types of members present in the group.

As you can see, observance of the rules cultivates credibility and trust among members, who recognize the group’s sense of fairness. We believe such perception helps in attracting the city’s authorities, schools, hospitals, local commerce/industry establishment, politicians, unions, and non-governmental organizations. Due to the social capital the group has acquired over the years, even the city-hall press officer makes mayoral announcements in the group and replies on a daily basis to complaints and suggestions for the city.

The acceptance of the group in the town is very expressive, with 19,737 members (the city has 21,400 inhabitants), 56 percent female and 44 percent male, out of whom, on average, per day:

  • 7, 000 access the group
  • 10 new members join the group
  • 100 create new posts
  • 500 comment on posts
  • 1,000 react to posts.

The main topics posted are those related to daily city life and some type of commerce, as shown in Figure 3.

ins06.gif Figure 3. Result of a content analysis performed in the group on the 330 posts with the most comments and the 330 posts that received the most reactions, resulting in 557 posts (103 of them appear in both groups). Posts ranging from the group’s inception until 05/16/2017 were analyzed.

This is ongoing research focused on refining the guidelines as well as defining new ones derived from our daily observations in the wild. Next, we will explore the software layers needed on current social network platforms for them to be supportive of smart communities. Finally, at the end of this research, our goal is to present a more mature proposal to support building E-goras, allowing the DCE to help with connecting a smart community to a smart city and smart grid systems, bringing longevity to the so-envisioned smart cities.

back to top  Conclusion

As presented in this article, managing citizen participation in city administration through the use of the Internet is not easy. However, results from our experiment are encouraging and, despite the remaining challenges, we believe the first steps toward E-goras are in progress. We hope the readers of Interactions from different research/market areas will be inspired to join us in finding solutions for such problems, culminating in a more democratic world, indeed.

back to top  References

1. Kemp, S. Special Reports: Digital in 2018: World’s internet users pass the 4 billion mark. We Are Social. Oct. 2, 2018; https://wearesocial.com/blog/2018/01/global-digital-report-2018

2. Kanter, R.M. and Litow, S.S. Informed and interconnected: A manifesto for smarter cities. Harvard Business School, Boston, MA, 2009.

3. Olivier, P. and Wright, P. Digital civics: Taking a local turn. Interactions 22, 4 (2015), 61–63.

4. Han, K., Shih, P.C., Beth Rosson, M. and Carroll, J.M. Understanding local community attachment, engagement and social support networks mediated by mobile technology. Interacting with Computers 28, 3 (2014), 220–237.

5. Bueno, A.D.O. From smart cities to social cities: Technology to support community life. Proc. of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2016, 198–202.

6. Bueno, A.O. and Anacleto, J.C. Creating and supporting virtual communities. Proc. of International Conference on Social Computing and Social Media. Springer, 2017, 289–306.

back to top  Authors

Andre de Oliveira Bueno is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Computer Science at Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil. He was an international student at MAGIC, UBC (2013–2014 and 2017–2018). His research focuses on HCI, with the research topics: smart cities, socialization, and online communities. andre.obueno@dc.ufscar.br

Junia Coutinho Anacleto is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Federal University of São Carlos. She is the coordinator of the Advanced Interaction Laboratory (LIA), where she does research in human-computer interaction focused mainly on culturally contextualized software development, third places, wearables, and urban computing. junia@dc.ufscar.br

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