IST researchers use tech to empower local citizens

UNICERSITY PARK, Pa. — Today, technology touches almost every aspect of people’s lives. But outside of social media, it can often be difficult to translate this influence to a person’s civic life within their local community. “In a sense, we’re all facing this problem with government that people are less and less involved and empowered in local decision-making,” said Guoray Cai, associate professor in the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST).

In response, Cai and a group of student researchers have developed the Geodeliberation Project, an effort to increase civic engagement and provide actionable feedback to municipal officials aided by online tools. “There’s something missing in the [current municipal government] process. As a researcher, we want to use information technology to broaden this local participation,” Cai explained.

Funded by the National Science Foundation in 2012, the project has been in collaboration with the State College borough to tackle several issues key to local residents. Currently, it involves a proposal to implement an annual, automatic, inflation-based property tax increase.

The project begins with an in-person meeting, where interested citizens hear from experts on the issue and receive a wide range of information concerning the proposal. Then, the issue is deliberated in an online forum. As a result, the borough council is presented with a “final citizen’s statement,” the culmination of their interactive and substantive discussion. Cai said, “The borough takes that into their decision-making, and it truly has an impact [on their vote].”

Cai’s research team includes two undergraduate students, IST senior Sarah Moore and recent Security and Risk Analysis (SRA) graduate Michael Thomas, along with IST graduate student Feng Sul. “The NSF values undergraduate participation,” Cai said. “They want undergraduates to get involved, to get a taste of the research process.”

“The Geodeliberation project caught my attention because of its ability to increase engagement with State College residents,” Moore said. “My favorite thing about the project is that it has broadened my knowledge in politics and government decision-making at a local level.”

Cai and his team believe that the change needs to begin on a community level, but hopes this project could influence ones around the country on a larger scale. Cai noted, “The [purpose of this] grant encourages people to look at social problems and challenges and how technology can address those problems. This can become a powerful tool for democracy.”

Cai hopes the next event, scheduled for March 25, broadens the participation in the project. “The idea is that we can get more opinions expressed, and it will be representative of the general public. It’s meaningful for our community, but it’s also meaningful for our research.”

“The borough will make the decision on this tax later this year and the public input will influence that decision,” Cai said. On a larger scale, Moore hopes that the “deliberation in the community will lead to a more engaged citizen base.”

Interested individuals living in the State College Borough can sign up to participate here.

Media Contacts: 

Erin Cassidy Hendrick

Communications Strategist, Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering

Last Updated March 28, 2017