NationSwell 2017 AllStars

Participatory Budgeting Goes High-Tech in the Big Easy

September 29, 2017
by
In partnership with
Participatory Budgeting Goes High-Tech in the Big Easy
Jessica Rosgaard, Emrys Eller, Thomas Shomaker
Call this mobile game the Candy Crush for democracy.

New Orleans has made significant strides since Hurricane Katrina battered the city’s neighborhoods in 2005. Since then, it’s brought back its main industry — tourism— and older areas, including Faubourg Marigny and Tremé have become new again.

But long-time residents, who witnessed billions of post-Katrina dollars go to waste on poorly executed recovery and cleanup efforts in some of the hardest hit areas like the Lower Ninth Ward, are wary about how the government spends money.

“No matter what the dollar amount was, if the house next to you is still vacant and blighted and your street light still doesn’t work and your street still has potholes, it just doesn’t matter,” says Kelsey Foster, campaign manager for the Committee for a Better New Orleans. “That kind of translated into, ‘There’s money coming into town. I don’t see it happening on my block.’”

To increase civic participation and build interest in how government budgets, Foster created the Big Easy Budget Game, a multi-platform application that lets people suggest w much money the government should be spending and on what.

“We believe in the idea that cities work better when the people who live in them have a say in how they work. We believe that every New Orleanian has a voice, and every voice should be heard,” Foster says. “And so we’re here just to make sure that no matter what the issue is — whether we’re talking about the city budget or we’re talking about water management or paving streets — we think that the community needs to be consulted and that they know what’s best.”

The game is simple: Players log in and see a couple dozen white cups on the screen representing various spending allocations, as well as a finite number of red beans (a tip-of-the-hat to the local food staple, red beans n’ rice). Each bean represents $1 million dollars, and players choose where the beans go, be it rodent removal or civil service jobs. The results are tallied and used to inform budget meetings and local activists on how residents feel money should be spent.

“What is surprising is how off we are in regards to the priorities that are coming up from the ground, and then where the budget and the resources are being allocated,” says Latoya Cantrell, a New Orleans city councilwoman. “So one example could be youth and families, right? We spend about 3 percent of our budget on youth and families, but clearly, from the game [we see] our residents want more resources going toward youth and families.”

Before migrating online in 2016, the Big Easy Budget Game started as a physical game two years prior with actual red beans and cups. But from a data perspective, red beans are messy. They can break and manually counting them can result in a higher margin of error.

“It took forever,” Foster says, laughing.

So a digital version of the game was created.

In addition to desktop, The Big Easy Budget Game is available on mobile, which is beneficial to low-income communities, including those living of the Lower Ninth Ward who may want to offer their suggestions, but don’t access to a computer or broadband

Volunteers are also available to sit down with community members in neighborhoods with high illiteracy rates and walk them through the game.

The game is now being modeled and used by two other U.S. cities, says Foster.

“Our hope very much is that our next city council and our next mayor will really take to heart citizen participation and community involvement and come to us first and talk to us,” she says. “If we don’t start [the conversation] now, we’ll never get there.”

The 2017 AllStars program is produced in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and celebrates social entrepreneurs who are powering solutions with innovative technology. Visit NationSwell.com/AllStars from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2 to vote for your favorite AllStar. The winner will receive the Tech Impact Award, a $10,000 grant to help further his or her work advocating for change.

 

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