It’s frustrating to feel like you don’t have an easy way to tell your elected officials what you think about various topics. But in Brooklyn, one graduate student is using a simpler method to help connect residents with local leaders and community organizations.
Earlier this year, Asher Novek created HeartGov, a texting platform that enables citizens to send a text to a private website that alerts government officials and community groups, who then can strike up a chat over questions or concerns.
“There’s something that’s different about getting a text message than an email,” Novek said. “It’s more personal, more conversational, like getting a response from friend or from family member.”
Texts messages are displayed as they are received and then organized by issue, urgency level and phone number, according to HeartGov’s site. Community leaders then answer questions through the site, which then sends out a response via text message, consolidating the conversation into a single SMS chat.
Novek hatched the idea as a part of his master’s thesis at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and began testing the service in March. He selected Brooklyn’s Flatbush, Crown Heights, Midwood and Prospect Heights neighborhoods to implement his tool because he felt they had lower levels of community engagement than other areas of Brooklyn.
Residents outside the zone can send in a text, but responses will come from local leaders in the selected areas. Some participants include Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Council member Jumaane Williams, Community Board 14, Midwood Development Corporation, Flatbush Development Corporation, Flatbush Junction Business Improvement District and the nonprofit Heights and Hills, which serves Brooklyn’s elder residents.
Though the tool’s purpose seems a bit nebulous, Novek said he purposely created it to be open-ended, serving as an experiment for what residents might use it for. Envisioning it as a cross between 311 and Change.org, the platform is meant to encourage residents to inquire about anything from reporting potholes to requesting information on local public schools.
While more cities continue to march toward bringing locals online, Novek is aiming to reach the underserved population who are still on the other side of the digital divide. As of last year, an estimated 20 percent of Americans did not use Internet at home.
HeartGov was inspired by other simple mobile-based tools around the world, Novek said. He points to such examples as Ushahidi, a data management system that collected citizen reports on the ground via text message during Kenya’s 2007 election, as well as UNICEF’s U-report, which promotes social mobilization and enables users to take surveys through text message. But in the U.S., Novek contends, developers skimmed over this type of tool to focus on web-based technology instead.
While he’s not certain of HeartGov’s future, Novek hopes to continue experimenting with how residents will leverage the tool to earn small wins. Ultimately, however, he wishes for big gains when it comes to community engagement.