Online vs Offline: Does the Method Matter?
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At MindMixer, we’ve always operated under the premise that people want to be involved in making their communities better. That thought manifests itself in what we do. We make it possible for more people to be involved in the discussions that are improving the places where they live. We take the public meeting to you, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on your phone, on your computer, in your pajamas if you like.
We’ve made civic engagement more simple, but we’ve never devalued the power of person-to-person interactions. Rather, we’ve tried to stress the connection between online and offline input; to highlight that mutually-beneficial relationship between virtual and traditional conversations.
But what are the individual roles of online and offline community engagement? What benefits does digital ideation offer? How does it complement the input local leaders are hearing from folks standing at the microphone – and how do those leaders evaluate this new kind of feedback?
Recently MindMixer had the opportunity to work with MIT and the City of Pittsburgh, Pa., to study citizen feedback in traditional public meetings and using online methods. We wanted to know – What’s the difference between the quality of feedback received online versus off? If online civic engagement opens the door for so many more people to respond to the city’s pressing questions, is the value of the feedback as a whole better for it?
Pittsburgh leadership, both appointed and city staff, evaluated feedback regarding public safety based on three criteria:
- Usefulness — Provides leaders with helpful, actionable answers and guides decision making.
- Relevance — Answers the question posed directly, rather than straying from the topic.
- Novelty — Represents an idea or perspective previously unheard or unique to leaders.
In general, the study found that feedback provided online scored significantly higher on its novelty than feedback provided in person. New ideas were being shared online that hadn’t been considered or brought up before.
But in some specific cases, more than half in fact, feedback provided online was vastly different than that offered during meetings in two other ways:
Subject matter In person feedback often focused on violence and crime, while online feedback discussed topics like traffic.
Level of detail Online feedback was usually much lengthier, and included external links to support the author’s point of view.
By combining relevant comments received offline and novel concepts online, the city will be able to shape a more representative vision for its future. By opening up the discussion to a new online audience, Pittsburgh will be able to apply valuable context and more thorough background to the specific and topical feedback received in person.
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