Open data and crowdfunding can breathe new life into democracy

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VB | Boris Wertz | July 25, 2014

Crowdfunding and Open data citizen engagementNOTE: GrowthBeat -- VentureBeat's provocative new marketing-tech event -- is a week away! We've gathered the best and brightest to explore the data, apps, and science of successful marketing. Get the full scoop here, and grab your tickets while they last.

Democracy may be one of man’s greatest inventions, but it has suffered lately in many developed countries due to low citizen participation and general distrust of politicians and government institutions.

In the U.S., only about 40 percent of the eligible population votes during midterm elections, and many city mayors have been elected with single-digit turnout.

The Web is helping to address these challenges and restore democracy back to its original Greek definition: “government by the people.”

The open data movement hopes to drive a new era of accountability and transparency in government, while new digital touchpoints enable more direct, real-time citizen participation.

Also, the emergence of crowdfunding in the civic arena enables everyday people to pool their money and have a greater say in the projects they care about.

Crowdfunding for civic projects

Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have already played a major role in democratizing access to capital for hardware start-ups, artists, filmmakers and other entrepreneurs in the private sector. But can crowdfunding also pick up the slack to fund cash-strapped projects in the public arena?

With the emergence of crowdfunding in government, citizens can donate money to the civic projects they care about: a new park, library renovation, bike share program, homeless shelter, etc. If enough of the public backs an idea with their wallets, that project can go forward.

For example, on Neighbor.ly, a crowdfunding site specifically for civic projects, groups raised money for a dog park in Florida and to greenlight Google Fiber in Kansas City.

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While there’s always the risk that crowdfunding projects will center around the wealthier neighborhoods and citizens, the model has an undeniable grassroots organizing affect. Someone’s $100 contribution to waterfront restoration won’t go too far on its own, but when that person joins up with a thousand other like-minded individuals, a project can get the financial backing it needs.

In some cases, we have seen collaboration between public and private funds. For example, back in 2012 New York State matched the private funds raised by Matthew Inman (aka The Oatmeal) on an Indiegogo fundraiser to build a museum at the former lab of Nikola Tesla. The fundraiser reached it goals, enabling a non-profit to purchase the land housing Tesla’s former lab as a first step toward honoring the site.

In many ways, civic crowdfunding is a win-win situation: citizens get the projects they want, while cash-strapped governments and taxpayers need to pay less for them. Perhaps more importantly, crowdfunding can take the politics out of the decision to fund or not fund certain projects.

In essence, citizens are now voting with their wallets, and can bypass the one or two gatekeepers in government who used to solely decide how to allocate public funds.

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