You are cordially invited to a town hall meeting today in your living room.
Or at your cubicle. Or in your idling car, waiting for the kids to get out of school.
This public meeting for the citizens of Omaha is being held wherever you are.
It starts today. But you can come tomorrow. Or the next day or the day after.
Simply get on the Internet. Then go to engageomaha.com, type, click. ...
Voila! You're participating in democracy without hiring a baby sitter, plugging a parking meter or waiting in line to speak.
Voila! Bureaucrats have more ideas from more people.
Voila! Mindmixer, an Omaha technology startup, just added more eyes to its virtual town hall.
Think Facebook for government. You go to the website, click on the topic du jour and add your ideas, photographs or comments. You can see how many others are participating. You can see who's listening: Mayor Jim Suttle and city department heads.
A pair of young men named Nick and Nate run this operation for about 350 civic entities.
Working out of an old furniture warehouse north of downtown, they and their staff of 20 create, essentially, a giant online suggestion box with a technological bean-counting feature. Whoever chimes in on parks, policy or today's State of the City address must give enough bare-bones information about themselves that clients can glean basic demographics: Gender. Age. ZIP code.
“Our app,” says Nick Bowden, “can tell you what percentage of people who supported more bike lanes lived in Dundee.”
That's just one example of the myriad topics Mindmixer has managed for the City of Omaha since launching in April 2011. Since then, it has counted more than 50,100 unique users, who generated 1,200 ideas and left 4,500 comments. In the past 30 days, 7,638 people have gone to engageomaha's “town hall.”
They come from every ZIP code, though midtowners predominantly participate. Six out of 10 are men. Average age: 40.
Nick and Nate hope, as word gets out, that more Omahans, from suburbanites to inner-city dwellers, check out the site and add their voices.
They say their role is to enhance community involvement by drawing more people in, first online, then hopefully in person.
They well know what happens when people don't show up.
Four years ago, best friends Nick Bowden and Nate Preheim were urban planners working for a Lincoln firm. Their job was to drive to cities and small towns from Denver to Chicago to drum up support for civic projects through town hall meetings.
But the meetings typically drew a small, narrow audience: retirees, mostly men and almost always white.
They tried a number of gimmicks to draw people and enliven the sessions. They offered free food, played mayor-for-the-day games with Monopoly money and took outdoor walking tours, giving participants disposable cameras. Idealists Nick and Nate saw that, beyond voting, the town halls were one of the most democratic things citizens could do.
“This one,” they'd tell each other hopefully before each meeting, “will be different!”
Nothing seemed to work. The breaking point came as Nick and Nate packed up a rental car after a meeting in Garden City, Kan.
In went the unused Monopoly money, the half-used disposable cameras, three uneaten pizzas.
Nick and Nate headed home, dejected.
|FROM THE NOTEBOOK|
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.|
“You'd just bang your head against the wall,” said Nate.
“We were like the DJs at a wedding that forgot to send the invitations,” said Nick.
Nate, a 39-year-old Westside High and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has worked in Silicon Valley, quit for a job at PayPal.
Nick Bowden, a 29-year-old Creighton Prep and UNL grad, left soon after and started his own urban planning firm.
But they kept talking about what had failed in their former jobs, and they realized it's mostly retirees who have or take time to attend public meetings. One study showed that half the U.S. adult population has never attended a public meeting, and just 15 percent go to more than one a year.
In 2010, they pooled their money, took out loans, built a prototype of their virtual town-hall app and sold it to Omaha by Design and the City of Lincoln. Nate moonlighted, managing the website. Nick spent his lunch breaks trying to sell it to others. Cities like Nashville, Tenn., which needed citizen input on a flood recovery plan, bought in.
In March 2011, Nate quit PayPal. Nick sold his business. Both went full-throttle into Mindmixer.
By last March, they had 102 clients. By July, Code for America selected Nick and Nate's company over some 230 others for a prestigious opportunity to fast-grow their business. By November, their client load had tripled.
They're helping Sacramento, Calif., name a train station; South Florida seek input on a trail through the Everglades; Lincoln Public Schools better connect with parents; Denton, Texas, weigh a smoking ban.
At today's Omaha town hall “meeting,” there will be no free pizza, no PowerPoints, no charismatic young consultants bouncing around the room.
But Nick and Nate will be there. Online.
Waiting for you.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH