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City Unveils New Tool For Civic Interactivity: Engage Rockville

Swift: ‘This tool is intended to do just that—engage the community in different ways.’

The City of Rockville launched a new civic website Engage Rockville (RockvilleMD.MindMixer.com) on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. (Photo: Screen shot of Engage Rockville)
The City of Rockville launched a new civic website Engage Rockville (RockvilleMD.MindMixer.com) on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. (Photo: Screen shot of Engage Rockville)

The City of Rockville Tuesday will officially unveil Engage Rockville, an online civic community intended to encourage engagement.

“This tool is intended to do just that—engage the community in different ways,” said Susan Swift, director of the Department of Community Planning & Development Services.

Swift said the idea for Engage Rockville developed from communications task force and citizens committee suggestions that the city reach out to more people and that the city use online tools to do so, particularly when it comes to the city’s long-range planning initiatives.

Swift said the website was not meant to be a replacement for the city’s usual modes for public comment. She said it wasn’t just meant for planning-related, issues, either.

“It's another way especially for people who have ideas for the city's future, but don't have the time to come to meetings,” Swift said. “I think we're all faced with that. It's an opportunity for them to be heard in a different way.”

Clark Larson, a planning specialist for the city, walked the mayor and council through the workings of Engage Rockville on Monday night.

When Patch visited the Engage Rockville homepage Monday—RockvilleMD.MindMixer.com—there were survey questions about the “vision for Rockville’s future,” a place to submit a “big idea for the future of Rockville” and a place to upload photos.

Users could log into the site by using an email or a Facebook log in.

Larson said there were 400 MindMixer communities, including a Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority site.

Much of the discussion during the council session focused on moderation, including how city staff would handle public comments.

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said she had trepidation over commenters she has seen in online media, including Patch, saying they "hijack" conversations and drown out respectful discussion.

Newton also said she'd like for the Mayor and Council to be included in the discussions.

Councilman Tom Moore brought up the handling of moderation of public comments earlier in the presentation, offering a fictitious example by asking what moderators would do if his daughters posted several photos of Justin Bieber on the city site.

Larson said the act of moderating is somewhat “subjective” but said that there were certain backstops in place—like a profanity filter, the ability for administrators to remove comments from view and the ability to contact individual commenters.

“It meets the open commenting rules where you really don't want to get rid of everything, but it may be inappropriate to have on the site,” Larson said.

Moore said moderating could be a “tricky” and that city staff wouldn’t want to act as government censors.

“Once you start taking responsibility for other content that's on there you seem to be walking into some gray areas pretty quickly,” Moore said.

Councilwoman Beryl Feinberg suggested posting information about the budget and asked if city staff could give an update March 15.

The service would cost $7,100 a year.

Andrew Gunning, assistant director of the Department of Community Planning, said the city has the option to renew the service after a year and that the cost for the service would come down by 10 percent each year, for five years.

Tiffany Arnold January 14, 2014 at 01:15 PM
Brigitta, Susan Swift said at the meeting that the planning department was more like a guinea pig, but Engage Rockville wasn't just for them.
Brigitta Mullican January 14, 2014 at 01:31 PM
If it isn't only for DCPD, I believe it should be the responsibility of a different department. That is my opinion. Maybe it was all about tapping into the DCPC budget or lack of of position. Just saying. Maybe it is time for an evaluation on how resources (full time positions) are utilized in the City. It seems some positions are undersized and some over burdened with responsibility. I witnessed this type of problem in my 36-year career. It also appears the city is trying to satisfy some citizens recommendation of improving citizen involvement and communication.
Theresa Defino January 14, 2014 at 02:53 PM
"Andrew Gunning, assistant director of the Department of Community Planning, said the city has the option to renew the service after a year and that the cost for the service would come down by 10 percent each year, for five years." Come down from what? I haven't seen any mention of costs. And is the renewal for five years?
Tiffany Arnold January 14, 2014 at 02:59 PM
Theresa, as you've noted, the graph that said it would cost $7,100 a year must have gotten cut out in the editing process—I'll add it back to the story. The city is not obligated to renew after a year, but if they did that's the discount they'd get—at least that's how I understood it.
Joseph Jordan January 14, 2014 at 04:45 PM
What the councilmembers failed to ask is, what was the initial investment? Is the software licensed or purchased, and what was that cost, as well as the cost to customize the design and load the system. Does it run on the City host systems, or on some third party servers. There are many additional questions citizens have that weren't asked last night.

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