Success stories: Citizensoapbox uses DiscourseHosting
We’re starting a series on how our customers are using Discourse to empower their communities and we’ll start off with one that does a great job with citizen participation around the San Francisco bay area: Citizen Soapbox. Harnessing Discourse’s ease-of-use to discuss important community policy issues, their founders have started a laudable new platform. To find out more, we sent Ben of Citizensoapbox.org a few questions….
Can you tell us a bit about your project and its history? When did it start, what is its mission or purpose?
We set out to create an information space where political discussion and information sharing is among the people who make the decisions in a democracy — the voters. Our mission is to provide a nonpartisan forum for registered voters to engage in peer to peer education. The project started last year with an idea that came to me during a marketing class. In the last 12 months we formed a nonprofit entity to administer the project, built the forum, and have been focused on telling voters about it so they were able to use it before San Francisco’s November 3rd municipal election.
Who is the main audience of your site and how did your community evolve? What’s the degree of activity you’re currently seeing?
The target audience are San Francisco voters, elected officials, candidates, and news media who cover local government. We’ve had tremendous growth over the last several weeks as interest snowballs in the November 3rd election. We hope to see more discussion among community users. However, we are seeing plenty of people using the Polls and Ratings features that are anonymous. We understand that anonymous commenting is a matter of building trust in our community and we know that will take time to earn. Our sense is there are plenty of people in the bleachers right now sizing up where and how they want to step into the mix.
We picked Discourse because it is open source and robust. Our initial experience has been fantastic — especially as we ‘discovered’ that a number of the goals we had for the technology we wanted in our community were already built into the platform. For example, it was important to us that voters in one supervisor district be precluded from commenting on the candidate or incumbent in another district. In other words, in our community you can only comment on the offices where your ballot is counted. Discourse has group settings that allow us to create those silos.
Which lessons would you like to pass on to other community administrators? What have you learned?
Feedback is vital. Probe your early adopters for feedback. Do not be so rigid as not to listen to the people who are actually spending their time using the community. Remember, the goal is that it is their community too. Be supportive of those joining the community. Build relationships with the people who are the community.
What are your favorite Discourse features, which one would you call a “killer feature”? Which features are most popular among your community?
Group permissions, polls, and ratings are all fundamental to our project. We love the Bulk Invite feature. It allows us to assign invited users to their Group from the get-go. It also allows us to point new Users to a specific landing page via the invite. Polls and ratings appear to be the most popular.
Lastly, some numbers. Tell us a bit about the size of your community, daily traffic, general demographics and team size?
As of early November, we were at 333 users. For contrast, realize that most of the national polls for the 2016 Presidential election are using sample sizes of around 500 likely voters. As far as we know, we are effectively the closest thing to a standing poll group that San Francisco local politics has.
Unlike a private poll, we do not collect demographic information except to validate the registration status of each user. If we have invited the User through the system, the only information stored via Discourse is their email address, Groupings, and the User Name they determine. Users control whether their email address is shared with other Users.
For a User signing-up on their own, the same three data points they provide us are the same three used by the Department of Election’s online verification system. Except we perform a manual check using that information so that the Voter Information file we use is not stored in an online database. Once confirmed as a registered voter, the new User is assigned to the appropriate groups based upon the district where they reside.
Our team is two people. We are both part-time volunteers with full time lives. We are doing this only because it needs done. Democracy is strongest we voters educate one another apart from the spinning of professional campaigners.
We hope to grow much like the Wikipedia models — volunteer activists who build out the content with a central organization to administer the project and keep the lights on so to speak. Our goal is spread out and cover all of California by November 2016. It’s a big state with a whole lot of counties and municipalities to keep organized.