CitySandbox: Berkeley Lab Launches Q&A Site for Civic Action

When Greg Niemeyer takes his kids to the park, he doesn’t let them to play in the sandbox. It’s because of the trash. And broken toy fragments. And the fact that local cats have made it their litter box.

He asks himself, “Why is this sand so dirty?”

The answer isn’t something you will find on Quora, or on Google, either.

That’s why Niemeyer — and the University of California at Berkeley Social App Lab he leads — is building CitySandbox — a place for people to Q&A on issues affecting their municipal community.

Niemeyer, who co-directs the Social App Lab and oversaw the development of CitySandbox, believes a major failing of the Internet is how self-focused its content is.

With the exception of commerce-based ranking sites such as Yelp, Niemeyer thinks the Web is still not closely tied to the physical world.

“There are fairly few resources that describe the world as a place where things don’t need to be bought or sold, but where instead things can be acted upon by citizens,” he said in an interview.

CitySandbox attempts to fill the gap by making physical location the central way to navigate questions, setting it apart from other question services. And the embedded Google maps let users see what people are saying about, for example, the park down the street.

But the real differentiator, according to Niemeyer, is CitySandbox’s “Events” feature — soon to be reworked into “Challenges” — which encourages people to get their analog hands dirty.

Getting people to take part in challenges, however, has proven a challenge itself, according to CitySandbox lead developer Alex Nisnevich.

“Right now there are many civic issues that are discussed on the site, and the discussions are usually informative and helpful, but not once has any action ever been taken as a result,” he said.

That’s a shame, since just a little more than a month after launching, there are more than 240 users, 190 questions and 430 answers on the site.

But as physical-world as CitySandbox’s focus is, there is still a serious tech/real-world discontinuity it has to address: Tech products such as CitySandbox are built quickly, and real vacant lots get filled at a much slower pace.

Thus Niemeyer thinks his app lab — protected from the ravages of market forces by its position in academia — is the ideal place to solve the harder problems.

Some might ask why academia is even needed in the space.

“Mostly we are expecting business to address problems. Recycling has become a business, for example,” said Niemeyer. “We always tend to think that solutions are productive in a business sense.”

That’s not always so, and it means that CitySandbox’s success will depend on people’s desire to take action.

The real unanswered question remains: Can we rely on people to take civic action via the Web?

The CitySandbox team is optimistic. After all, you can’t Quora-away the mess from a sandbox.


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik