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Learning from the Community

Published on Aug 18, 2009 by Matt Ephraim

A few weeks ago, I attended a community meeting in Chicago's 4th ward. The meeting, held by the Chicago 2016 Olympic Committee, was intended to provide an outlet for citizens of several nearby wards to express their concerns about Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid. I was there in support of the Gropius in Chicago Coalition, an architectural preservation group that hopes to save several historic buildings currently slated to be torn down for the Olympic Village. This was my first community meeting concerning the Olympics and I expected a fairly low key event. However, by the end of the meeting, I realized how little I knew about community meetings and wondered what I, as an information architect, could do to help the people in the community get what they wanted.

My first clue that things weren't going to go the way I expected was that, even thought I arrived for the meeting a half hour early, most of the chairs in the meeting room were already filled. By the time the meeting started, it was standing room only. There was a sense of anticipation as the Olympic Committee members took the stage, and, as the meeting started, the crowd settled in to listen patiently to the Committee's pro-Olympics sale pitch.

The Committee spent 45 minutes explaining how great the Olympics would be for the citizens of Chicago (especially the residents of the communities where the Olympics were scheduled to take place), and then opened the floor for concerns from the audience. From the very start, people were skeptical of the Committee's assurances that the neighborhoods where the Olympics would take place would see long term benefits from the Olympics. People had come to the meeting from communities that had heard flowery promises of revitalization before. They had been disappointed by city leaders in the past and they wanted to know why they should believe yet another group of strangers coming into their neighborhoods with plans for change.

I listened from the back of the room as one citizen after another pleaded with the Committee members for some guarantee of accountability from the city and from the Olympic Committee. People were calm and respectful as they voiced their concerns, but it was clear that they were beginning to feel powerless as the real possibility of the Olympic juggernaut rolling into their neighborhoods took form. At the same time, I sensed that people didn't feel hopeless. They knew that a strong community, like the one that had showed up for the meeting that night, could pull together to make their voices heard. What they needed was a way to organize in between community meetings. If they couldn't do it in person, they could do it in other ways.

I didn't need to suggest the Web as a tool for organizing. The topic of a website for holding the Olympic Committee accountable was brought up early in the question and answer session. And then an idea for a website for tracking Olympic money was suggested. Others pointed out websites that their own organizations had set up. The crowd wasn't particularly technical. They were average citizens who happened to be concerned about the Olympics. But they understood that the Web was a powerful tool for organizing and making their voices heard. For me, this was the most exciting part of the meeting.

As a web developer and information architect, I'm often immersed in the technical world. My view of the Web is heavily influenced by emerging web standards, the latest programming language changes, and hot new web development tools. But, from time to time, it's informative, as well as inspiring, to see what's happening outside the high tech sphere. The South Side of Chicago might not be Silicon Valley, but regular people are still using the web in creative and interesting ways. Taking a look at what happens outside the rapidly changing technical world can be an educational experience for anyone wanting to know how the Web can be used in unique ways.

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