I live in a small New England town. There is a beautiful town common, which, like many in New England, has been utterly wrecked by bad planning. What used to be a huge town green is now chopped into several smaller parts by various roads and parking areas. In addition, the road surface is a nightmare.
People drive into town and are struck by the beauty, right before they are struck by a car that didn’t see them because the sight lines are terrible.
Part of the common has sidewalks that are crumbling, the rest doesn’t have sidewalks at all.
There is a free-for-all parking lot / state highway / fiasco thing in front of the main group of businesses. In the winter, this is enhanced with a 50 foot high pile of filthy snow. Because making it harder to see is clearly a good idea.
Every weekday morning there is a never-ending parade of school busses going every which way, and yielding to no man.
There are signs on the side streets explaining what state routes they are not.
The town has been trying to fix this situation for years. I served on a committee that managed to get a state grant to do a design for how to fix the common. But that design was never implemented. Back in 2010, another committee decided to take the battle on again, and this time they finally managed to get the ball to move down the field.
Although a state highway runs right through the middle of town, the state could not pay for the whole project because there are serious drainage issues. And drainage means environmental study. And environmental study means nothing ever gets done.
So what the clever committee members figured out was a loophole that allows a town to fix its own drainage issues without all the red tape. If the town could pay to fix everything underground, then the state would be able to put in a new road surface. The town would also need to kick in some money to deal with side streets, so everybody has skin in the game through the whole project.
So, basically, the state was saying “you build the foundation and buy the furnishings, and we’ll build the house.” It was quite a deal.
The way things like this get financed in Massachusetts is a little complicated. First, there is a town meeting where you have to get 2/3 of the people in attendance to agree to borrow money. Then at the next election, there is a ballot measure where the town confirms or rejects that decision. This only requires a simple majority.
These borrowing measures almost never succeed. It’s one thing to get a group of involved citizens who come to town meeting to agree to something after debate and consideration. It’s quite another to get the masses at the ballot box to agree to pay more taxes. For anything. Ever.
But I was feeling feisty, and my house is just off the town common, so I was motivated to help.
The company I founded started in the video game business, but over the years we’ve “pivoted” several times, and these days we are a leader in developing “Interactive B-to-B Sales and Marketing” materials. In other words, we make cool apps that the largest companies in the world use to enable their sales people to sell better. So I know a thing or two about using technology to help sell. And I thought it would be an interesting experiment to try to use this technology to sell the townspeople on this project.
I borrowed a touchscreen computer from work, and borrowed the graphic design from one of our client projects, and threw together an interactive presentation. I turned the engineering plans for the project into a picture and laid that as texture over a 3D immersive topo-map I made using Google Earth and Sketchup. I got lots of quotes from business owners who would be impacted by the construction, saying they supported the project. I developed a calculator that people could use to figure out the tax impact on them, given the price of their house.
I put all this together in a weekend, and plopped an interactive Kiosk in the bank lobby the day before Santa came to town. I figured the parents waiting in line for pictures might like something to do. After that day, I left the system there for a few weeks, and eventually moved it to the other bank lobby in town, and finally it sat in the town library for a while. I would periodically stop by the bank parking lot and connect wirelessly to the system to download usage analytics, to makes sure it was being used. It was. A lot. For a long, long time.
Next came the town meeting, where I offered to speak on behalf of the committee. I wasn’t a member of the committee, but it’s pretty common for citizens to speak on behalf of a topic they support. I used that same application I described, but I used some presentation capabilities of our technology platform to make it come to life for the crowd:
That went really well. The vote was almost unanimous in favor of the project. If you watch the video, you’ll notice that I said we needed a two-thirds majority at the ballot box. I believed that. I had been told that by a lot of different people. Turns out that wasn’t the case. We only needed a simple majority, but we all thought that we needed a supermajority, so we campaigned like we did.
A friend who helps local politicians campaign had a mailing list of all the people who actually vote at the ballot. So I wrote a letter encouraging people to vote in favor, and we got a bunch of donated stamps, and sent that letter.
I visited the VFW, and made the case to the veterans.
I hosted a number of people one-on-one in my kitchen to explain the project, and get them over to our side.
When it got closer to the election day, we learned that our measure was the only thing on the ballot. The common project was ballot measure one, and there was no ballot measure two. So my wife and I decided that we would do something a little fun. We started the “Yes” campaign. We didn’t say what the “Yes” was for. We just put out a whole lot of signs that said “Yes.”
I decided to do a little social media campaign to go along with it, so I created this page:
I used one of those online meme generators to create lots of silly content. I’m pretty sure this had no impact on the election results, but it was fun.
I also created a public event in Facebook, and invited everyone I knew in town to RSVP that they would be voting. That page turned into a public square, where people debated the issue, and argued for their side. Again, I doubt it had much impact on the result, but it certainly served a public good.
I encouraged people in town to do their own campaigning for the project. Call everyone you know, and encourage them to vote in favor.
I created a web site. Put all the details from the Kiosk application up there, along with lots more detail, pictures, budgets, and so on.
Our town has two parts. The upper part, where the common is located, is a bit more affluent. That means the people in the upper part would be benefiting more and bearing more of the bill for the project. But every vote counts equally, so it was important to get support all over town.
A couple of days before election day, the “No” signs sprouted. They were not so succinct: “No on #1” was their message. And they started popping up all over. So we decided to put out more Yes signs.
A friend of mine, who didn’t know what this was all about, commented that he had been driving through town, seeing all the “Yes” signs, and feeling all happy and bright. And then he started seeing the “No” signs, and those made him sad. And then he’d see a “Yes” and then a “No” and he just didn’t know how to feel.
At one point, I was pulled over on the side of the road near the town dump putting in a sign, and a big pickup pulled over on the opposite side. It was Dr. No. And by Dr., I actually mean the guy who runs a bait shop in the middle of a residential area nowhere near any body of water. I put in my Yes, and he put in his No. I walked over, he eyed me suspiciously. I introduced myself, he nodded. I put out my hand. He reluctantly shook it. And then we went about our business.
Election day finally arrived. I went to the first precinct at closing time, and waited for the count. The motion carried by 58%. But that’s the uptown precinct. These are the people who would most directly benefit from the common improvement. I then travelled over to the second precinct. There, the motion failed, getting only 45% of the vote. But turnout was considerably higher in precinct one. So the net result was 52% in favor. Not the 67% we originally thought we needed, but more than the 50% we actually needed.
The whole thing was a fascinating experiment in using new media, social media, and traditional grass-roots organizing to convince a town to do something that, really, had to be done. And, naturally, I’m quite pleased with the result.
The drainage work is finished, and the state part of the project is due to start later this year. I really can’t wait for it to be done.
Tip O’Neill said all politics is local. I don’t know if that’s true, but local politics is undeniably local. The larger political stage holds no interest for me, but next year I’ll look at our revitalized common, with sidewalks where there used to be rubble, and a smooth road where there used to be potholes, and tranquility where there used to be chaos, and I’ll know that I played a big role in making that happen, and I’ll be happy about that.