Ben Armstrong knows firsthand that technology can be used for good or ill. A native of the industrial Midwest, where for many “technology” is the bad word behind the loss of good jobs, he has also worked in Silicon Valley, where “technology is perceived as the hammer for everything.”
Today, as a PhD student at the MIT Governance Lab (GOV/LAB), Armstrong is trying to find the sweet spot where innovation makes a positive difference. “Technology companies don’t have the resources to study whether what they are doing is having the intended effects,” he says. “What GOV/LAB can do is put these organizations to the test.”
Armstrong has been helping Pittsburgh evaluate a program designed to boost civic engagement in the wake of a major police corruption scandal. City leaders worked with the technology company MindMixer to launch an online public forum where citizens can air safety concerns. At the same time, they also scheduled traditional town meetings around the city—providing GOV/LAB with an ideal opportunity to study the relative value of the new communication technique.
The research quickly revealed that citizens who weigh in online have very different outlooks from those who attend town meetings. “People online were really concerned about traffic and bike lanes. People in person were worried about violence and guns,” Armstrong says. GOV/LAB also discovered that while public officials find the online information useful and novel, they consider the in-person feedback more relevant to the city’s problems.
The study is ongoing, but these early results have been reported to both Pittsburgh and MindMixer so they can improve their efforts going forward—which is one of GOV/LAB’s goals. “We’re doing randomized controlled trials in a different way—we call it iterative experimentation . . . . [This] allows us to influence decision making,” says Armstrong. “The long-term impact is really for government to get citizens more involved so that they have a responsive democratic system.”