Public bodies must work harder to harness for civic purposes the high levels of digital engagement now seen in many other sectors of our society, delegates heard at last week's Society of IT Management (Socitm) conference.
Steven Clift, executive director of US-based international community engagement body E-Democracy.org, used a sad and moving story to illustrate the complexity and sophistication of the ways many people's lives are now or can be connected through digital networks.
Clift told the true story of a widespread community search in Minneapolis earlier this year for a friend of his - Joe Zurnieden - who went missing near the Mississippi River during a period of severe weather. Clift and others in the community reached out on social networks to connect with friends and other locals to help with the search; other friends used YouTube to tell Joe's story; and they used cloud tools such as Google Docs to share lists of assistance activities.
A range of other free and open source online tools were used in the search, Clift said, such as 10 sources of local maps, including OpenStreetMap; the activity recruitment tools SignUpGenius to organise people to help with the search and organise meals; and the free website tool Weebly to create a website to organise a fundraiser, for example.
Sadly, Joe was never found, but the high level of community support using these digital tools showed that we are now a society of "digital engagement based on necessity", he said: "It shows the way we use this medium when we have to.
"From this experience it really hit home: we are the engagement generation - we are using the tools of our times."
The media often writes about the use of digital tools in battles for democracy across the world, in Hong Kong for example, or in the Arab Spring, but less often about their use in developed, stable democracies for engagement with more mundane but far more frequent activities such as the urban planning process, Clift said.
"So the question I have is, how do we scale this more to public and social life? What are the models that relate to that?"
Clift has built an international "Open government and civic technology" group on Facebook, to help answer this question. Meanwhile another person working to expand the field of "civic technology", Mandeep Hothi, programme manager at social innovation charity Nesta, told Socitm delegates the key to progress is to focus on "the intersection between digital public services and civic action - giving citizens more influence and control".
Hothi is overseeing a project called Code for Europe - itself based on the US project based on Code for America and its international network Code for All - which supports the placement of civic software coders within government agencies to develop, use and exchange open source software to solve civic challenges.
The project is just taking its "first tentative steps", he said, and it was important to be patient: "This is a 30-year mission, and we are at the beginning."
Pictured: E-democracy.org director Steven Clift presents his model of "networked individualism" to Socitm annual conference in Manchester, by Dods / Socitm
Open government and civic technology Facebook group: www.facebook.com/groups/opengovgroup/
Code for Europe: codeforeurope.net
Code for America - Code for All: www.codeforamerica.org/about/international/