Neighborland Helps Citizens Share Ideas and Shape Their Community

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What if people could easily share ideas for improving their neighborhoods?

That’s the simple, and in some cases disruptive, question posed by the team behind Neighborland, a beautifully designed hyperlocal tool that launched earlier this year. The site makes you feel good about where you live (if you live in New Orleans that is — the only city the site covers currently) and want to get involved in making what’s around you even better.

The site is elegant in its simplicity, though perhaps it lacks an equally elegant utility — the element you’d expect from a concern focused on being at least partly utilitarian in approach. That might be owing to the site’s incubation process resident in an artistic civic design studio. But I digress.

Dan Parham, Neighborland Co-Founder

I turned to Dan Parham, a co-founder  and award winning design strategist, to find out a little more about Neighborland’s mission and how it hopes to ultimately help people make their neighborhoods better.

Where did the idea for Neighborland come from?
Neighborland started as an off-line art project called I Wish This Was from one of our founders, Candy Chang [a TED Senior Fellow]. I Wish This Was received a great response from the residents of New Orleans and the press, and we realized there was potential for a new type of civic input tool to collect the same kind of conversation from the city’s residents. We took we what learned from I Wish This Was and built a quick prototype of Neighborland in December 2010.

In January, Candy received an Urban Innovation Challenge Fellowship from Tulane University for Neighborland. The fellowship is funded by the Rockefeller foundation. Candy spoke about I Wish This Was at TED in Long Beach in February on the TED-U stage, and announced that we were working on Neighborland.

We’ve been working on the platform this spring with our co-founder and Chief Engineer, Tee Parham. We just launched the alpha softly on June 1. We are doing a series of events in New Orleans this summer to promote the platform to all neighborhoods in the city. We are focused on accessibility through both analog and digital input from the residents of New Orleans.

Our business model is different — we’re not charging cities to use the platform. We’re creating a new type of survey page that developers, property owners and entrepreneurs can use to connect with neighborhood residents during the development process.

How would you sum up what Neighborhoodland is today? That is, how do you pitch to noobs and others curious about getting involved?
We started with a simple question: “What if residents could easily share their ideas for improving their neighborhoods?” Could these ideas help community leaders, entrepreneurs and developers better meet the needs their communities? Can presenting this data in a transparent and friendly way help shape the development of a neighborhood — or at the very least, provide a new form of public accountability?

Seems clear this is a destination for people in the community looking to affect positive change – would you say that’s a key element of the platform?
Our goal is to help collect demand in places and bring people together, so the future of our communities better reflects our desires today. It’s a valuable poll for civic leaders and developers to assess what residents want in different areas, vacant real estate, and existing public spaces. And it promotes entrepreneurship by revealing neighborhood demands and proving there is a viable customer base for new businesses to open.

How is it different from other crowdsourcing tools?
We are 100% focused on making things happen. Our goal is to create a community and empower them with information, tools and resources to effect real change in New Orleans. Our success metric is the number of new sustainable businesses that open here with Neighborland’s support.

Right now, we’re trying to facilitate a very specific civic conversation, so the design of the product is very different than other tools. We’ve worked closely with our community here in New Orleans to create a simple, fun and intuitive design. The minimalism of the interface evokes the design of Candy’s public installations, and our upcoming street installations will amplify this connection.

Finally, our business model is different–we’re not charging cities to use the platform. We’re creating a new type of survey page that developers, property owners, and entrepreneurs can use to connect with neighborhood residents during the development process. We also hope to be able to sell marketing insights about neighborhoods as our community grows.

So how should we view you in comparison to SeeClickFix and Everyblock?
Adrian’s story of how he started Everyblock with a Knight grant is inspiring. I hope we can have that kind of impact in a few years. I see Everyblock as a valuable source of local information, and would hope that our data would someday be incorporated into their platform.

See Click Fix is a great product. It’s focused on fixing current problems, while we’re focused on future development. They did launch a feature recently to collect new ideas, but the user experience seemed to be a little confusing for their community. When you have such a clear value proposition like fixing potholes, it can be hard for users to shift their mind set within the same environment.

How many neighborhoods are “covered” in nola?
We tried to cover all neighborhoods in the City, based on data from the GNODC –

How does a neighborhood get included? Does there simply need to be an “I want” request made on the site?
We define the neighborhoods. There’s always a local language about neighborhoods and places in cities that we want to capture. We’re open to feedback and do make adjustments based on feedback from our community.

Some requests are shown as “I want” first person and others have names of people — how are these different?
When you see the large thought bubble in the first person, that’s an original idea. Other activity on the site is written in third person (comments, me too’s, edits). We’re working on improving the design for the main stream to help new users understand the environment more quickly. We have a lot of data for New Orleans already, and the site can be a little overwhelming at first. We’re working on making ideas more discoverable, showing trends, and helping likeminded people join forces.

How many cities are you currently in?
We received our grant from Tulane University’s Social Entrepreneurship program here in New Orleans. We’re experimenting with the design of the product here. We think that if we get it right here, and show some real success stories, we can have impact on a national scale later this fall.

So what would the city rollout plan look like?
We’re planning on launching in 25 more cities in September, but have not announced which ones yet. We really like the way Skillshare is rolling out, and may follow that model.

Tell me about the “Best Ideas” program and how you plan to make these happen
We are currently working on partnerships with leading community organizations in New Orleans to help us make some of the smart, feasible ideas on Neighborland a reality.