OPINION: Digital solutions to revolutionise community empowerment

by Alan Marcus | Planet Smart City
Monday, 20 April 2020 09:45 GMT

A woman wearing a protective mask uses her mobile phone, as the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread in Turin, Italy, February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Massimo Pinca/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With communities challenged by Covid-19, it’s time to embrace digital transformation and provide local people with the tools to optimise grassroots mobilisation

Alan Marcus is the chief digital officer of Planet Smart City.


In Hope in the Dark, her acclaimed study of responses to uncertainty, Rebecca Solnit found, when facing adversity, “most people are calm, resourceful, altruistic, and creative.” Her observations ring true for Covid-19. While the pandemic forces us into isolation, we’ve seen an explosion of community engagement, volunteering and local organisation.

Here, in the US, restaurants have become community kitchens and groups organised to pick up shopping for elderly neighbours. Across the Atlantic, Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, which supports responses to the virus, has registered approximately 3,000 local groups.

These hyperlocal movements are agile, delivering solutions tailored to local needs, but lack tools to optimise mobilisation. Many rely on social media platforms designed to connect like-minded people globally rather than reach everyone within a specific locality. They certainly do not provide for coordination between community groups, businesses and local authorities—important for allocating resources, scaling responses and ensuring on-the-ground experiences are reflected in policy decisions.

Top-down responses are equally problematic. China contained the virus by forcibly confining people to home, while contact tracing in Israel and South Korea has sparked privacy concerns. Contrastingly, in Europe and the US, the virus spread while policymakers delayed decisions.

The best responses to Covid-19 have harmonised top-down policies and grassroots organisation. In the UK, more than 700,000 volunteers for the National Health Service are being organised through GoodSAM—an app that, like many gig economy platforms, allows individuals to switch on availability for delivering supplies to vulnerable people.

Perhaps the best example is Taiwan, where officials have kept the rate of infection to a fraction of even highly-rated Singapore. Coordinating public and private groups, the country has deployed a range of online services, including a system for mapping and allocating rationed face masks developed by Digital Minister Audrey Tang and members of an online hacktivist chatroom. As Microsoft’s Jaron Lainer and E. Glen Weyl write in their analysis of the response, “by spreading participation in digital development broadly through society, Taiwan avoided both technocracy and technophobia, maintaining trust and the two-way flow of information.”

Effective responses to the crisis show the value of inclusive government and hint at more resilient models for managing our communities. So far, governments, businesses and individuals have pooled resources to deliver country-wide responses. However, this model should be pushed further. Digital tools should be provided to communities to organise themselves, develop locally tailored solutions and get involved in the governance of their town or neighbourhood.

This model requires open communication between local people and the organisations responsible for administrating neighbourhoods—be they governments or businesses. Such solutions are already in use around the world, including in Planet Smart City’s developments in Italy and Brazil, where the Planet App, provided to all residents for free, serves as a local message board and interface for citizens and community managers.  

The platform provides significant opportunities for optimising crisis response and elevating quality of life. For example, a popular solution for market vendors forced to close by Covid-19 has been offering delivery services. As well as the businesses, this benefits local people, who can bypass overcrowded superstores or overcapacity online grocery deliveries. While grassroots movements are largely left to organise themselves, this is a missed opportunity for collaboration with local administrators.

By communicating with vendors, the administrator can not only establish an online platform to coordinate their services, but also connect them with local people to help deliver the service, such as van owners who can loan their vehicles. Moreover, the administrator can collect feedback on local infrastructure needed to improve services, such as communal cold lockers for receiving groceries when no-one is home.

By integrating this model into the day-to-day governance of our communities, we can unite community action with top-down resources, empowering local people to co-own the evolution of their neighbourhoods and helping administrators prioritise projects that maximise quality of life.

As Solnit wrote: “A disaster is a lot like a revolution when it comes to disruption and improvisation.” Pushed to their limits, countries are pioneering ways of coordinating local and national action. From this wave of innovation, we can empower communities to become more resilient in crises, more inclusive in their governance and more engaged in the determination of their future.