As a seasonal Oak Bluffs resident, I love the combination of traditions like the August fireworks that prompt presidents to pay us summer visits and the modern, relaxed atmosphere that attracts young families happy to be moments away from the Flying Horses. It’s in this spirit of blending the traditional and the modern that I urge the town of Oak Bluffs to think about new ways to use the Internet, social media and digital technology to ensure that seasonal residents, annual visitors, and day trippers all know what our town has to offer and have an opportunity to contribute to its culture and growth.
Cities across the United States and the world are using technology to solve urban problems, promote economic development and improve the quality of life for residents and visitors. A recent Knight Foundation report describes “civic tech” as encompassing a variety of converging fields — social networking, community organizing, public data access and transparency, peer-to-peer sharing of goods and services, and crowd funding for commercial or community projects. People in Oak Bluffs have been living in the sharing economy since long before bike sharing stations and car sharing spaces became popular in Boston or Washington, D.C. Residents rent their houses, visitors rent bicycles and Jeeps and share cab rides in large vans. In a place that already has this collaborative spirit, using technology to further collaboration should be easy to embrace.
The town of Oak Bluffs needs to open itself up to the world digitally. The town should be using a combination of its website and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram to tell its story, including its history, things to do, and vision for the future. Significant portions of the Oak Bluffs story can be told through short video clips. With all the talented artists and filmmakers who live in or visit Oak Bluffs and with a distinctive voice as narrator and a famous face in the crowd, a viral video is waiting to happen.
Digital technology can also play a significant role in building support for Oak Bluffs businesses and major civic events. Last summer, BET co-sponsored the Oak Bluffs fireworks. Beyond attracting additional corporate support, a frequently updated website and active social media presence will make it easier for the town to attract individual investors or entrepreneurs seeking funding for their projects through a crowd sourcing platform such as Kickstarter. Visitors to Oak Bluffs, many of whom are creative and highly connected, are coming from around the world. We need to use the internet to tap into their creativity, and in some cases their wealth, so that the next chapters for Seasons and The Strand and Island theatres will be exciting, successful and reflective of Oak Bluffs.
Digital civic engagement initiatives should exist in partnership with off-line community and consensus-building efforts. In addition to using the town’s website and social media platforms to ask residents and visitors for their vision for the future, Oak Bluffs should, for example, partner with a university, corporation or nonprofit on a touch screen display that will allow people who walk past Seasons to stop and see potential visions for the space and offer their input. The data from this feedback should subsequently be shared publicly. Developing civic technology initiatives that aid the town in acquiring information it needs or solving a specific problem will allow Oak Bluffs to have a more fruitful relationship with its most valuable resource — its residents and visitors. No one really wants to attend a government meeting while on vacation, so let the constituents come to you.
Jeffrey H. Tignor is a communications lawyer and fellow at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy.