Chapter 11

Making a Habit Out of Engagement: How the Culture of Open Data Is Reframing Civic Life

We live in data rich times. Digital tools, from Facebook to Fitbit, have made more and more thoughts and actions collectable. Thoughts and actions that were once understood as ephemeral and public can now be fixed and privatized. Indeed, many of the artifacts of public life have become sequestered into proprietary and isolated databases, from individual mobility patterns to reflections on current affairs. While this data does not have any obvious function, recent revelations about the National Security Agency monitoring Americans’ metadata points to just how revealing this data can be. Still, the story has created surprisingly little concern because of a general lack of understanding about how metadata can be used. The majority of Americans are comfortable with the federal government accessing their metadata for the purpose of national security (Pew Research/Washington Post, 2013); likewise, they expect that corporations will preserve their privacy by enabling them to control who has access to their personally identifiable data. Both personally identifiable data and metadata are generally seen as passively generated, harmlessly owned and protected by corporations, and “rented” when needed.

Enter the open data movement—a loosely defined effort of technology and policy hackers seeking to reposition data and its uses into the public domain. From health records to geodata, people are creating standards and repositories that facilitate access to, interoperability across, and transformation of datasets, outside of corporate interests. While open data is proving disruptive to a myriad of domains, from music to news, it is particularly powerful in the areas of government and civic life. What we call civic data are any data that inform public life, from the location of fire hydrants and blighted properties to citizen reports of potholes. These are not private data; they are signals transmitted within the public realm that remain publicly accessible.

Over the last several years, governments have pushed to standardize and release large datasets. Technologists have created thousands of tools to aggregate, filter, and facilitate production of this data. Within this sphere of activity, users transition from being renters to co-owners and creators. When they access or contribute data to an open system, they expect not only a service, but also that the aggregate of the data they produce contributes to something larger. Indeed, open civic data is a public asset that can be reused and recombined toward a collective good. The net result is more than just access to standard datasets. The “culture” of open civic data is the reframing of data from a government resource to a publicly owned asset to which every citizen has a right.

While civic hackers and government employees continue to chip away at the technical and political problems of data accessibility and interoperability, there is a culture of use that is burgeoning in the civic realm that needs to be attended to. New tools enable citizens to access, share, and contribute to civic data repositories. Each time someone uses a tool to help them choose a public school, catch a bus, or report a pothole, they are interacting with and contributing to civic data. When they actively choose to share their own data or access public datasets, they are contributing to a culture of civic data that shapes and refines expectations of how information can and should be used in public life. These simple, yet powerful actions are habits. Civic habits—or any habitual practice of engaging in civic institutions or community life—are the foundation of the culture of open civic data. These actions become the raw material of civic life.

Why should the open civic data community be thinking about civic habits? Habits are what ultimately will sustain the culture of open civic data. Without habits, there is no demand for data and no foundation on which to build emergent civic actions. In this essay, we look at one kind of civic technology: Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) systems, or 311 reporting tools. CRM systems cultivate civic habits by making civic actions accessible and repeatable. By looking at three distinct generations of CRM systems, we demonstrate how habits, once established, can be reflected upon so as to generate more and different civic actions.

Making Civic Habits

A habit is a settled or regular tendency, especially one that’s hard to give up. We tend to think of habits as bad: smoking, gambling, etc. “The fact is,” as psychologist William James wrote in 1892, “our virtues are habits as much as our vices. All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits” (James, 1925).

When we talk of civic habits, we are talking about all the practices that form civic life, from bad habits like throwing trash on the street to good habits like picking up another person’s trash; from posting a nasty comment about a neighbor on Facebook to tweeting about traffic. Civic habits are everyday repetitive practices that have a bearing on public life. As James put it, we are “mere bundles of habits, we are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves” (James, 1925). The social context of a city, therefore, is a mere bundle of habits with tools and systems in place that reinforce or disrupt existing habits. Consider how an antiquated data management system in government can perpetuate bad civic habits as city workers produce incomplete or substandard data. Consider how poor placement of recycling bins can produce bad civic habits as people grow tired of carrying a plastic bottle around and just throw it in the nearest trashcan. Now consider how access to open data can produce good civic habits by providing opportunities for people to visualize and augment the world around them so as to make better, more informed decisions.

Habits are even more valuable than the sum of their parts. They are the building blocks that are necessary if a citizen is to move beyond individual or serial actions to be more aware and able to reflect about his or her role in civic life. The philosopher John Dewey argued that all learning is premised on habitual actions (Dewey, 2011). According to Dewey, it is only when something becomes habitual that one has the opportunity to reflect on it—like learning an instrument or a language. Learning happens when one becomes aware of the systems in which actions are taken. For example, when a child is learning to play the piano, she begins immediately to make music by pressing keys in no apparent order. She does not actually learn to play the piano until she understands that strings of notes compose melodies and groupings of notes compose chords. If she never has the opportunity to place her habits within larger systems, if there is no internal or external structure to her learning, there is a danger of getting stuck in a non-reflective habit loop that merely continues the same action without the possibility of growth. When people have the opportunity to place their habits into systems, habits become productive of other habits and emerging systems.

Civic habits are all the actions citizens take that interface with public institutions or communities, from voting to reporting to littering to checking in on an elderly neighbor. Civic habits are produced through formal systems and processes. They are also generated informally by ad hoc groups and networks. What are often missing from this “mass of habits” are opportunities for reflection. It should come as no surprise that government often fails at producing processes and systems that both cultivate habits and provide opportunities to reflect. It is too often the case that government makes productive habit formation difficult because barriers to participation are simply too high. But as the culture of open civic data intersects with government processes, there are examples of government fulfilling its role as a systems designer for civic habits.

One such example is the rapidly growing field of Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) systems. All big cities in the United States have some mechanism for citizens to report problems, from potholes to downed limbs or graffiti. These systems have undergone a series of iterations, from traditional hotlines (CRM 1.0) to mobile applications and interactive web pages (CRM 2.0) to mobile and web tools that frame interaction within a reflective context (CRM 3.0) (see Figure 1). As we will explain, these systems are progressively influenced by the culture of open data. The move from 1.0 to 3.0 reflects an emerging context where citizens can contextualize habits within clearly demarcated systems so as to introduce new actions, new habits, and a new understanding of civic life.

Civic Habits and CRM

While CRM systems were originally developed as part of the New Public Management approach that emphasized a customer-centered or citizen-centered government, they are also deeply connected to the open data movement as both suppliers of civic data and as tools by which to display and publicize civic data. Over the last several years, governments and non-profits have developed a variety of tools. While they all collect, organize, and publicize civic habits to some degree, these tools’ ability to foster good civic habits differ dramatically. Early CRM enabled habits, but did little to encourage them. While the next major developments in CRM facilitated the development and recognition of habits, it was not designed for reflection as a necessary or even important component of habitual action. Currently, as CRM tools are being improved and added to, there are isolated examples of designing for better, reflective civic habits that deserve attention and continuation.

Although it has certainly impacted governments’ approach to data, the open data movement’s first major impacts on CRM systems did little to move the public toward a culture of open data. Before mobile applications ruled the reporting scene, phone-based hotlines (and later web portals) provided insight into civic habits. Active in over 130 cities, traditional phone-based reporting systems are still in widespread use and largely considered to be success stories in terms of efficiency. CRM 1.0 tools enable citizens to provide information that is relevant to a series of reporting categories. Citizens enter information into a set of forms or relay this information to an operator. While these tools allow citizens to file reports efficiently and effectively, they lack interactivity. They are good at enabling transactions: citizens need something fixed, they report it, and the government responds. Even when reports concern public issues—a broken sidewalk or graffiti on a wall—the hotline system frames the habit as a private action: citizens get their particular, specific needs met; they are not prompted to view their needs as one of many or as an issue shared with others within a community.

Whether phone-based or online, the open data movement has directly impacted these tools. The Open311 movement, for example, has encouraged cities to follow many protocols to ensure that their data is made public and also able to seamlessly integrate with other cities’ data and future applications. As a result, a significant portion of the data collected in these systems is made available to the public. Still, they are disconnected from the actions themselves. While they contribute to a valuable store of data, they do not feedback to the user to cultivate reflection on habits and understand how those habits fit into the landscape of the community and the city.

Mobile reporting apps and web tools do more than merely replicate the experience offered by older technologies. As CRM systems go mobile and take better advantage of the web, non-governmental groups have developed tools that can be used across cities. An example of a system created by a non-government group is SeeClickFix. Governments themselves have developed tools, such as NYC311, Chicago Works, and Citizens Connect (Boston). Building upon the existing open data movement, now over 25,000 cities are using SeeClickFix and thirty-two cities are developing apps that support Open311’s set of open data standards. These systems display data to more citizens, but more importantly, they allow citizens to see their own data in relation to larger community datasets. Within these apps, data is immediately available and ready at hand, and it serves as the foundation for subsequent actions.

In Boston’s Citizens Connect, we can see how CRM 2.0 does more to civic actions than categorize and publicize them; it makes them immediately visible to citizens and connects them to the creation of public knowledge. Rather than simply being confronted by a form to fill out, users can look at other reports—deciding to view them according to most recent or by a specific geographical location. SeeClickFix allows users to see the profiles of “neighbors” using the system in a specific area. These maps are the traces of collective civic habits, and through them, users can visualize their own habits, as well as those of the community as a whole. This visualization of civic habits marks the first step toward reflection.

These tools are widely considered to be successful. Existing apps are scaling themselves to function seamlessly across multiple cities, as is the case with Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Connect, an iteration of Boston’s Citizens Connect, and the amount of participation via these apps is significant—SeeClickFix hit its 500,000th report in May of 2013. Geolocation and easy camera access in these apps make reporting easier, reports clearer, and as a result, government responsiveness and efficiency of service better. These tools are well positioned to turn individual actions into habitual practice and to expand the influence of such practices to populations not currently predisposed to them.

Enabling reflection, however, has proven to be quite difficult. While these tools can present an individual’s civic habits within a larger public context, they do not always succeed at generating motivation for users to pay attention to that context. A survey of 217 of Boston’s Citizens Connect users (a response rate of about forty-one percent, sampled from all currently active users) has shown that users are unlikely to engage with the map-based visualization of recent reports or even bother to look at other citizens’ reports. Thirty-eight percent of users report that they have never used the mobile app to look at other users’ reports, and forty-one percent report they use this feature “a minority of the time.” With only slightly over nine percent of users reporting they “always” make use of this feature, it is clear that although possibilities for reflection are designed into the tool, the typical use context does not yet motivate these actions.

There are exceptional cases of citizens working together to solve problems before the city can get to them—fixing a damaged mural or overturning a neighbor’s garbage can to free a possibly-dead possum—but these are not the norm. CRM tools have not fully taken advantage of the emerging culture of open civic data to cultivate reflection on civic habits. They still tend to default to the mere facilitation of habitual practice, but as more and more cities commit to using these tools or seek to develop their own, non-reflective habits should not be enough. These tools have the potential to cultivate reflection, where taking individual action leads to actionable public understanding.

CRM tools should be iterated, redesigned, and expanded to create environments that not only allow for reflection upon one’s role in civic life, but also actually necessitate it. Some good examples include SeeClickFix’s asking and answering feature and Civic Hero, a gamified version of reporting. While these examples are promising, they may not go far enough—how one interacts with CRM should be fundamentally reconfigured for reflection. In other words, when a user picks up Citizens Connect to report a pothole, that impulse should be immediately framed within a larger social context.

Built as an API that connects to multiple existing tools—Boston’s Citizens Connect and Commonwealth Connect, SeeClickFix, and Foursquare—StreetCred is one such example. It is designed to improve civic habits and encourage reflection upon these habits at multiple points in the interaction. In StreetCred, players are prompted to take specific actions using already-existing tools, such as Citizens Connect, and are rewarded with badges, which contribute to larger campaigns and real-life rewards. Actions, badges, and campaigns all contribute to a social reputation system that lets players see their participation within the context of community data.

The significance of this intervention is three-fold. First, StreetCred contextualizes one-off moments of participation within greater civic goals and highlights big picture needs of a community or city. Fundamentally, the idea of campaigns is meant to order discrete transactions into legible accomplishments with clear objectives. This practice attempts to interrupt and supplement existing habits with moments of reflection by encouraging actions that citizens have not taken, but are related to either citizens’ own interests, or major issues within the community. Second, through location-based interactions, StreetCred makes players aware of how their actions contribute to overall participation at a local, community, and city level. Campaigns are often related to local geographic areas, and users’ actions and standing are always displayed within the map-based interfaces that highlight an individual’s actions within their local community. As opposed to systems where the act of reporting can be a private interaction with a city, StreetCred allows users to take civic action alongside and in comparison to other citizens. By constructing APIs that connect data from a variety of aggregators, be they privately or publicly owned, StreetCred highlights the fact that open data is not limited to government-run programs.


Civic life is a mass of habits. By enabling moments of civic participation to be collected in ways that are accessible, interoperable, and visible, the open data movement has provided citizens with a way to easily understand these habits and opened up a bounty of new opportunities to simply and flexibly cultivate them. As more and more data is collected and collectable, it is government’s responsibility to create and/or support the systems in which habits are formed and reflected upon.

As CRM systems and civic apps undergo further development and iteration, we must move beyond simply designing to make civic actions easy and sustainable. Instead, design choices that encourage reflective civic habits and collaborative and communal participation ought to be the norm. Not only can tools be designed to improve and deepen the civic experience, but their iterations can also set the stage for the development of a more robust culture of open data that extends beyond the civic realm.

About the Authors

Eric Gordon studies civic media, location-based media, and serious games. He is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and an associate professor in the department of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College where he is the founding director of the Engagement Game Lab (, which focuses on the design and research of digital games that foster civic engagement. He is the co-author of Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World (Blackwell Publishing, 2011) and The Urban Spectator: American Concept Cities From Kodak to Google (Dartmouth, 2010).

Jessica Baldwin-Philippi is a visiting assistant professor of civic media at Emerson College and a researcher in the Engagement Game Lab. Her work focuses on how engagement with new technologies can restructure forms of political participation and ideas about citizenship, and has covered a variety of political contexts, from political campaigns’ use of social media, to games designed to increase participation, to tools that can mediate relationships between citizens and governmental institutions.


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  • James, W. (1925). Talks to Teachers on Psychology; And to Students On Some of Life’s Ideals. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  • Pew Research Center/Washington Post (2013). “Public Says Investigate Terrorism, Even If It Intrudes on Privacy: Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-Terror Tactic.” Retrieved from 
Eric Gordon
Director, Engagement Game Lab
Emerson College
Fellow at the Berkman Center; Associate Professor at Emerson College; Director of Engagement Game Lab.
Jessica Baldwin-Philippi
Researcher, Engagement Game Lab
Emerson College
Visiting faculty in civic media at Emerson College and a researcher in the Engagement Game Lab.