By Robert Mills

Berkeley residents might soon change the way they think about community participation.

Today, a group of students from UC Berkeley are launching CitySandbox, a website designed to enhance neighborhood collaboration.

“This site is a way for people to find out more about their communities,” said Evelyn Shaw, the app lab producer from the Social App Lab at CITRIS at UC Berkeley. “It’s a way to find out what people are interested in and what they can work toward together.”

CitySandbox combines a Google map of the Berkeley area with a social networking element similar to websites like Reddit or Digg. By clicking on a spot in the map, users can ask a question, plan a gathering or point out an issue pertaining to that spot.

Other members can then comment on the marker and vote it up or down. Ideally, popular topics will facilitate conversation, and conversation will lead to community participation.

Some of the questions currently posed on the site include “How can we make People’s Park less scary for everyone?” and “How can we make College Avenue safer for cars, bikers, and pedestrians?” There are less serious questions, too, such as “Where is the best place to study off-campus?”

As part of the public test, Social App Lab developers have asked Berkeleyside readers to visit to nominate valued leaders in the community.

A screen cap from the Citysandbox website. Selected markers display a topic. Popular topics are listed in the right column.

Users can click on a spot in the map where someone helpful works–like Gary Cromp of the Friends of Kenney Cottage Community Garden who helps make sustainable community gardening accessible for everyone–or they can highlight a spot where a local business like Paco Collars helps “bad rap” pit-bull breeds find adoption.

Developers hope Berkeley residents will digitally nominate and vote on pillars of the community so they can honor winners at their official kickoff luncheon. It will be held June 30 from 5 to 9 pm at King’s Park at Hopkins and Colusa.

Shaw, a UC Berkeley undergrad studying anthropology, said she hopes Berkeley residents—and eventually residents in all cities—will use CitySandbox to organize and address a wide range of issues from fixing potholes to evaluating city council decisions.

“Our goal really is that our site promotes some kind of action,” Shaw said. “We don’t want to be a site where people just report problems. We want people to take their own routes in solving them.”

CitySandbox is the latest project from Berkeley’s Social App Lab – an undergraduate research group aimed at developing new media and mobile applications that deal in data democracy and the way people participate. The project is almost completely student-developed, with guidance from co-founding UC Berkeley professors James Holston (Anthropology) and Greg Niemeyer (Art Practice and New Media).

CITRIS is UC Berkeley’s Center for Informational Technology Research in the Interest of Society. It supports The Social App Lab alongside the Division of Social Sciences and the Division of Arts and Humanities.

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