By Jill Colvin
MANHATTAN — Mayor Michael Bloomberg may be the reigning king of the iPad, but Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is about to stake his Web 2.0 claim by creating the city's first-ever government-sponsored online community site.
Stringer's office is in the midst of developing Speak Up New York, an online platform that he says has the potential to transform the way that residents, community groups and city officials interact.
The idea was born from the frustration of trying to reach constituents who no longer attend forums like Community Board meetings, Stringer said.
"We have to move beyond a time when people are expected to spend three hours on a Tuesday night sitting in a conference room if they want to participate in local government," Stringer said in a statement. "The next generation of civic activism simply needs a newer, broader model."
While planning is still in its early stages, the site plans to provide online tools that will make it easier for community groups to organize — doing for tenant and block associations what sites like WordPress and Blogspot have done for aspiring bloggers.
The site will offer templates for building websites as well as step-by-step instructions for everything from creating e-mail lists to navigating land use procedures, organizers said.
"It will make it really easy to get started," said Nick Grossman, the director of civic works at OpenPlans, a technology non-profit that has partnered with the city on the project.
Residents who log on will also be immediately connected to groups representing their neighborhoods and interests as well as discussion forums, meeting calendars and city service guides.
The office hopes to have a preliminary version, which will be paid for through fundraising, up and running by the end of the year.
Steven Clift, the executive director of e-Democracy.org, which has developed similar forums for more than a dozen communities, said the Internet has proven an extremely powerful tool for organizing at a local level.
"People have this idea that you want to go online to get to the world. But getting online to come to our communities is crucial as well," he said,
He pointed to his own neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minn., as a success story.
"We opened our forum and someone said they wanted a community garden and 20 people said, 'Me too!'" A year later, he said, they have a garden.
In keeping with the community theme, many of the options now being discussed stem from a June gathering where 75 community activists and technology leaders met to brainstorm ideas.
The office plans to continue the discussion at a monthly Meetup Group, which will gather again July 26.
But Clift warned that one problem the Borough President's office will likely face is how to deal with harsh government criticism on its sites. The project will need to find a way to prevent censorship or it risks alienating users, he said.
Stringer's office acknowledged that deciding how to regulating user content is a concern and that they are currently looking into different ways to handle content on the site.