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Public Consultation

Why Authentication and Privacy are Critical to Online Engagement


Identity Verification on Airbnb / Image: Forbes

What you will learn in this post:

  • The importance of legitimacy in engagement
  • Why a lack of legitimacy can ruin your consultation (includes example)
  • How authentication creates legitimacy
  • Why privacy is key to authentication

Banking, shopping, learning, even connecting with like-minded people — these can all now be done at the click of a mouse or a swipe of an app. As the distinction between online and IRL (“in real life”) blurs, our networked lives are increasingly becoming our real lives, making digital identity authentication ever more crucial. Processes of authenticating one’s identity — that is, proving that you are the person who you say you are — already exist in the physical world without much fanfare. People are required to show identification in order to open a bank account, vote, or board an airplane. Online authentication is increasingly becoming the norm, with people having to verify their identity or addresses to use apps such as AirBnb.

In public consultation, the ability for organizations to reach and engage with larger numbers of citizens is one of the core advantages of online engagement over offline. However, how can you ensure that online participants are as responsible for their actions and comments online as they are offline (e.g. at a townhall meeting)? We refer to this as “legitimacy”. Data collected from a legitimate consultation can be used with the knowledge that the information is valid and defensible.

A cautionary tale about lack of legitimacy comes from the City of Encinitas, CA. They had selected an online citizen engagement software to consult on housing within a specific area. The project soon had to be scrapped because the platform did not authenticate participants’ real names or whether they lived in the area. The comments became increasingly spammy and useless, with people participating using the names of celebrities or TV characters. This acted as a disincentive for legitimate, well-intentioned people to participate and led to data that was impossible to use for decision-making.

This example demonstrates why it is essential to understand what makes an online consultation legitimate. Simply hoping that an anonymous consultation does not get infiltrated by trolls is not an effective strategy. This leaves two important questions:

  1. How do we ensure people take responsibility for their words?
  2. Can this be done effectively while maintaining a person’s right to privacy?

The Answer is Authentication

PlaceSpeak’s solution is to have people authenticate who they are by providing real names and addresses. The notion of providing real names and addresses is not a new one, particularly in the realm of public consultations. Indeed, verifying who you are is a hallmark of consultation processes.

One of the first things participants are asked to do at many open houses is to put on a name tag and introduce themselves before speaking. Most focus groups sessions start with a roundtable introduction, where participants state their name and interests. Perhaps most pertinently, municipalities and governments require people to provide their name and residential address before being added to the speakers list at public hearings.

PlaceSpeak users must also geo-verify themselves during the signup process using our unique location-based technology to confirm their address. This critical step reduces trolls and spammers and turns an anonymous online forum into a legitimate consultation, creating valid and reliable data that can confidently be used to influence policy. That’s why geo-verification is the first point to consider in our community engagement software buyer’s guide. Once users are authenticated, they have the option to be publicly anonymous in discussion forums without compromising the legitimacy of the data.

Privacy is Key

Naturally, there are questions that arise around the provision of real names and addresses. Here at PlaceSpeak, we are often asked, “How can I ensure that my personal information is not shared when I sign up?” This is something that can and does happen with market research companies and social networks where your details are sold to third parties or used for targeted advertising.

At PlaceSpeak, user privacy is core to our mission. PlaceSpeak is a Privacy by Design ambassador, and we are proud to emphasize that the privacy of our users is of the utmost importance.

When users sign up, PlaceSpeak collects the minimum amount of information required for an accurate geo-verification process (address, email, phone number). We do not ask for demographic information, market-based information or personal information such as age, gender, etc. PlaceSpeak stores data on secure servers throughout the life cycle. Personal information is never sold, exchanged, transferred, or given to any other company for any reason. Additionally, PlaceSpeak does not share any information about our users with advertisers or third parties.

Additionally, PlaceSpeak sets privacy as the default setting. We have probably all experienced this: we log in to Facebook only to find that our privacy settings have been changed, making posts or photos which were previously only visible to friends now publicly available. In contrast, even if PlaceSpeak users do not check or maintain their privacy settings, there will be no nasty surprises. Their personal information still remains private by default. In addition, organizations running consultations never have access by design to the private information of participants.

Finally, PlaceSpeak is 100% transparent and open about how we operate. As a civic engagement platform, we expect our users to be authentic and “keep it real”. In return, we are committed to doing the same. Our privacy policy is easy to access from our homepage and is publicly available for review. We have created an explainer video, which details our privacy policies and how PlaceSpeak treats and protects personal information. We showcase the privacy policy each time an organization sets up a consultation topic.

If you found this post interesting and useful, we’d appreciate if you would share and subscribe to our blog.

To get started with your online public consultation, visit placespeak.com.


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