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It’s already being used in New York to help citizens take action on issues they care about. Now the Change By Us web app is on its way to Amsterdam, thanks to a Code for Europe project.

Change By Us allows users to post ideas on how they would improve their city. They are then directed to projects that can help them, or encouraged to start their own.

Code for Europe fellows Giovanni Maggini and Ohyoon Kwon, who were placed with the City of Amsterdam, are working on the project, which is running under the Dutch title of Idee Voor Je Buurt.

Kwon says: “Amsterdam wanted to take citizens’ voices more seriously, so it wanted to create an official communications channel the city had to listen to.”

Maggini says: “It’s not complicated to start a platform to start discussions, but it gets more complicated when you get to official channels. You’re even sent paper letters!”

“It’s open source, taken seriously and used in cities already – there was no need to start from scratch,” Kwon adds.

The team looked at other solutions – including Textizen, a US system which allows people to send feedback via text messages – before deciding Change By Us was versatile enough to suit Amsterdam’s needs.

“It’s not just about reusing it, we can also add new features – so if we wanted to add a text messaging function, then we could do that,” Kwon says.

Voting up ideas

One feature added for the Amsterdam version is the ability vote up ideas.

“Good ideas should bubble up, so there’s a way to ‘like’ support certain ideas by voting them up – you can’t vote down,” Maggini explains.

There are three main roles on the site. Users can be members, or city leaders – local politicians, for example. Or they can be a resource – which could be a council service, a local voluntary group, or another body.

The website’s being tested in the west of the city, and is being fine-tuned ahead of being launched in the city’s 460-plus neighbourhoods in February.

City of Amsterdam policy advisor Juan-Carlos Goilo, who is in charge of rolling it out across those neighbourhoods, says Change By Us is a “perfect match” .

“We learned from New York’s experience that it’s necessary to have good resources before people start using it,” he explains.

“As soon as they get working on a project, the questions start coming in – can we hire a building? How many chairs can we have?

“Right now, we have to push professionals at street level – people involved in youth work, and so on – to get them on the platform, and ask them ‘what would make this platform work for you?’"

'Oh, you do the same thing!'

Cutting through city bureaucracy has been hard work, but the process of introducing Change By Us is already bringing people together.

Maggini says: “We found people who worked 200 metres apart on similar things hadn’t heard of each other. One achievement was to bring all these people to the table – they all said, ‘oh, you do the same thing!’”

Being part of the Code for Europe programme, which places fellows at city administrations across the continent, has helped Amsterdam save money, Goilo says.

“It gives me more leverage to promote open innovation,” he explains. “It’s better to work with open source and open data instead of giving a load of businesses big contracts.

“Websites like this will cost a little bit of money to promote, but otherwise we’ll be saving money.”

For Goilo, open source is the key to making public services a lot more efficient.

“Open source means we can really innovate,” he says.

“We can either just digitise services – bolting it onto the way we work now – or we can do a lot more to create a whole new working environment.”