Friday, December 15, 2017

Nextdoor and Houston: A Language Barrier, but an Opportunity

I've previously written about my experience on Nextdoor, and how the platform has been turning some of us in to modern day Gladys Kravitzes. It's full of lost pet announcements (which honestly seems to be the primary function in many neighborhoods), those looking for apartment or home rentals, dry cleaning or dining recommendations, people trying to sell things, notices about crime, and any other suspicious activity that might be taking place.

Earlier this week it was announced that the City of Houston would be partnering with the neighborhood communication application, Nextdoor, in an official capacity. Many may ask, "Well, doesn't the city already make announcements on Nextdoor?" I know I did. And, yes, you'd be correct. Many city departments are already making posts on the neighborhood networking site. For instance, the Houston and Community Development Department began posting on Nextdoor in October of 2016. The Office of Emergency Management posts notices on the site, which was instrumental in notifying residents about all of Houston's recent flooding events, especially through Hurricane Harvey. Now, it appears even more City of Houston communication will be forwarded to residents through Nextdoor. What was originally introduced as a way for neighbors to connect has now become an extension of civic infrastructure.

In an age of digital dependence and busyness, coupled with the need for government transparency, this sort of partnership is wise for localities. However, unlike a bus announcement or printed material, Nextdoor isn't readily translated in other languages. This is a huge drawback for civic engagement, especially for a multi-lingual city like Houston.

In the announcement city leaders set goals for engagement on the application, but that brought to mind the barrier of translating announcements in so many different languages. Take Houston's Gulfton neighborhood for example, where a multitude of languages are spoken. This is arguably Houston's most diverse neighborhood, a place where many refugees call home upon their arrival to Houston. Official announcements and the continued opportunity to become aware of events in the community are a great way for people to become woven into the social fabric of a neighborhood.

It may be helpful to learn about people's experiences using Nextdoor in these diverse communities. In our neighborhood, Houston's Near Northside, and specifically the Near Northside South neighborhood on Nextdoor, the application predicts that only 6% of the estimated 2019 households in the boundary are enrolled in Nextdoor. Our neighborhood also happens to be overwhelmingly Hispanic or Latino. Certainly, the political climate surrounding citizenship in many Hispanic and Latino communities may be a factor as well. While there is nothing seemingly preventing residents from posting in other languages, it doesn't seem that posts in other languages are common. (Or allowed? There was nothing in Nextdoor's guidelines.)

If Nextdoor is set on continuing to be a valuable connection for residents, there needs to be an adaptation of its services to reflect the communities it serves. A translation tool is something that would be of great benefit. Nextdoor, if you'd like to beta test some sort of language translation tool for your platform, come to Houston. We'd love to have you. There's no doubt that with the host of innovative talent Nextdoor was conceived from, coupled with the talent and motivation of those in Houston, we can make Nextdoor even more useful for the changing demographics of our cities and neighborhoods.

While technological advancements that better facilitate communication through multiple languages will be a benefit to communities, there won't be a better way to get to know your neighbors than getting to know them through the normal rhythms of life. Our design of cities and neighborhoods, and the services and opportunities they provide, also play a role in giving people ample ways to meet their neighbor. As civic leaders, we can't rely solely on Nextdoor or digital platforms to spread information. We need to know our neighbors aside from interacting with them on a computer or phone screen.