Emerson game raises community health awareness

by Jackson Ellison / Beacon Correspondent • February 8, 2017

Gordon oversaw Community PlanIt, which promotes civic action online
Courtesy of Eric Gordon
Gordon oversaw Community PlanIt, which promotes civic action online
Courtesy of Eric Gordon

Town hall meetings may become a thing of the past thanks to the work of the Emerson Engagement Lab and their gaming platform Community PlanIt. The platform, which makes it possible for people to participate in civic discussion online, has been named a semi-finalist for the Innovation in American Government Awards.

Christina Wilson, the program’s manager at the lab, said that Community PlanIt is structured into missions, where people answer questions to solve a problem in the public sector. Users then pledge digital coins to real-life causes over a three-week period. The three causes with the most digital capital are awarded funding.

While the platform is being recognized as a whole, the Engagement Lab submitted a specific version of the platform for consideration. This is “What Matters for Health,” an iteration of Community PlanIt created in a partnership between the Lab and Brigham and Women’s Hospital to help allocate funds and raise health-consciousness in five Boston neighborhoods: Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Mission Hill, and Roxbury.

The goal of the game isn’t only about helping mend local problems, but also to start conversations between community members about what needs to be improved.

“It’s basically a social platform that rewards you for engaging with other people’s comments on the site,” Wilson said. “It structures deliberate conversation in planning processes.”

Eric Gordon, the director of the Emerson Engagement Lab, said that the idea for “What Matters for Health” came from discussions with the Boston Public Health Commission.

Wanda McClain, vice president of community health and health equality for Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said in a promotional video for the game that community involvement in the game has been crucial.

“We don’t have all the answers, and people in neighborhoods have answers that we probably would never had come to” McClain said in the video. “We want to hear what they have to say.”

The local winners in “What Matters for Health” were programs aimed at increasing the availability of nutritious, farm fresh food for Dorchester residents, and pairing young people with seniors by having meals together.

“What Matters for Health” and other Community PlanIt projects differ from other platforms of civil discussion because it allows for younger people to voice their opinion.

“We get usually between 25 and 30 percent of players being under the age of 18, so that’s a tremendous amount of youth participation,” Wilson said.

The Community PlanIt platform has also made its way into education all around Massachusetts. Teachers are using it to structure conversations about social issues and also to teach students about how civic processes work, Wilson said.

The awards are hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. They nationally recognized programs designed to bring creativity to public service. The Engagement Lab’s work is one of 100 semi-finalists still in the running for the grand prize of $100,000 in grant money.  

The next step towards winning the Ash award is being selected as one of the ten finalists in March. The two winners will be announced in June