In a way, Dear City resembles a multi-city digital guestbook. Everyone can join the fun by leaving a note on a city of choice. How did you come up with this idea? Were you inspired by a real-life equivalent?
One day, sometime in August 2009, we met our mutual friend and co-founder, Henrik Ralf Nielsen, to discuss the idea of a digital music event calendar for Copenhagen. But as day turned to night – and one beer turned into quite a few – the conversation got more intense and segued into a several hour rant on the “first world problems” of Copenhagen: Why didn’t they put a bike lane there? Why did this music venue close? Why are apartments so expensive here? We realized that we all had these questions – but no real outlet for our opinions. At the same time, we were aiming for something a little more easy-going, fun, and simple to use than writing to local government, alerting a newspaper, or starting an online discussion. And although we were all using Twitter and Facebook back then, these didn’t feel like the right channels for the conversations we had in mind – they would only reach people in our own networks, so the message might get lost and drowned out by all the network noise. Later that night, we reserved the kærekbh.dk domain (“Kære København” translates as “Dear Copenhagen”).
Your color-coded notes correspond to specific categories. How did you come up with this particular range of topics? Did you refine the selection with any late additions or deletions?
This was actually quite a difficult task. The first version of our website simply named categories after the different departments within the municipality of Copenhagen. When we extended the project to new cities we had to update the categories to suit any city around the world. Eventually, we discovered the OECD’s Classification of the Functions of Government (COFOG). This system classifies government expenditure by funding purpose. We used this classification as a starting point, modified the selection, and added our own categories.
You started the project in your hometown: Was there something in particular you wanted to tell the city of Copenhagen at the time?
We didn’t have very specific comments on Copenhagen, but thought that there was an obvious need for a space where you could easily leave a message.
You recently switched from Dear Copenhagen to Dear City with post-its addressed to global cities. Have you noticed recurring complaints or praise across the globe? Do people converge in their wants and needs?
A lot of messages concern bicycle infrastructure, public transportation, rent, and social behavior. However, the most popular topic by far remains bicycle infrastructure. It seems to be a hot topic anywhere, from Nashville to Bangalore and Tallinn.
Writing something down is meant to help us accept certain issues or even feel better about them. Is that one of your intentions with Dear City? A platform to vent – and disperse – our anger?
Yes. We are all used to the occasional social network rant from a friend or family member. Some people share to get feedback, others just share to get something off their chests. We would love it if Dear City had a therapeutic effect, but that is definitely not our declared goal. The site’s prime purpose is to provide an open platform for anything people would like to write, hopefully leading to actual change by translating these messages (rants, complaints, suggests) into tangible actions.
Do you know if any of those in charge – e. g. city officials or planners – pay attention to the website?
When we launched Dear City for Copenhagen, the mayor said that he found it a very interesting tool to facilitate communication between citizen and politicians. Later on, we actually helped to set up sites for other cities in Denmark who wanted to invite citizens to participate in conversations about future urban planning and the development of new areas. This provided us with a lot of valuable insights into how to improve our platform to serve not only the citizens, but also officials looking for communication and a knowledge-sharing platform.
Perhaps the greatest success story involves the city of Hillerød – they had asked for a spin-off “Hej Hillerød” site. The city’s mayor was active on the site nearly every day, commenting on each post-it, and discussing these issues with their authors. The site actually had to be shut down after six months because it had become too time consuming! At the same time, it was a definite success, highlighting the effect of direct dialog between those in power and their subjects. Although our dream is to effect change through Dear City, the number one priority right now is a smooth and seamless website experience to make sure sharing your message is as easy as possible. This will help to build a strong online community filled with great content.
Generally speaking: Do people dole out more praise or complaints?
Overall, the messages are quite positive. Even when people are ranting or complaining, the overall tone tends to be fairly positive. Having to start each message with “Dear…” introduces a certain degree of formality and seems to soften one’s anger.
There are many messages proclaiming love for the city, while messages that could be considered “negative” tend to be more specific and address particular issues. Outright “I hate you!” stickies are very rare.
What are some of your favorite notes? Positive or negative?
Mikael: I would have to pick the following due to topic’s current media relevance and since it is about my own hometown. “Dear Toronto, can we do something about Rob Ford (editor’s note: mayor of Toronto)?”
Philip: I have seen quite a lot of funny notes on social behavior. This one from Chicago made me LOL, so to say. “Dear Chicago, people who stand on the left side of the CTA escalators fill me with murderous rage. MURDEROUS RAGE!!!”
Skipping through these messages, some really make me want to visit the places in questions thanks to their direct and emotional quality. Is Dear City also a secret travel advisory?
When we designed Dear City we always thought that it would be a place for you to write about your own city and your own neighborhood, but it turns out that people are also using it more and more to leave small notes on cities they have visited. Often enough, these messages are very emotional and vivid, which is very inspiring to read. We have already started working on an update which makes it easier to discover messages on other cities and plan to keep designing new features that address the needs of our users. So, who knows what the future holds for Dear City.
The growing collection of assembled thoughts throws up some interesting sociological questions – it is a great document of our life and times. Has the data been analyzed at all?
We would like to develop detailed geo tagging and text analysis to break down topics, people, places, and themes on a local to global scale. However, this might have to wait until the next version or until we find some machine-learning genius to join our small team.
All of the post-its are anonymous, which makes it sound like a collective is speaking to the city. Was this your intent when you opted for anonymity?
Displaying any information on the author – a picture, name, or background info – could bias your reading of the message, so we chose to keep it anonymous. There is also a voting system that allows users to “agree” or “disagree” with messages. When you have an idea that represents the opinion of 800 people, authorship becomes a lot less relevant. The message should thrive on the strength of numbers – the collective societal opinion – rather than the single voice who penned it.
All images, incl. the header, by Dear City
Interview by Lia Pack