The internet is a beautiful thing. It has the power to change the world on both a global and a local scale.

But anonymity — on social networks and in anonymous social apps — has created some of the most toxic, heinous environments known to woman and man.

It seems that every Whisper, Secret, and Yik Yak turns into a place for hate speech, or quickly becomes a hookup spot. And anonymity also keeps us from being able to use the internet and social platforms as actual agents of change in our communities.

Today, a major update to location-based citizen engagement platform PlaceSpeak not only facilitates verified, certified public consultation and participatory democracy, it aims to bring people together and connect neighborhoods.

Lofty goals, right? Here’s how PlaceSpeak works.

Developed with the support of NRC-IRAP going back to April 2011, PlaceSpeak democratizes decisions about changes to your local area. Through the use of a desktop or mobile portal, citizens can discuss concerns, vote on proposals, and respond to questions about public consultations and local issues. The app solves three major problems with traditional consultation methods.

Public meetings are full of the usual suspects and don’t tend to be representative, inclusive, or accessible. Door knocking is location-based, of course, but people don’t answer their doors anymore. And there has been a 15 percent year-over-year loss of landline telephones (plus Caller ID has made us all phone-skeptics).

By creating a PlaceSpeak account, you can verify who you are in real life — not just through the usual methods of identification — PlaceSpeak uses your location to determine that you are indeed who you say you are. Once you’re in the system, you can connect your social networks and start looking at the open issues in your area.

The system provides automated notifications of new items, based on where you live, and today’s update goes further by offering a safe space for comments, updates, discussions, and interactions between citizens. And here’s the interesting thing about those interactions:

placespeak-discussions

“When real, verified names are in use, following a location-based certification of that person’s identity, people are remarkably civil to each other,” Hugh Stimson, product manager at PlaceSpeak told me.

They discuss the local issues at hand. They work through the pros and cons. They come up with solutions and suggestions that get seen directly by those in charge of budgets and projects.

But Stimson has noticed another interesting trend.

“People tend to have a ‘circle of empathy,’ where those that are in the circle are just like them,” Stimson said. “What we’ve seen is that people using PlaceSpeak naturally widen that circle of empathy and treat each other with respect beyond those bounds.”

Why would that be? Every person you see and interact with on PlaceSpeak went through the same verification process you did. You know they’re real. You know they live near you. You know you might run into them one day. That raises the stakes.

Governments, agencies, private-sector companies, and non-profit organizations can join PlaceSpeak and start gaining the feedback of the local community. It is these organizations that pay for the service, and it gives them access to analytics, mapping, surveys, social media integration, widgets that can be embedded on their websites, and full report data. Upgrade options also provide interactive maps, KML data and shape-mapping, vanity URLs, and advanced insights.

placespeak-activity

And the location-based verification system PlaceSpeak has developed is available as an API so that third-party websites and services can use it to verify their users too.

PlaceSpeak has plans to draw information from many open data sources going forward.

“If there are other consultations going on in other people’s platforms — such as the provincial government — those will all show up in one place,” Stimson said.

One issue PlaceSpeak has is that it is almost too singular.

“It is really hard to explain what PlaceSpeak is, but it is much easier to show people what it is,” Stimson said. “We’re the only ones doing this in a place-based way and, as such, we suffer from not having enough competitors. We can’t just say we’re the ‘Uber of consultations’ for example.”

PlaceSpeak offers an interesting solution to the problem of getting citizens to care about local issues, vote on them, discuss them with each other, and affect positive change in their area, on both mobile and desktop devices. And it provides the relevant authorities with the information they need to make better decisions.

But more importantly, the high level of verification made possible by location-based certification is having a positive effect, regardless of whether that new community center is built or the transportation plan goes through.

It is bringing people of all types closer together in civil discourse.

PlaceSpeak‘s new update, which includes activity and profile pages that bring a full discussion to public consultations, is available from today.