Former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom thinks it can.

In his book, “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government,” Newsom gives examples of how citizen engagement is being improved by technology and calls for that progress to continue.

I didn’t read the book, but Beth Simone Noveck, who led the White House’s 2009 Open Government Initiative, reviewed the book for SFGate. She said Newsom recommends Youtube to improve access to government meetings, and suggests governments open up data to both tech giants and entrepreneurs.

In the review the example of Stamen Design was given, a San Francisco-based firm that built a crime stats platform. If you hear sirens you deserve to know what happened, the site states. The crime statistics can be sorted in a variety of ways, including by time— so people can know which areas to avoid at night.

Portland’s crime statistics are online at, an amazing interactive mapping site that even allows residents to offer tips on each incident. The basic information on crime is there— and the next step would be the information to hold police accountable for things like 911 response time and use of force complaints.

Noveck was doubtful that the fun some people have on Farmville can be carried over to citizen involvement, but agrees that technology can lead to a more open and participatory government. I have my doubts as well.

Technology can convey information that serves as a rallying point for neighbors, but the issues of unresponsive elected leaders and scant resources remain. Technology as a networking and organizing tool seems most promising to me, because whether its a salvo of emails or a rally in the streets— it takes people to push change.