South Burlington residents can now engage with their local government officials via the Consensus phone application. The app, conceptually introduced at a March press conference, was released for download following another press conference in the South Burlington City Hall on Monday. 

The Consensus app aims to build trust between governing bodies and citizens through real-time communication on hot ticket issues from road conditions to city council discussions. South Burlington officials hope the real-time interaction will help speed up the decision-making process between city council and other governing bodies’ meetings. 

Consensus is South Burlington’s second blockchain technology pilot program. Blockchain technology is a secure system developed about a decade ago to create a transparent, immutable and decentralized platform for collecting and protecting data. It works by sending data across a network of computers, rather than being generated and stored in one location. This process ensures all information in a chain is public and verifiable.

The Consensus app can be downloaded for free via the Apple App Store or Google Play. After accessing it, users are asked to prove their South Burlington residency. Once that information is verified, the individual is granted access to a series of both open and closed-answer questions which can be filled out to help city leaders better understand public opinion on a myriad of topics. For example, an issue discussed at a Monday night city council meeting might be put forth in a question on the app to help councilors get feedback before their next meeting, said Director of Community Engagement and Innovations Coralee Holm. 

Holm met with councilors as well as South Burlington department heads to see which issues they’d like to poll residents on via Consensus. The city then developed its first list of questions which were entered into a dashboard and released to the public via the app. Holm said city committees are also looking forward to adding questions. 

“We have social media, we have the website, and people can call us. But how many folks have a smartphone that they could just answer [questions with]?” she said. “I think it opens the eyes [of] some citizens who don’t even know what questions we’re considering.”

At the conference, city council chairwoman Helen Riehle expressed her enthusiasm for the new civic engagement tool. However, she assured South Burlington residents Consensus will not be the only avenue to share their opinions with local leaders. Councilors and city employees will still look for input from meetings, phone calls, emails, letters to the editor in local newspapers, comments on social media and face-to-face interactions. 

“Having this technology where a member of the public can provide secure input to the council and city government on a never ending series of issues that we can front will just be invaluable,” Riehle said. “None of this, of course, is going to work unless the public downloads the app and then utilizes it.”

Riehle noted some residents may be reluctant to share their information on an app but turned to Consensus Chief Executive Officer Oleg Gutsol and Chief Security Officer Dustin Plett’s explanation of the app’s privacy and safety features to reassure them.

“We’re very confident in the security and privacy of our technology,” Plett said. He added that downloading the app begins with a multilevel verification process to prove residency. This prevents outside influence in the city’s decision making. “Around the world this has become an issue, we’re looking to build solutions that solve and tackle these very important problems,” Plett said. 

Another security feature is securing data at the source. Securing data at the source means the data that is most important to users only leaves their device if they authorize it to, according to Plett. 

To those concerned about Consensus on the whole, Gutsol explains that much of the company’s technology is open source. 

“Anybody can take a look at what actually is happening with code: inspect the code, inspect the blockchain itself,” he said. 

Additionally, Consensus is working closely with data regulators around Vermont. 

At the state level, Attorney General T.J. Donovan has been keeping an eye on blockchain technology and is eager to see the economic impact it may soon have on the state. 

“We’re in a competitive world … Vermont’s gotta compete, South Burlington’s gotta compete and you gotta invest in technology in order to be competitive,” Donovan said at the press conference. “[By] investing in blockchain technology, public-private partnerships, working with great companies like Consensus, South Burlington is in the vanguard of what Vermont should be doing.”

The pilot is projected to last about three to four months but could go longer depending on citizen engagement and the app’s success, according to Plett. On the city end, creators hope to see officials’ goal of faster decision making aided by the app. 

“If we could end this pilot project with Kevin [Dorn] saying, ‘you made my life easier in this one place,’ I think we’d be very satisfied,” Plett said. 

While Consensus is a Toronto-based company, Gutsol and Plett said they will have a presence in South Burlington during the pilot. They hope to move on to commercial ventures following the South Burlington pilot program.

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