Nextdoor: A Neighborly Social Network Connecting Residents and Local Governments

 Social Network Nextdoor launches free digital communications alternative


Nextdoor, the private, neighbor-to-neighbor social network, recently launched a promising and free digital communications alternative for counties and local governments called Nextdoor for Public Agencies​.

The company, which has long focused on creating and maintaining safe communities through fostering a sort of virtual neighborhood watch, chose to launch the new feature on the National PrepareAthon! Day of Action.

The social network’s model differs greatly from Facebook and Twitter, though some of the functionality seems familiar. Users must verify their address using one of several methods, including the decidedly low-tech postcard, before joining. From there, they will be able to connect only with those in their neighborhood and surrounding community. Now, local government can join, too.

“It’s not about sharing status updates and pictures, it’s about solving problems. The Nextdoor platform is, at its core, very well-positioned to help with crime and safety and emergency response,” said Nextdoor co-founder Sarah Leary, pointing out successes following recent California earthquakes and wildfires during a telephone interview from the company’s San Francisco headquarters. 

Nextdoor for Public Agencies gives local governments a line into Nextdoor’s private neighborhood networks to communicate with residents, not only about issues happening countywide, but also those specific to their part of the county or even just their neighborhood. And counties don’t need to entice residents to follow them or “Like” them on the platform. By signing up for Nextdoor for Public Agencies, they’ll get access to everyone in the county who uses the site.

“We really wanted to build something designed to create two-way conversation and really engender community-building. That was really at the heart of the motivation for getting county officials and residents to be able to talk to each other. Anything that encourages neighbors to know each other is going to help build a stronger and safer community,” she said.

The company has been piloting their local government partnership program during the past year with 250 city and county departments, including partnerships with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Tarrant and Travis counties. The official rollout of Nextdoor for Public Agencies means it is now available in all 254 Texas counties to all county departments, including commissioners’ courts, sheriff’s offices, fire departments, EMS and emergency management offices. 

“My impression is that Nextdoor has been a blessing for us, helping to keep our constituents up to date on crime developments in a very targeted way,” said Alan Bernstein, director of Public Affairs at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

The Harris County Sherriff’s Office joined Nextdoor in January 2014 as part of the pilot and initially used it to share safety tips and program updates. They soon expanded to sending proactive and targeted policing updates and emergency notifications that were targeted directly to affected neighborhoods in unincorporated areas of Harris County. The sheriff’s department eventually added department representatives to the account so citizens could interact directly with the deputies who patrol the neighborhood and get updates from them. 

“I think that has been one of the most powerful things we’ve been able to do,” said Parisa Safarzadeh, digital media manager for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. “People used to know who patrolled their neighborhood, but over the years that’s changed. A lot of people don’t even know many of their neighbors anymore. This is helping neighborhoods reconnect and helping us connect with the community outside of the typical law enforcement or emergency dynamic. For example, during a patrol, a deputy might see garage doors open and then just leave a friendly reminder post for that neighborhood mentioning what they saw and include some crime and safety tips.”

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office is no stranger to digital communications. The department regularly uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Nixle, YouTube, Google+ and a smartphone app called iWatch Harris County. One of the biggest pluses is knowing that the communications sent out through Nextdoor go to Harris County residents, Safarzadeh said.

“Facebook and Twitter and the others are great tools, but we have followers from across the state and across the world there. Anyone can follow us,” she said. 

The benefit of Nextdoor’s rather rigorous verification process is that Safarzadeh knows the communications sent out are going to real residents of the nearly 400 active Nextdoor neighborhoods in Harris County. 

According to Nextdoor, the site is used by one in four neighborhoods nationwide. There are currently 5,162 neighborhoods in 996 communities across Texas using the social network. Neighbors are using it to connect with each other about issues in their communities like public safety, planning events, local services and lost pets. Each neighborhood has its own private Nextdoor neighborhood site, accessible only to that neighborhood’s residents who can verify they live there.

Counties can now connect with those communities, too, and use Nextdoor to send periodic and geographically targeted information to specific neighborhoods, groups of neighborhoods, or the entire county. Counties can use the site to share helpful information with their residents, like safety alerts, crime watch information, burn ban notices, disaster preparedness tips and immediate emergency alerts. 

“Nextdoor is a really powerful way for officials to build positive relationships with the community outside of the event of an emergency and bring those relationships to the neighborhood level,” said Leary.

Residents are notified of updates to their neighborhood network by mobile app push, email, desktop notifications or text message, depending on how they’ve chosen to receive updates. Posts to Nextdoor can also be automatically pushed out to a county’s Facebook page or Twitter account. 

Each Nextdoor neighborhood is started and moderated by a resident in that neighborhood. Nextdoor refers to these community leaders as a neighborhood lead, and counties using Nextdoor have the ability to identify and message the neighborhood leads directly. County residents can also send private messages to county staff through the platform, but robust privacy controls mean counties will not be able to see the posts or conversations users have with each other within the private neighborhood networks. 

“We’re committed to privacy for our users. There’s a lot of chatter that goes on within these neighborhoods, like planning for a Fourth of July picnic, and law enforcement doesn’t need or want to know who’s bringing the hotdogs,” said Leary.

Leary also said the company has worked hard to take into account the varying command structures and service areas local governments operate in, as well as the complex web of laws and regulations. Counties can customize the accounts of various county departments on Nextdoor to reflect these differences. 

Nextdoor also took pains to make sure that adhering to the Open Records Act while using their privacy-centric site is easy, and running afoul of the Open Meetings Act is hard. A granular level of control over administrative rights helps keep the focus for each county representative on the constituents and the area they serve. All posts and conversation threads started by government agencies on Nextdoor are also publicly available and never archived. A date-centered search function and the ability to export the posts and conversations in different file formats is in the works.  

Nextdoor exists in a crowded digital world, competing against numerous social media and digital communications tools like Twitter, Facebook, Nixle, Craigslist and others. The company has found a way to coexist in this competitive world by co-opting what their competitors do and applying it to a local community network. In the end, it looks more like a modern take on the community message board, but with the company going from just a handful of neighborhoods in 2011 to more than 40,000 nationwide in 2014, it’s clearly struck a chord. 

Leary said Nextdoor will always be free for residents and local governments. The website currently is funded by prominent tech investors as it expands across the U.S. Counties interested in joining Nextdoor and connecting with their constituents online can visit to get find out more.


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