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City Time

Now that I am PlaceMatters’ “East Coast Office,” I get to hear WNYC’s Radiolab actually on my radio (I had been one of their many podcast followers).  Radiolab is a fun, science-themed show, and a recent broadcast focused on some of the science and stories around cities. Frequent travelers know that each city has its own “feel.” Radiolab’s guest,  Dr. Robert Levine of Cal State, argues that some of this feel comes from differences in pacing, both literally–he times how fast people walk–and with respect to a variety of other metrics he has explored, including how many people wear watches, how quickly residents talk, or how long it takes a bank teller to change a twenty dollar bill. Part of what is striking about Dr. Levine’s research is that the pace at which people walk in each city is incredibly consistent.  On one end, Dublin walkers are speedy, taking 10.7 seconds to cover 60 feet, while at the other end, pedestrians in Buchanan, Liberia stroll 60 feet in 21 seconds.

Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt from the Sante Fe Institute are physicists whose research indicates that the pace to each city has some logic.  They claim that if given the walking pace, they can tell you the population, average wage, crime, GDP, number of colleges, restaurants, patents, cultural events, and cases of certain diseases because all these factors are related to one thing–size.  As a city scales up, these characteristics also scale up.  Less than 15% (or so) of the factors that they measure are attributable to specific things like location.

Because these numbers are so consistent, cities can look at the math and determine their “performance”.  A city can determine if they “need” more cultural events, or innovation (via patents), and prepare for crime or public health problems.  Of course there a many qualitative factors that change what cities are like, but this research can serve as a benchmark for a variety of services.

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: December 21, 2010

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation posts about an effort to create a “culture of dialogue.”

NCDD also explores an idea they call “deliberative hospitality,” which is basically a fancy – but useful – way of saying “be nice to people who show up to the public engagement meeting.”

Community PlanIT blog gives an update on their Engagement Game Lab project and on two Community PlanIT game projects in Philadelphia and Akron.

Public Decisions posted about PlaceMatters’ video on DiamondTouch, a very cool multi-person touchtable engagement tool. Thanks for the link, Public Decisions!

e-Participation and Online Deliberation reflects on the role of deliberation in e-participation.

America Speaks writes about the White House’s public input experiment, using a wiki for soliciting public feedback on a Request for Information, and makes suggestions for improving the experiment next time around.

They blogged about the project itself, as well – designing a new platform for online input – a few days earlier.

Orton Family Foundation posted about the block party community engagement efforts in Golden, Colorado (where I happen to be mayor). Their site seems to be down now but hopefully will come back up soon.

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: December 13, 2010

Next American City writes about the future of hyperlocal media and its relationship to urban planning. The question of how hyperlocal media shapes community decision making is a great one and worth some exploration.

People and Place explores the idea of social learning, touching on how facilitation and process design can have social learning implications.

“Knowing what is special and unique about a community is the source of authenticity in planning,” writes the Orton Family Foundation blog in post about identifying shared values as part of community planning.

e-Participation and Online Deliberation posted a lengthy two-part discussion on interface and system design for effective deliberation, highlighting the importance of elements like reciprocal and networked input.

Spare Change blogs about the potential of immersive technology tools.

Public Decisions announced a call for proposals for interactive games and mobile applications for public engagement.

Augmented Reality posts about an interesting use case: using the augmented reality app on your mobile device to see what you look like wearing those clothes you are thinking about buying. More complex applications – changing architectural skins on buildings, for instance – could be pretty useful in community or project planning efforts.

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation writes about two USA Today articles on civic participation and reflects, in a separate post, about the value of public engagement.

PlaceMatters writes about Buckyballs . . . not really related to civic participation and community decision making but they sure are fun.

Brainstorm Anywhere back in the cloud

Brainstorm Anywhere is under ongoing development but inches closer to a beta release. After losing hosting with Aptana Cloud (because of site closure) we have moved the site over to Rackspace Cloud. So far, so good!

We are also now working on an integrated translation feature, better text analysis and theme detection, and segmented keypad polling so tables and breakout groups can vote independently of the larger group.

Brainstorm Anywhere is currently at  Want to use it on a project, contact PlaceMatters to see how you can use Brainstorm Anywhere on your next public engagement project.

Educational Planning/Architecture Toys

Basket made out of BuckyballsIn Jacob’s weekly round-up, he mentions Chris Steins’ Planetizen post on toys for budding planners.  As a contributor to the Planetizen blog, I responded with my favorite pick–Buckyballs!

Since it is Black Friday today, I figured I would make another pitch for these small but surprisingly strong magnetic balls and how fun it is to tinker with them. A birthday gift to my wife a few weeks ago, my two sons and I quickly commandeered them and have already clocked multiple hours shaping them into cool objects and designs, including struggling to reconstruct  the 6X6X6 cube they come ship in.

Included is a photo of a basket my son Jeremy made.

And here is a link to a 9 second video (BuckyballsDemo) I made showing how the Buckyballs easily pop out of unstable forms into more stable (and more interesting) forms–one of the reasons it is so difficult to recreate the 6X6X6 cube. If I was really smart, I’m sure these things would give me great insight on the structure of molecules, how to build indestructible buildings, and yin and yang. I’ll count on my kids to figure these things out while I simply work on building some more nice symmetric objects.

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: November 15, 2010

The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities published a report on digital and media literacy needs. Their findings may speak to some of the opportunities and limitations of using technology-based civic participation tools.

New York University announced a new community visioning tool called Betaville. It sounds like it has potential as a multi-stakeholder open source visualization and planning tool. The key questions (as always) include: what’s the learning curve and implementation costs, what are the data requirements, how well does it work in an actual multi-stakeholder planning process? The Rebuilding Place in the Urban Spaces blog offers some words of caution about Betaville and about technology-based tools in general.

The City Fix posts about a cool new mobility mapping tool called Mapnificent designed to illustrate how far you can travel from a specific point within a specific time period on foot and using public transit. It’s not hard to imagine how a tool like this might be helpful in community planning, especially if someone figures out how to link this with visualization or modeling tools making it easy to project how mobility would change under different policy and investment scenarios.

The Transportationist had a nice post a few weeks back about the challenge of designing for customers when the customers themselves often don’t know quite what they want.

Planetizen has a roundup of the some of the best toys and games for budding young urban planners. We do mean the young ones.

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: November 11, 2010

The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation released a new “Resource Guide on Public Engagement.”

AmericaSpeaks surveys online public input tools.

CommunityMatters reviews their Gov 2.0 teleconference last week.

Allison Fine posts about the Case Foundation’s review of their Make It Your Own project, an attempt to promote citizen-centered approaches to community building.

Philanthropy for Civic Engagement just released a new paper: “Civic Pathways Out of Poverty and Into Opportunity.” The paper explores how civic engagement can be used in conjunction with workforce development and other financial security goals for low-income youth and young adults.

On our own PlaceMatters blog, and in the wake of the Malcom Gladwell post that set the nonprofit world aflutter, Ken Snyder offers some thoughts on when social media tools are most effective in civic participation efforts.

Ken also writes about a recent Grist review of our “The Future We Want” project, a collaboration with Natural Capital and Arnold Imaging.

Next American City comments on improving web accessibility, an increasingly important issue for web-based community engagement efforts.

From the archive: The Association for Computing Machinery provides a “Tour Through the Visualization Zoo.”

Another from the archive: running cities like software on The Infrastructuralist (h/t to Strong Towns).

And from some weeks back: Ethan Zuckerman writes about the “gerrymander your own district” game, a fascinating attempt to engage on the messy issue of drawing congressional district boundaries.

Grist to the mill: can people be seduced into a low carbon lifestyle?

Over the months I have been collaborating with Bill Becker from Natural Capital and Jonathan Arnold from Arnold imaging on a website, exhibit, and suite of resources to help communities imagine a more sustainable future.  The central premise is that people need inspiration, not just dooms-day projections, to be motivated to pursue a more sustainable future and that many of the actions we can take to reduce our ecological footprint, can have multiple quality-of-life benefits.

Jonathan Hiskes with Grist, recently reviewed our beta website, The Future We Want.  He gave us some praise but wrapped up his blog with a healthy dosage of skepticism.

I’m intrigued. I’ve been wondering about this sort of thing and highlighting similar works on the hunch that lots of people are convinced it’s time to move beyond our sputtering fossil-fuel dependence and on to something better… The bigger problem, though, is the same reason Hollywood turns out so many dystopian movies. Danger alerts us, grabs our attention. Danger is sexy. Safety lulls us to sleep. It’s tough to make compelling drama out of a happy-green-prosperous future — even if that’s where we want to live.

I think the October issue of WIRED magazine, highlighting the huge impact the Tesla has had on the electric car industry, is a nice counterpoint to this argument.  Really well designed low carbon/high tech can be fun and enticing.

Nonetheless, I share Hiskes’ skepticism when he challenges any notion that we might be able to convince people to change their lifestyle simply by showing them beautiful 3D renderings of the future.  No doubt, it is going to take much more than that. Getting people to choose a more sustainable path for the future is less about individual choice and more about engaging in a collaborative  process with others. Along the way, people need access to good information to help them see the trade-offs and benefits of different strategies and choices.  That is why we propose a comprehensive suite of tools and resources on this site to assist communities.

Visit our beta site at and send us your comments.  I also encourage you to contribute to the debate emerging on the Grist site.

Using social media to create solutions

On the eve of the mid-term elections, Micah Sifry wrote a nice piece on social media and democracy called Point-and-Click Politics in the WSJ.  The article starts out with some of the negative impacts — the fact that people seem to be talking more than listening and getting more polarized in their political opinions.  Some great counter-examples, however, in the second half of his blog:

We are living, in short, at a contradictory moment in politics, defined by liberating technological transformation and public-policy gridlock. Ordinary citizens feel ever more powerless as they watch their elected leaders struggle and mostly fail to get anything done in the face of organized political minorities. But at the same time, each day seems to bring a new tech innovation that literally puts more power in our hands.

What’s needed is a new political synthesis akin to the “neutral point of view” balancing act that has enabled millions of people to contribute to Wikipedia despite their many differences. Call it “we government”: new forms of collaboration and service that use technology, open data and public participation to solve shared problems. This is not “e-government,” where the authorities use the Web to provide information and services, but rather an effort by citizens to refashion government as a platform connecting people around the issues and needs that matter most to them. A number of public-minded start-ups are already pointing the way.

SeeClickFix, for one, enables anyone with a phone or a Web connection to help resolve non-emergency issues in their communities, while simultaneously enabling neighborhood groups, elected officials and government service providers to see what problems need addressing. The reports are transparent and searchable online, giving everyone an incentive to respond to them. Founder Ben Berkowitz launched SeeClickFix to make it easy for people in New Haven, Conn., to report things like potholes to local government, but now the company has more than 400 paying clients, including cities like Tucson, Ariz., and Washington, D.C. More than 50,000 user-generated reports have been registered on the site since its founding, with a fix rate of more than 40%.

Another platform, Localocracy, is working on a harder problem: enabling citizens, using their real names, to have ongoing conversations about issues that typically divide towns, and expanding participation beyond the handful of people who have time to attend public meetings. Though anyone can follow discussions on Localocracy, participation is limited to people who are verified registered voters in a specific locality. The site was launched last year in Amherst, Mass., where several hundred people are using it to debate issues such as school district reorganization. Now it is slowly expanding to cover more of the state.

Two other efforts, Open311 and Civic Commons, are partnerships of government technologists and volunteer software coders. Their goal is to get public agencies to adopt open systems and collaborative technologies and to ensure their interoperability. Imagine if 150 years ago every city in America had built its rail lines on radically different gauges; train-makers could never have standardized production. In a similar way, these groups are working to enable a common platform for municipal service development, so that, for example, an iPhone app that tells you where it’s safe to walk home at night can work for any city.

“We government” is neither right nor left, small government nor big government. It is, rather, effective do-it-ourselves-government by people who want to contribute to their communities but find themselves put off by today’s hyperventilators. The Internet is transforming our politics in some worrisome ways, to be sure. But it may yet improve how we govern ourselves, giving us new tools for working together on the everyday problems of public life.

Like Localocracy, where participants are required to use their real names and verify they are registered voters in the city/neighborhood being discussed, we find social media tools are the most effective when they are connected to place and used in conjunction with face-to-face meetings.  Social media can keep people informed and provide innovative and creative means for people to contribute to the conversation.  Combining flickr’s photo/video uploading and mapping tools with Facebook, for example, we have been able to greatly enhance and expand our walkability audits in what we now call a Community Walkshop.   Participants walk the streets along with experts who can explain the form and function of urban design and what makes street vibrant and retail viable.  With phone and digital cameras,  participants become active contributors to the conversation.  Images uploaded in the morning, become the focus of the conversation during the afternoon.  Beyond the single day event, social media tools help maintain and grow a tremendous network of participants, easily plugged into future events.  Mapping tools combined with photo/video sharing, also keeps folks engaged in the conversation in constructive ways– the “We Democracy” Sifry describes.

The Monitor Institute’s Cool New Data Tool

The Monitor Institute has a new data visualization tool designed to help funders see relationships between their funding and grantmaking by other foundations but potentially useful for community planning applications. It’s a very cool tool – it offers clear, clear visualizations of multiple data layers, it’s easy to navigate, and they obviously put a lot of thought into the user interface. This could be a useful tool for mapping all of the organizations that work on a specific issue within a particular community, for instance, or for mapping the relationships between different issues in a community or regional planning process.

On first blush, there are two important elements I’d love to see on the next iteration. One is a Gapminder-type capacity to show change over time.  I like that you can change the date range, so you can see the relative longer-term investments across sectors, etc., but you can’t see trends unless you manually change the date from one year to the next – clunky and not easy to do.  The trends matter . . . a large investment this year in a subsector or by a particular foundation may mask a downward trend, which would be just as important to notice if you are trying to understand the relationships, seams, and opportunities.  The other would be some capacity to show multiple dimensions at once, again like Gapminder does.  This basically shows a single set of flat relationships on each screen.  In your mind’s eye you can build a less-flat model of how each of the flat pieces relate to one another, but the tool doesn’t really help you do that.

The distribution model is also unclear to me. If their vision is a closed, proprietary system run through the Monitor Institute, well, that might be useful for whichever funders want to play ball, but it’s a lot less useful to the rest of us. If their vision is a stand-alone, self-contained tool, I can picture a lot of very useful ways organizations could use the tool to help them map their landscapes more effectively and more clearly through strategy.

And as the Philanthropy 2173 blog reminds us, with every data visualization tool you have to ask about the data themselves. Garbage-in-garbage-out is still the rule no matter how cool the visualization tool is.

Cross-posted on the KickAssNonProfits blog.