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Participation by Design: Hacking for Good (and Profit)

This post, by PlaceMatters blogger Jason Lally, is the twelfth in a month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

We believe in collaborative process for better, enduring outcomes around community decision-making. But the collaborative process is really an overlay on any decision-making approach that needs many interested parties to negotiate and design a solution. One type of collaborative process that has come out of the programming and software development world is the hackathon.

Fall 2010 hackNY Student Hackathon

HackNY Student Hack-a-thon hosted in Fall of 2010

 Photo Credit: hackNY.org via Compfight

Think of a dance marathon, but instead of being on your feet for 48 hours, you are furiously programming and designing with a team over a similar period. And instead of raising money for a cause, you’re donating time and code to a needy nonprofit, civic group or public agency. Hackathons have also been used as testing grounds for great ideas, with investors looking for strong teams and offering capital or other rewards to help build viable businesses as featured in a recent Wired article by Steven Leckart. Even if not the explicit goal of a hackathon, new businesses can emerge from these events just from the concentrated creative power gathered in a single room.

Hackathons have become very popular among civic-minded folks in areas like transportation, government transparency and clean energy.  In the world of planning related data, transportation has probably gotten the most love. OpenPlans has really helped build a movement around opening up transportation data to build really cool apps like OpenTripPlanner and MTA BusTime (based on the open source project One Bus Away from the Puget Sound region). And Google gave open transportation apps a great big push when they released the General Transit Feed Specification (a standard format for publishing transit information in a way that computers can read and understand).

Hackathons form one piece of a larger network of activities and people that support civic hacking. Behind each hackathon are a bevy of organizations and people cheering on and supporting the effort. They host GitHub repositories, provide space, host data catalogs, volunteer time, manage listservs, build partnerships, and so on. The ecosystem of data, tools, people and organizations provide the necessary input into really successful hackathon events. It turns out that, in the end, these events are just one visible piece of the civic hacking culture. What happens before and after is just as, if not more, important to sustaining apps and solutions to really complex problems.

It was out of this realization that the PlaceMatters Decision Lab was born about 2 years ago. Nothing really changed here at PlaceMatters except adding a level of intention and strategy behind the work we were already doing.  Now, we are working on some specific projects for this year that are very exciting.  One of these projects is  a hackathon around the livability principles outlined by HUD, EPA, and DOT as part of the sustainable communities initiative, which follows on the first of these done in DC in January.

The event will be in Denver and use local, open and available data to address issues of sustainability for organizations, agencies and individuals. For example, what if you were shopping for a house in the Denver metro region and could pull up data on Zillow about your potential transportation costs in addition to your housing costs? Or what if you could know and understand your neighborhood’s transportation cost burden and use that to find, fund and advocate for alternatives? Those may not be the apps that get built, but hopefully you get the gist.

The role of PlaceMatters before, during and after the hackathon will be to sustain and build the energy locally and push apps out into other cities with similar challenges. We are looking for partners both in Denver and across the country. We want to empower people with data and information that helps move communities to better outcomes for future generations. My hope is that through the planning of this event, we can catalyze a group of developers locally and plug into other groups nationally to build the next generation of sustainability apps.

I’m already inspired by many good organizations doing related and similar work. I mentioned OpenPlans already above, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Code for America as well. Their recently rolled out the Brigade will give us and many others the ability to redeploy great new apps in other cities with much less effort than required before (read more here).  If you are interested in this, I encourage you to sign up and to get involved on the developer list serve if you are more technically inclined. This will also let you get in touch with the many region specific groups too many to mention right now that are also doing great work in their hometowns (check some out at the brigade here).

There will be a lot more to say over the coming months about this summer’s Denver hackathon and about civic hacking more broadly. For now, I encourage you to reach out to us on Twitter, by email or in the comments if you want to contribute.

Jason Lally heads up the PlaceMatters Decision Lab, PlaceMatters’ inside-out R&D lab, building a community of tinkerers, hackers, designers, coders, and practitioners dedicated to building the next generation of tools and techniques for better decision making around planning and sustainability.

Brainstorm Anywhere Update – January 2012

Just a quick update on where we are with Brainstorm Anywhere.  I’ll let the video below speak for itself, but here are the highlights on updates we’ve been working on:

  • Unified interface
  • Improved user experience
  • Batch copying of ideas
  • Quick reporting and data export functions for administrators
  • Quick filtering of ideas across multiple groups
  • Instant wordle creation
We’ll open up a limited beta when we get the administrative interface tested and cleaned up, for now sign up to be notified here.

Most Exciting Trends in 2012: Better Data and Apps for Planners

Shareabouts screenshot

Shareabouts is an open source app from OpenPlans that makes sharing ideas on a map simple.  Applications like this will make 2012 a year of more usable apps and better data for community decision making.

This past year, we’ve seen the growth of community decision making tools around planning.  In my estimation, 2012 will continue this trend and bring more usable, integrated apps to the world of community decision making, giving planners and community leaders a broader and more efficient toolkit for engaging stakeholders in a decision-making process.

In the world of mapping, we’ll see more ways for people to easily contribute to maps about the places they live.  These apps have been around for a while, but now they’re getting easier to manage and deploy.  For example, our friends at OpenPlans have an emerging platform called Shareabouts (blog | git repo), that is open source and has a clean, usable interface.  MindMixer just added maps to their web-based community idea platform, and these guys have given a lot of thought to user-centered design.  These more usable apps will increase our ability to crowdsource relevant geographic data. The mapping interfaces of yore were pretty clunky, but this will be less the case in 2012.

Continue reading

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: September 14, 2011

A very cool engagement strategy: Harry Potter-style map that reveals new areas as you travel thru a museum (h/t to All Points Blog).

Digital Urban shows off a cool augmented reality implementation: incorporating 3-D content, overlaid on the iOS video feed, that can be manipulated through user interaction in real time.

EngagingCities thinks through hackathons and some of the opportunities and challenges of government app-creation efforts.

More from EngagingCities: three fun tools (games?) for community planning.

And another post from what is our favorite blog this week: EngagingCities describes an awesome art-heavy “collaborative mapping” process in Tokyo.

There’s a really nice Nick Grossman interview courtesy of the Open Plans blog.

A new study: federal agencies need to improve public participation standards.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab created an “Urbanology” web site. Answer a series of questions and the site will create your own ideal “future city” and compare it to other cities around the world. It’s an interesting idea but the execution isn’t very strong yet. For instance, the trade-offs – an essential element in any future scenarios type of tool – just don’t make a lot of sense.

As reported on a bunch of blogs over the past couple of weeks, the White House launched a new “We the People” initiative inviting citizens to submit e-petitions seeking federal action on presumably just about anything. The system allows anyone to create a petition; if at least 150 people sign the petition it becomes publicly searchable on the White House site. The White House committed to reviewing and responding to any petition receiving at least 5,000 signatures within 30 days. You’ll find some thoughtful comments on the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation blog, and a couple of more skeptical reviews on Intellitics (“White House Petitions: The Need for Robust FAQs” and “White House Petitions: a Small Sample of Popular Feedback“).

We are technology enthusiasts at PlaceMatters, but we agree with A Planner’s Guide that technology needs to be used thoughtfully and in ways that are appropriate to the audience and the context.

A cool, sticker-based engagement project on Grist.

StreetsBlog reviews the book “Visualizing Density,” which includes photographs and descriptions of 250 neighborhoods across the country. The goal: “provide an impartial and comparative view of the many ways to design neighborhoods.” Actual photographs of actual neighborhoods aren’t what we usually think of when we talk about visualization tools, but it seems like one pretty obvious and useful approach.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: August 11, 2011

Engaging Cities writes about the recommendation engine Scoville (and Scoville rejects me for their beta because I don't have enough Facebook check-ins!).

Between presentations at the White House and the Ford Foundation’s 75th anniversary gala (we’ll blog about both of these soon), tons of amazing projects (we’ve got a team in the New River Valley of rural southwestern Virginia at this very moment), and just the general zaniness of summer we’ve got quite a backlog of great blog posts to round up:

Our friend Chris Haller on the EngagingCities blog writes about a new recommendation engine app, Scoville, built on Foursquare’s API. His take: if it works, it might be pretty useful to planners as a community asset mapping tool. Chris also posted a nice checklist for planners hoping to use social media tools in their community engagement efforts.

Digital Urban commented on Urban Sensation’s interesting approach to urban visualization, layering data on top of CCTV footage as part of an immersive sensory emulation project. Hard to explain, and pretty unclear where they’ll end up, but a creative and ambitious idea about creating engaging experiences.

Three other Digital Urban posts to note: an interesting Big Data/urban operating system concept called Urbanflow Helsinki, a creative urban design model inverting the conventional transportation paradigm [http://www.digitalurban.org/2011/07/clockwork-city.html], and a Nike-supported data visualization called YesYesNo illustrating the running patterns over the course of a year.

Open Source Planning offers another take on the Nike data visualization, noting that there’s a clear bias in the data collection (i.e., what sort of folks happen to run with the fancy iPod-Nike chip system, and what parts of New York they run in and which boroughs they avoid).

We love smart technology aimed at improving civic engagement and community decision making, and we think Next American City rocks, so we especially liked their roundup of the best city- and community-oriented technology tools.

countably infinite has a thoughtful post about the challenges of pseudonymity in community decision making.

The e-Participation and Online Deliberation blog reflects on the challenge of making technology-enabled engagement tools do more than simply gather more “trickle-up” opinions but, rather, to foster genuine engagement, conversation, and deliberation.

Intellitics comments on the role of public participation in a new Open Government Partnership.

Metropolis reports on New York City’s new app development competition.

Planetizen blogs about the Guggenheim City Laboratory and its six-year nine-city tour.

Design Mind describes the challenges that cities and their CTOs and Chief Digital Officers face in the transition to digital participation (h/t to Planetizen).

All Points Blog describes a new augmented reality implementation and a new conceptual implementation. We aren’t all that excited about driving while viewing the road through our mobile device, but these types of developments will no doubt move the ball forward on applications that are relevant for community planning and civic engagement.

inCommon writes about a participatory park planning project in Santa Monica and CoolTown Studios describes another, similar planning effort for a downtown area in the Village of Hempstead on Long Island.

PlaceMatterssummer intern Matt Weinstein blogged about our walkshop in Somerville, Massachusetts, and Jason offers some context on Esri’s acquisition of Procedural (the makers of CityEngine) and spells out some of the implications.

What did we miss?

Transit Information for Better Urban Living

Real time information for Chapel Hill transit system

Image originally featured on NextBus news showing real time transit information.

Recently New Urban News featured an article on how transit information and car sharing are making it easier for urban dwellers to get around, save money and shed some CO2 (Smart phones + shared cars = better urban living).  It’s been over a year since Google added transit information to the iPhone.  I blogged about this way back when.  I am glad to see that cities have finally picked up on the importance of shared transit data and open APIs.  For example, Massachusetts released their data and an API last November for five of the busiest bus lines in the system.  Christopher Dempsey of the Massachusetts Dept of Transportation had this to say about the release:

Within an hour, an application (“app”) using the information was placed on Google Earth, giving real-time location of buses on those lines.

• In two days, a programmer created a web page that tracks the buses’ movements.

• In five weeks, the data was on apps for iPhones and Android phones.

• In seven weeks, the data was available for delivery to any phone.

• In March, a shop in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, installed an LED sign counting down to the arrival of the next bus. The sign cost the shop — JP Licks, a café and ice cream store — $300. It reportedly has brought in additional business from individuals who now know how much time they have for a coffee or a snack before the bus arrives. Many more shops may follow suit. Continue reading

Google Transit arrives on the iPhone

I knew it would eventually come, but I didn’t realize how excited I would be to hold transit directions in the palm of my hand!  Much of the inconvenience of riding transit is the lack of information.  Google and Apple have just broken through the first barrier of inconvenience by bringing pervasive information to transit riders (which is my only means of getting around Denver).  In case you haven’t heard, Apple just released version 2.2 of its iPhone operating system including updates to the Maps application, enabling transit and walking directions (as well as street view).  Continue reading