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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.

Award Winning Home Town Planning

Since I’m currently spending some time in my home town of Fort Collins, CO, I wanted to belatedly point out that our work on Plan Fort Collins has wrapped up, and the new City Plan was adopted late last year. Plan Fort Collins was also recognized by the Colorado Chapter of the American Planning Association with an Outstanding Planning Project Award in June 2011, making it the third of PlaceMatters’ projects to receive CO APA recognition.

Plan Fort Collins had an extensive public engagement process to update the City’s land use and transportation plans, both of which were already recognized as excellent plans with a focus on sustainability.  The public engagement process included a large kickoff event and several smaller events that PlaceMatters helped to facilitate, using Brainstorm Anywhere and keypad polling, as well as other facilitation techniques and tools.

We are proud to have been a part of another award-winning project.  Personally, I look forward to seeing the results of Plan Fort Collins in the coming years whenever I am visiting home,  since Fort Collins is a Place that Matters very much to me.

A Walkshop to Remember: Reflections on the Inner Belt Brickbottom Walkshop

I came to PlaceMatters this summer from Somerville, Massachusetts, a Boston-area city best known as Cambridge’s slightly grittier, more affordable, and no-nonsense neighbor to the north.  I’m a proud two-time resident of Somerville, and in my time there I’ve gotten to know my adopted hometown—the most densely-populated municipality in New England—block-by-block, one triple-decker and Brazilian corner store at a time.   It’s a remarkably diverse community, a mix of students, new immigrants, young professionals, and older ethnic communities that have been a part of the socio-cultural fabric for generations.

Tube Tunnel connecting the north and south ends of the IBBB study area

Image taken of the tube tunnel connecting the north and south sides of the IBBB study area (taken by walkshop participant Lynn Weissman)

But in all my municipal trekking there has always been an outer limit, an end of the known universe that is Somerville.  And that boundary had always been McGrath Highway.  Nary a ten-minute walk from my Union Square apartment, McGrath is a fearsome behemoth of a road, with rickety concrete and steel overpasses and busy at-grade on-and-off-ramps.  Beyond McGrath lies a vast industrial zone, bisected and circumscribed by railroad tracks and highway overpasses, stretching to Sullivan Square and I-93, and Charlestown beyond.  This forbidding terra incognita—far off the mental maps of a great many area residents, myself included—is Somerville’s Inner Belt Brickbottom district.

But with a boulevardization plan under consideration for McGrath Highway and the planned construction of an MBTA Green Line Extension light rail station at Washington Street, Inner Belt and Brickbottom are well on their way toward integration with the rest of the city.  On June 25th, PlaceMatters—in partnership with Goody Clancy and the City of Somerville’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development—facilitated an opportunity for area residents to expand our mental maps, inviting us to explore this undiscovered neighborhood and formulate a vision for its future.   The Inner Belt Brickbottom (IBBB) “Walkshop”—think “walk” + “workshop”—divided us into five teams, envisioning new corridors along McGrath Highway, Washington Street and New Washington Street, and investigating the potential for neighborhood development in the more-remote industrial cores of Inner Belt and Brickbottom.
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DIY touchtable technology integrated with GIS

Participant add future housing to scenario

This Fall, PlaceMatters broke new ground in the application of our DIY touchtable integrated with CommunityViz and Brainstorm Anywhere. On Cape Cod, we used 4 tables simultaneously to enable a “where do we grow” exercise with 4 teams. With the touchtables, participants were able to add jobs and housing and changes in transit services directly to the CommunityViz GIS maps.

Because participants had direct access to the GIS interface, they were able to view important data layers including land use zoning, sensitive habitat, protected well head zones, and areas vulnerable to sea level rise while discussing options. This translated into more informed decision making while considering where to steer future growth. At any time during the exercise, participants could run the CommunityViz model to view the impacts of placed jobs, housing, and enhanced transit services on key indicators including converted open space, development occurring in sensitive areas, changes in per capita vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions.

Visit to see footage of the Cape Cod workshop.

Included in the video are scenes from a workshop PlaceMatters and the National Charrette Institute helped organize and facilitate with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of Transportation, and US Department of Agriculture. At this event, PlaceMatters set up 6 stations using our Brainstorm Anywhere tool and keypad polling to help identify and prioritize strategies for interagency collaboration in the implementation of the HUD’s new Sustainable Communities Grant Program.

OpenIDEO: Brainstorming for Design

IDEO is a fairly well known design (as in industrial and human interface, not planning) firm.  Recently they rolled out OpenIDEO, which is “a place where people design better, together for social good.”  It is a platform for the structured, but open discussion of complex problems.  I really like this interface and concept and it is something we’ve been trying to tackle with a different approach through Brainstorm Anywhere.  They also did a great job of framing a good brainstorming approach, which is something we do a lot of in our own work.  I also really like the principles of OpenIDEO:

Principle #1: Inclusive
Recognize and enable all levels of participation from different disciplines. It’s about allowing anyone to contribute to the creative process. Whether it’s a great insight, a beautiful sketch, an encouraging build, or a few words of praise, the platform allows everyone to take part in and feel as if they are a part of the process.

Principle #2: Community-centered
Remember the core strengths of the community and play to them. OpenIDEO is meant to foster a strong, vibrant, lively community that thrives on inspiration — and that we all trust will make a difference. Focusing on this community and its activities is essential.

Principle #3: Collaborative
Promote teamwork among individuals and teams by recognizing the many roles that are crucial to each step of the design process. Always choose collaboration over competition, and create an atmosphere for building on one another’s ideas.

Principle #4: Optimistic
Stay optimistic! You never know when a wild idea might enable others to get closer to a viable solution.

Principle #5: Always in Beta
Design for continuous improvement and iteration and scale deliberately. That goes for the community, the platform, and these principles. To this end, please email your suggestions for making OpenIDEO better.

I like these a lot because they are generally good principles for community planning and design as well and articulate the PlaceMatters approach.  Even though IDEO is a design and innovation firm, the way of thinking about good design of interfaces, products, and websites is not really much different from the way we should think about good community design (which planning should ultimately be about).

I’m excited about seeing new ways to solve old problems, and using the distributed power of networks with well designed interfaces is a real innovation for successful distributed collaboration.  Our Brainstorm Anywhere application (currently used solely in our work but coming to beta as soon as I can find the time) is built primarily around synchronous collaboration.  In other words, hundreds or thousands of people working simultaneously on establishing a vision and plan for their community in a large meeting.  However, we are working on taking that energy back out on the web to help people continue the conversation.  The OpenIDEO platform may be the gap filler we need for now until we can work out the asynchronous part of our application.  We really believe that good community planning requires convening at least a couple of times.  This helps establish trust in the process.  We also think that making these platforms less anonymous can help carry trust from real meetings on to the web.

Check out the OpenIDEO challenges and get involved in one that interests you.


Holding public meetings in multiple languages – new translator tool helps with brainstorming and polling

PlaceMatters Anywhere Translator from PlaceMatters Decision Lab on Vimeo.

In Denver, PlaceMatters teamed with A+ and the Denver Public Schools
District in a 10 month process to engage citizens in Far Northeast
Denver in a conversation about turnaround strategies for low performing
schools. It was essential to have all meetings in Spanish and English.
School translators and headsets were used for the audio portions of the
meetings. The challenge was how to share notes during break-out group
and large group discussions so nobody was left behind.

Jason Lally, Director of PlaceMatters’ Decision Lab, developed a module
to our brainstorming application that made it really easy to have both
languages side-by-side.

Here is a video of the tool. For the DPS meetings, Fernando Pineda with
CREA Results provided the written translation. Depending on the size
and complexity of the event, you can have multiple translators working
at the same time from any location linked to the internet. We have even
added a module that allows you to take advantage of automatic
translators (like Google translator) to detect the language and provide a
first attempt at translation. At a minimum, we recommend someone
proofing these translations since errors (comical ones at that) are

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.

PlaceMatters’ new offering, AnyWare, beginning closed beta

AnyWare is a project I’ve been working on closely for a while at PlaceMatters. It is a web-based tool to brainstorm and evaluate ideas both in real time and over periods of time by large groups of people. It is a definite work in progress, but we are ready to begin letting a certain set of users play with the tools and help us build something better. We developed this tool to help scale up the level of participation that could happen during a planning process. However, it could be just as useful to a Fortune 500 company, a neighborhood association, or an advocacy group. Continue reading