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Digital Engagement: Challenges and Strategies for Local Governments

Digital technology is quickly integrating into our lives: recent data from the Pew Research Center show that 91% of American adults own a cell phone, among which 58% are smartphones. If you are still questioning the pervasiveness of digital technology, simply watch a 2-year-old toddler unlocking your smartphone or tablet and making it all the way to her favorite game (or your emails). Civic participation in comprehensive planning is no exception to this trend: an increasing number of municipalities and government agencies are using digital community engagement tools to reach broader audiences, make the process innovative and fun, and complement traditional in-person strategies.

At the forefront of this trend is the City of Salt Lake City, which already implemented a wide range of digital engagement tools, including websites, Open City Hall, blogs, SpeakOutSLC, social media, and Textizen. Like many cities using these types of tools, Salt Lake has faced some challenges. Because so many people can participate online, the amount of input can quickly become overwhelming and difficult to analyze. Further, the City wasn’t sure how to evaluate the effectiveness of the tools it was using, especially compared to other outreach methods. To address these challenges, Salt Lake City asked PlaceMatters to research and make recommendations on the following two questions:

  1. How to synthesize (compile and summarize) the input gathered through digital outreach methods into a format that is useful for local government planners and decision-makers?
  2. How to evaluate the effectiveness of digital outreach methods?

Our research involved three steps: first, we interviewed Salt Lake City’s engagement manager and conducted an online survey of approximately 20 selected City staff. Second, we carried out a thorough literature review of previous research on the topics. Finally, we interviewed academics and practitioners, both inside and outside the US, with expertise in public engagement generally and digital outreach in particular.

Based on this research, PlaceMatters made the following recommendations to the City, which any government agency interested in using digital outreach tools should consider:

  1. Confirm the key objectives the City hopes to achieve through the use of digital outreach tools. For example, we identified three objectives for Salt Lake City: “engage a diverse group of stakeholders,” “increase trust in government,” and “enhance citizen knowledge of policy issues.”
  2. Establish a systematic approach to evaluation with minimum standards to be incorporated into all public engagement efforts, and build these into individual and department work plans. Specific categories and methods of evaluation include ease of use, usage, efficiency, and effectiveness.
  3. Establish a central repository of public input. The idea is to store public input collected through diverse methods and across different projects in a centralized location, using a tool that is easy to use and search through.
  4. Dedicate staff and resources for public engagement.
  5. Share practices and evaluation results internally and externally. Building a culture of community engagement and evaluation both within the community and nationwide will lead to continuous improvement in engagement tools and techniques.

The full report is available for viewing or download below. Please contact Marine Siohan (marine@placematters.org) for any additional questions, feedback or comments.

Digital Outreach in Salt Lake City: Evaluating Effectiveness & Synthesizing Input

 

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: August 17, 2012

Project Fitzgerald integrates Google Street View with a public input system.

We’ve been on a Blog Roundup hiatus for a few months as we jam full speed ahead on projects in Mississippi, Chattanooga, Erie, Albany, Seattle, Hawaii, Virginia, Arkansas, Denver, and Tennessee, with a healthy dose of conference presentations and training workshops for good measure. But we’re back in the Blog Roundup Saddle …

OpenPlans describes their newest tool for using Google Street View for planning, Project Fitzgerald. Project Fitzgerald, a follow-up to Beautiful Streets (another very cool project) is designed to gather public input on a block-by-block basis.

BMW Guggenheim Lab reflects on their Berlin Lab project, describing some of their participatory engagement strategies.

Engaging Cities has a pile of great stories: web-based games promoting civic literacy created by iCivics, some unusual participatory city planning activities, a research paper on the role of digital media in deliberative decision-making, and the use of augmented reality in neighborhood engagement on development projects.

CoolTown Studios explores the idea of “crowdsourced placemaking.”

The always-insightful Ethan Zuckerman explores some of the complicated equity implications of crowdfunding public infrastructure.

Next American City reports on the public participation element of Chicago’s new cultural plan.

Gov 2.0 Watch cites the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials on the use of crowdsourcing to improve transportation planning. I’m not entirely persuaded by the comparison of transportation public engagement to product development, but the notion of integrating crowdsourcing (which doesn’t have much to do with product development, per se) can actually be pretty useful.

Gov 2.0 Watch also summarizes a new Civic Tripod report by the International Journal of Learning and Media on the impact of mobile games on civic engagement.

Nina Simon published a fascinating piece, drawing on a new paper by Colby College professor Lynne Conner, exploring the idea that the experience of art in Western culture was historically deeply participatory. The understanding of the audience as passive and non-participatory, her argument goes, is a relatively recent development. Becoming more participatory, for art and cultural organizations, might actually be returning to its roots rather than creating a new paradigm.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: April 24, 2012

Next American City reports on New York’s use of wikis to solicit feedback on an overhaul of its data publishing rules and on Oakland’s move toward an open data environment.

A new “collective online urban planning platform” is hitting the streets. Grist describes Neighborland, the latest in a growing ecosystem of promising tools for enabling community members to collect and organize ideas (with a hat tip to the Guggenheim/BMW LAB blog). The project grew out of Candy Chang’s amazing (but simple) participatory art installations in New Orleans (and now elsewhere), and Candy Chang posts about Neighborland on her blog as well. If you don’t know Candy Chang, well, you probably should.

Museum of the Future draws a useful distinction between outreach (communicating with people unknown to you and connecting them to your institution) and engagement (converting people from passersby to enthusiasts). Outreach can lead to engagement, but it’s a mistake to conflate them. Gov 2.0 Watch cites a TechPresident story exploring at a similar distinction between feedback and engagement.

EngagingCities argues, through two case studies, for a “blend of moderate technology venturing (in terms of scale), the readiness to look abroad for inspiration and solutions, and … deep engagement with their citizens throughout the process.”

EngagingCities also writes about Denver’s new participatory budgeting process and tool (Delivering Denver’s Future). It looks promising, and the team behind it is a capable group (we are fans of Urban Interactive Studio), but we’re also looking forward to the next generation of participatory budget tools that help constituents better understand the on-the-ground implications of the various budget options. It’s one thing to give constituents budget allocation options, which is what most participatory budget tools do, but it would be quite another if the users understood how levels of service or the quality of life in their community would actually be impacted by those various options.

Participatory budgeting is getting plenty of attention these days, including a New York Times article several weeks ago providing a detailed account of a participatory budgeting project covering four City Council districts in New York and and an Intellitics post mapping participatory budgeting projects around the world.

The concept, specs, and implications of Google Glasses are slowly working their way through the pundit/observer/technologist-o-sphere. We share Digital Urban’s sentiment: “With technology it always seems like one is waiting for the next big thing, but this takes it to another level….”

The Denver Post covered the Box City event here in Denver, sponsored by the American Institute of Architects Colorado, enabling 200 kids to design and build a mock city (another h/t to BMW Guggenheim LAB).

Finally, Planetizen writes, now that everyone is back home from the American Planning Association conference in Los Angeles, about the “winds of change” blowing through the APA.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: February 29, 2012

Kids and adults alike have at it in the Lego "free play" building area at the National Building Museum.

Kids and adults alike have at it in the Lego "free play" building area at the National Building Museum.


BMW Guggenheim Lab blog reflects on some Lego-based experiments in exploring urban form at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

Planetizen has a guest post by Rob Goodspeed on the implications of big data for urban and community-planning (a subject we’ll be focusing on during our panels at the American Planning Association conference in April).

Ethan Zuckerman explores the use of (and challenges of using) video in a civic participation context.

EngagingCities (in a guest post by Rebecca Sanborn Stone) describes three very cool art-based civic participation projects designed to inform community planning efforts.

Engaging Cities also describes Crowdmap, a platform for gathering crowdsourced information and viewing the data on a map and with a timeline.

Bang the Table reports on a new study on the impact of e-participation efforts, focusing on projects in Seoul, South Korea (h/t to Gov 2.0 Watch).

Intellitics describes the Knight Foundation’s new Engagement Commons initiative.

Open Source Planning reflects on scenario planning.

Spatially Adjusted lusts after the new Ideum MT65 3D display … a 65″ 3D touch screen monitor introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show last month. It’s expected to sell for $18,000 when it’s released this spring. We aren’t likely to buy one anytime soon, but we share the sentiment.

The mobile industry association GSMA and the software company mCRUMBS are launching an augmented reality app for the Mobile World Congress, which offers another example of how augmented reality technology can provide rich, location-based content in a way that might be useful for community planning and decision-making.

On the PlaceMatters blog you’ll find posts on “The Tension Between Participatory Art and Participatory Decision-Making,” engaging community members around vacant property issues, and big data (and the use of Twitter and other geotagged data to understand human behavior in cities).

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: February 2, 2012

Photo by Flickr user kmakice.

The value of crowd- and group-based thinking has drawn some attention lately. The New York Times ran a guest editorial (“The Rise of Groupthink“) arguing that people are more creative when they are able to work in solitude rather than in groups, a theme covered by the New Yorker as well (you can read the summary but the full article is behind a paywall). There’s quite a bit of thoughtful commentary on the subject, including posts on the National Charrette Institute blog and Fast Company’s Co.Design blog.

Involve explores a related theme, suggesting the value of crowdsourcing may be more about generating ideas and enthusiasm than generating consensus.

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation offers some great tips for designing a successful online collaboration or deliberation process.

Engaging Cities summarizes the highlights of an online discussion (on Cyburbia) about increasing public participation in rural communities.

Intellitics writes about a new IBM report called “A Manager’s Guide to Evaluating Citizen Participation.

Digital Urban posts a characteristically cool Twitter data visualization.

Ascentum reports on German Chancellor Merkel’s web-based national engagement effort, “Dialogue about Germany’s Future.

Museum 2.0 explores the challenges of designing interactive activities that work for both adults and kids.

What did we miss?

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.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: January 18, 2012

OpenIdeo is poised to announce the winner of their “restoring vibrancy to cities” crowdsourced challenge, winnowing down an initial list of 331 concepts to a short list of 20 finalists and now to a single winner.

YPulse reports on Sesame Street’s new augmented reality app unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show last week.

Civic Commons launched the Civic Commons Marketplace to help government folks find the best online engagement tools for their own community’s needs (h/t to EngagingCities for the heads up).

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Most Exciting Trends in 2012: Big Data, Collaborative Problem Solving

Big Data, Big Business

Decision support systems that take massive data sets from multiple public and private entities and synthesize the data into valuable cross-discipline information for city and regional decision making is clearly becoming big business. Television, online, and magazine ads are populated with ads from IBM, Cisco, and Siemens, to name a few, that are promising to improve our communities with sophisticated data management, synthesis and analysis. This fall I was struck by a large nine-screen interactive wall created by Siemens prominently displayed at National Airport in DC. The interactive touch screens invited travelers to experiment with different strategies to improve a city’s mobility and energy efficiency. The Decision Labs at the University of Washington has been experimenting with applications first developed in the gaming industry to combine dynamic data with scenario planning and visualization. They are creating a decision-making framework for the Seattle region that can be tailored to a wide range of public and private users for the different stages of planning and development.

A nine-screen touchscreen display at Washington’s National Airport.

On the low cost end, Google has improved the API for graphs in spreadsheets posted on Google Docs. You can now easily embed them into websites with nice hover features to view the details within the graph. More importantly, anytime new numbers are added to the cloud-based spreadsheet, the graphs get updated on your site. This opens the door for a wide range of interactive technologies where participants can push data to the site. PlaceMatters is using this functionality in the next iteration of the Omaha’s Comprehensive Energy Management Program website for tracking the progress on project indicators. Another company providing a more packaged deal for viewing data linked to maps is Geowise and their cool InstantAtlas indicator interface. For example, the Council of Community Services incorporated InstantAtlas into their website to display county and census data in a multi-county region in the Roanoke region of western Virginia.

Collaborative Problem Solving

This year PlaceMatters is collaborating with the Environmental Protection Agency to host a second round code-a-thon in pursuit of new and/or improved applications for data collection, analysis, and project implementation around sustainable development. Universities and software developers will join planners and practitioners to identify shortcomings with existing tools and highlight opportunities to create new tools that improve decision-making in communities. The first code-a-thon will take place in Washington, D.C. on January 22. PlaceMatters will take the lead in organizing the second code-a-thon to take place in Denver during summer 2012. This approach to collaborative tool development is in part inspired by past successes in the field of citizen science. Foldit is one such project that emphasizes the wisdom of crowds for certain types of problem solving. Scientists recruited volunteers to assist in the predicting where to expecting folding to occur in protein and RNA strands. It turns out this is the type of problem where collective brainpower excels. Untrained online gamers outperformed even the best computer programs.

Another great example of collaborative problem solving can be found at OpenIdeo, where an individual, group, or organization poses a challenge and various participants contribute to various stages of problem solving (including inspiration, concepting, and evaluation). Last month, one of the posted challenges was: “How might we restore vibrancy in cities and regions facing economic decline?” Nearly 900 ideas where submitted at the inspiration stage with twenty final concepts emerging to the top. This week the project will shift into evaluation of the winning concepts.

OpenIdeo’s status screen on the ‘How might we restore vibrancy in cities and regions’ challenge.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: January 5, 2012

TechCrunch reports on a seriously cool new augmented reality application: instant translation of foreign-language text. It’s not hard to imagine how useful a tool like this might be for community decision-making efforts in mixed language communities.

Cooltown Studios describes Popularise, an unusual private sector approach to crowdsourcing development plans. I’m not convinced the “long tail” metaphor makes sense here, and it’s not clear how the developers will actually use the crowd-supplied preferences given all the other considerations that the developers have to take into account, but it’s an intriguing idea.

Museum 2.0 has a great list of lessons learned over the last year about designing for participation (and links to another great list on The Museum of the Future blog).

Gov 2.0 Watch points us to a fascinating online, multiplayer city-building game called “Crowdsourced Moscow 2012.” Although we haven’t had a chance to play the game, a few things stand out in the promo video: players adopt one of several roles, each with specific interests and strengths; making tradeoffs is embedded in the gameplay; background information relevant to the various choices players must make is part of the game experience; and the game is intended to help participants imagine a wide range of possible futures.

As Intellitics reports, the New York Times launched another crowdsourced budget cutting project, this time focusing on the planned $450 billion in Pentagon spending cuts over the next decade. The problem, common to budget calculators, is that it’s very difficult to determine the real impacts of any of the choices. While those impacts are often the subject of fierce debate (e.g., just how valuable is the V-22 Osprey or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter), without this context it’s not clear how well participants understand the trade-offs between the options they are presented with.

Intellitics also reports on a new study exploring online deliberation design. The study evaluates a range of design considerations and the empirical evidence on their utility and effectiveness.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: December 8, 2011

The unlikely winner of the 2012 TED award: City 2.0. This marks the first time the award is going to an idea instead of an individual.

Intellitics explores an element of the White House e-participation effort, “best practices and metrics for public participation.”

Intellitics also mentions a “Social Cities of Tomorrow” conference focusing on ‘flattening’ civic engagement to be in neither “local bottom-up fashion, nor in institutionalised top-down fashion, but in peer-to-peer distributed ways.” We don’t really know what this means, but we’re game for exploring different paradigms for structuring civic participation in community decision-making.

EngagingCities mentions the same conference and asks some of the same questions and thinks through how some models for mobile apps might make sense in a civic participation context. One example: combining the SeeClickFix type of citizen reporting tool with a crowdsourcing and engagement model enabling people to collaborate and vote on each other’s ideas.

EngagingCities posted another blog on The Planning Van, a mobile community outreach program around urban planning and land use in southern California.

Museum 2.0 made us think, as usual, with a post on pop-up museums. Predictably, it got us thinking on ways to use adapt the pop-up museum model for community decision-making processes (much as a post on inquiry-based learning did back in October, another worthwhile post that I don’t think we ever linked to). More on that later.

And Digital Urban has a couple of helpful posts, one on a 3-D visualization tool for architects and urban planners called Lumion (that offers a free version!) and another on a beta of a map mashup tool called GEMMA.

Finally, Jason posted on the PlaceMatters blog about his recent open source planning tools meeting in Salt Lake City.

What did we miss?