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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?

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.

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.

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Looking Back at 2011: Augmented Reality, Mobile, and Regional Sustainability Planning

Augmented reality applications haven’t yet reached their potential as a community decision-making tool, but they are maturing quickly.

Way back in January of 2011, I asked my colleagues here at PlaceMatters what they were most excited about for the new year. Here’s a quick look at how our expectations for 2011 tracked to what the year actually held:

Ken was excited about how the rumored addition of a camera on the new iPad would enable very cool augmented reality apps that might include, for example, information like bus routes, Walkscores, and zoning proposals. As it turns out, the iPad 2 rocks but the augmented reality technology still has a ways to go before it really plays a role in community decision-making. Nonetheless, augmented reality technology is advancing, including implementations by Bosch Home Appliances, CASA, and Wikitude Drive. Ken was also excited about integrating interactive touch tables into public meetings (which we’ve been doing a bunch), about emerging online community dashboards (which are more and more common now), and about the PlaceMatters Decision Lab, which in 2011 started to find its sea legs and is poised for some great work this year.

Jason pointed to mobile apps. He was excited about the growing smartphone adoption rate (Pew reported 35% mid-year) and technological advances in the apps themselves enabling low-cost and high-value engagement tools. And he was right in his prediction about the expanding use of game-based approaches to civic participation, as well, like Crowdsourced Moscow 2012 and those Jason described in a May blog post (“Can Games Save the World?“).

Jocelyn’s enthusiasm was more focused on federal policy and funding rather than technology, in particular the ramping up of the HUD Sustainable Communities Grants program. Forty-five regions and communities across the country begin implementing HUD grants, kicking off a fundamental shift in the way the federal government tackles regional planning. PlaceMatters has long championed the integration of transportation, land use, housing, and environmental considerations in regional planning, and to watch this integration begin occurring in so many places across the country was truly exciting. And in September, HUD announced the recipients of a second round of grant awards, including two that PlaceMatters will work on (Erie County, PA and the Denver Metro region).

Mapping the Community Decision Process

“Triangulation sketch for mapping.” Photo by flickr user fishermansdaughter.

The conventional and very traditional rational decision model posits a sequence like this:

Science (or information) => Process (or politics) => Decision

As anyone who works with community decision making knows, the world doesn’t really work that way (even when the legal structure, say a NEPA process, tries to make it do so). A more enlightened model might posit a bit more back-and-forth:

Science => Process => Science => Process => Science => Process => Decision

The next incremental step towards building a model that actually reflects how these processes unfold might acknowledge that politics typically (always?) actually comes before the science. The science or information gathering isn’t abstracted from the real world in which it operates; while it might respond to politics in complex ways, the science/information gathering/analysis element always responds to politics. One simple representation might be just to add “politics” before the science in our model.

Politics => Science => Process => Science => Process => Science => Process => Decision

But none of these models really work all that well because they presume that these processes are fundamentally linear (even when they repeat sequences). The problem is that decision processes aren’t really linear even when we pretend they are. As such, they aren’t really mappable in any simple way, especially – in our view – because of the way politics shapes, frames, intercedes, reacts, and otherwise influences how any decision process unfolds. Our representational challenge, then, is to figure out how to convey the complexity of a typical decision process, and the importance of politics within that process, without drawing something that’s just indecipherable.

Crossing the Chasms

PlaceMatters’ work is focused on helping communities make decisions, especially around difficult issues and complex questions. We are, most fundamentally, process designers. Our role is to architect community decision-making processes that engage community members, give them the information and tools they need to understand the challenges and compare the trade-offs between options, offer them the space and support they need to contribute their own ideas and solutions to the conversation, and help guide all of that toward a clear, actionable, and durable decision. We spend about half our time on the think tank side of the equation, researching and exploring and tracking, and about half our time providing our services to communities around the country.

We’ve got a bunch of terrific colleague organizations doing similar work and exploring similar questions, and across this community of people committed to improving community decision making we communicate a lot. We share lessons learned with our colleagues all the time, we collaborate with them often, we read tons of blogs, we all participate in the same conferences, and we engage in focused conversations around research projects and important community questions. It’s great for us, great for the folks dedicated to helping communities in these ways, and great for the communities across the country that actually have to grapple with tough decisions all the time.

Interestingly, there are a bunch of other folks out there designing engagement processes. Museum folks design exhibits to engage their patrons. Architects and interior designers often aim to create buildings and spaces that engage visitors. Branded companies design campaigns intended to engage their brand evangelists. Nonprofit membership directors work hard to create deep engagement between their organization and their supporters.

But I can’t help but notice – despite how similar our basic challenges are – how little conversation occurs across these boundaries. Museum people, even the ones most focused on cutting edge engagement strategies (see the excellent Museum 2.0 blog, for example) by and large don’t talk with community process designers. Architects (A Daily Dose of Architecture is a nice architecture blog example) don’t generally talk with social networking experts. It’s actually quite difficult to cut across these boundaries, however deep your domain expertise might be. You have to realize that you are doing similar work in the first place, then you have to figure out where the important conversations are happening, then you have to figure how to effectively engage in those conversations, and, finally, you have to figure out how all of that actually helps you do your job better.

I don’t know what the answer is, but because our work is fundamentally so similar – design engaging, meaningful, participatory experiences – it sure seems like there are some great opportunities waiting to be uncovered.

Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies: Everything I Need to Know About Community Decision-Making

Notice how well the alternatives are displayed, the number of helpful city staff available to answer questions, and the friendly demeanor of the participants.

Well, maybe we haven’t learned everything we need to know about designing good community decision processes from Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies, but they offer at least a few important lessons:

  • They are genuinely engaging.
  • They offer a tangible sense of accomplishment with every milestone achieved.
  • They become increasingly sophisticated and challenging over time, which tracks well to community decision processes around complicated issues like budgets, school reform, and climate change.
  • They are seriously fun.

It’s easy, when architecting a community process, to fall back on conventional approaches: expert presentation followed by open mic, self-guided open house, post alternatives online and solicit comments. These types of approaches might satisfy legal obligations, and they might even satisfy a community’s political requirements, but they don’t necessarily produce genuine engagement in the decision-making, they don’t necessarily tap the depth of a community’s expertise and creativity, and they don’t necessarily produce a politically durable plan that is actually implemented.

Note: We don’t recommend using Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies as an actual model for a community planning process. We suspect that the use of slingshots, suicidal birds, explosives, and projectile weapons will not improve the quality or outcome of your planning effort.

The Magic of Good Community Decision-Making

Photo by flickr user Falashad.

On paper, our challenge when designing a community decision process is pretty straight-forward (though not necessarily easy): we need to get all the impacted constituencies to the table, provide them access to robust information about the decision at hand (and enable everyone to bring their own knowledge and perspective to the table), and empower them with tools that help everyone understand and weigh the trade-offs between options. But the best processes involve two critical elements that are tough to pinpoint but really matter: 1) the participants feel that their input was meaningful, that they were heard, that they mattered in the process, and 2) the decision by whomever the decision-makers were was, indeed, informed and influenced by the process. The second one is easy to measure (simply ask people if they felt they were heard) but tough to accomplish. The first one is just as tough to accomplish and just as tough to measure. But that’s the magic, getting those two things right.

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: February 14, 2011

Involve entertains the idea of designing participation into civic decision-making systems. “Instead of seeking to bend peoples’ lives to fit participation, we should instead be thinking about how we can bend participation to fit peoples’ lives,” they ask.

Engaging Cities shows off some video of a new tool that transitions from 2D plan view to a 3D topographic view on the same image.

Planetizen posts a defense of public input, which I think boils down to “you’ll make better decisions and be more likely to produce a durable plan” if you do. We agree, of course, but believe the nature of the process makes a huge difference as well. Engaging folks across constituencies, giving them the information they need to understand the trade-offs between options, and ensuring that the process makes their input meaningful to the decision-makers matters a great deal also.

National Charrette Institute describes an alternative to the conventional charrette approach: the virtual charrette.

Collective Thoughts posted on “10 Ways Geolocation is Changing the World,” including checking in and neighborhood networking (h/t to Common Sense California).

The Case Foundation writes about IBM’s 2010 Service Jam wrap-up, an attempt at a large-scale web-based conversation.

Orton Family Foundation summarizes a new Knight Foundation report on what emotionally attaches people to their community. The conclusion: social offerings, openness, and aesthetics. This fits Orton’s general approach to placemaking and community vision work. It’s also suggestive about designing strong community decision processes. These types of values and community amenities may not emerge from a traditional community planning approach; you may have to design your process to draw out these values, and at a minimum you probably need to be attuned to these values to hear them even if they are framed in other ways or buried in other values.

Smart Growth America assembled some helpful materials drawing lessons from HUD’s Sustainable Communities grant program as well as their own observations about overcoming obstacles in regional planning. I’m hoping that one line of inquiry from here will focus on actual community engagement efforts . . . what seems to be working and what doesn’t.

Bonnie Shaw on Building On- and Off-line Community

I caught up with Bonnie Shaw of BYO Consulting two weeks ago at a restaurant near the Hill in D.C. We met at a gathering of community-building folks convened by the Orton Family Foundation last fall right before their Community Matters conference, and lunch last week was a chance to get up to speed on her latest work. Bonnie’s focus now is largely on how how on- and offline communities and community building can interact. On the one hand, she talks about using the principles of placemaking in the physical world in ways that help foster online communities . . . under what circumstances do you end up with interesting and engaging online communities. She also looks at what online communities have to offer for community building in the physical world, and the even more interesting question of developing online communities that are themselves deeply embedded in physical places and spaces.

At PlaceMatters, we mostly focus on community decision making . . . how do we create decision processes that engage everyone, that give them the tools they need to contribute in meaningful ways, and that ensure that the decision makers hear what they need to hear from those community members. Bonnie’s work is more theoretical, looking at the structure of the community itself and the lessons that digital community building have to offer physical communities and vice versa. Ideas about community building don’t make much sense outside of the context of communities actually making decisions and taking action, however, so our work tends to be more about operationalizing those community building ideas. It’s an important nexus, and it’ll be great fun exploring . . . I think we already do a great job helping communities work through difficult decisions, but I’m happy to strengthen the ways in which those decision processes contribute even more to civic capacity, community resilience, and community sustainability.