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Participation By Design: Twitter-government … Can Micro-Participation Stimulate Public Engagement?

This post, by guest blogger Jennifer Evans-Cowley, is the first in a month-long series on the 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.

The Austin Strategic Mobility Plan was the starting point for an innovative engagement process using social networking tools.

Back in 2009, Texas Citizen Fund invited me to serve as an external evaluator on a Federal Transit Administration proposal. Their goal: to try to use social media to engage the public in planning. At first I thought okay, everyone is trying this, what are you doing that’s new? We have all seen the build the social media presence and wait for people to come approach. We’ve also seen the build the social media presence and push out information approach. There is nothing wrong with these approaches, but they have generally had limited success.

I was pleasantly surprised that their approach did indeed represent an innovative approach to engagement. Their innovation was simple in concept. Build a system that would constantly scan Twitter, Facebook, and blogs looking for anyone posting about transportation issues in Austin. Once they found someone already talking about transportation they would simply insert themselves into the conversation in an attempt to engage the social media users in dialogue around key topics in the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan. From this idea SNAPPatx was born.

SNAPPatx deployed a lot of technology to integrate a website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter using web-base analytics and database. Between April and October of 2010, they collected almost 50,000 microblogs. I compared how the SNAPPatx project compared to other social media projects cited in the academic literature, a few key successes:

  • SNAPPatx generated a following on Twitter greater than 98 percent of other Twitter users
  • SNAPPatx achieved greater equality of participation among users than found in other studies
  • SNAPPatx had an average of 45 microblogs retweeted per week. Based on previous research, retweets are forwarded continuously to reach an average of 1,000 users. Meaning that SNAPPatx was potentially reaching 45,000 people per week.

The most important part of the project is the direct engagement between SNAPPatx and the microbloggers. The extension of the simple microblog into a dialogue is termed micro-participation. One of the keys of using micro-participation in this context is to be concise and to understand all of the lingo to efficiently and effectively communicate via Twitter and other social media sites.

Austin’s unofficial slogan, Keep Austin Weird, is imbedded into the culture of the city and comes through in what people are microblogging about. For example, in this micro-participation dialogue SNAPPatx got to have a little fun talking about the locally famous biker who only wears a g-string while riding his bike.

@elizmccracken When I was there I saw a guy with a ZZ Top beard pulling a standup bass on a trailer behind his bike. Austin=weird biking.

@leahcstewart @elizmccracken Do the weird Austin bikers make you want to ride a bike yourself or are you just happy to observe? #snappatx

@SNAPPatx @elizmccracken It depends on whether I have to ride the bike in a g-string toting a standup bass.

@leahcstewart @elizmccracken Nope, you can ride the bike in any manner you choose – no g-string or instrument hauling required. #snappatx

While the above dialogue is fun others were much more specific to discussing critical issues related to the City’s transportation planning effort. In the following dialogue, SNAPP was able to educate and receive input on potential solutions. The microblogger starts by telling a fellow microblogger his or her thoughts about Austin and SNAPP provides information about urban rail.

@gary_hustwit Austin. Good: nice public outdoor spaces. Bad: Very car dependent, no urban light rail. #Urbanized

@compactrobot Urban rail is an item on the 2012 transport bond so keep an eye out. How else would you improve Austin mobility? #snappatx

@SNAPPatx reduce the need for mobility to begin with. More VMU. Lessen the grip of NAs.

@SNAPPatx oh yeah, also nuke I-35 from space.

@compactrobot Well, that might create a different sort of traffic jam… Where are your worst I-35 trouble spots? #snappatx

@SNAPPatx I avoid it, frankly. I just don’t like the way it’s sliced downtown in half and isolated the east side from the city.

@SNAPPatx it’s great for trucking companies and horrible for Austin residents. and it’s a giant eyesore.

@compactrobot All fair points. Do you successfully take local routes to avoid I-35? Do you feel similar ire toward Mopac too? #snappatx

@SNAPPatx I only take 35 if I’m eating on the east side, & only after rush hour. otherwise I’ll use airport, Lamar, or Guadalupe & cut over

@SNAPPatx Mopac’s not as bad. but then I don’t have to use it to daily to go to/from work.

The conversations are professional, but they also find ways to connect with microbloggers and encourage participation. These dialogues demonstrate that it is possible to use micro-participation to generate public input on planning issues, with SNAPPatx collecting close to 50,000 microblogs. How can all of these microblogs be aggregated to create meaning that can be used in decision-making. This was a major challenge of this project: finding ways to present results that public officials could understand and that could influence decision making.

Participation via social media requires different expectations from planners and decision makers.

Current planners and decision makers want to ask and get answers to specific questions when they need the answers. They also want to know who is giving the answers and how representative they are of the larger “public.” Social media doesn’t work that way. Individuals generate the comments drawing from what is on their mind and anyone viewing these comments only sees an avatar as the author. Yet, social media is generating useful data. City officials responded most favorably to the use of sentiment analysis. SNAPPatx coded each of the relevant microblogs as to whether it expressed positive or negative sentiment. After the project, I experimented with more extensive sentiment analysis that looks at sentiment profiles, such as anxiety, anger and leisure. The sentiment analysis demonstrated that it is possible to aggregate microblogs to create meaning. To learn more about sentiment analysis and how it can be used, see this article.

As a simple example, by aggregating all of the microblogs based on the mode of transportation and looking at positive and negative sentiment we find that cars and buses have an equal portion of positive and negative microblogs, while microbloggers are largely expressing positive sentiment when writing about bicycles. This provides planners and policy makers with a simple snapshot of whether the public is expressing positive or negative sentiment about a planning topic.

Sentiment analysis can be used to create understanding among a large dataset of microblogs.

Sentiment analysis can be used to create understanding among a large dataset of microblogs.

The true promise of micro-participation is that it provides an opportunity to get nearly real-time tracking of public input, as demonstrated by SNAPPatx. Yet, planners and policy makers will need to work together to continue to better understand how to analyze and present the results of micro-participation in order to significantly influence decision-making.

This post was contributed by Jennifer Evans-Cowley, PhD, AICP. Jennifer is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Administration for the College of Engineering and a Professor of City and Regional Planning at The Ohio State University.

Most Exciting Trends in 2012: Mobile, Social, and Local

PlaceMatters’ Ken Synder using his smartphone as part of a Walkshop demonstration. We expect to see increasingly cool and robust ways to use smartphones in community decision-making in 2012.

Five trends I’m excited about for 2012:

1) Mobile Everything
It’ll all be about mobile in 2012. Smartphone sales continue to grow, and consumers are increasingly shifting from PC-based web activity to using smartphones. Because of the pervasiveness of mobile devices and the growing sophistication of both native and HTML-based apps, many of the tools that groups like PlaceMatters use will rely increasingly on versions that run on mobile devices. This will present some terrific opportunities, but it will also mean we need to be even more mindful of digital divide problems, ensuring that individuals without mobile devices and communities with lower mobile penetration are still able to fully participate and contribute.

2) Social Media Goes Even Bigger
Although Facebook use has already reached mind-boggling proportions (more than 800 million active users, according to Facebook), we expect that Facebook and other social media products will become even more universal and essential as engagement platforms, web portals, and discovery engines. Civic participation will increasingly rely directly on Facebook and social media and on tools that themselves are built on social media platforms. Continue reading

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: June 30, 2011

The National Consumer Council and Involve published a short report on the nine principles of deliberative public engagement.

The Brookings Institute has a new report on using social media to reinvigorate engagement. It’s campaign-focused, but it’s insightful assessment of how the intersection between social media and public participation is likely to evolve (and the implications are largely about citizen engagement more generally).

countably infinite has a nice wrap-up of Open Gov West 2011. One observation: it would be easy to see new public engagement tools like Crowdbrite and PlaceSpeak as substitutes for face-to-face engagement (and, in fact, Crowdbrite’s pitch sounds like it was positioned against conventional public hearings). We are no fans of conventional public hearings, and we are pretty jazzed about the ways tools like Crowdbrite can expand public engagement, but in our view it’s important to make sure they only supplement rather than displace real human-to-human interaction.

The Knight Foundation blogs about their new report, Civic Engagement and Community Information: Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communication. Some of the report’s recommendations are more national in scope, but some make sense at the local level: invest in face-to-face public deliberation, generate public “relational” knowledge, and building public networks focused on sharing and debate public information.

inCommon blogs about a civic participation project in Michigan targeting 6th graders. The students will play a role in designing a new town park.

EngagingCities argues for the use of participation metrics in online communities. These very same types of metrics have a lot of relevance in offline communities, as well.

EngagingCities also offers some tips on using Facebook fan pages for community participation efforts and some thoughts on gamification and community engagement.

Deliberations offers a favorable word about, a tool for facilitating deliberation by allowing people to post questions and participants to comment and vote on those questions.

The National Charrette Institute invites a discussion about the next generation of charrettes.

James Fee’s GIS Blog reviews and reflects on Google Earth Builder in two posts, “Google Earth Builder – a Serious Geospatial Play from Google” and “All Hail Google Earth Builder, Wait … What?

Next American City explores a new book about the increasingly technological city: Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Spaces.

On the PlaceMatters blog, Jocelyn writes about two of our projects, with collaborator Civil Resources, winning APA Colorado Merit Awards (comprehensive plans for Lyons and Woodland Park), and Ken ruminates on the relationship between livable streets and driving and uses SketchUp to gain some perspective on M.C. Escher’s famous “Waterfall.”

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: April 12, 2011

There are a lot of creative ways to use the Wii, in addition to community-building through Super Mario Brothers. Photo by flickr user Huasonic.

Engaging Cities blogs about one of our favorite topics: hacking video game consoles for use in public participation processes. Here they show the use of a Nintendo Wii with CommunityViz. And what do you know . . . our own Jason Lally is part of the presentation.

Next American City is soliciting feedback on the best technological tools for governance, civic engagement, getting around, and urban planning. We can’t wait to see what they come up with from the Next American City community.

The Knight Foundation has a new community toolkit to support communications and community-building.

Museum 2.0 ruminates on the challenge of making the end product of a participatory process “as engaging as the process itself.” The idea is especially obvious in a museum context: create an interactive community process to design an exhibit, and however amazing the process you still end up with an exhibit at the end that may not convey just how vibrant the community process was.

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation describes an effort to create “a pattern language for group process” . . . a vernacular and language for describing group process design and design elements.

The City Fix has an interesting post about a visit to the massive planned city of Naya Raipur now under construction in India, and happens to mention that the original SimCity is now available online for free. We aren’t entirely sure which is the more interesting information.

Deliberations posts about the deliberative process known as Citizens’ Jury.

PlaceMatters has initial posts up about our “When Public Participation Goes Terribly Wrong” panel and our “Beers in Beantown” unconference discussion at The Pour House across from the Boston convention center, but look for more thorough summaries soon.

SeeClickFix launches a Facebook application, the City Fix reports.

The Orton Family Foundation released PlanIT X, “an online platform designed to help a broad range of users find, share and contribute information about decision-support tools, projects and resources in community planning and related fields.” PlaceMatters was pleased to be part of the team that actually built the database, and we are even more pleased to see up and running.

What did we miss?

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.

Online Time: Social Media and Games Win Out Over Email

Nielson Figure on Internet Research

A new study by Nielson indicates that people are spending an increasing amount of their online time using social media and games, with social media overtaking email via a 43% rise in time spent compared to a year ago.  These dramatic changes mean the ways that we communicate are evolving rapidly, and that decision-making processes and public participation campaigns have to stay on top of communication trends.

PlaceMatters has been helping the City of Albany to use Facebook and Twitter for their Albany 2030 Comprehensive Plan process.  Albany 2030 has 133 Twitter followers and the Facebook site has 382 members. We anticipate these methods of communication, information gathering, and discussion being an increasing part of a multi-media strategy for public engagement processes.

Facebook understands place matters

With the newly unveiled “Places” feature, Facebook looks to catch up with pioneer services like Foursquare  and Gowalla which take advantage of location aware devices, namely smart phones and iPads, to allow people to learn about the whereabouts of their friends and more easily connect in real spaces as well as virtual spaces.

With a touch of a button, smart-phone and 3G iPad users can now alert their Facebook friends that they are at a restaurant, theater, or museum. They can “tag” friends who are there with them and broadcast their location on Facebook.  Given the high percentage of people with Facebook accounts, it will be interesting to see how much this feature gets used and whether it helps people meet face-to-face as much as it has helped people socialize online.

I imagine Facebook will be very proprietary about the data they collect on where people like to meet while using this functionality.  One of the nice things about Twitter is that it allows us data geeks to look for interesting patterns in conversations.  Researchers for instance figured out how to use Twitter data to spot the potential early stages of a flu epidemics by analyzing what people are tweeting in different regions of the country  (while the data does not contain personal data, rough location is known by the cell phone tower receiving the tweets).

I see a trend away from making this data accessible to others since information about how and where people socialize translates into advertising dollars.  It is unfortunate because this same data could be a treasure house of information about how people interact in  their communities and provide us with insight on how to replicate good places and improve bad places.

On the positive side, the more location aware functionality becomes available through Facebook and other social networking tools, the easier it becomes for planners and organizers to spread the word about community initiatives and find creative ways to engage followers in place-based conversations and activities.

Demographics of Social Networking

Last week, Jennifer Evans-Cowley of The Ohio State University sent me an interesting graphic.  Professor Evans-Cowley has done extensive research on the use of social networking in planning, and I’d been picking her brain for information on the demographics of social media last year at a conference, “City Planning, Civic Engagement and the Internet,” hosted by Christian Peralta at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University (quick summary of the conference is here).

The image, below (click image to see it full size), is from the website of Flowtown, a firm that helps companies target their marketing by gathering information on social networks and more based on email addresses.

Social Media Demographics

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