PlaceMatters logo PlaceMatters text logo

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?

Participation by Design: Community PlanIt in Boston Public Schools

This post, by guest blogger Eric Gordon, is the sixth 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.

Participants playing the Community PlanIt game during the final meeting.

How do you convince people to take time out of their busy schedules, leave their home around dinner time, perhaps get a babysitter, all in order to participate in a slow-moving conversation about something very abstract? It’s not easy. While the debates in local community centers might be invigorating; and in the best of situations, they represent meaningful deliberation about important issues in people’s lives, they also represent power inequalities (both in terms of who shows up and who is comfortable speaking).

Digital media have irreversibly changed communication patterns within most communities. People are increasingly accessing local news on mobile devices, reading the newspaper online, interfacing with government websites, and sharing opinions on social networking services (SNS) such as Facebook and Twitter. That these forms of communication are not widely incorporated into planning processes demonstrates a bias of one exclusionary tactic over another. It is typically understood as more effective and equitable to have 20 people in a room discussing the recent school board decision, for example, than to have 200 people online discussing the same thing. The assumption is that the “digital divide” excludes people. And it does. But the assumption is also that limiting the engagement process to face-to-face town hall meetings does not exclude. And it does as well.

There are limitations of access to both physical meetings and technologically mediated connections. If there were a spectrum from totally mediated to totally unmediated, there would be power differentials on either side. The solution, as with most solutions, is found somewhere in the middle. But public agencies, from governments to school boards, continue to err on the side of the unmediated. The fact that the majority of planning processes rely disproportionately on the town hall-style meeting suggests a real lag between public process and the public’s process.

Introducing Community PlanIt

For this reason, we developed Community PlanIt, an online platform designed to re-imagine the process of engagement through the logic of games. Community PlanIt is a mission-based game that asks people within a local community to “map the future.” The game lasts anywhere from 3 to 5 weeks and is designed to culminate in a face-to-face meeting where players can debrief and meet decision-makers. Players earn points by answering questions about themselves and their community. The more questions they answer, the more influence they gain in the overall planning. The logic is to reward learning with the amplification of voice.

We pilot tested Community PlanIt with the Boston Public Schools (BPS). The school district was interested in engaging the public in a conversation about their “accountability framework.” In recent years, BPS has undertaken a series of broad district-wide reforms aligned to its Acceleration Agenda goals and strategies. The Agenda’s targets are appropriate district-wide aims; but BPS had not yet created a set of uniform performance expectations for individual schools, nor devised a way for the district and external stakeholders to evaluate schools based on performance and on the opportunities they offer students.

The “School Support and Accountability Framework” was created for this purpose. The Framework’s goal is to align all school stakeholders around a common definition of school excellence and to empower school leaders, teachers, and parents to strive toward this shared standard. After an initial public engagement process that included a series of face-to-face meetings, that garnered a total of 70 participants, BPS was interested in expanding the reach and effectiveness.

Made possible through a partnership between the Boston Public Schools, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College, Community PlanIt was implemented from September 15 to October 20, 2011. The game culminated in a face-to-face meeting on the evening of the last day. The objective of the game was to engage students, parents, and other community stakeholders on aspects of the proposed BPS support and accountability framework. Students were to be a special focus of the engagement – and to this end Home, Inc,a local non-profit organization that teaches video production and media analysis to educators and youth, was brought in as a new partner. Seven students working with Home, Inc. served as “technology interpreters” for the game – leading discussion within the game by posting videos and engaging with other participants, and using social media and face-to-face outreach to encourage their fellow students to enter the game and the conversation.

The BPS game was comprised of seven five-day missions – each with a set of activities related to a theme or priority in BPS’s accountability framework. The BPS Office of Accountability chose the six priorities (growth, proficiency, achievement gaps, attendance, school environment and safety, and student/family engagement) as well as “opportunities to learn” – as the themes for each mission. Users completed activities, created and responded to “challenges” – questions or tasks posed by other users in the game, and earned points and PlanIt Tokens. All game content was translated into Spanish and Haitian-Creole, the two most prominent languages (besides English) spoken by BPS families.


Over the course of the 35-day game, over 400 community members signed up to play and set up user profiles – indicating a user “type,” gender, race, income and education level, and any custom “affiliations.” 260 users completed at least one activity in the game and left comments. Of these users, 104 were students, 64 parents, 19 teachers, 26 administrators, and 44 classified their user type as “other.” Only five played in Spanish, and zero played in Haitian Creole. As a percentage of all users, 40% (181 users) earned zero points, 29% (129 users) earned between 1 and 100 points, 18% (81 users) earned between 100 and 500 points, 7% (30 users) earned between 500 and 1000 points, and 6% (25 users) earned more than 1000 points. These 1000+ point “super-users” completed more than 40 activities each on average. And in many cases, their response to a single activity contained multiple-paragraph answers to extremely complex questions. It is noteworthy that there was no overlap between super-users and participants in the previous engagement process.

Feedback generated through Community PlanIt was significant. Over 2600 comments were entered into the system and hundreds of conversations started about everything from social media policy to racial bias in teaching. The Community PlanIt pilot provides evidence of the effectiveness of the general approach. The feedback generated by the system will factor into the decision-making process. And despite its failures in reaching difficult-to-reach populations, by a number of other measures, it surpassed expectations of non-technological approaches.

The game is currently being redesigned and redeployed in other contexts. On May 1, it will launch in Detroit as part of the Detroit Works Project’s efforts to engage the public in long-term planning. On May 3rd, it will launch in the City of Quincy, MA. And it is likely that the game will be used again in the Boston Public Schools as part of the district’s efforts to engage the public in issues of school assignment. Community PlanIt is illustrative of an approach to local community planning that incorporates the affordances of the web by focusing on networks, collaboration, and sharing. Planning is more than just a solicitation of feedback from the community. It is about creating conversations that are productive, sustainable and enriching.

This post was contributed by Eric Gordon, associate professor of new media and director of the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College in Boston.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: October 12, 2011

A crowdsourced 3D reconstruction of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

Digital Urban posted a video snippet from last month’s Intel Developer Forum featuring Intel CEO Paul Otellini on an idea that is pretty simple even if the technology and processing chops aren’t: create rich 3D models based on millions of user-generated images. This is basically crowd-sourced 3D modeling and it’s very cool.

Digital Urban also shared a link to some amazing 3D video renderings of a massive complex of caves underneath homes in Nottingham. The surveyors used LIDAR technology to create the images.

Digital Urban – again! – also found a link to a promotional video on “articulated naturality web.” We share their skepticism about the claim that augmented reality is going to fundamentally reconfigure the world, we do think AR technology has a lot of potential as a tool for helping people visualize potential changes in a community: architecture or design alternatives for a building, alternative zoning schemes for a neighborhood, and the like. One example of a useful (if modest) augmented reality technology implementation developed for Bosch focuses on kitchen appliances.

The challenges of creating effective civic participation processes mirror the challenges of architecting participatory museum exhibits, which is why we often find the Museum 2.0 blog so worthwhile. Her recent post on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History’s “Race Through Time” scavenger hunt is no exception: an innovative effort to engage folks that don’t end up participating through conventional engagement pipelines.

PEP-NET writes about a new civic dashboard in Birmingham (UK), noting the irony of the cost of building an IT infrastructure that enables widespread access to civic data.

The Case Foundation blog summarizes some lessons learned on conducting a virtual convening. Although it’s more oriented toward convention meetings done virtually, the lessons are largely applicable to community engagement efforts of all types.

EngagingCities blogs about a web-based crowdsourced tree inventory application that throws in estimates of the impact of inventoried trees on stormwater retention, carbon sequestration, and air quality.

EngagingCities also posted a short primer on some basic flavors of architectural visualization: photosimulation, 3D simulations like CommunityViz, and virtual reality environments like Second Life.

Noah Raford posted his completed PhD dissertation. We can’t claim to have read it, but it’s very on point – “Large Scale Participatory Futures Systems: a Comparative Study of Online Scenario Planning Approaches” – and look forward to browsing.

The Institute for Local Government is making available a tool for assessing the effectiveness of public engagement efforts (h/t to inCommon).

The Goodspeed Update contemplates the art and science of designing urban planning processes, focusing largely on Detroit.

Gov 2.0 Watch describes the CommunityPlanIt platform, a web-based social network intended to create deliberative discussion on school performance in Boston. PlaceMatters’ Jason Lally discussed this tool among others in a blog post earlier in the year on the use of game elements to enhance engagement.

What did we miss?

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.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: May 24, 2011

Deliberative Democracy writes about a new report by the IBM Center for the Business of Government about using online tools for community engagement.

inCommon had a great run: posts on NYC’s effort to improve civic engagement in immigrant communities, a link to a Christian Science Monitor article on participatory budgeting, how crowd wisdom is undermined by knowledge of other people’s responses (citing a story in Wired Magazine), and clues that a public engagement process may not be very effective.

You’ll find another post on participatory budgeting in Engaging Cities, this one exploring its spread in the United States. And Engaging Cities also makes the case about the importance of online tools like Twitter for public involvement.

Cooltown blogs about an experiment in crowdsourced planning, which resulted in the inclusion of a piazza in the new Bristol, Connecticut downtown plan.

Gov 2.0 Watch considers how internet personalization impacts civic engagement, drawing on a recent TED talk by Eli Pariser.

A Ken Eklund guest post on Museum 2.0 describes a terrific game-based experiment with mobile phones, designed to help visitors connect with a park in San Diego. The approach could be used in plenty of contexts.

Online forums can be a central element in a community engagement strategy, and Intellitics posts about the key to making online work: deep listening.

Deliberations describes “Citizens Assemblies,” a deliberative process approach that relies on a cross-section of the entire impacted population.

The Australian e-journal On Line Opinion describes the elements of an effective deliberative democracy, including the ability of participants to actually influence the decision-making process, and how representative the group is of the larger community (h/t to Deliberations for the link).

The Orton Family Foundation Blog explores the use of storytelling and art in understanding community values.

Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space comments on the value of the initiative process for securing community buy-in for large infrastructure projects.

On the PlaceMatters blog, Jason asks if games can save the world, and Jocelyn wonders aloud about applying the lessons of TED and TED’s exceptional speakers to the challenges of community decision-making. Jason also reports on a new spatial decision support portal from the University of Redlands.

What did we miss?

Can Games Save the World?

SimCity 4 Screenshot from Flickr user haljackey

SimCity 4 Screenshot from Flickr user haljackey

Jacob interviewed me earlier in the year about what I’m excited about this year and my basic answer centered around Place-Based Games.  The emergence of social media mashed up with location aware smart phones is enabling new ways to engage citizens in planning and decision making.  Clive Thompson writes in March’s issue of Wired about Better Living Through Games.  In it he mentions the Guardian’s web app that enabled visitors to the site to look through thousands of receipts submitted by Parliament for inconsistencies:

In less than four days, some 20,000 players analyzed a stunning 170,000 pages—and the Guardian published some of the most egregious discoveries, such as an MP who charged £225 ($441) for a sterling silver pen. It turns out that the mechanics of videogames can transform the world—making even the most arduous tasks pleasant and rewarding.

Games may seem like kids’ stuff, but really we are wired for this kind of competition and collaboration.  Holly St. Clair, Director of Data Services at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and one of our Board Members, brought this up at our Beers in Beantown event.  During Participatory Chinatown, she realized the potential of giving participants the ability to engage in planning through “avatars.”  As these avatars, participants experience the process as a problem solver and shed their personal worldview for that of another.  Games not only provide a competitive space, but a learning space as in the case of Participatory Chinatown.

We are seeing the emergence of games or gaming principles as a mechanism for solving our greatest challenges.  I am encouraged by this trend.  For too long, planning engagement has been relegated to tired townhall meetings with a single microphone and stale donuts and coffee.  Now we see elements of gaming in planning, citizen science, governance, and other fields.  Our friends at MindMixer use a leaderboard to help encourage the posting of community ideas and reward the top participants (see, is a clearinghouse of government challenges with awards for the best solutions including the Knight Foundation sponsored FCC apps for communities challenge, and the Emerson College Engagement Lab is building a Knight-funded application called Community PlanIt that will provide a platform for location based gaming around planning challenges.

The Decision Lab at PlaceMatters is very interested in tracking these developments and helping shepherd new and innovative ways to engage communities.  Do you know of any other exciting game-based strategies for engaging the public?  Let us know in the comments below.

What Are You Excited About for 2011?

Photo by flickr user tsuacctnt (Creative Commons license).

I asked folks in the office here at PlaceMatters what treasures they think 2011 might hold in store for community engagement, civic participation, and decision support. Here’s what they said:

Ken Snyder:

I’m excited about the new iPad rumored to include cameras like the iPhone4.  This will make it possible to view spatial data with augmented reality apps.  Imagine pointing your iPad at a city streetscape.  On the iPad screen data pops up about the place and planned projects. Walkscores for the area, bus frequency and realtime data on the location of the next bus on its way.

I’m excited about integrating interactive touchtables into charrettes and public meetings, helping participants make more inspired, informed, and collaborative decisions.

I’m excited about emerging online dashboards that will enable communities to monitor sustainable indicators in their community and experiment with alternative futures.

I’m excited about the our Decision Lab, creating a platform for tool developers, programers, and practitioners to collaborate in the development of new tools and techniques to improve planning.

Jason Lally:

Mobile applications are reaching a point of maturity and acceptance where using them in planning and civic engagement this year will become easier and more exciting.  While there are and still will be generational gaps in technology usage, the utility of using mobile platforms to engage a portion of our audience has increased.  Foursquare now allows photos and comments attached to checkins, QR codes enable us to attach digital information to physical objects (check out 5 unique uses of QR codes), and the new SCVNGR can give your entire city (or small business) a place-based mobile gaming platform.  These platforms provide low cost methods for creating reality based games (RBGs) that can be linked to real planning objectives.

Incidentally, Reality Based Game is not something that seems to be crowded intellectually, especially not applied to planning or civic engagement.  The concept of mobile gaming like this is not entirely new but when applied to planning it’s barely born.  I think there may be an opportunity to “own” this concept (not in the IP sense of ownership, but in the intellectual sense).  I will devote a much longer blog to SCVNGR as a platform and this concept of RBGs in general.

A city could reward citizens for finding QR codes attached to real places that provide background information about a plan and the history of the city.  Quiz people on what they learned and provide a nominal prize.  Or link your QR codes to mobile sites that allow citizens to comment and engage with the planning process around particular places and issues.  Even those that don’t participate directly can learn vicariously through media coverage and interactive websites that track participant progress.  Foursquare can be used to engage people similarly to find special tips posted by the planning department.  Attach unique codes to these tips and encourage citizens to enter these in on a mobile website, then reward those that enter the the most by a certain time.  Or use SCVNGR, which is already designed as a mobile reality-based gaming platform.  Simply, SCVNGR offers rewards to users that complete place-based challenges.  Within one application, reward citizens for following a certain path and completing challenges like finding QR codes, entering specific text or entering general comments.

While none of these reality based games will guarantee a better plan, they will hopefully become mechanisms to playfully engage many people in a planning process asynchronously.  In this next year, I would like to engage at least one city in an RBG that is thoughtfully designed and executed to increase the level of participation and if we’re lucky, maybe they’ll even learn something in the process.

Jocelyn Hittle:

2011 will see the ramp-up of sustainability work across the US as the 45 regions and communities that received HUD Sustainable Communities Grants will be implementing their proposals.   PlaceMatters is a partner on the New River Valley Region project, which received $1 million for sustainability planning, and I am excited to get started.  Not only do these grants mean that planning work will be focusing on issues we’ve long championed, like understanding the implications of land use patterns on things like greenhouse gas emissions, but also that there will be an increasingly large amount of information on best practices for involving citizens and improving decision-making around sustainability in general.

PlaceMatters has been working to improve sustainability decision-making since its inception in 2002. We have worked on creating ways for communities to easily track progress toward sustainability goals, and these grants, with their focus on implementation, will doubtlessly demonstrate a variety of methods for measuring success–including some methods we’ve used, and some new options for us to consider.  In addition, the grants focus on public participation and capacity building, which PlaceMatters considers indispensable for successful planning processes.

While we track the latest developments in all these areas, and continually push ourselves to be creative and advance the state of the art, the influx of new thinking and resources will doubtlessly spur some creative solutions we haven’t yet tried. The opportunities for us all to learn from the work that will be undertaken this year, and in the years to come, around sustainable planning is very exciting!

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: December 21, 2010

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation posts about an effort to create a “culture of dialogue.”

NCDD also explores an idea they call “deliberative hospitality,” which is basically a fancy – but useful – way of saying “be nice to people who show up to the public engagement meeting.”

Community PlanIT blog gives an update on their Engagement Game Lab project and on two Community PlanIT game projects in Philadelphia and Akron.

Public Decisions posted about PlaceMatters’ video on DiamondTouch, a very cool multi-person touchtable engagement tool. Thanks for the link, Public Decisions!

e-Participation and Online Deliberation reflects on the role of deliberation in e-participation.

America Speaks writes about the White House’s public input experiment, using a wiki for soliciting public feedback on a Request for Information, and makes suggestions for improving the experiment next time around.

They blogged about the project itself, as well – designing a new platform for online input – a few days earlier.

Orton Family Foundation posted about the block party community engagement efforts in Golden, Colorado (where I happen to be mayor). Their site seems to be down now but hopefully will come back up soon.

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: December 13, 2010

Next American City writes about the future of hyperlocal media and its relationship to urban planning. The question of how hyperlocal media shapes community decision making is a great one and worth some exploration.

People and Place explores the idea of social learning, touching on how facilitation and process design can have social learning implications.

“Knowing what is special and unique about a community is the source of authenticity in planning,” writes the Orton Family Foundation blog in post about identifying shared values as part of community planning.

e-Participation and Online Deliberation posted a lengthy two-part discussion on interface and system design for effective deliberation, highlighting the importance of elements like reciprocal and networked input.

Spare Change blogs about the potential of immersive technology tools.

Public Decisions announced a call for proposals for interactive games and mobile applications for public engagement.

Augmented Reality posts about an interesting use case: using the augmented reality app on your mobile device to see what you look like wearing those clothes you are thinking about buying. More complex applications – changing architectural skins on buildings, for instance – could be pretty useful in community or project planning efforts.

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation writes about two USA Today articles on civic participation and reflects, in a separate post, about the value of public engagement.

PlaceMatters writes about Buckyballs . . . not really related to civic participation and community decision making but they sure are fun.

Educational Planning/Architecture Toys

Basket made out of BuckyballsIn Jacob’s weekly round-up, he mentions Chris Steins’ Planetizen post on toys for budding planners.  As a contributor to the Planetizen blog, I responded with my favorite pick–Buckyballs!

Since it is Black Friday today, I figured I would make another pitch for these small but surprisingly strong magnetic balls and how fun it is to tinker with them. A birthday gift to my wife a few weeks ago, my two sons and I quickly commandeered them and have already clocked multiple hours shaping them into cool objects and designs, including struggling to reconstruct  the 6X6X6 cube they come ship in.

Included is a photo of a basket my son Jeremy made.

And here is a link to a 9 second video (BuckyballsDemo) I made showing how the Buckyballs easily pop out of unstable forms into more stable (and more interesting) forms–one of the reasons it is so difficult to recreate the 6X6X6 cube. If I was really smart, I’m sure these things would give me great insight on the structure of molecules, how to build indestructible buildings, and yin and yang. I’ll count on my kids to figure these things out while I simply work on building some more nice symmetric objects.