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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).

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: March 30, 2011

I had a week off because of a few conferences in Washington, D.C. (including the terrific Nonprofit Technology Conference) and then an unplanned week away from the office as a raging wildfire threatened my town (we learned some great lessons about communication, community, and social media – I’ll blog about that separately), but I’m back and have got a great set of links to share . . .

PlaceMatters is presenting a panel at the APA conference in Boston in a couple of weeks called “What to do When Public Participation Goes Terribly Wrong?” Ken, who is a Planetizen blogger as well as the PlaceMatters‘ CEO, posted on the panel and invites folks to send in their own stories of near misses or total disasters. (He also cross-posted on our blog).

Bridges of B offers a lengthy description and generally favorable critique of Akoha, a civics-minded mobile-based direct action game. It offers a game-based platform for creating community-oriented missions, using game mechanics to motivate engagement. One criticism: “Place matters, especially in civics,” and Akoha doesn’t tie to one’s place very well, but Bridges of B seems pretty enthused about Ahoka as an early stab, and about the promise of the approach more generally.

National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation links to a National School Public Relations Association post called “Recipes for Innovation in Public Engagement,” focused on community engaging in the context of public education.

The Irish Cultural Center blogged about a photography project in which the subject of each photograph held a Polaroid image of the previous subject, so each photograph subject is connected to the person photographed just prior and the one photographed just afterwards. (Thanks for the link, Ethan!).

Ragtag posted a terrific (Euro- and Wikipedia-centric) data visualization relying on a cross-referencing of the location and date data in Wikipedia articles on historic events. (This one was Ethan, as well).

Reimagine Rural describes their Front Porch Forums tool, a social media application designed for smaller, rural communities. They contrast the tool with conventional social media languages and tools: it’s designed to encourage face-to-face interaction (rather than designed to maximize the time engaged with the tool). It’s focused more on general community and civic engagement as opposed to community decision-making, but it seems applicable to a wider range of situations. One post describes the Front Porch Forum and the other post has a short video explanation.

Intellitics blogs about the central role small group discussions can play in anchoring a community process.

Digital Urban continues their ruminations on the use of QRCodes in the context of museum exhibits. We find the technology and the applications pretty interesting from a broader public engagement perspective as well.

Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space grapples with the challenges of web-based engagement around redistricting.

Orton Family Foundation blogs about a story-gathering, asset mapping, and visioning effort undertaken by high school students for their Biddeford, Maine downtown.

Augmented Reality posted about two interesting innovations. The first, including a video, described an application involving driving a radio-controlled car around a track, with cameras for a real-time cockpit view and “augmented reality scenarios overlaying animations onto the live-video image which were triggered either with a light barrier or optically.” Very cool. The second shows the use of an augmented reality app to create a racetrack for a video game by mapping Red Bull cans laid out on the floor. Both illustrate ways in which augmented reality technologies can be used, and for us it’s always with an eye toward planning and community decision-making.

Common Sense California writes posts on the Marine Corps’ version of a town hall meeting at Camp Hansen.

Engaging Cities writes about the QR Code trend and offers some best practices tips for folks who may want to experiment. QR codes clearly offer process designers a tool for sparking certain types of engagement, and will be increasingly useful as camera phones continue their market saturation.

Engaging Cities also reflects a little on the use of film and community storytelling in urban planning.

My PlaceMatters colleagues have been busy with other posts as well, including Jocelyn’s on IBM’s City Forward online tool (about which Fast Company wrote recently as well), Jason’s interview with ESRI’s Matt Baker about geodesign and sketch-based feedback in ArcGIS, Ken’s thoughts on integrating DIY touchtables with GIS, and my post about the iPad 2 Best Buy vs. Mac Store face-off.

What did we miss?

iPad 2 Faceoff: Best Buy and Apple Store Showdown

Anticipating long lines and limited supply, and believing we’d increase our odds of both scoring a new iPad2 on Friday afternoon when Apple kicked off sales of its latest toy, we split up. Turns out we were wrong – the limit was only one device at Best Buy – but we both made it home that evening with the latest flagship Apple product. I’ve owned my iPad2 for just a few days now but adore it already. An hour-and-twenty minute movie on my flight to D.C. burned only 16% of the battery and was gorgeous to watch. It’s sleek, slick, powerful, and smooth. Scoble is right: it’s all about the apps, and the iPad app universe is nothing short of fantastic.

This morning’s post isn’t about the iPad itself, though, but about the folks who designed the buying experience at the two stores. And the punch is as predictable as it is important: design matters.

The Apple store experience, in typical Apple fashion, was all about the customer. Smiles and free water to everyone waiting in line, a welcoming handshake for every customer as they entered the store, a bunch of staff on the floor quickly helping everyone as they walked in, cashing folks out on the spot with their mobile cash registers (which are themselves pretty cool), staff willing and able to answer questions and help customers find accessory products, salespeople congratulating customers, free advice about using the new iPad2, mini-classes going on in the back, the Apple store itself with it’s so-cool-I-kinda-want-to-hang-out-here vibe.

The Best Buy staff were super friendly (which, sadly, stands out in the world of electronics retailers), but the accolades stop there. The buying experience was designed, as far as I can tell, for the convenience of the store managers. Those of us lucky enough to get a ticket for the device we wanted ended up in a new line in the back of the store. I spent forty minutes waiting to buy my new iPad surrounded – not by other Apple products, not by the newest high-definition televisions, not by gaming consoles, not by Best Buy staff talking about their favorite iPad apps or offering tips on how to use the new device, not by anything I might have found even vaguely interesting – but by refrigerators and washing machines. The conversation the day before was probably straightforward. “Where should we have them line up?” “Well, that row of refrigerators is long and straight, and that’ll keep them in the back of the store out of the way.” While we waited (a Whirlpool side-by-side for just $899.99!), salespeople walked up and down the line hawking Smart Covers and a few other accessories. Helpful, I suppose, they offered no value to the experience except perhaps for the transaction itself (I ended up buying the Smart Cover, btw, which rocks). The line then clogged at the too-few temporary registers, and it all just felt cheap . . . long, portable tables covered with cheap tablecloths and filled with registers and a few more accessories they hoped we would buy. The entire transaction consisted of my (admittedly friendly) salesperson trying to upsell me on one thing after another. And the experience didn’t offer any time to wander among what should have been (but wasn’t) an irresistible display of cool Apple stuff I might want to grab to help my new mobile device feel at home.

In short, Best Buy had a captive audience and an opportunity to surprise and delight us all. They didn’t. They viewed the experience as a one-off, a chance to work a trapped audience who might be upsold on covers and extended warranties. Apple, like much of what it does, put the user first when designing the experience, fueling and validating their enthusiasm and excitement, reminding everyone just how much fun it is to go to the Apple store.

Every time we organize a community decision-making process, a brainstorming session, or any other project we might work on, we are serving as designers of a process that really matters to the people participating. Conventional planning and community outreach puts the planners and the staff first: the questions are asked in ways that make sense to city staff, the documents are written by planners who picture themselves as the audience, and the format is engineered for efficiency at the expense of a rich, engaging experience by community members. The results are as predictable as my experience as Best Buy was: community members don’t feel heard or valued nor do they feel ownership over the experience or the outcome. The planners can check “public participation” off their to-do list, but that public input didn’t add any real value to the process. And ultimately the decisions won’t be as valuable, effective, or as durable as they could have been.

Every planning process ought to delight the community members involved, and every one ought to add real value to the participants outside of the simple transactions and decisions involved. If people leave a process we designed and don’t feel that they understand the issues and trade-offs better than when they started, or that they know their neighbors better now than at the beginning of the project, or that their voices were actually heard (even if they outcome isn’t what they hoped for), and that their community or organization will be better off for having experienced the process, then we haven’t done our job. And I think this is true for anyone guiding a community decision, designing an art exhibit, crafting a lesson plan, or building a participatory democracy process.

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: March 8, 2011

Bill Gates at TED uses collapsing state budgets as a launching point to make the case for improving civic engagement, while National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation simultaneously asks if better conversations can help solve those very same budget crises. NCDD goes a step further, in fact, and challenges dialogue and deliberation professionals to “come together to STRATEGICALLY deliver free or heavily discounted services to 5-10 towns, cities or states for well-done, well-studied, well-documented, and well-publicized work on their budget crises.”

Intellitics explores crowdsourced policy making using wiki-based tools. They point out the challenge of shifting from a conventional fact-driven wiki process, like Wikipedia, to one that is as much about values as it is about factual information.

Cooltown Studios takes this idea a step further, exploring an effort in Bristol, Connecticut to crowdsource the entire downtown revitalization effort.

Cooltown Studios also offers a FAQ on “crowdsourced placemaking.”

Yet another take on crowdsourced decision-making: Createquity argues that we should reinvent arts philanthropy with the use of “guided crowdsourcing,” an approach which could offer the power of conventional crowdsourcing but also the benefits of guided creativity and engagement. Their post spells out a detailed proposal for how this might work.

The idea of guided crowdsourcing is similar to the idea of facilitated engagement covered in this week’s Museum 2.0 post on their recent experiments in “participatory audience engagement” (and an idea Museum 2.0 explored last week as well).

Our own Jocelyn Hittle (who runs PlaceMatters’ Vermont office) reflects on Vermont Town Meeting Day.

PlaceMatters also published a new report on using complex science in community decision-making processes.

Common Sense California reports on Palo Alto mayor Sid Espinosa’s “Open City Hall” efforts to foster more civic engagement in his community.

Chris Brogan writes about the future of location-based applications, thinking aloud about how cool it would be if location-based apps offered functionalities like temporary groups. Although we haven’t seen location-based apps used a lot yet in community decision-making, we suspect they will ultimately be really useful, and Brogan’s idea is one example.

Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space posts about a provocative public art display in New Orleans: a huge chalk board with the prompt, “Before I die I want to” with a line for anyone to answer. We probably wouldn’t want to use this precise engagement invitation in a community planning process, but the idea is pretty cool and it’s easy to imagine a bunch of creative variations.

Digital Urban writes about an engagement experiment at the Grant Museum of Zoology using iPads, QR codes, and Twitter hash tags. It’s a museum context, but we get excited about any sort of tool, technology, or technique that may make for stronger, more effective community decision-making processes.

Development Seed describes TileMill, their new open source map design tool. Govfresh also blogged about it, explaining that the new tool “dramatically increases the accessibility of custom map generation for enterprise users, including the government.”

What did we miss?

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!

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.

iPlanning on the iPad

The iPad’s unique form factor opens up more possibilities for planning and civic engagement applications that can engage people in a mobile environment.  The iPad is less like a laptop and more like a “window on the world,” which can be held up to view, record and interact with place in ways that laptops and smart phones cannot. It is just big enough to display more useful information and just small enough to cradle that it could be the next killer mobile application.  Tablet PCs or other niche pen based computers that are used only by specific fields never completely delivered the experience that the iPad (and it’s successors) are poised to provide.  The iPad democratizes access to mobile content just a little bit more and is the platform on which new intuitive software can be built. Continue reading