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WALKscope: Crowdsourced Pedestrian Data

It’s easy to look around most American cities and guess (correctly) where most of our transportation infrastructure funding is spent: on auto-oriented projects. As transportation infrastructure became more complex and within the purview of the public sector, planners and engineers developed the data and methodologies we needed to track what infrastructure exists and how it’s being used. This information guides policy decisions about where to invest resources.

However, we rarely have this kind of data for active transportation like biking and walking. This lack of data puts active transportation at a disadvantage when it’s time to allocate resources; after all, how do you argue for more sidewalks or prioritize where to put resources when you can’t demonstrate where the existing gaps and strengths are in the network? Following the “what gets measured gets done” logic, auto-oriented uses are better equipped to demonstrate need because they have data, perpetuating a cycle of auto-focused spending.


WALKscope desktop view

Over the last few months, PlaceMatters has been working with our friends at Walk Denver on a new tool for crowdsourcing data about the existing conditions and usage of Denver’s pedestrian infrastructure. The concept behind WALKscope is simple: drop a pin on a map, and then answer a few questions about pedestrian counts, street quality, or intersection quality.

At the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference last month, we were able to test it out in the field with 30 participants in a mobile workshop. Participants were given a quick tour of the tool, some maps showing them where to canvas, and then they were sent out into the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Denver. After about 30 minutes, we’d covered several blocks.

Jefferson Park Data

30 minutes of WALKscope with 6 groups

When participants returned, we pulled up the map and groups were able to report out on the data they’d just collected, including the pictures they took. Cool.


Using WALKscope to report what we found during the data collection.

We then got down to my favorite part, a usability review of the tool. Overall, the comments were really positive. Some of the pluses:

  • responsive design: because it’s designed for use with mobile devices, the interface for collecting data was really easy to use in the field.
  • pictures: incorporating pictures is really helpful for adding detail to what is otherwise a pretty basic survey of the area
  • conversation starter: several folks mentioned that neighborhood residents asked them what they were up to, and a couple of those residents even asked how they could get involved and pitch in.

and the most common requests/issues:

  • more categories: it’s always tricky balancing the desire for precision with the need to generalize categories to make the data manageable. We got some helpful feedback on refining our current ways of categorizing sidewalks and intersections.
  • ped counter interface: one of the best ideas we heard was to add a clicker feature to the ped counter option so people could just tick off a new pedestrian each time they saw one rather than remembering the total and updating it at the end. I love this idea; definitely something we’d like to implement.
  • user access: currently you can sign in via twitter or facebook, but people understandably would love to be able to have persistent sign-in so they could log a bunch of data points and have a user account keep up with it all for them.

So what’s next for WALKscope? If you’re in Denver, it’s up and ready for you to use it! We’ll be doing some data visualizations and other reporting from the work we’re doing with Walk Denver, and we’re talking with other organizations who are interested in using it. If you’d like more info on the tool, let us know!

PS: A huge amount of credit is due to the folks at OpenPlans for developing Shareabouts, the platform on which WALKscope is built.


PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: March 14, 2012

Participatory mapping in action (the from TheCityFix blog, is by Lee Shiver.).

The City Fix describes some examples and some of the value of participatory mapping in urban planning.

Engaging Cities blogs on a similar theme, writing about the use of maps in community decision-making.

The New York Times has a lengthy piece on IBM’s Smarter Cities implementation in Rio de Janeiro and IBM’s vision of a data-driven city.

We keep coming across more info about the new crop of massive, multi-touch, multi-user tables, including a promotional video from Ideum on their MT55 Pro 55″ (with a “vandal-proof case”), starting at $22,000. Yes, we are drooling.

NCDD reports on a Chris Quigley presentation about using gamification to support digital engagement.

Augmented reality technology continues moving forward. Although the tools they use here – a promotional app for a hotel – are pretty advanced, they give a sense of where AR technology is headed and the types of applications that might be useful in a decision-making context.

Open Source Planning offers some thoughts on open data and on the hype around City 2.0. It’s helpful to us in thinking about our upcoming “Community Engagement in Intelligent Cities” panel at the American Planning Association conference in April.

Ascentum makes an argument about validating the economic case for public involvement in policy decisions.

InCommon mentions a new e-commenting system adopted by the City of Arcata, CA. The Granicus system allows community members to submit comments online in response to the agenda items listed for the next public meeting of the City Council or other public bodies. We’ve been using the system in Golden, Colorado for a couple of years now, and while its functionality is pretty basic and use by Golden residents is pretty minimal, it does offer another channel for providing comments. It’s really just a web-based commenting system, though, and doesn’t break any decision-making ground.

And this time-lapse video from the International Space Station made the Roundup just because it’s cool.

What else did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: February 15, 2012

The professionals who lead community planning efforts are often less diverse than the communities they are working with.

Professional planners, urban designers, and architects (this is our own Ken Snyder working on a comprehensive plan project in Shreveport) are typically much less ethnically diverse than the communities they work with.

Grist explores the lack of people of color as professionals in the fields of planning, urban design, and architecture, and what that means for community design processes (h/t to Planetizen).

Metaio has a new video showing some impressive improvements in their augmented reality engine, most notably with “3D markerless tracking,” aka real-time orientation of the mobile device. The original videos illustrating the technology were very cool but were shot in a controlled lab environment. That’s not true here.

Artist Candy Chang is at it again with another “Before I Die” interactive art installation, this time in London. We love this.

This is cool: a diversity of Swedish citizens each get to tweet under the @Sweden handle for a week at a time: “Every week, someone in Sweden is @Sweden: sole ruler of the world’s most democratic Twitter account.” Time and others have reported on this.

This is dated but we stumbled across it recently … a performance-based approach to community engagement on land use and urban design issues in Portland by the Sojourn Theater.

Here’s a new tool in Washington state for helping voters sort through issues, discuss and deliberate about them with other voters, and identify points of agreement and potential compromise (h/t to Jon Stahl’s Journal).

TheCityFix describes a photo- and art-based project aiming to engage younger community members in a rethinking of public transit.

We’ve started thinking about ways Pinterest (which is experiencing spectacular user growth and now drives more referral traffic on the web than Google+, YouTube, Reddit, and LinkedIn combined) could be helpful in community engagement efforts. Its ease of use and its deeply viral dynamics may make it a really useful tool for collecting and sharing images. The Museum of the Future and Quicksprout each have some nice summaries of potential uses. Don’t be misled by their focus on museums and marketing, respectively … many of their suggestions apply more broadly.

The New York Times takes a stab at a mildly interactive data visualization of the President’s 2013 budget proposal.

EngagingCities reports on a new study by the Corporation for National and Community Service exploring internet use for civic life across generations.

In a separate post, EngagingCities reflects on “the democratization of mapmaking” and some of the implications for civic participation.

EngagingCities (which ties for the ‘most mentions’ award this week) also describes the growing momentum around the idea and emerging field of geodesign.

Digital Urban has three posts that we spent some time with, as well: one offering a first look at the new CityEngine and an integration with Lumion (which collectively they call “a game changer”), a more detailed look at the CityEngine and Lumion combination, and a third demonstrating live 3D Kinect-based streaming.

California Common Sense launched a new civic engagement website focused on state policy and financial issues, providing background on issues, soliciting opinions, and sharing those opinions with elected officials (h/t to Gov 2.0 Watch).

And on the PlaceMatters blog we posted a rundown of some easy rules for screwing up your public process.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: January 18, 2012

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

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

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

Continue reading

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

Big Data, Big Business

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

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

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

Collaborative Problem Solving

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

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

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

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: September 14, 2011

A very cool engagement strategy: Harry Potter-style map that reveals new areas as you travel thru a museum (h/t to All Points Blog).

Digital Urban shows off a cool augmented reality implementation: incorporating 3-D content, overlaid on the iOS video feed, that can be manipulated through user interaction in real time.

EngagingCities thinks through hackathons and some of the opportunities and challenges of government app-creation efforts.

More from EngagingCities: three fun tools (games?) for community planning.

And another post from what is our favorite blog this week: EngagingCities describes an awesome art-heavy “collaborative mapping” process in Tokyo.

There’s a really nice Nick Grossman interview courtesy of the Open Plans blog.

A new study: federal agencies need to improve public participation standards.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab created an “Urbanology” web site. Answer a series of questions and the site will create your own ideal “future city” and compare it to other cities around the world. It’s an interesting idea but the execution isn’t very strong yet. For instance, the trade-offs – an essential element in any future scenarios type of tool – just don’t make a lot of sense.

As reported on a bunch of blogs over the past couple of weeks, the White House launched a new “We the People” initiative inviting citizens to submit e-petitions seeking federal action on presumably just about anything. The system allows anyone to create a petition; if at least 150 people sign the petition it becomes publicly searchable on the White House site. The White House committed to reviewing and responding to any petition receiving at least 5,000 signatures within 30 days. You’ll find some thoughtful comments on the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation blog, and a couple of more skeptical reviews on Intellitics (“White House Petitions: The Need for Robust FAQs” and “White House Petitions: a Small Sample of Popular Feedback“).

We are technology enthusiasts at PlaceMatters, but we agree with A Planner’s Guide that technology needs to be used thoughtfully and in ways that are appropriate to the audience and the context.

A cool, sticker-based engagement project on Grist.

StreetsBlog reviews the book “Visualizing Density,” which includes photographs and descriptions of 250 neighborhoods across the country. The goal: “provide an impartial and comparative view of the many ways to design neighborhoods.” Actual photographs of actual neighborhoods aren’t what we usually think of when we talk about visualization tools, but it seems like one pretty obvious and useful approach.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: September 7, 2010

Next American City offers a few thoughts about the growth of real-time data feeds and opportunities to improve the efficiency of city services and quality of life (e.g., negotiating traffic).

Urban STL laments the lack of participation in the “Framing a Modern Masterpiece” competition to redesign the grounds of the St. Louis Arch.

Digital Urban published a report on data mashups and the future of mapping.

Digital Urban also writes about new features available in Sketchup 8 and about integration with Lightup.

Here on the PlaceMatters blog, Jason Lally wrote about the relationship between geodesign and planning, the role of geodesign in facilitating collaboration, and next year’s GeoDesign Summit.

The National Coalition for Dialog and Deliberation writes about the Open Model for Citizen Engagement (OM4CE).

The Mind of Mbuga Njihia describes the winners of the Knight Foundation’s “Knight News Challenge.”

Transportation for American kicked off a twelve-part series – one case study a day – on livability (h/t to StreetsBlog).

The Power of the Kindergarten Art Supplies in Planning

PlaceMatters has partnered with the National Charrette Institute on a number of occasions, providing trainings and giving panel presentations at conferences.  One of our common themes is “High Touch, High Tech Charrettes.”  During the sessions we talk about the advantages of low tech and when it makes sense to bring in high tech.

Below I have embedded a video that is a montage of clips filmed during a downtown revitalization Charrette in Wichita Kansas.  In this project, PlaceMatters partnered with Goody Clancy to help residents go through a series of exercises including keypad polling and mapping exercises to brainstorm about the future of downtown Wichita.  It’s a short, non-narrated video that gives you a sampling of the conversations that took place.  This video is a tribute to going low tech.

Low Tech Mapping Exercise – Downtown Revitalization on Vimeo.

Everyone’s familiarity with pen, paper, strings, and glue means people of all ages and backgrounds are comfortable jumping into the exercise.

So why would you bring technology into a process like this at all?  It is important to think about technology from the perspective of what can we accomplish with the simplest of materials and then think about what’s missing (a.k.a. the appropriate technology approach to planning).  Often the answer is “not much” and therefore you should keep it simple and keep it low tech.  Box City is a favorite of ours if you want go low tech/high touch.

So what’s the holy grail of high touch-high tech decision making?  Here are some quick thoughts:

  • During the creative process, technology would be nearly invisible.  As much as possible, technology would not take away from the tactile, intuitive aspects of a group mapping exercise like the one shown above but would enhance the outcomes.  ULI’s Reality Check [add link] is another example where Lego blocks representing jobs and housing are placed on a map to think about where and how to grow smart.  Tallying the Lego blocks and then entering them into GIS analysis then makes it possible to report back to participants how different strategies positively and negatively affected important indicators of livability, economic viability, and sustainability.
  • The technology would provide useful information at the right time and at the right level to inform and inspire participants and help them move towards consensus on issues and idea.  My posting on Gaggle Googling is one example of where technology helped improve the discussion making process in a group setting.
  • The technology helps people experiment with different approaches and get quick feedback on choices.  Feedback includes being able to hear from others on whether or not an idea resonates with others (e.g. using keypad polling to see which strategies have the most support) as well as  impact analysis tools that can quantify and display the impacts of choices (e.g. the cost of infrastructure added).

This was cross-posted on Planetizen.

Indistinguishable from Magic

Arthur C. Clarke once said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” PlaceMatters has recently been using and demonstrating some innovative and low-cost touchtables and electronic whiteboards.  Our audiences and partners are excited to use this intuitive ­interface. Inspired in part by Johnnie Chung Lee’s talk, we have been using these tools to help brainstorm, create comments on maps, and use our new AnyWare™ tools.

These tools are useful in synthesizing information on maps, something that is time consuming if you have multiple tables with paper maps that have to be digitized. They also allow more innovative presentations that go beyond Powerpoint, a relief for any regular conference attendee.

As much as the tools are smart and appealing, we want to use them strategically, rather than as just as a shiny new technology, like Fred Armisen on Saturday Night Live above. We are constantly asking for feedback on the use of the tools, and are careful to make sure their use fits the situation. Continue reading

Google Transit arrives on the iPhone

I knew it would eventually come, but I didn’t realize how excited I would be to hold transit directions in the palm of my hand!  Much of the inconvenience of riding transit is the lack of information.  Google and Apple have just broken through the first barrier of inconvenience by bringing pervasive information to transit riders (which is my only means of getting around Denver).  In case you haven’t heard, Apple just released version 2.2 of its iPhone operating system including updates to the Maps application, enabling transit and walking directions (as well as street view).  Continue reading