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Digital Engagement: Challenges and Strategies for Local Governments

Digital technology is quickly integrating into our lives: recent data from the Pew Research Center show that 91% of American adults own a cell phone, among which 58% are smartphones. If you are still questioning the pervasiveness of digital technology, simply watch a 2-year-old toddler unlocking your smartphone or tablet and making it all the way to her favorite game (or your emails). Civic participation in comprehensive planning is no exception to this trend: an increasing number of municipalities and government agencies are using digital community engagement tools to reach broader audiences, make the process innovative and fun, and complement traditional in-person strategies.

At the forefront of this trend is the City of Salt Lake City, which already implemented a wide range of digital engagement tools, including websites, Open City Hall, blogs, SpeakOutSLC, social media, and Textizen. Like many cities using these types of tools, Salt Lake has faced some challenges. Because so many people can participate online, the amount of input can quickly become overwhelming and difficult to analyze. Further, the City wasn’t sure how to evaluate the effectiveness of the tools it was using, especially compared to other outreach methods. To address these challenges, Salt Lake City asked PlaceMatters to research and make recommendations on the following two questions:

  1. How to synthesize (compile and summarize) the input gathered through digital outreach methods into a format that is useful for local government planners and decision-makers?
  2. How to evaluate the effectiveness of digital outreach methods?

Our research involved three steps: first, we interviewed Salt Lake City’s engagement manager and conducted an online survey of approximately 20 selected City staff. Second, we carried out a thorough literature review of previous research on the topics. Finally, we interviewed academics and practitioners, both inside and outside the US, with expertise in public engagement generally and digital outreach in particular.

Based on this research, PlaceMatters made the following recommendations to the City, which any government agency interested in using digital outreach tools should consider:

  1. Confirm the key objectives the City hopes to achieve through the use of digital outreach tools. For example, we identified three objectives for Salt Lake City: “engage a diverse group of stakeholders,” “increase trust in government,” and “enhance citizen knowledge of policy issues.”
  2. Establish a systematic approach to evaluation with minimum standards to be incorporated into all public engagement efforts, and build these into individual and department work plans. Specific categories and methods of evaluation include ease of use, usage, efficiency, and effectiveness.
  3. Establish a central repository of public input. The idea is to store public input collected through diverse methods and across different projects in a centralized location, using a tool that is easy to use and search through.
  4. Dedicate staff and resources for public engagement.
  5. Share practices and evaluation results internally and externally. Building a culture of community engagement and evaluation both within the community and nationwide will lead to continuous improvement in engagement tools and techniques.

The full report is available for viewing or download below. Please contact Marine Siohan ( for any additional questions, feedback or comments.

Digital Outreach in Salt Lake City: Evaluating Effectiveness & Synthesizing Input


Engagement Tech for All

“Civic Technologies” are gaining increasing interest as a way to engage hard-to-reach populations in community planning and decision-making. Low income people, as well as people of color, immigrants, people with limited English proficiency, and youth are often un- or underrepresented in these processes.  Reasons for this lack of engagement, according to earlier research by the non-profit OpenPlans, include limited city budgets and staff capacity, absence of awareness of opportunities to engage, limited language skills and reading comprehension, and previous negative experiences resulting in mistrust or hostility towards government.  While not a panacea, we believe that civic technologies enhance the toolkit available to planners and decision-makers who want to broaden public engagement. 

However, little has been written to date about how civic technologists focused on reaching underrepresented communities can most effectively approach their work.  In response to this issue, PlaceMatters conducted best practices research, with support from the Ford Foundation.  We are pleased to release “Engagement Tech for All: Best Practices in the Use of Technology in Engagement Underrepresented Communities in Planning” today.

Mobile: An emerging frontier in civic engagement

Widespread adoption of mobile technologies is enabling some households to leapfrog the “digital divide.”  The Pew Research Center reports that as of May 2013, 91% of American adults had mobile phones, including 86% of adults with lower incomes.  Pew further reports that African-Americans and Latinos use social media slightly more than whites (non-Hispanics), and are more likely than whites to want the government to post more information on social media.

Case studies highlighted in the report illustrate how planners can leverage this widespread use of mobile phones and social media to engage a broad audience.  Mi Parque, for example, is a bi-lingual mobile smartphone application that gathers input about a 23-acre park being developed over a former Superfund site in Little Village in Chicago. The application was created by an all-women team including Motorola and several students and faculty affiliated with the Open Youth Networks from Columbia University, mentored by engineers from several tech companies. The report also describes #VizLou, a Twitter-based social media tool and website, developed by Living Cities in partnership with OpenPlans, which invites youth (“Visionaries”) in Louisville, KY, to engage around civic issues.

Emerging Best Practices

General best practices that emerge from the report include the following:

  1. Members of the target population should provide input on tool development, to ensure the tool will be accessible to and used by the community.
  2. For underrepresented communities in particular, new tools or add-ons should be built based upon tools and technology these communities are already using.
  3. Visual communication, including graphics, short videos, and images are often a more effective means of communicating and engaging underrepresented groups that have a variety of language and educational backgrounds.
  4. Tools that track user demographics can help practitioners evaluate the effectiveness of the tool in reaching target populations, and demonstrate the value of the tools to sometimes-skeptical public decision-makers
  5. Regardless of the outreach method used, the most critical determinant of success (real and perceived) is whether the input gathered is reflected in decisions, actions, and outcomes.  Quick implementation of on-the-ground changes, even small ones, can demonstrate the responsiveness of public agencies to community input and needs.
  6. The most effective examples of technology-based tool use take advantage of social networks, community groups, and trusted advocates that already exist in the real world, and use these tools to support, rather than replace, face-to-face interaction.

Our report concludes by noting that, while communities are using technology to effectively engage typically underrepresented groups, rigorous evaluation of these efforts has been limited.  In some cases, communities need to collect additional data to more accurately determine who is participating, and to meaningfully compare the costs and benefits associated with different tools or outreach methods.  For example, better information on demographics and cost per participant associated with hosting public meetings versus engaging residents through online or mobile technologies can help communities use limited resources more efficiently, and to target more expensive outreach methods to specific groups that may be difficult to engage otherwise.

Click the links below to download the main report and related appendices:

Engagement Tech for All: Main Report

Engagement Tech for All: Appendix A

Engagement Tech for All: Appendix B


This post also appeared on the Living Cities blog, The Catalyst.

Participation by Design: “Two Lies & A Truth” About Smartphone Apps For Public Engagement

This post, by guest blogger Corey Connors, is the ninth 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.

“Lie” #1: Not everyone has a smartphone, so the benefit of using them is very limited.
While no one would be wise to argue with the fact that not everyone has a smartphone, there are several ways that smartphone apps create significant benefits as supplements to public meetings. One of those reasons is “reach.” While not everyone has smartphones, the number of those who do is certainly greater than the number of people who regularly attend public meetings – so based on scale alone, the potential ability to engage citizens goes up. Another benefit is allowing citizens to provide feedback in real-time, during their commutes and recreation time (on topics that they may forget details of by the time the public meeting comes around). The best apps also allow those who may prefer using internet access and a web browser to provide feedback in a similar manner, which can also be useful during public meetings in a kiosk strategy.

“Lie” #2: Smartphone apps will only make work for me, as it’s more data that I have to mine.
The best apps allow citizens to provide geo-coded photos, video, and/or audio files about issues, and allow them to categorize that issue from a list that you define – this allows a simple export from the smartphone app database to MSExcel for general use and to shapefiles (.shp) for GIS analysis. The best apps make it easy for citizens to provide their feedback in real-time, and they should make it easy for professionals to take that data and bring it to bear in planning projects. The contrast is the more common strategy of plotter-printing a large map that is placed on the floor for citizens to walk over, and then having them provide comments via Post-It notes adhered to the map – imagine the time it will then take to simply compile, categorize, and confirm specific locations of that data.

A Truth: Smartphone apps are not fields of dreams – they require promotion and communication to achieve high adoption.
You can rest assured that the most tech-forward of your audience will not need reminders about the ease of downloading an app and then immediately contributing to a planning project, but in 2012 they will likely still represent a minority of the audience that you hope to engage. Reaching and involving the larger group will require active communication by whatever strategies will be most effective for your specific audience – gameification (to add interest to participation), project-specific websites, email blasts, partnerships with local groups (casual and professional), transit advertising, TV spots, social media, press events, and others can all be appropriate strategies.

Case study: Reno Sparks Bicycle & Pedestrian Plan.
The Reno Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) set out to create this region’s first-ever comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian plan – public engagement was essential. There was also desire to be in as many “places” as possible to help citizens engage in the project. A first-of-its-kind smartphone app was created to allow for this enhanced engagement. Citizens could download this app for free (on iPhone, Android, and Blackberry), and use it to submit photo- and typed-comment-based feedback about the bicycle and pedestrian environments in the region. Those submissions were then automatically illustrated on an interactive map at the project-specific website – this allowed anyone to browse the detail of the feedback that their neighbors were providing, simply by going to the website. Social media strategies were put in place and resulted in a significantly-larger number of engaged citizens (than had been common in similar efforts), and the ability for project messages to be shared virally. To streamline management, these social channels were integrated so that a message/update in one would automatically propagate to the other, and to the custom website for all citizens to see. From a partnership standpoint, the Reno Wine Walk group was identified as a casual group to provide good participation and reach, as it hosts weekly walking events that involve popular wine merchants in the downtown area and neighboring streets.

This post was contributed by Corey Connors of Fehr & Peers, a California-based transportation consulting firm.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: January 5, 2012

TechCrunch reports on a seriously cool new augmented reality application: instant translation of foreign-language text. It’s not hard to imagine how useful a tool like this might be for community decision-making efforts in mixed language communities.

Cooltown Studios describes Popularise, an unusual private sector approach to crowdsourcing development plans. I’m not convinced the “long tail” metaphor makes sense here, and it’s not clear how the developers will actually use the crowd-supplied preferences given all the other considerations that the developers have to take into account, but it’s an intriguing idea.

Museum 2.0 has a great list of lessons learned over the last year about designing for participation (and links to another great list on The Museum of the Future blog).

Gov 2.0 Watch points us to a fascinating online, multiplayer city-building game called “Crowdsourced Moscow 2012.” Although we haven’t had a chance to play the game, a few things stand out in the promo video: players adopt one of several roles, each with specific interests and strengths; making tradeoffs is embedded in the gameplay; background information relevant to the various choices players must make is part of the game experience; and the game is intended to help participants imagine a wide range of possible futures.

As Intellitics reports, the New York Times launched another crowdsourced budget cutting project, this time focusing on the planned $450 billion in Pentagon spending cuts over the next decade. The problem, common to budget calculators, is that it’s very difficult to determine the real impacts of any of the choices. While those impacts are often the subject of fierce debate (e.g., just how valuable is the V-22 Osprey or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter), without this context it’s not clear how well participants understand the trade-offs between the options they are presented with.

Intellitics also reports on a new study exploring online deliberation design. The study evaluates a range of design considerations and the empirical evidence on their utility and effectiveness.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: May 10, 2011

Photo by Flickr user Jeff_Werner.

All Points Blog notes programs in San Francisco and the Monterey Bay area that invite cyclists to download an app to track their routes. The app, available for iPhones and Android-based phones, only tracks location data while it’s turned on. This seems like a sensible, permission-based crowdsourcing approach to understanding travel behavior.

All Points Blog also reports on a TomTom scandal, however, involving the GPS device manufacturer collecting vehicle from its consumers (unbeknownst to them) and selling those data to local and regional governments in The Netherlands to aid in locating speed traps. This seems a little less appropriate.

OpenPlans announced that two of their projects “graduated” from their Civic Works incubator program. The Transportation Group will continue providing strategic technology services to transit agencies, but of more relevance to this blog we’ll also see the Open Government Group become part of Civic Commons. Congrats also to PlaceMatters friend Frank Hebbert for stepping into a new role as director of Civic Works.

Deliberations points to an article in Canada’s Globe & Mail newspaper on the rise of citizens’ panels, an approach that provides a crash course to participants on the relevant policy issues to and provides them with tools to craft more engaged, better informed policy recommendations to decision-makers.

Snurblog posts about a presentation at the CeDEM 2011 conference (Conference for e-Democracy) on greater citizen involvement in decisions about public services.

Greater Greater Washington posted a thoughtful rant (yes, such a thing is possible) about the limitations of conventional public input processes. The remedies include widening the range of communication channels.

We missed this when it first posted, but it’s good enough it’s worth recalling: Planetizen’s rundown of great planning-related websites.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: April 26, 2011

Photo by Engaging Cities.

Engaging Cities had two great posts. One was by guest blogger Claudia Paraschiv on “El Carrito,” a mobile community participation cart used in Barcelona, Spain. The idea is clever enough on its own, but the cart then itself contains the tools for some great public engagement techniques, like the “Neighborhood Detective” game for kids.

And Jennifer-Evans Cowley has a great pecha kucha presentation on the diverse and impressive apps that communities are developing around the country.

Jennifer also was a guest blogger on the Cubit Planning blog Plannovation about the use of social media in planning, and she dives into the data on how APA 2011 participants actually used Twitter during the conference, including the impressive buzzwordification (my word) of phrases like skyboxification (Michael Sandel’s word), blight porn, and gray tsunami.

Another Cubit Planning guest blogger, Chris Haller, wrote about bridging the online/offline divide in public involvement during planning processes.

The Dirt explores visualizing brownfield and Superfund data in ways that help community members understand the challenges and explore options. Engagement is half the challenge, but once you’ve got folks plugged in you still have to provide tools for making sense of the issues, the alternatives, and the trade-offs.

Noah Raford describes an online scenario planning process using SenseMaker Suite to create the scenarios and auto-aggregation tools to analyze the narratives submitted by participants. It’s more of proof-of-concept than a fully fleshed-out approach, but seems to have some promise.

Intellitics describes the idea of “microparticipation” in online community engagement.

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation describes a demo of a software tool called EngagEnterprise, designed to aid in stakeholder management. It’s not a project management tool, they explain, but one that helps keep track of who all the stakeholders are and their relationships between each other and the project. It’s a “self-serve information dispensary and an online bulletin board.”

National Charrette Institute writes about the Better Block project, “a demonstration tool that acts as a living charrette,” enabling communities to work on, provide feedback to, and iterate complete streets project in real-time.

The PlaceMatters blog features an interview with Rob Matthews of the Decision Commons and a very cool video on the future of glass and displays.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: March 2, 2011

UPDATE: No sooner did I hit publish than I realized we left out some long-anticipated geek news . . . the new iPad. While iPad didn’t create the tablet category, it clearly made it relevant, and there’s no doubt that tablets will offer an increasingly varied and powerful array of community engagement tools. Plus they are just fun.

Ascentum reviews a recent European report looking at the success of online deliberation tools, concluding that “diverse opinions and high levels of engagement” are two critical factors.

Museum 2.0 explores the distinction between the “framework” and the “sensibility” for engagement in any given engagement process. “The framework is the format or setup for how community members are invited to participate. The sensibility is the content and the style with which the engagement happens.” Both factors matter, Nina Simon argues, and distinguishing between them makes it easier to effectively design a community engagement process for whatever those specific needs and goals.

Digital Urban introduces their GEMMA project, a geospatial mapping tool that aims to give you the “ability to create a map without knowing anything about mapping.”

APA’s Sustaining Places blogs about sustainability indicators, a subject of great interest to us here at PlaceMatters, and mentions a coordinated effort to compile “a list of North American indicator systems currently in use.”

A new Pew Internet and American Life survey connects government transparency with citizen empowerment and engagement. H/t to Cairns Blog.

The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy blog highlights the creation of online community hubs as one tool for improving information flow between governments and constituents, and it describes three models for doing just this. In a separate post, the blog provides an overview of the conclusions – six key recommendations – of a recent report on making government more open and participatory. These open government efforts don’t inherently pertain to community decision-making, but they can build community capacity for good decision processes, they can help establish a broader culture of government openness, and these open government tools can sometimes be adapted for use in specific decision processes.

Gigaom enthusiastically reports on new gesture control technology for mobile phones. As Gigaom explains, “It allows the phone’s front-facing camera to track a person’s hand movements so he or she doesn’t have to touch the screen.” Crunchfish, a Swedish outfit, is behind the move, although other technology companies are filing patents and figuring hot how to make the technology work for other mobile devices and televisions as well. Motion control – relatively simple systems like the Wii and more complex systems like the XBox Kinnect – offer a lot of potential for planning and community engagement applications, and it stands to reason that these user interfaces will only grow more complex and more widely available on a range of devices.

Top Five Technology Trends: Civic Engagement

If you want to stay on the cutting edge of civic engagement tools and techniques, here are the top five trends to watch:

1) Mobile Technology Explosion

By the end of 2010, 1.2 billion people are expected to carry mobile devices with rich web-based environments.  These phones already enable a wide range of sophisticated community engagement techniques, including WalkShop tours, mobile reporting, and augmented reality tools.  Even dumb phones (which represent 83% of the U.S. handset market) are likely to see smartphone style functionality in the very near future.  And even the dumber of the dumb phones (the total number of mobile phone subscriptions is expected to hit five billion in 2010) increasingly provide photo and video capabilities, geolocation, and other features that enable very cool stuff.  Civic engagement that relies too heavily on mobile technology will leave out a lot of older folks, but neighborhood outreach approaches that ignore it will leave out most everyone else. Continue reading