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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: Third Graders Get a Chance to be City Planners

This post, by guest blogger Augusta Prehn, is the eleventh 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.

The Fairmount School Project

Fairmount Elementary School 3rd graders were City Planners for a day when they visited the City of Golden Planning Department. They learned the basics of the City Planning profession and tried their hands in organizing a city from scratch as a team of planners.

The Planning and Development Department works with citizens and businesses to ensure that land use complies with the City of Golden zoning and land use regulations. The department works through a Planning Commission of appointed citizens to further the goals of the comprehensive plan and to create more localized neighborhood plans that reflect the citizens’ values and priorities. Historically, the role of a Planning Department has been to handle development issues regarding land use, transportation, community facilities, urban design, and housing, as well as encouraging the separation of incompatible uses and the proper mixing of complementary uses.

For the Fairmount visit, 5 different classes visited and each class broke down into smaller groups of 4 or 5 and practiced collaboration and deliberation with one another over where to place businesses, housing and other town necessities and the reasons why. They practiced prioritization and found that forming consensus over a vision for the city can be a difficult task to pull together.

The students had creative ways of looking at the city as a blank slate. They named their towns, developed stories to support the towns’ history, and designed both neighborhoods and Main Streets with everyday civic buildings clustered. They went so far as to locate grocery stores and other necessities near housing for ease of access, water treatment plants near the river and industrial uses that might cause a nuisance farther away from residential uses.

Their take away was that civic discussions are the place to get involved. Local government may be the smallest form of government that we see, but it is the one that affects us most in our day to day lives; so becoming a part of the discussion is the key to a greater city!

The activity was a success and the kids really enjoyed themselves!

This post was contributed by Augusta Prehn, a City Planner with the City of Golden, Colorado.

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

This post, by guest blogger Jennifer Evans-Cowley, is the first in a month-long series on the diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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?

Scenario planning advocates and practitioners gather to discuss open source and collaboration

One of the diagrams generated during the meeting in Salt Lake City

One of the diagrams generated during the meeting in Salt Lake City

I recently returned from a gathering in Salt Lake convened by the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy and Sonoran Institute in concert with partners including us (PlaceMatters), OpenPlans, Fregonese Associates, the University of Utah College of Architecture and Planning (our gracious host), and Decision Commons. The agenda was ambitious but the conversations were deep and meaningful.

This convening (the Open Source Planning Tools Symposium) was just about 2 days of rolling up our sleeves and figuring out what it will take to move mature and emerging tools to greater use and refinement to tackle the greatest challenges of our day.  There were 36 people in attendance representing non-profits, regional and local government, scenario tool developers, private firms, and universities.

Part of the agenda included working on edits and recommendations to a Policy Focus Report on this topic that will be published right around the National APA conference by Lincoln with contributions from OpenPlans, Sonoran, PlaceMatters, Decision Commons and Fregonese among many others helping with edits and filling in gaps.  Additionally, this group talked about a range of topics to really advance this effort into the next year.  These topics included ways in which university curricula could prepare planners with scenario planning skills, data standards and interoperability among tools, sample work programs for regional support, indicators for social equity, and developing clearer approaches to linking planning needs to available tools.

The group was action oriented and very excited to keep the work going before another convening sometime next year.  We will continue to support that conversation using the Open Source Planning Tools Ecosystem (OSPT-Ecosystem) Google Group.  If you are interested in getting involved, feel free to join the group and peruse previous notes from our calls.  Materials will also be available online that came out of this meeting and we will want to engage a broad and deep network of people as we move this effort forward.

On a personal note, I am very excited about all of this and this has become my “extracurricular” work for now as we figure out how to build out the Decision Lab’s capacity to support open source planning tools and scenario planning practice across the country.  We will be building a basic page on the PlaceMatters’ website as a hopeful precursor to something bigger.  Check back for that soon.  This will be a place where you can learn about the ongoing activities and events related to Open Source Planning Tools and will eventually have a compendium of open source tools.

If you have a perspective on how open source can improve planning tools, let us know on Twitter or below in the comments.  More results and documents will follow, so check back on our blog or sign up on the Google group to stay up to date.

PlaceMatters gets some great press!

Front cover of the October planning magazine

Read about us in this month’s Planning Magazine, Metropolis, or ArcNews

This fall, PlaceMatters is in three publications!  We were part of the Metropolis Technology Issue on page 71 (online link to the article will be available next month).  You can read a brief on community outreach technologies including our own Brainstorm Anywhere.  A more in-depth article on High-Touch/High-Tech Charrettes is in this month’s Planning magazine on page 27 by Bill Lennertz of the National Charrette Institute (and a board member).  You’ll get a hardcopy in the mail if you are an APA member, and it is also available online here. Finally, a nice writeup of the work we did with Placeways in Cape Cod is in the Fall issue of ArcNews and is available here.  This is also a preview of a book chapter in an upcoming book on GeoDesign.

We are really excited to see our work and our partners’ work featured in the press.  Let us know what you think in the comments or on Twitter.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: August 11, 2011

Engaging Cities writes about the recommendation engine Scoville (and Scoville rejects me for their beta because I don't have enough Facebook check-ins!).

Between presentations at the White House and the Ford Foundation’s 75th anniversary gala (we’ll blog about both of these soon), tons of amazing projects (we’ve got a team in the New River Valley of rural southwestern Virginia at this very moment), and just the general zaniness of summer we’ve got quite a backlog of great blog posts to round up:

Our friend Chris Haller on the EngagingCities blog writes about a new recommendation engine app, Scoville, built on Foursquare’s API. His take: if it works, it might be pretty useful to planners as a community asset mapping tool. Chris also posted a nice checklist for planners hoping to use social media tools in their community engagement efforts.

Digital Urban commented on Urban Sensation’s interesting approach to urban visualization, layering data on top of CCTV footage as part of an immersive sensory emulation project. Hard to explain, and pretty unclear where they’ll end up, but a creative and ambitious idea about creating engaging experiences.

Three other Digital Urban posts to note: an interesting Big Data/urban operating system concept called Urbanflow Helsinki, a creative urban design model inverting the conventional transportation paradigm [http://www.digitalurban.org/2011/07/clockwork-city.html], and a Nike-supported data visualization called YesYesNo illustrating the running patterns over the course of a year.

Open Source Planning offers another take on the Nike data visualization, noting that there’s a clear bias in the data collection (i.e., what sort of folks happen to run with the fancy iPod-Nike chip system, and what parts of New York they run in and which boroughs they avoid).

We love smart technology aimed at improving civic engagement and community decision making, and we think Next American City rocks, so we especially liked their roundup of the best city- and community-oriented technology tools.

countably infinite has a thoughtful post about the challenges of pseudonymity in community decision making.

The e-Participation and Online Deliberation blog reflects on the challenge of making technology-enabled engagement tools do more than simply gather more “trickle-up” opinions but, rather, to foster genuine engagement, conversation, and deliberation.

Intellitics comments on the role of public participation in a new Open Government Partnership.

Metropolis reports on New York City’s new app development competition.

Planetizen blogs about the Guggenheim City Laboratory and its six-year nine-city tour.

Design Mind describes the challenges that cities and their CTOs and Chief Digital Officers face in the transition to digital participation (h/t to Planetizen).

All Points Blog describes a new augmented reality implementation and a new conceptual implementation. We aren’t all that excited about driving while viewing the road through our mobile device, but these types of developments will no doubt move the ball forward on applications that are relevant for community planning and civic engagement.

inCommon writes about a participatory park planning project in Santa Monica and CoolTown Studios describes another, similar planning effort for a downtown area in the Village of Hempstead on Long Island.

PlaceMatterssummer intern Matt Weinstein blogged about our walkshop in Somerville, Massachusetts, and Jason offers some context on Esri’s acquisition of Procedural (the makers of CityEngine) and spells out some of the implications.

What did we miss?

Calling All Nerds

I’m sure many of you regularly check in at TED.com to watch one of the hundreds of videotaped talks given by everyone from Bill Gates to J.J. Abrams (one of my favorites) to Lennart Green (I defy you to be anything but amazed by this guy’s card trickery). I recently watched Sal Khan’s talk on his online lesson archive and teaching tool, Khan Academy.

I then visited Khan Academy’s website and started watching some of his

Khan Academy Screenshot

A Lesson from Khan Academy, One of Many Online Options for Getting Nerdy

clear, concise videos.  He describes everything from photosynthesis to finance (heavy on the finance and math, given he gave up his Wall Street job to focus full time on providing online lessons) using a smartboard screen, multicolored pens, and his gift for explaining complex things.

I then found lifehacker’s post on other online educational resources and was amazed at the options.  For all of you planners, MIT offers a wide variety of online courses like “Design for Sustainability” or “Public Transportation Systems” via the Open Courseware Consortium.  Even more topics and lectures are available at Academic Earth and iTunes U.

What does this have to do with us?  Well, half of what we do at PlaceMatters is to think about how to get all affected stakeholders to the table, and we talk about all the ways in which we do this a lot.  But the other half is to think about how to educate these stakeholders about the topics in front of them so that their decisions are informed and take into account the tradeoffs that are (unfortunately) inherent in decision-making.  The sites that focus on providing shorter lectures on specific topics could be a great resources for us in preparing ourselves and our stakeholders for having in-depth conversations–whether we show these materials in a meeting, or ask participants to bone up on the subject at their convenience.  I’m thinking (only somewhat jokingly) of Khan Academy’s video on the First Law of Thermodynamics as a primer for why cities can’t create something from nothing and (in all seriousness) about Cornell’s “75 Years of City and Regional Planning” available via iTunes U.

Nothing beats having a live person explain something well, but I think sites like these can be useful in helping to inform a diverse group of stakeholders, especially those who can watch and learn on their own time, at their own pace.  Since I’m trying to watch at least one of the thousands of lectures available each day, at the very least these videos will help me remember some of the vast number of things I’ve forgotten and learn a lot of new information too (and I apologize in advance to everyone I will doubtlessly pepper with newly learned facts).

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?