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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.

Big Cities, Big Data

I’ve been really excited about the power of data to help us understand our cities and make better decisions. There have been some neat visualizations and infographics recently that demonstrate the power of visualizing big data.  One uses data collected from Twitter and another through GPS tracks of cabs in Manhattan.  Both are visually striking and both lead to deep conversations and insights.

An map representation of paths from Twitter geotags in NYC

Eric Fischer created this map representation of paths through NYC using geotagged tweets downloaded from the Twitter API (CC-BY-SA)

Eric Fischer has done a number of visualizations around cities using geotagged content.  In this recent project, he traces paths through cities using geotagged tweets.  Pictured above is New York, but you can see many more on his flickr feed.  Also, you can read more about this project on the Fast Company Design blog and dig through the comments for some great discussion.   While there is much to say (pro and con) about the utility of using this data for making actual decisions (like where a new transit line should go), it still points toward the possibilities of sensor networks.  In many ways, Twitter operates as a sort of high level, rudimentary opt-in sensor network.  As more people volunteer location data on social networks like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, cities will have a growing compendium of data that could be sliced and diced in many ways.  Now, of course there are equity and access issues that need to be solved before we start backing up our decision making with Twitter feeds and the like, but in the interim, I can see this layer of data providing another view of our world that can deepen and enliven conversations, not to mention this makes for some really cool art. Also in the world of information visualization are those of taxi cabs in New York.  Coming out of the  Spatial Information Design Lab in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, Juan Francisco Saldarriaga programmed an origin – destination visualization (video below) for a randomly sampled group of NYC cabs from 2010.  This is part of larger research by Professor David King.  Eric Jaffe, on the Atlantic Cities blog, notes “the origins and destinations have a geographical asymmetry that suggests people are only using cabs for one leg of their daily round trip.”  Why is this important?  Well, to King this means people are using cabs to supplement their journeys.  One leg in the morning to work may be by cab, with a ride home on the subway.  This points to the role that cabs may have in a multi-modal transit system.  In King’s own words:

This matters because it means that individual’s travel journeys are multi-modal. If we want to have transit oriented cities we have to plan for high quality, door-to-door services that allow spontaneous one-way travel. Yet for all of the billions of dollars we have spent of fixed-route transit and the built environment we haven’t spent any time thinking about how taxis (and related services) can help us reach our goals.

3 months prior to this post was another visualization using the TAXI! analytical model coming out of the same lab. In this one, we see the interaction of cabs over a 24 hour period.

Hopefully we’ll have more to you about big data and cities and what it means for community decision making.  We’ll be at APA on 2 panels (Community Engagement in Intelligent Cities | Smarter Cities through Data Literacy) about the topic, so look out for us there.  Also, tell us about other exciting uses of big data in cities in the comments below or on Twitter.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: February 2, 2012

Photo by Flickr user kmakice.

The value of crowd- and group-based thinking has drawn some attention lately. The New York Times ran a guest editorial (“The Rise of Groupthink“) arguing that people are more creative when they are able to work in solitude rather than in groups, a theme covered by the New Yorker as well (you can read the summary but the full article is behind a paywall). There’s quite a bit of thoughtful commentary on the subject, including posts on the National Charrette Institute blog and Fast Company’s Co.Design blog.

Involve explores a related theme, suggesting the value of crowdsourcing may be more about generating ideas and enthusiasm than generating consensus.

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation offers some great tips for designing a successful online collaboration or deliberation process.

Engaging Cities summarizes the highlights of an online discussion (on Cyburbia) about increasing public participation in rural communities.

Intellitics writes about a new IBM report called “A Manager’s Guide to Evaluating Citizen Participation.

Digital Urban posts a characteristically cool Twitter data visualization.

Ascentum reports on German Chancellor Merkel’s web-based national engagement effort, “Dialogue about Germany’s Future.

Museum 2.0 explores the challenges of designing interactive activities that work for both adults and kids.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: September 20, 2011

Sustainable Cities Collective describes a very cool Toronto project using Twitter and historical plaques around the city as the basis for a participatory historical mapping project.

Among the potential challenges of architecting a good community engagement and decision-making process: participants who are intent on disrupting and sabotaging the process. inCommon reflects on an article in the California Planning & Development Report highlighting efforts by Tea Party activists to disrupt regional and statewide engagement around climate change and livability.

Engaging Cities has a solid post on participatory budgeting, and inCommon describes an ongoing participatory budgeting effort in New York City. We love the approach, but helping communicate context and trade-offs is critical.

Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space comments on an LA Times column about the “sorry state of public dialogue and civic engagement in the U.S.” His suggestion: “The solution to the corrosive spirit of U.S. politics is not more politics.” Instead, columnist Gregory Rodriguez, suggests we should focus on building empathy. “There’s certainly a crisis in civics today, but it’s the product of a profound disconnect between our political engagement and our moral engagement. Democracy is great, but citizens still need inspiration and empathy to make it flourish. If we really want to promote civics, maybe we should skip the town hall in favor of the concert hall.”

Open Source Planning writes about a new project called Civic Pheromones (formerly Ether). It’s an interesting idea focused on aggregating feeds from civic websites. We can’t help but wonder, though, if the real challenges are around curation and discovery. Just to use one pertinent example, there’s a huge difference between creating an aggregated stream of news and information about civic participation (easy) and creating a curated roundup of especially interesting blog posts (harder).

Engaging Cities describes a collaboration between the Emerson College Engagement Game Lab and the City of Lowell, Massachusetts: an interactive web-based game as a community input tool for a recent community master plan process. Their goals included – as you might expect – engaging a broader spectrum of community members. We’d find it really interesting to hear more about how well it actually worked. Did a wider range of community members participate? Were the online participants the same or different individuals from those that participated in the traditional in-person meetings, and if different did they actually add to the diversity of participants, as well?

National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation writes about a new PBS special on the “What’s Next California Deliberative Poll,” a documentary on the use of a deliberative polling process engaging 400 California residents to think through and make policy recommendations on a range of critical issues. Any approach to civic participation relying on shared learning and thoughtful discussion is worth some attention, and the deliberative polling process fits the bill.

Good Cities describes “Give a Minute,” a virtual suggestion box that’s expanding to New York City (building on their current operation in Chicago). They write: The coolest thing about Give a Minute is that it gives big-time politicos and heads of government agencies a chance to actually respond to the suggestions from city residents. So Mayor Mike can actually ‘endorse’ an idea that he likes and offer feedback that goes directly back to the person who suggested it. We think he’ll actually comment, too, since Bloomberg is totally behind the idea . . . ”

On the PlaceMatters blog, Jason highlights Esri’s call for geodesign case studies and celebrates a HUD grant to our friends at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (and their partner Manhattan Strategy Group) to develop a national housing and transportation affordability index. This project will build on their earlier H+T Affordability Index for 337 metropolitan regions across the U.S. Jason makes the case for making all of those data available through a public API.

What did we miss?

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?

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: January 10, 2010

New Learning Institute posted an entertaining and thoughtful interview with Dr. Henry Jenkins about trends in participatory culture and the ways in which younger community members are creating their own civic engagement structures outside of traditional government processes.

Architect Magazine reflects on some of the challenges of the trend toward increasing community engagement in urban planning: neighborhood obstructionism, cost, and the time required.

Rebuilding Place in the Urban Place argues that community engagement must avoid “infantalizing” the very community members that are supposed to be empowered by the process; sometimes communities should find ways to enable community members to solve problems themselves rather than looking to city government to do it.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project published a study exclusively focused on Twitter users that may help civic participation folks think more strategically about when and how Twitter can be a useful tool.

Rob Goodspeed surveys some of the ways in which planners can use crowdsourcing tools, describing four distinct approaches: soliciting solutions to problems, coordinating multiple individuals to achieve “collective intelligence,” stimulating innovation, and peer production of public good.

Digital Urban reviews SketchUp 8 (with full Google Building Maker integration) and Robin de Jongh’s Sketchup 7.1 for Architectural Visualization, “one of the best out there.”

The Dirt posted an American Society of Landscape Architects animation explaining brownfield redevelopment. Although they aren’t interactive, these sorts of animations facilitate some degree of community education about land use options and scenarios.

The White House’s Open Government Initiative blogged about their ongoing invitation to the public for help in designing “an effective public engagement tool.”

Using social media to create solutions

On the eve of the mid-term elections, Micah Sifry wrote a nice piece on social media and democracy called Point-and-Click Politics in the WSJ.  The article starts out with some of the negative impacts — the fact that people seem to be talking more than listening and getting more polarized in their political opinions.  Some great counter-examples, however, in the second half of his blog:

We are living, in short, at a contradictory moment in politics, defined by liberating technological transformation and public-policy gridlock. Ordinary citizens feel ever more powerless as they watch their elected leaders struggle and mostly fail to get anything done in the face of organized political minorities. But at the same time, each day seems to bring a new tech innovation that literally puts more power in our hands.

What’s needed is a new political synthesis akin to the “neutral point of view” balancing act that has enabled millions of people to contribute to Wikipedia despite their many differences. Call it “we government”: new forms of collaboration and service that use technology, open data and public participation to solve shared problems. This is not “e-government,” where the authorities use the Web to provide information and services, but rather an effort by citizens to refashion government as a platform connecting people around the issues and needs that matter most to them. A number of public-minded start-ups are already pointing the way.

SeeClickFix, for one, enables anyone with a phone or a Web connection to help resolve non-emergency issues in their communities, while simultaneously enabling neighborhood groups, elected officials and government service providers to see what problems need addressing. The reports are transparent and searchable online, giving everyone an incentive to respond to them. Founder Ben Berkowitz launched SeeClickFix to make it easy for people in New Haven, Conn., to report things like potholes to local government, but now the company has more than 400 paying clients, including cities like Tucson, Ariz., and Washington, D.C. More than 50,000 user-generated reports have been registered on the site since its founding, with a fix rate of more than 40%.

Another platform, Localocracy, is working on a harder problem: enabling citizens, using their real names, to have ongoing conversations about issues that typically divide towns, and expanding participation beyond the handful of people who have time to attend public meetings. Though anyone can follow discussions on Localocracy, participation is limited to people who are verified registered voters in a specific locality. The site was launched last year in Amherst, Mass., where several hundred people are using it to debate issues such as school district reorganization. Now it is slowly expanding to cover more of the state.

Two other efforts, Open311 and Civic Commons, are partnerships of government technologists and volunteer software coders. Their goal is to get public agencies to adopt open systems and collaborative technologies and to ensure their interoperability. Imagine if 150 years ago every city in America had built its rail lines on radically different gauges; train-makers could never have standardized production. In a similar way, these groups are working to enable a common platform for municipal service development, so that, for example, an iPhone app that tells you where it’s safe to walk home at night can work for any city.

“We government” is neither right nor left, small government nor big government. It is, rather, effective do-it-ourselves-government by people who want to contribute to their communities but find themselves put off by today’s hyperventilators. The Internet is transforming our politics in some worrisome ways, to be sure. But it may yet improve how we govern ourselves, giving us new tools for working together on the everyday problems of public life.

Like Localocracy, where participants are required to use their real names and verify they are registered voters in the city/neighborhood being discussed, we find social media tools are the most effective when they are connected to place and used in conjunction with face-to-face meetings.  Social media can keep people informed and provide innovative and creative means for people to contribute to the conversation.  Combining flickr’s photo/video uploading and mapping tools with Facebook, for example, we have been able to greatly enhance and expand our walkability audits in what we now call a Community Walkshop.   Participants walk the streets along with experts who can explain the form and function of urban design and what makes street vibrant and retail viable.  With phone and digital cameras,  participants become active contributors to the conversation.  Images uploaded in the morning, become the focus of the conversation during the afternoon.  Beyond the single day event, social media tools help maintain and grow a tremendous network of participants, easily plugged into future events.  Mapping tools combined with photo/video sharing, also keeps folks engaged in the conversation in constructive ways– the “We Democracy” Sifry describes.

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: October 28, 2010

America Speaks blogs about a citizen engagement process in Ohio’s Owensboro-Daviess County and their evolving use of social media in civic participation processes.

Mashable writes about Foursquare’s entry into the civic engagement universe with an “I Voted” badge.

The Dirt reports on Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s article arguing about the importance of great urban parks for building community and setting the stage for strong community processes.

Digital Urban reports on the new version of Survey Mapper: a lot like Survey Monkey with some useful geolocation-type functionalities.

Social Citizens summarizes some of the research on just who are those Millenials, anyway.

I wrote a short piece for the PlaceMatters blog about using Twitter to break the ice in community meetings and my colleague Jason wrote about improvements in the ability to sketch 3D models quickly enough to be useful in small group design work.

Breaking the Ice With Twitter

Blogger and social networking pro Beth Kanter writes about different ways of using twitter to break the ice at meetings and events.  She described having folks take photos of each other and posting them on twitter as a icebreaker at a BlogWorld panel last week in Las Vegas.  While it might be simpler if everyone in the room is twitter-savvy, it could also work if only half of the participants are . . . make sure those that know how to post photos to twitter pair up with those that don’t (and all the better if you can ensure that folks pair with people they don’t know).  It could be a great opportunity to break some intergenerational ice as well if you have digital natives pair up with everyone else.  We’ve also had some great success with our PlaceMatters Walkshop technique, which could be easily altered to work as an icebreaker even for folks that don’t have twitter accounts . . . folks shoot images of each other with any camera and email them to a photo-sharing site projected on a screen in the room.

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: October 19, 2010

Next American City interviews Portland Mayor Sam Adams about the city’s new EcoDistricts Initiative (with partner the Portland Sustainability Initiative).  Mayor Adams talks briefly about the approach, the civic engagement, and the technology.  His “help them see the benefits” language doesn’t necessarily jive with the sort of civic participation process we tend to prefer, but it’s an interesting project.

People & Place offers their own thoughts on the initiative as well.

Next American City also reported on the much-anticipated (at least here at PlaceMatters) launch of CityOne, a next generation SimCity created by IBM.  They offer a thoughtful if disappointing review.

Rob Goodspeed ruminates on public sector crowdsourcing.

Metropolis pokes a little fun at the Why Design Now? conference, noting how tough a time the speakers had holding the attention of the audience with such attractive distractions as the view of Columbus Circle and the live twitter feed projected onto the wall.  I remember at a NetSquared conference being dumbfounded at the idea that everyone in the room was involved in separate simultaneous chat room conversations about the presentations.  Seems like an arena ripe with opportunity for powerful interactive meeting tools.

Augmented Reality previews a German service that allows you to point your phone at a movie theater, see the offerings, see trailers, and order tickets.

Digital Urban shows off a very cool dashboard display – the Bike-o-Meter – of how bicycle rentals in cities around the world are performing.  They also report, sadly, that the provider running a number of these requested that DU stop using their data, so the displays are now empty.

HUD announced the recipients of its Sustainable Communities grants.

Congrats to CNT for its 2010 Chicago Innovation Award nomination for its H+T Index showing the links between housing and transportation.

This is just a little dated, but . . . Public Decisions links to a new article called “The New Generation of Public Participation: Internet-based Participation Tools.”