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Book Review: Who Counts? The Power of Participatory Statistics

WhoCountsCoverIn the past year, I’ve been focusing more on one of the roles that PlaceMatters is uniquely positioned to play—getting information from academics and researchers into the hands of practitioners. Because PlaceMatters bridges the research and tool/method development world and the practitioner world, we can help make sure practitioners are learning from research happening in universities on topics ranging from individual and group decision-making to tool development to effective data visualization.

Along these lines, I was recently sent a copy of the book “Who Counts? The Power of Participatory Statistics,” a collection of articles and case studies on the use of participatory data and information collection and knowledge sharing. The book, edited by Jeremy Holland at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, focuses on international development and describes best practices for a variety of participatory techniques.

The book’s introduction is packed with useful information and an overview of participatory statistic and grassroots data collection and use, and how recent improvements in methodology are making participatory research more robust. In addition, I was particularly interested in the chapter on Participatory 3D Modelling, by Giacomo Rambaldi of the Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation in the Netherlands.

Rambaldi discusses examples of the use of large 3D representations (generally the base of which is constructed using thin layers of durable material. Participants then add push pins, yarn, and other markers to represent their mental maps and knowledge of the area. Many features can then be verified using GPS, and the resulting maps are frequently more accurate than official maps. Rambaldi describes a process like this in Ethiopia that was geared toward helping the community repair environmental degradation from deforestation.

The mapping process in Ethiopia provided an opportunity for adults to remember and describe to youth what the environment had been like, and realize the impacts of deforestation on livelihoods. In addition, it provided an educational opportunity for all, since the mapping exercise meant participants thought about the connections between different parts of the ecosystem.

While this chapter was perhaps the most similar to work that PlaceMatters does in the U.S., there are many case studies and articles that are relevant to informed civic engagement in decision-making processes as well as the use of participatory statistics in evaluating program success. A few points that were raised overall, among projects around the world:

  • Participatory GIS, research, modeling, etc. must be carefully designed to be authentically participatory and include not only the elite
  • The information that comes out of participatory processes can lead to community empowerment, but also to the use of the data and information to further disempower residents—for example, identification of additional resources to be extracted by business or government. (PlaceMatters has been working on the flip side of this coin, advocating for the opening of datasets for the public to use).
  • New technologies such as OpenStreetMap, Ushahidi’s Crowdmap, wikis, and mobile tech are making participatory research, data collection and statistics easier and more accurate.

While “Who Counts?” focuses on international projects, its take-home lessons resonate with anyone working on engaging community. Some of the methodologies described would be easily transferred to domestic settings, and could be an improvement on the way we are engaging (particularly in non-urban settings). The book is worth a look, even for those of us not in international development.

Want the book? Here’s the info: “Who Counts? The Power of Participatory Statistics.” Edited by Jeremy Holland, with an Afterword by Robert Chambers. Published by Practical Action Publishing.




SimCity and Scenario Planning

The internet has been bubbling for the last month or so about the latest release of SimCity. FastCoExist asked a number of urban planners and other designers (including some Open Planning Tools Consortium participants like OpenPlans) to face off to design the best city. Slate had its own take on what the game means for urbanism and open data. And then there’s the usual twitter traffic.

I should preface this by saying I’m not a SimCity devotee. In fact, I might be one of the relatively few technology-focused planners of my generation who was never into SimCity as a kid (it certainly got some incredulous looks around the office). But games like SimCity pose some interesting questions for scenario planning:

Engagement and Analysis: Many of the tools developed for scenario planning look and feel as though they were built for analysis by professionals, and then “backed in” to use as engagement tools. Games like SimCity tend to be set up the opposite direction: first as tools for engagement (in this case, recreational engagement) with analysis as a means to that end. What can we learn about structuring the engagement components of scenario planning tools from games like SimCity?

Making Data Compelling: As the Slate piece points out, the volume of data available in planning presents a challenge to decision-makers (whether planners or game players). At PlaceMatters, we spend a lot of time figuring out how to select and present data in a useful way in our own scenario planning work. I’m really interested in how SimCity uses alerts, dashboards, or other mechanisms for showing the right data in the right way at the right time.

3D Visualization: From the screenshots I’ve seen of the new SimCity, it carries forward an aesthetic common in video games, which differs from the “SketchUp in Google Earth”-esque graphics common in planning. Given how quickly 3D visualizations in planning tools have been evolving, it’s worth thinking about the cityscapes and other representational decisions made within SimCity.

Short-Term vs Long-Term thinking: One of the pillars of scenario planning is working through the implications of choosing between short-term vs long-term outcomes. As the FastCoExist article pointed out, one of the main comments from the planners playing the game was that the value system embedded within it tended towards short term rewards. Are there lessons in the way SimCity structures those short-term vs long-term tradeoffs that could help scenario planners frame such issues?

Process: One thing games like SimCity rarely deal with is the process of making decisions in complex socio-political environments. Yet, it’s often those decision-making pieces that shape how scenarios on paper (or pixel) are actualized. Games and scenario planning tools that allow players to interact in richer, more collaborative ways is a direction in which many games are moving (see Minecraft or the nascent multiplayer features in SimCity).

I’m hoping to dig into the new SimCity soon and flesh out some of these thoughts, and I’d love to hear from those that have already started playing around with it.

(crossposted at

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: December 8, 2011

The unlikely winner of the 2012 TED award: City 2.0. This marks the first time the award is going to an idea instead of an individual.

Intellitics explores an element of the White House e-participation effort, “best practices and metrics for public participation.”

Intellitics also mentions a “Social Cities of Tomorrow” conference focusing on ‘flattening’ civic engagement to be in neither “local bottom-up fashion, nor in institutionalised top-down fashion, but in peer-to-peer distributed ways.” We don’t really know what this means, but we’re game for exploring different paradigms for structuring civic participation in community decision-making.

EngagingCities mentions the same conference and asks some of the same questions and thinks through how some models for mobile apps might make sense in a civic participation context. One example: combining the SeeClickFix type of citizen reporting tool with a crowdsourcing and engagement model enabling people to collaborate and vote on each other’s ideas.

EngagingCities posted another blog on The Planning Van, a mobile community outreach program around urban planning and land use in southern California.

Museum 2.0 made us think, as usual, with a post on pop-up museums. Predictably, it got us thinking on ways to use adapt the pop-up museum model for community decision-making processes (much as a post on inquiry-based learning did back in October, another worthwhile post that I don’t think we ever linked to). More on that later.

And Digital Urban has a couple of helpful posts, one on a 3-D visualization tool for architects and urban planners called Lumion (that offers a free version!) and another on a beta of a map mashup tool called GEMMA.

Finally, Jason posted on the PlaceMatters blog about his recent open source planning tools meeting in Salt Lake City.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: October 12, 2011

A crowdsourced 3D reconstruction of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

Digital Urban posted a video snippet from last month’s Intel Developer Forum featuring Intel CEO Paul Otellini on an idea that is pretty simple even if the technology and processing chops aren’t: create rich 3D models based on millions of user-generated images. This is basically crowd-sourced 3D modeling and it’s very cool.

Digital Urban also shared a link to some amazing 3D video renderings of a massive complex of caves underneath homes in Nottingham. The surveyors used LIDAR technology to create the images.

Digital Urban – again! – also found a link to a promotional video on “articulated naturality web.” We share their skepticism about the claim that augmented reality is going to fundamentally reconfigure the world, we do think AR technology has a lot of potential as a tool for helping people visualize potential changes in a community: architecture or design alternatives for a building, alternative zoning schemes for a neighborhood, and the like. One example of a useful (if modest) augmented reality technology implementation developed for Bosch focuses on kitchen appliances.

The challenges of creating effective civic participation processes mirror the challenges of architecting participatory museum exhibits, which is why we often find the Museum 2.0 blog so worthwhile. Her recent post on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History’s “Race Through Time” scavenger hunt is no exception: an innovative effort to engage folks that don’t end up participating through conventional engagement pipelines.

PEP-NET writes about a new civic dashboard in Birmingham (UK), noting the irony of the cost of building an IT infrastructure that enables widespread access to civic data.

The Case Foundation blog summarizes some lessons learned on conducting a virtual convening. Although it’s more oriented toward convention meetings done virtually, the lessons are largely applicable to community engagement efforts of all types.

EngagingCities blogs about a web-based crowdsourced tree inventory application that throws in estimates of the impact of inventoried trees on stormwater retention, carbon sequestration, and air quality.

EngagingCities also posted a short primer on some basic flavors of architectural visualization: photosimulation, 3D simulations like CommunityViz, and virtual reality environments like Second Life.

Noah Raford posted his completed PhD dissertation. We can’t claim to have read it, but it’s very on point – “Large Scale Participatory Futures Systems: a Comparative Study of Online Scenario Planning Approaches” – and look forward to browsing.

The Institute for Local Government is making available a tool for assessing the effectiveness of public engagement efforts (h/t to inCommon).

The Goodspeed Update contemplates the art and science of designing urban planning processes, focusing largely on Detroit.

Gov 2.0 Watch describes the CommunityPlanIt platform, a web-based social network intended to create deliberative discussion on school performance in Boston. PlaceMatters’ Jason Lally discussed this tool among others in a blog post earlier in the year on the use of game elements to enhance engagement.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: April 4, 2011

A clever public engagement approach: Common Sense California posts a video involving legos and something that vaguely sounds not-quite like hip-hop.

Common Sense California also posts about Yo Yo Ma and the Citizen Music Initiative, a music-based approach to community engagement.

Museum 2.0 describes a terrific crowdsourcing participatory engagement technique they developed at the San Diego Museum of Natural History using visitor feedback to develop labels for the museum specimens. I’m guessing the technique could be adapted for any number of community engagement purposes.

The Collaboration Project reviews online idea generation tools for public managers and published a guide to designing online community brainstorming.

The Spring 2011 issue of Planning and Technology Today is out, and it includes pieces by Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (“New Technologies for Visualizing Sustainable Planning”), Karen Quinn Fung (“Urban Planners and Open Data: Making the Connection), and PlaceMatters’ own Ken Snyder (“The Power of the Kindergarten Art Supplies in Planning”). Thanks to the Goodspeed Update for the heads up.

Deliberations reports that Recife, Brazil is the recipient of the Reinhard Mohn Prize for democratic innovation for its participatory budgeting process.

Another flavor of participatory budgeting, the Backseat Budgeter, is the subject of this Denver Post article.

We’ve noted IBM’s new City Forward effort a few times already, but Engaging Cities offers a bit more background.

Engaging Cities also posted a video on the Kennedy Plaza planning process in Providence, Rhode Island. Part of the effort involved actually programming community activities and events in the plaza as a way of testing ideas and introducing community members to the redesign possibilities.


Just read this article in the Science section of the NY Times (one of the things I love about Tuesdays) about the highly accurate 3D image of the NYC that will be created from flyovers using Lidar remote sensing (the Science section also has another article about the use of Lidar in archaeology).

Part of the broader sustainability work of PlaNYC, the 3D image will be used for, among a variety of things, finding “areas most prone to flooding, the buildings best suited for the installation of solar power and the neighborhoods most in need of trees.”

With a pricetag of $450,000, this technology is obviously not affordable for most cities, but the amount of information to aid decision making that this project will give the City is staggering. Especially for other coastal cities where accurate flood and sea level rise information is essential, or cities where substantial amounts of energy could be generated via solar panels, creating such an accurate 3D image could be worth it. Not to mention the fact that this digital image will probably be incredibly cool.